Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Covers Of All-Time.

As Bob Dylan turns 76 this month, I thought it was as good a time as any to look back at the finest covers his music has inspired.

It was a daunting task. Dylan is the greatest rock songwriter of all-time, & his songs have become a kind of cultural currency that transcend rock music itself, or any other genre for that matter. As this list shows, Dylan's work has been remade not just in rock, but in pop, folk, jazz, & country, by women & men, black & white, Americans & foreigners, legendary & obscure, & in music that was major hits or hidden deep within the grooves of an LP.

Dylan himself has always been a shapeshifter, altering his sound, style, & voice on little more than whim. It only makes sense that his music has become a template for such a wide range of performers.

Of the many that didn't make it, there are three in particular I'd like to name--Jim James & Calexico's lovely mariachi remake of "Goin' To Acapulco," Guns N' Roses' absurd hard rock take on "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," & Nico's bittersweet version of "I'll Keep It With Mine"--all of which nearly made the list, & perhaps on a different day, or in a different mood, would have.

I only put out a few simple rules to govern this list: Only one song per artist, only one version of a song per list. There's so much good music to choose from, I didn't want to let this get overcrowded by an artist or a song. Other than that, anything was game.

Here's the list:

10. Elvis Presley: "Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time," 1966.

Bob Dylan once told Rolling Stone that Elvis Presley's cover of "Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time" was "the one recording I treasure the most." Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis early on & Elvis was certainly aware of Dylan, but rarely ever covered him because The Colonel largely forced him to record songs from the Hill & Range songwriting stable (which the owned stock in). One of the few times Elvis strayed was to record this as a bonus track for the Spinout soundtrack, resulting in a rare gem of his otherwise lackluster pre-comeback years. Just as Dylan's gift was his words, Elvis's gift was his feeling, & when the material was worth feeling, as it is here, Elvis gave it his all & made you believe every single word. The only bad thing that can be said about this performance is that it remains a tantalizing hint at would could have been had Elvis recorded more songs like this one.

9: PJ Harvey: "Highway 61 Revisited," 1993.

For her 1993 album Rid Of Me, PJ Harvey took her band & legendary producer Steve Albini & went on an errand into the wilderness of Minnesota in the dead of winter & recorded most of the album live in the studio in a matter of days. The only song Harvey didn't write on it was the title track to Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album, proving that the titular stretch of road could crop up pretty much anywhere. Harvey didn't so much cover the song as she tore it apart & made it new again, breaking off words & sounds & reassembling them with a range of dynamics that was at once raw, surprising, & beautiful. This is the moment at which Dylan, the great modernist songwriter of our time, goes postmodern.

8. Jeff Buckley: "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," 1993 [Released 2004].

When Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 came out in 1991, it was a virtual treasure trove of music, song & demos that had circulated like secrets & rumors for years finally gathered in a single place for a set that proved Dylan's discarded music could rival his officially-released songs of virtually any era. It was around this time that a young Jeff Buckley began covering this song in his legendary early sets around New York City in The Sin-e & The Knitting Factory. Dylan himself played it live as an upbeat country stomp in the Rolling Thunder Review tours of the 1970s, but Buckley wisely goes by Dylan's original 1964 version (an outtake from Another Side Of Bob Dylan), a slow & stately rumination on how love can linger even once its source has gone. Buckley turns it from a measured dirge into an etherial psalm, which sounds all the more haunting now that it is Buckley who has long since gone.

7. Them: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," 1966.

Dylan's first kiss-off to the folk scene was covered the following year by Them, Van Morrison's original band, a bunch of Irish kids who snuck into American radios with the British Invasion. They (or rather, Them) recast the song as easy, chiming pop, which serves as the perfect counterpart to Morrison's rough-hewed vocals. It is easy to hear how the song was more than just a cover for Them, but as a template for Morrison, given works like Astral Weeks, which would follow just a few short years later. Plus, it provided Beck with a hot hook for "Jack-Ass" on his classic 1993 album Odelay.

6. Nina Simone: "Just Like A Woman," 1971.

I spent quite some time deliberating between Nina Simone's version of "Just Like A Woman" & the one by Richie Havens, but decided to go with this one. First of all, I think the song is all the more fascinating from a female's perspective, which casts the lyrics & melody into a new light. But while Havens' cover strikes no false notes, it ultimately is just that--a cover--whereas Nina Simone never really covered songs in a traditional sense. She was a true stylist, one who remade everything into her image. This remains true for all of her signature work, including this Dylan cover, which sounds at once passionate yet understated. In the end, she doesn't so much sing the song as she does report it as one more undeniable truth.

5. The Fairport Convention: "Percy's Song," 1969.

In the late '60s, Rolling Stone asked Phil Spector what artist he would most like to produce. He answered Dylan because, in his opinion, Dylan had been recorded but never produced. Around the time Spector was saying this, British folk-rock pioneers The Fairport Convention were working out their own version of Dylan-as-a-production-project & the results are staggering. Here, they take Dylan's unreleased 1963 sketch of demo, which was just that--a sketch--& fill it out with the most majestic oil paints imaginable. Built around Sandy Denny's stunning vocal, the voices & instruments build up & wind down, such that the one thing that made Dylan's version a bit of a chore--its verse-stacked-on-verse simplicity--made it the perfect setting for dynamics & drama. Harmonies that rival The Beach Boys' finest work are filled out by a sound that predicts The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's supergroup country opus Will The Circle Be Unbroken, all to tell the tale of a mis-charged youth facing a cold, cruel world. Only by the time The Fairport Convention are done with it, the song sounds like a beacon of warm hope.

