Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite cover of a Bob Dylan song?
My Favorite Cover of a Bob Dylan song is a crazy, crazy project and, thus dear to my heart. Have any artists have been covered so much and so widely, or have a repertoire giving so much choice? Hell, I have songs of his in my collection with 20 plus versions apiece, and I only keep the ones I like. The answer to the question is going to be different on a daily, even hourly basis, but tonight it is “Forever Young,” as covered by the Pretenders. I chose this by the scientific method of scrolling down my i-tunes library until I found what I was looking for, immediately delighted by my choice. (Or was I glad I just didn’t have to check out G to Z?)
“Forever Young” first appeared on Planet Waves, Dylan’s 14th album in 1974. He thoughtfully produced both a fast and a slow version on the same record, possibly even looking ahead to his already lucrative covers market, the song a paean to his newborn son, Jakob. I think the lyric ranges to convey well the pride and love male parents display toward their offspring, without getting too soppy. A song that shared the feeling that even Bob Dylan got something in his eye from time to time.
I first discovered the Pretenders version on a cover disc from Empire, the movie magazine, which happily saved me from hearing it on the soundtrack of Free Willy 2, a film that has remained under my radar to this day. A somewhat depressing and distressing discovery, I should confess, it not having previously come to my attention that songs might be made for and solely exist on the soundtracks of potentially dismal films. And which has subsequently led me to scour the inter web for the soundtracks of dodgy films, in an ever desperate quest for an otherwise unavailable gem from a favored act. OK, I subsequently realized that it was also on their 1994 disc, Last of the Independents, by which time it was nominally Hynde and a rotating collection of additionals, albeit including the return of original drummer, the terrific Martin Chambers, who has stayed steadfastly in the band to this day, and whom I require to be present to prevent it being a Chrissie Hynde solo set. He isn’t actually drumming on this track, but never mind. The guitar sound, by Adam Seymour, together with Hynde, is typical of whatever might gauge as standard fare for this band, and is a perfect bedding for Hynde’s languid drawl. Does it lose or gain anything from a woman and mother’s voice or perspective? Until now I had never given it much thought, not really supposing it does. Or that Hynde is typically girly girl either. Whatever, it is great and I love it.
Blonde on Blonde was probably in the album collections of my friends’ older brothers and sisters but it definitely wasn’t in ours. We were mostly rockers in high school with many of us veering off towards punk. Thanks to classic rock radio, 3 or 4 tracks from the album still received frequent airplay 10-15 years after its release, but a deep cut like “Absolutely Sweet Marie” went unrecognized and unnoticed… that is, until Jason and the Scorchers came along. In ‘83 – during the golden age of college radio – EMI re-released the EP Fervor with the addition of this searing cowpunk barnburner. Who was this hillbilly singing, and who’s playing that rip-roaring guitar? Tip your Stetson to Jason Ringenberg and Warner Hodges. The video captured some MTV play but it was the heavy rotation across college campuses like mine that helped break the song – and this band – through. Nearly 35 years later they’re still doing it and their lightning fast version of Bob’s original “ramble” sounds just as good today. The reason I never heard of alt-country before this was because Jason and the then-Nashville Scorchers were busy inventing it.
When I was first introduced to the Tom Robinson Band back in the late 1970s, I thought of them as an angry, politically focused punk band, with an unusual (for those days) interest in gay rights. Not only were many of their songs about political issues, but their album covers and record sleeves were filled with commentary and even addresses of organizations to support. At the time, I saw the punk movement starkly as a rejection of the “classic rock” era, so I was surprised when I saw that TRB covered Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” In my mind, Dylan was from one tradition, and Robinson from another. Which, of course, was pretty stupid, but I was a kid, and hadn’t done nearly as much reading or thinking about music then as I have in the decades since.
