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.




The wisdom of pop songs – The thrill of the foreign lover

Foreigners. How exotic they seem, just because we don’t know much about their culture and their country. We romanticize their urban squalor when it is no more attractive than a council estate in Grimsby. We think they know things we don’t – about love, sex, food, wine, football, all the simple pleasures of life.

And English-speaking songwriters enshrine these thoughts in three-minute paeans (a work that praises or honours its subject, according to my phone’s Merriam Webster dictionary).

So let’s hear it for the foreign boys and girls who have moved our lyricists and tunesmiths in the pop music era.

Beginning with… The Girl From Ipanema, of course. This was actually written by the celebrated Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and originally had lyrics in Portuguese before Norman Gimbel gave it some English language words. And it was made famous in 1962 by Astrud Gilberto, a Brazilian songbird who made up for the fact that she couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag by exuding a charmingly off-key vulnerability.

So it’s not really about a foreign girl after all, because it was written and sung by Brazilians about one of their own. But it was so popular with British and American singers that it sounds like a gringo’s song of adoration for the exotic beauty who’s on her way to the beach – and not the pebbles of Brighton or the fish-and-chips  aroma of Blackpool, but what we fondly imagine to be a beautiful, pristine expanse of sand populated by sparsely clad totty of Ms Gilberto’s ilk.

This leads naturally, if unfortunately, to the disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, who recently did time for sex offences. In 1968 he had a minor hit in the UK with the utterly Ipanema- style Fijian Girl, who was “undulating by”, if you please. Don’t you undulate at me, young lady, or I’ll put you over my knee.

Meanwhile in the southern USA, country singer Marty Robbins brought us a tale of ill-starred love as a man in El Paso falls for a Mexican barmaid, his passion for whom leads him to shoot a cowboy she’s flirting with and go on the run, to eventually be shot dead himself as he flees the law. See, just because a woman makes a good chilli con carne doesn’t mean she’s not trouble.

The Beatles made passing reference to Ukraine girls and Moscow girls in Back in the USSR, Paul McCartney’s affectionate riposte to the Beach Boys’ glib assessment of various geographical groups of American girls, Back in the USA.

In 1970 Canadian band the Guess Who sang scathingly about an American Woman they wanted nothing to do with, and whether this was really about American politics and business rather than a woman doesn’t actually matter. It’s a solid, catchy bit of pop rock with a nice guitar riff, and that’s all we’re concerned with here.

Getting back to the Americas, Neil Young seems to have a bit of an obsession with that region’s past, and in 1979 on the stupendous album Rust Never Sleeps he fantasised about a native American beauty, Pocahontas, who famously married an Englishman.

Staying on that side of the Atlantic, British folk-rockers Stackridge brought us a panoramic piece of whimsy in The Road to Venezuela, which conjures up a South American atmosphere without ever getting very specific. There’s pampas grass, llamas and a millionairess involved but the singer doesn’t end up with her. It’s just a breezy, acoustic guitar-driven few minutes that seems to take you somewhere but doesn’t really, which after all is kind of pop music’s job.

A little-known  gem from 1994 is British band The Auteurs’ New French Girlfriend, which again creates an appealing feeling without completing the story. French girls are lovely and he’s got one on tap – that’s the deal here.

So, with all the thousands of Polish and Latvian girls in the UK, plus Latinos and heaven knows who in the US, it seems the local guys are happy with the home-grown talent. But of course a few years in your adopted country makes you part foreign and part local, as Bruce Springsteen shows us all over his album The Wild The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, with songs such as Incident on 57th Street, in which Spanish Johnny woos Puerto Rican Jane, while another Latin lovely, Rosalita, gets a song all to herself.

Confessions of an expat – Singing by the sea

Coral Reef from beach
The wild east coast of Grand Turk. Before Hurricane Ike in 2008 there was a hotel here

A friend (an expat) who ran a business in Grand Turk told me that if you kept your head down you could tick along quite nicely. That is only possible, though, once you have been through the mill of officialdom.

