The Songwriters – Bob Dylan

For a songwriter as idiosyncratic and downright awkward as Bob Dylan to have so many of his songs covered by such a variety of other artists is something of a mystery. He sings them himself in one of a variety of voices, appears to make no attempt at commercialism and yet others listen to them and hear hits.

The first to do this was Joan Baez, who was very close to him in his early days when it was just guitar and vocals and he wanted to emulate his gritty, no-frills heroes such as Woody Guthrie.

Baez did an album’s worth of Dylan covers, from Farewell Angelina and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue to Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, and she didn’t do anything revolutionary with the songs – she just sang them in her pure, guileless voice and somehow something came out that wasn’t immediately apparent in the originals.

The Byrds took a different approach, though, giving them a full folk-rock treatment complete with Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string  Rickenbacker guitar. The result was like putting milk on cornflakes.

Mr Tambourine Man changed from folk club staple to worldwide chart resident, but without selling out in any way (although the purists who didn’t like Dylan himself going electric probably wouldn’t have agreed). All I Really Want To Do and My Back Pages followed the same formula, giving the material a bit of melodiousness, a bit of juice. Suddenly those of us who had found him a bit dry and forbidding had those great lyrics and those hidden  tunes opened up by the band sound and the vocal harmonies.

The international hits flooded out under various banners, with British beat boomers Manfred Mann particularly partial to a bit of Bob and able to translate his heavily disguised likeability into chart hits.  If You Gotta Go and Mighty Quinn took Dylan into those little boxes of seven-inch singles where he had probably never imagined himself and elsewhere in England Fairport Convention, who had yet to embark on the traditional British folk material that would be their métier, put three Dylan songs on their Unhalfbricking album, including a French-language version of If You Gotta Go: Si Tu Dois Partir.

Fledgling jazz singer Julie Driscoll, under the musical leadership of Brian Auger and his band The Trinity, hit the jackpot with This Wheel’s On Fire.

Meanwhile back in Dylan’s homeland they were queuing up to record his stuff, with multiple versions of I’ll Keep It With Mine (including one by the high priestess of strange, Nico) and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Maria Muldaur, Emmylou Harris, Ray Stevens and others).

Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix drove his early girlfriend Fayne Pridgon mad by spending their last few dollars on  a Dylan album and playing it obsessively, interrupting conversations to point out this great line and that brilliant phrase. His version of All Along The Watchtower was such a brilliant treatment of the tune that Dylan himself would play that arrangement live in later years. Hendrix also did a typically sprawling version of Like A Rolling Stone, which I thought was unbeatable until I heard what Californian psychedelic outfit Spirit did with it.

The Band, who at one stage were Dylan’s backing band and with whom he recorded the legendary Basement Tapes, were perfectly positioned to snap up some gems and duly did great versions of Tears of Rage, When I Paint My Masterpiece and others.

Even Neil Young, a fellow long-term American musical hero, and not exactly short of great material, has done loads of Dylan in his live electric sets, cranked up and feeding back as ever and treating the songs as if they were his own.

As he got a bit older and perhaps less crabby, Dylan gave us some tuneful songs such as one on Blood On The Tracks, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, which Madeleine Peyroux rubbed some massage oil into thus:

And to round off what is admittedly a tiny selection of what is available, one of the highlights of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album is  Dylan’s If Not for You. Olivia Newton-John did it too, but never mind.

Got your own favourite? Let me know.

Forever Young? I know, I know, it’s just not one of my favourites.

 

 

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – Doing time

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

It is probably true to say that nobody wants to go to prison. One can’t say for sure, because there is always somebody ready to shoot down such an assertion, but let’s say the vast majority of us shiver at the very thought of being banged up.

Prison plays a significant role in popular culture, though, from films – The Birdman of Alcatraz to The Shawshank Redemption – to music.

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And that message would be “Bake a cake and put my file in it. It’s in my tool box. In the shed. Chocolate, please.”

Sam Cooke’s heavenly voice gave a sweetness to Chain Gang that perhaps it didn’t merit, although if you want to analyse it (never a good idea with a pop song), perhaps he represents the good but misguided or unfortunate souls who end up behind bars.

That is certainly how Joan Baez saw it with There But For Fortune. She didn’t write it – Phil Ochs did – but (as far as we can tell from her recordings) she’s an earnest character who will automatically side with the underdog: witness We Shall Overcome and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.

