The Complicatist : Bob Dylan himself, and by others

Some Dylan obscurities and cover versions to mark the release of the expanded Basement Tapes….
by Gordon Campbell

C’mon kids, time for another semester at Bob School. As mentioned in a Scoop column a few months ago, Bob Dylan is about to release a six CD version of the entire Basement Tapes sessions he recorded with the Band 40 years ago. The story and full track listing is here and a recent history of the Basement Tapes is here.

To mark the occasion, I’ve rustled together some favourite cover versions of Dylan songs, and a few lesser-known tracks by the great man. I’ve been limited to what’s embeddable online. This means I can’t include Dylan’s version of ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ – a favourite cut originally intended for the Another Side album in 1964, and only available on the Biograph collection.

Still, there’s plenty else here almost as good….

1. Townes Van Zandt. “Colorado Girl/Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” In the course of a public radio broadcast in 1985, Townes Van Zandt wrapped his own song ‘Colorado Girl’ around a terrific rendition of Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. Perfect match, really. Townes Van Zandt treated loneliness like a presence in the room, a guest embraced without self-pity or reproach. And if you haven’t seen his Be Here To Love Me you’re missing one of the finest music documentaries of all time. Besides the music, the film is a testament to the difficulty of being the child of a gifted but fragile parent. (Having Townes for a father was clearly no picnic for any of his children.) Also, from the expanded Basement Tapes collection, here’s Dylan and the Band putting their own stamp on the pop gospel classic ‘People Get Ready’ [link here] – written and first recorded in 1965 by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. In similar quasi-religious mode – more than a decade before Dylan’s religious period – here’s another Basement Tapes highlight, Sign On The Cross.

 

2. Dixie Chicks “Mississippi” Besides the Biograph collection….and amid the flood of Dylan material in the Official Bootleg series, Volume 8 aka Tell Tale Signs is the only essential item. It starts with tracks from the Oh Mercy sessions in the late 1980s, and contains a string of stunning material : ‘Mississippi’ ‘Born In Time’ ‘Huck’s Tune,’ ‘Most of the Time’ ‘Red River Shore’ ‘Series of Dreams’ and more. In their live version of ‘Mississippi’ the Dixie Chicks chose to speed up Dylan’s own remorseless pacing, and Nathalie Maines sings with real passion. Both versions work. The link to Dylan’s original is here.

For those who haven’t heard it before, ‘Series of Dreams’ was supposed to be the opening cut and title of what became the Oh Mercy album, but – after a disagreement with producer Daniel Lanois over the song’s structure – Dylan dropped the song from the album altogether, a fate that also befell “Dignity” which became another casualty of a Lanois/Dylan argument.

 

3. Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons : “ Queen Jane Approximately.” Offhand, its hard to think of a less likely bunch of Dylan interpreters than Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Moreover, “Queen Jane” is so imbued with Highway 61’s sense of wasted ennui that it would be a tough track for anyone else to pull off convincingly. Yet if you give it a chance, the track succeeds – mainly because Valli and Co don’t try to imitate Dylan, but treat this as a Four Seasons song.

To raise the weirdness quotient even further, here’s Dylan himself – in his 1990s guise as a scary, funny old grandpa – doing a horror movie version of ‘Blood In My Eyes’ and the result is amusingly great on all levels.

 

4. Van Morrison, Bob Dylan : “Foreign Window” This is more of a Van Morrison showcase than a Dylan one, but the footage – recorded for a BBC documentary about Morrison in the late 1980s – is fascinating. On a hillside in Athens, Van and Bob work their way through a great (and little known, to me anyway) Morrison song called “Foreign Window” that name-checks Rimbaud and is (as Morrison says) accidentally relevant to Dylan. And then this unlikely folk duo do a more traditional item called “ One Irish Rover” aka “ Wrap It In Glory….”

 

5. Bob Dylan “Restless Farewell” Now, this is unsettling. From 1964, we have young Bob singing one of his best ‘so long babe’ kiss-off songs. Don’t think twice, I’m outa here. Very straightforward. But then flash forward to a scene 30 years later, and we have Dylan doing the same song, in honour of Frank Sinatra at his 80th birthday party. Supposedly, Sinatra had requested it, but the mismatch between Dylan and the Las Vegas crowd is almost total. (It’s a bit like a geriatric version of the Newport Folk Festival “riot”.) In the circumstances, Dylan’s spectral incantation of the song is very moving. As someone says in the Comments thread, it comes across as a less boastful version of “My Way.” Flick between the two versions, and there’s a lesson for all of us about time and mortality.

 

6. Elvis Presley : ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ What saved a lot of Dylan’s early ‘love’ songs from sentimentality was the wicked strain running through most of them. They’re usually one part ‘I’ll miss you babe’ to two parts ‘you’re boring me, babe …’ For example, a line like ‘You’re the reason I’m travelling on’ is harsh enough, but to follow it with ‘But don’t think twice, its alright’ is the kind of mindfuck that should make any self-respecting formerly beloved reach for the steak knife.

