Bob Dylan – America’s greatest songwriter? Some people think so, and though that’s a lofty claim when the field includes Gershwin, Porter, Rogers et. al., no doubt about it, the boy was great. He’s certainly the undisputed poet laureate of modern song, and has a Nobel in Literature to prove it. Thing is, I’m with those who think his own delivery of his songs sometimes detracts from their inherent musicality, and that his voice is just, well, a ways removed from superb. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s just perfect – I wouldn’t want to hear anybody else’s rendition of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – but then again sometimes it almost sounds like he’s doing a bad cover version of one of his own numbers (I know! Heresy!). No matter, since so many artists have recorded his stuff that we can listen to a huge part of his catalogue as interpreted by others, themselves among the most talented of their generation. So here’s a few.
The Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man
The Byrds: My Back Pages
The jangly guitars of Mr. Tambourine Man are perhaps more evocative of the Sixties than any other sound. That’s Roger McGuinn playing his trademark twelve string Rickenbacker guitar, an instrument he learned to play, so legend has it, as soon as he saw George Harrison wielding one in the film Hard Day’s Night (listen to the twanging guitar part that serves as a fadeout for that Beatles song – same guitar, same sound). The Byrds, on the strength of this number, took off and became the first in a long line of candidates for “America’s answer to the Beatles”, and while there may be an element of homage in misspelling the common word “bird” just as the lads misspelled “beetle”, they never really aspired to that label, and made their own reputation, on their own terms, playing a number of Dylan songs along the way.
Clocking in at a succinct two minutes and thirty seconds, the Byrd’s rendition of Mr. Tambourine Man could be criticized for giving short shrift to the maestro’s multi-stanza magnum opus, but remember, the goal was to get airplay on AM radio, a medium that didn’t take kindly to anything that hung around for much longer than that, not at that point, anyway; sure, a couple of years later Hey Jude would be hogging the airwaves at over seven minutes a play, but such a thing was unthinkable in 1965. Anyway, it’s a beautiful rendition, and the definitive version for a lot of listeners. Lyrics like Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship, my senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip had everybody convinced it was a musical tribute to drug use, a notion that Dylan has always refuted (though remember, it was Bob who turned the Beatles on to pot, so it wasn’t exactly a wild theory, but they said the same thing about Puff the Magic Dragon, because back then it was everybody’s go-to explanation when they got confused).
My Back Pages is if anything still more sublime. The whole theme of the song, that you can reach the closing years of your life and look back bemusedly at the kid you used to be, once so sure of everything, and realize that only now do you have the wisdom to open your mind in a pure, childlike acceptance of all the doubt, ambiguity, and wonder that surrounds you, well, that’s a hell of a thing to spring from the brow of a songwriter in his 20s. He was perhaps thinking of the prevailing Cold War ideology of anti-Communism, which did so much damage to the liberty of so many innocent dissenting voices in the 50s and 60s:
My guard stood hard
when abstract threats
too noble to neglect
deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
…but really this goes for anyone who wakes up one day to realize it’s all been a scam, that they amplified an outside threat to scare you into letting them rob you of your own hard-won freedoms. It’s an old story, really, and it keeps repeating – have a look at the Patriot Act if you need convincing on that score.
George Harrison: If Not For You
This is off George’s first big solo extravaganza, All Things Must Pass, and it’s just about everyone’s favourite version of this very pleasant and straightforward love song, devoid of the usual Dylanesque wordplay and metaphorical imagery. At around the same time it was a hit for Olivia Newton John, of all people, and the title track of her first album, which I guess proves that Dylan could write something classifiable as an inoffensive pop tune if it suited him. Heck of a nice pop tune, though, even if Ms. Newton John said she didn’t really like it.
Rod Stewart: Tomorrow is a Long Time
Rod devolved into something of a sad parody of his former self in later years, prancing around singing relative drivel like Young Turks and Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, but he didn’t start out that way. In 1971 he released Every Picture Tells a Story, truly a classic album, with songs like Maggie Mae, Mandolin Wind, Reason to Believe, the title track, and this nice treatment of another Dylan love song. It’s an old romantic theme in American song – the lonely man on the road, aching to get back to his love so he can be at peace again.
The Band: When I Paint My Masterpiece
Dylan dropped out of public life for a while in the late sixties, recovering from a nasty motorcycle accident, and during his hiatus he became friendly with a Canadian group of master musicians (including one American, Levon Helm) who used to back up Ronnie Hawkins as the “Hawks”, and took to calling themselves, simply, “The Band”. The self-composed songs on their debut album were written in a big pink house they shared in upstate New York, and the album was called, naturally enough, Music From the Big Pink (which included the classics I Shall be Released and The Weight.) This Dylan cover appeared on a later album, and was the first recorded version of the song, which picks up on another classic theme, the young American as innocent abroad, newly exposed to the old world culture of Europe, and drifting pleasantly with no particular goal but to soak it all in – except sometimes you do miss home, you know?
The Man Himself: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
The song that sold me on Bobby D., and the one, I’m quite sure, that clinched his Nobel.
Written in 1962 and released on the 1963 album Freewheelin’, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall is one of those songs that can fairly be described as “epic”, a serious work of genuine poetry full of bleak imagery and post-apocalyptic sentiments that seemed, in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, evocative of nuclear war and the deadly fallout that comes after. Dylan has said that’s too literal an interpretation, and that actually, each line began life as a separate song he didn’t have the energy to finish, implying it’s not actually about anything at all, perhaps with tongue planted firmly in cheek. One thing’s for sure: it isn’t about sweet little bunnies hopping about in flowery fields. From the first time I heard it, certain lines were indelibly burned into memory:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
This sort of thing might have been familiar to followers of the Beat poets and the art house crowd, but it was a far cry from anything for which adolescent Americans had thus far been prepared by their AM radios. Beach Blanket Bingo, this wasn’t. At a time when almost literally mindless escapism was the very essence of popular song, here was Dylan proclaiming, like some prophet of a looming armageddon, that he heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning, he heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.
Compare and contrast: in 1963 the top song, according to Billboard, was Sugar Shack, by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. Here, have a taste of the scrumptious words:
There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks
And ev’rybody calls it the sugar shack
Well, it’s just a coffeehouse and it’s made out of wood
Espresso coffee tastes mighty good
The shack is made out of wood, is it? You don’t say. Plus there’s espresso! Yum! It would have given you mental whiplash to pull that off the platter and give a spin to Dylan’s bleak, biting masterpiece, and hear him tell you that his travels had taken him out in front of a dozen dead oceans, and ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. Yikes. Look, it was your choice, kid: you could bop down to the sugar shack and romance your sweetie over an espresso, or you could follow Bob and see where he took you. Admittedly, the latter didn’t sound half as fun:
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the colour, where none is the number
I know, right? Bummer. Yet a growing segment of the Baby Boom cohort was starting to think that maybe there were unpleasant truths that simply had to be confronted, and the sooner the better. There was a whiff of revolution in the air, as if young people were stirring from their intellectual torpor. As Bobby D. told us, the times they were a-changin’. Popular music was suddenly a medium for serious artistic expression, and as one of the key figures in the sea change, Dylan was giving his fellow musicians a choice: they could either start swimmin’, or sink like a stone.