While an early Bee Gees song such as Gotta Get A Message to You, supposedly delivered by someone about to be executed, could give a young, impressionable person sleepless nights, not all prison songs are harrowing.

Never one to take anything too seriously, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, which of course he didn’t write, because he didn’t write any of his hits, turns incarceration into a party, thrown by the warden.

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Yeah, we had plenty of time to rehearse, lazengennelmen. Not a whole lot else to do in here as a matter of fact.

The Everly Brothers served up a helping of unadulterated schmaltz in their 1958 rehash of a 1934 song Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail, which tells of an old lady showing up at the facility where her son languishes, armed only with her elderly status and pathos and attempting to persuade the warden to let him out. And guess what – it works, but as soon as the gates are opened and she hugs him, she drops dead. Well, it’s only a song.

Johnny Cash made a bit of capital out of the subject by not only writing prison songs but playing gigs in Folsom and San Quentin, which no doubt did his record sales no harm at all, given the bravado of the material. The oft-quoted line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” might be taken out of context by many (in the song he’s regretting it), but it’s the sort of macho posturing that gives jailbirds a bad name, if they didn’t have one already.

It is easy to act tough about such things if it’s not too serious, as in Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole, singer Steve Marriott’s boastful  account of doing a short sentence for drug possession.

Similarly, Thin Lizzy’s mid-70s anthem Jailbreak was just a comic book tale designed to appeal to young men who liked to talk tough.

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“Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak Somewhere in this town.” Err, would that be at the prison, Phil?

Bob Dylan’s album Desire featured two fact-based songs of incarceration, the more famous being the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whom the singer believed had been framed for murder. Carter was eventually freed. On the other side of the album was Joey, co-written by Jacques Levy, which tells the tale of a New York Italian mobster, Joey Gallo. By many accounts, Gallo was a nasty piece of work, but Dylan (or, more likely, Levy) portrayed him as a victim trying to rebuild his life, only to have it blown away by the police.

Many a rock’n’roller did prison time in real life, from Chuck Berry (transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purposes) to Sex Pistols bass-playing buffoon Sid Vicious, who stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and did some time on Riker’s Island before being transferred to a secure hospital and eventually died of a heroin overdose.

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Yellow ribbons on trees mean someone’s just got out.

Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector is still inside for murdering his girl, while top session drummer Jim Gordon’s schizophrenia eventually led him to kill his mother. He’s still in prison too. Gordon was a member of Derek and the Dominoes and played the piano on Layla part 2.

Among those whose lifestyle was asking for it and eventually got it is David Crosby, peace-loving dope smoker and political activist of Crosby Stills and Nash, who in 1982 did nine months for possession of heroin and cocaine, only to end up in trouble again in 2004, when he was caught in possession of an ounce of marijuana plus knives and a gun. He did a mere 12 hours in jail and skilful lawyers  managed to spring him with little more than bail and the threat of serious time if he didn’t clean up his act.

Heroin had been the downfall of troubled singer Billie Holiday many years earlier, when the frail woman with the voice of a tiny angel had been sentenced to several months in a low-security institution for possession.

Ike Turner, band leader and husband of Tina, fell foul of a catalogue of charges in the 1980s, from possession of weapons including a grenade to the usual drugs and, just for a change, failing to pay his taxes.

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Cash in the slammer: Okay, nobody leaves till I’ve finished. Hear?

When he got out, Turner revived his career to an extent, but acheved nothing like Tina’s international stardom. He eventually succumbed to a cocaine overdose complicated by other medications for bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

The murky world of 1990s rap meant trouble for the likes of Tupac Shakur, who served  a sentence for sexual assault and had a number one album while he was in there. In that dark period that gave us the term “drive-by shooting”  and the gallows-humour name Death Row Records, Tupac died in hospital as a result of “respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest in connection with multiple gunshot wounds”.

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And their Christmas album? Why, Christmas on Death Row, of course.

Meanwhile over in the UK, Gary Glitter (Leader of the Gang, Do You Wanna Touch me?) would come to grief for his paedophile tendency, as would singer, songwriter and producer Jonathan King.

So, anybody out there still want to be a rock star? If it’s songwriting you’re interested in, it’s a lifestyle that will generate plenty of material.