So, initially, it was my surprise that made this cover stand out, but as NFL referees say, upon further review, it is just a very good version of the song. To be fair, it is really more of a cover of The Band’s version, which is both more elegiac and more triumphant than the version that Dylan released officially (but more similar to the Basement Tapes version). And at the time, I was more familiar with The Band’s version than Dylan’s. Robinson, not surprisingly in retrospect, was a big Dylan fan, and he is able to capture all of the emotions of the song in his sincere, heartfelt performance. I’m not sure this is the “best” cover of this oft-covered tune, but that’s not the question—it is my favorite Dylan cover (other than one that was reserved by another Cover Me writer who will remain nameless, but whose initials are the same as the radio band that popularized stereo broadcasting…).
In preparing to write this, I discovered that TRB’s version was originally released as the B-side to their debut single, the great “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” in connection with the “Free George Ince” campaign, which supported the release from prison of Ince, who many believed was wrongly convicted of a robbery. (In a sense, then, Robinson is also “covering” Dylan, who had recently released a song about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was also thought to have been wrongly convicted.) As a result, this version of the song includes a new verse and some revised lyrics about Ince. Normally, I’m not a fan of covers that make such changes, but in this context, and with this song’s message of release and redemption, I’m fine with it.
I confess I am not a fan of Bob Dylan as a musician; however, I wholeheartedly respect and admire his incredible songwriting (read: ear worm) ability. It was a complete surprise to me to discover that Dylan wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man.” One of my favorite 60’s songs is the Byrds’ cover of this storytelling classic. I used to spend a lot of time with my Dad going to his work sites as a contractor – the radio was almost always on the ’60s and ’70s channel, with this tune receiving a ton of air time. Try to not sing along, or bob your head. It’s impossible. The quick tempo, luscious harmonies, and overall jangly feeling combine to create a song that feels less folk song and more ’60s everyman anthem. The fact that this song will now be in my head for a solid week is a further testament to Dylan’s innate ability to create incredibly catchy ear worm level melodies.
Confession: The first time I heard Them‘s cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” I thought it was an extended remix of Beck’s “Jackass”, which I was more familiar with at the time. It took until about the third line for the penny to drop that they weren’t going to fade into a different song. The funny thing is, I knew that “Jackass” was built around that sample, but when confronted with the original, I couldn’t recognize it for the inspiration that it was.
I think this is because Bob Dylan’s songs, great as they may be, aren’t built around musical hooks. Lyrical hooks are another story – “And it’s a hard… it’s a hard…” “Everybody must get stoned,” “How does it feel?”, to name but a few – but the tune doesn’t get embedded in your skull via a brief bit of music, like with “Louie Louie” or “Wild Thing.” It sure does with Them’s cover, though – that spooky, hypnotic riff, sounding like it was imported from a woozy calliope, puts its roots down deep in your brain pan.
And that’s before Van Morrison even opens his mouth. His vocal here fills every word with an emotion, be it pain, desperation, contempt, even affection. It’s a more soulful delivery than Dylan’s, finding feelings that Dylan chose not to emphasize in his own performance. Where Dylan sounds like he’s walking away from the song, casting his words behind him as he goes, Morrison sounds like he’s still deep within the song, drowning in his feelings, thrashing about, unable to keep himself from expressing everything even as he goes down for the third time.
Combine that hook and that vocal, and you’ve got a song that’s a few breaths away from the peak of Mount Dylancover. I’m sorry I didn’t pick up on it at first, but I’m grateful that brilliance like that can’t be hidden forever.
When brilliant Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi covered “All Along the Watchtower” at my book party a few weeks ago, I introduced her performance by chatting about how few musicians covered Bob Dylan’s original recording, an acoustic ballad all but forgotten. Almost every musician really covers Hendrix’s roaring cover – including, incidentally, basically every live version Dylan has played since. Emel proceeded to deliver a stunning version that sounded nothing like Hendrix, and not much like Dylan either. It’s worth watching.
Before I saw her perform it, my list of “Watchtower” covers that owed nothing to Hendrix would have been very short indeed. And at the top of it would be Tom Landa and the Paperboys. Their amazing Irish jig builds tin whistle and fiddle into a pub rave-up. It sounds like something the Clancy Brothers might have recorded fifty years ago, or the Pogues with more discipline. When a version of a song becomes as omnipresent as Hendrix’s “Watchtower,” it can be heard to truly break out of the template. But as Landa and his Paperboys show – and as Emel showed too – it’s never impossible.
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