One of the legacies of British colonial times in the Caribbean is 19th century-style bureaucracy. While bureaucrats are everywhere, holding up those in a hurry through their insistence on doing things by the book, that book can be relatively straightforward or unnecessarily complicated.

In Grand Turk you would start at one civil service office, where there were forms to be filled in. Then there  would be the inevitable consequence of filling in those forms: the need to go to the accounts office half a mile away on the sea front and pay a fee. With the receipt for that fee you could go back to the first office and continue the process, which ended with the filling in of another form and another trip to the accounts department to pay another fee. It gets tedious and it gets expensive. But you can’t argue, and the worst thing you can do in another country is tell them what they’re doing wrong and how the system can be improved. That makes you an American smartass (people in in general who speak English are presumed to be American, and your London/Scottish/Australian accent counts for nothing).

One day while driving through the back streets near the centre of Cockburn Town we passed a building through the open doors of which we saw shiny new stainless steel equipment. Aha. A restaurant we didn’t know about. There was no sign outside, but they don’t really go in for signage in Grand Turk. With such a small population the tradition is that everyone knows where everything is and where everyone lives.

We climbed the stairs to be greeted, if that is the word, by two noisy dogs, followed by a blonde woman whom we had seen in the Sandbar. She and her husband were Canadian and were in the process of setting up a ginger beer business. ‘Hard’ ginger beer, that is, containing alcohol at about the same strength as ordinary bottled beer. The stainless steel containers were part of the brewing process.

Sandbar 1
You can’t get the ginger beer anymore, but the bar and the smiles are still there

Hard ginger beer has a long history in the Caribbean, and this couple had experimented with recipes to produce a beer that tasted good and had a pretty broad appeal. Like many of the other expats, I got a bit of a kick out of the fact that this stuff, although not exactly homemade, was produced on a small scale by some friends of ours.

With live entertainment being at a premium, and being a singer-guitarist myself, I eventually got a regular gig at the Sandbar. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience: the expat crowd were mainly around my age and receptive to my material, which  is big on Neil Young, Bob Dylan and James Taylor, with a song here and another there by everyone from The Beatles to Bonnie Raitt and Steve Miller, plus a bit of reggae, a touch of folk and even a wander down a country lane at times.

The Yorkshireman who ran the cruise centre lent me their PA system and there was a brief flurry of excitement at the musical new kid in town. A drummer appeared from nowhere, an Italian who played a single instrument called a djembe, which most of us in our ignorance would refer to as a bongo. Whatever it was called, it added rhythm to my solitary guitar and he played along to whatever I launched into from a repertoire of several hundred songs.

CM Sandbar
One Thursday night at a bar on stilts over the Caribbean. That’s me making an easy chord look difficult, with a real sky in the background

Last week I told you about Mitch, who has been playing in Grand Turk for years, and I have to say I don’t know how he does it. For my own amusement as much as the audience’s, I tried to add two or three different songs every week, and variety was added some weeks when a holidaymaker who could play or sing would come up and do a bit. There was a regular who came to Grand Turk two or three times a year for the diving and brought his electric guitar with him. With a bandana adding a touch of the rock star to his balding head he would blaze away on whatever I was playing.

Another who turned up more than once was a Canadian who played exclusively his own songs. That’s a brave thing to do unless you’re Neil Young or Bob Dylan; I used to do one of mine now and then, but in my experience in such a setting  you’ve got to give people something they know.

A couple turned up once who sang I-can’t-remember-what and then did some backing vocals on California Dreaming. A solo singer-guitarist had everyone bewitched with his first song but didn’t have more great material to back it up. And one of the local masseuses, a Guyanese girl, would get up and do three or four with me each week, which involved rehearsals.

I was always on the lookout for talent, but more often than not, people who can sing a few songs very well in private just haven’t got the confidence to do it in front of an audience. And it is different. The next time you see someone giving you a couple of hours of good music, just remember it doesn’t happen by magic. As Ian Dury said on What A Waste, “First night nerves every one-night stand”. Yes, it’s fun to do when there’s a bit of a crowd and they’re on your side, but on a quiet night it can be a lonely job.


Next Tuesday: all things must pass