Paradoxically, the small body of early Dylan ‘love’ songs that lack that sardonic bite haven’t lasted quite so well, over time. “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” is one of them. This early song has an almost Neil Diamond hamminess to it, a quality evident in a few other Dylan songs – ‘Forever Young, ‘I Shall be Released’ ‘Every Grain of Sand’ etc – and so its not that surprising that Elvis Presley should have felt drawn to it. The song is Vegas, thinly disguised as Greenwich Village. For all that, Elvis does a beautiful job of reining in affectations that could have made an already sentimental song completely insufferable. The way Elvis sings this, it might have been on his gospel album, and that’s meant as a compliment.

7. Bob Dylan : ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’. Talking of sentimental songs, this next one is from the expanded version of the Basement Tapes. It features Dylan and the Band doing ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’, a song about working class betrayal and political thuggery in the Caribbean. Most people know it from the version Tom Rush recorded in the early 1960s. But Eric Von Schmidt, who wrote the song and taught it to Rush and to Dylan, seems to have got the historical facts of the story entirely wrong. Instead of being a turncoat, Ebenezer Joshua (1908-1991) was a revered trade unionist who did not – as the song says – betray the sugar cane workers who trusted his leadership. Apparently, Joshua’s legacy is still respected on the island of St Vincent, judging by this recent testament to his virtues in The Vincentian newspaper:

He died a poor man…credited with building the ‘plan houses’ for poor people, constructing schools, and improving air and sea access to the country, along with fighting for increased salaries for the people. Ebenezer Joshua laid the groundwork for the independence of the country.

Good song though, even if it libels the memory of a good man….

8. Bob Dylan “Up To Me” There are some eternal mysteries in how so many good Dylan songs got dropped from the albums for which they were originally intended, and thus never found the audience they deserved. Given some of the dodgy stuff on the Another Side album, how could Dylan have omitted such a great song (and great performance) as ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine?’ How on earth did ‘Caribbean Wind’ get dropped from the mediocre Shot of Love album, and ditto ‘Blind Willie McTell’ from Infidels? Similarly, the absence of ‘Dignity” and ‘Series of Dreams’ from the final line-up for Oh Mercy marked the difference between a good album and a great one.

With ‘Up To Me’ it’s easier to guess why this didn’t make the final cut for Blood On The Tracks. Tonally at least, it might have seemed a bit off, in context. While Blood on The Tracks isn’t just about Dylan’s divorce from Sara Lowndes – not in any Dear Diary confessional sense, anyway – there’s no doubt the emotional turmoil of the break-up did heavily influence the content. Enter ‘Up To Me.’ Frankly, not many people going through a divorce would think of casting themselves as a doofus knight in dubious armour – but a pratfalling sense of humour permeates the entire track, leavening even the content that sounds painfully personal :

I met somebody face to face
I had to remove my hat
She’s everything I need and love
But I can’t be swayed by that

It frightens me, the awful truth
Of how sweet life can be
But she ain’t gonna make a move
I guess it must be up to me….

One of Sara’s grievances during the divorce proceedings had been that Dylan started having an affair with the counsellor called in to help ease the impact of the family break-up on the children. Thus :

There’s a note left in the bottle
You can give it to Estelle
She’s the one you been wonderin’ about
But there’s really nothin’ much to tell

We both heard voices for a while
Now the rest is history….

And on to the aw shucks, sentimental finale :

If we never meet again
Baby, remember me
How my lone guitar played sweet for you
That old time melody

And the harmonica around my neck
I blew it for you, free
No one else could play that tune

You know it was up to me
At the time, the flippant tone of this song – not to mention its self-glorifying content – might have sat very oddly alongside the bile of ‘Idiot Wind’ and the more straightforward emotionalism of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ ‘Buckets of Rain’ and ‘Shelter From The Storm.’ Whatever the reason, ‘Up To Me’ got dropped from the album and saw daylight – initially – only on Jim McGuinn’s solo album Cardiff Rose. The song and the serio-comic emotions it conveys, deserved a better fate.

9. Nina Simone ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ Back to this song again. Nina Simone also once did a good and angry version of Dylan’s grim ‘ Ballad of Hollis Brown’ but on this rendition of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ she sounds exquisitely wise, and resigned. This is a voice that’s infinitely world weary, yet filled with resilience and compassion. The song may still be about the loss of innocence, but it’s being told from an adult’s POV this time.

10. Bob Dylan & The Hawks : “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” Finally, from the giddy mid-1960s height of Dylanmania, here’s an annoyingly truncated live version –taken from Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home documentary – of the same song, with Dylan deliberately winding up the audience and the Hawks lending him sterling musical support….especially Garth Hudson on keyboards. Within 18 months or so, they would all be living in the rustic charms of upstate New York, making the Basement Tapes together. Well, he did warn us in the lyrics that ‘I’m headed back to New York City/ I do believe I’ve had enough…’