4. Manfred Mann: "Mighty Quinn," 1968.

Purists will probably balk at this choice (let alone at #4), but at the end of the day, pop is pop. With so many serious singers who can seriously sing on this list--Elvis Presley, Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone--Manfred Mann tells the other side of the story, one in which the meaning of the words are sacrificed in favor of the tune, where dancing is held higher than introspection. Appropriately, they chose a Basement Tapes song, where Dylan's lyrical surreal absurdity was a peak, thanks to a casual way to life with friends & a whole lot of booze. Although (or perhaps because) it was perhaps the best-known of the Basement Tapes compositions, it was left off the official 1975 Basement Tapes LP, although it resurfaced over the years on various collections in various versions. & with lines like "it ain't my cup of meat," it's a very weird song. But listening to Manfred Mann sing it, you'd hardly notice--it's only once you slow it down & listening to the words streaming by that you realize how strong it really is. When Dylan heard The Beatles & decided to plug in & get a band in 1965, it was in a gesture to achieve pop greatness. By the time "The Mighty Quinn" was released in the first days of 1968, Dylan's pop idea had already come full-circle.

3. Johnny & June Carter Cash: "It Ain't Me Babe," 1964.

On some of the earliest known recordings of Bob Dylan in 1958, he complains about Johnny Cash being boring as compared to rhythm & blues singers like Little Richard. The following decade, Dylan changed his tune, as evidenced by a film of Dylan & Cash singing a version of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" backstage in 1965 & even recording a duet for Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline album. Around that same time, Dylan made one of his precious few TV appearances on The Johnny Cash Show. One imagines that whatever qualms Dylan had about Cash had more to do with the staid whitebread tastes of his community than Cash himself. Johnny Cash is a rare American music icon, an instantly-recognizable, genre-defying pioneer of popular music. It was only a matter of time before Cash started singing some of Dylan's songs, & the first & best was his cover of "It Ain't Me Babe," sung with future wife June Carter. Cash is able to use the song to strike a deft balance between the deadly serious & the seriously comical, delivering the withering verses like an assassin, before landing on the "Babe" of the refrain with an absurd glee that does nothing to derail the performance. Perhaps it's the budding romance with June, perhaps it's the use of the then-hip lingo "Babe," but the song injects an energy into Cash just as he was beginning to get bogged down by the mid-'60s Nashville sound. It was also a major hit, easily making the Country Top 5, a year before Dylan picked up an electric guitar.

2. The Byrds: "Mr. Tambourine Man," 1965.

The Byrds covered Dylan so many times that you could make a Top 10 list of just Byrd covers (& Columbia Records once essentially did just that with The Byrds Play Dylan compilation). & while The Byrds' versions of "Chimes Of Freedom," "My Back Pages," & "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" are all tempting for various reasons, it has to be "Mr. Tambourine Man." Few songs are as influential in rock history--The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" all but launched an entire genre, folk-rock, marrying Dylan's lyrics to The Beatles sound, fleshed out with their own shimmering guitars. (The legend is that, when called "folk-rock," Dylan once quipped, "When did I ever jingle-jangle?") In the end, The Byrds didn't cover the song as much as they stripped it for parts: When held up against Dylan's sprawling original, The Byrds scrap everything except for a single verse & a few go-rounds of the refrain, but it's all wrapped up in such a delectable package that you'd never notice unless you were a investigative Dylan reporter (you're welcome). With Gene Clark's straightforward vocal, Roger McGuinn's shining electric twelve-string, & David Crosby's inventive harmonies, it not only established Dylan in rock in the months before Dylan plugged in, but it established The Byrds as one of the most influential groups of all-time. & as for the Dylan covers of the folk-rock genre--Simon & Garfunkel's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," The Turtles' "It Ain't Me Babe," Peter, Paul, & Mary's "Too Much Of Nothing," to name but a few--The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" stands head & shoulders above the rest.

1. Jimi Hendrix: "All Along The Watchtower," 1968.

A list like this can have no suspense. There is only one Number 1. & this is it: Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower." Dylan released his original version on John Wesley Harding in the waning days of 1967, his first album since his motorcycle crash. For all of those waiting for The Next Big Thing, they were shocked by a quiet little country record filled with mysterious songs that played like parables with no refrains. Gone were the Nashville studio musicians of Blonde On Blonde or the-soon-to-be-renamed The Band; in their place was Gordon Lightfoot's rhythm section & Dylan leading the group with acoustic guitar & harmonica. One of the first people to buy a copy was Jimi Hendrix, who devoured "All Along The Watchtower" & recast it from a sepia-tone little demo on John Wesley Harding to a shocking exercise in Day-Glo Technicolor. From the clattering opening riff through the wild flames of burning guitar throughout--at some moments crackling with heat, other moments scraping down into charred remains--Hendrix simply owned the song, tossing off the verses in his offhanded talk/sing style that made the words feel even more like his own. Dylan's original only hinted at Bible; Hendrix made the song into a maelstrom of biblical proportions. He also enshrined it as a rock standard ever since. Countless bands from international arena tours on down through some kids in the garage up the street from you right now play the song, so deceptively simple in structure, but limitless in meaning.

& among the many to follow Hendrix's lead was Dylan himself. After he heard Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower," Dylan realized that this was the way the song was always meant to sound & to this day, hasn't performed it with an acoustic guitar since.

Because, as the man said, Don't Look Back.

[Postscript: If you dug reading through this list, check out The Top 10 Greatest Dylan Rip-Offs.]

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