I suppose the future generation of music listeners will still remember Bob Dylan in one way or another. Perhaps in his landmark albums or his equally vital live performances, or just in his songs themselves. The most important legacy that Dylan will have given us will be his songwriting craft, an enormous body of work that is among this century's finest collection of art and music. And what better way to commemorate this little fact than by looking back at some of the artists who have done Dylan the greatest form of respect by covering his songs in their own repertoire.
Although it was Peter, Paul and Mary's rendition of "Blowin' In The Wind" that got Dylan the public attention that he sought, it was The Byrds who were more instrumental in leading the way in how to do a Dylan cover successfully and with artful taste. By electrifying Dylan in a commercially appealing manner while retaining his sense of literacy, their reading of "Mr. Tambourine Man" remains one of the finest rock singles ever recorded. Its twelve-string chiming guitars and smoothly layered harmonies of McGuinn and the rest of his cohorts lend a Beatles-like sound to the single, making it deliciously sweet with melodic optimism. By trimming the original song to just two verses, McGuinn was also able to make it short enough to fit on radio airplay, and it resulted in it becoming a instant smash hit on the charts.
Rod Stewart has done many excellent Dylan songs in the past, but none more so than his version of "Only A Hobo". His performance is convincingly moving against a spare but beautifully played acoustic backdrop that he would adopt for his early solo albums. Many Dylan songs would remain unique to Dylan's own performance and stand superior, but this is one instance where Dylan himself would have difficulty surpassing.
Many have regarded Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower" as the best version of the Dylan classic, but my personal preference points to Neil Young's live performance of the song during Dylan's 30th anniversary concert as the definitive reading. The difference? Neil's magnificently charged singing provides the song with such a despairing outlook that it far outweighs any apocalypse that either Dylan or Hendrix could invoke in their own recordings. Young only enhances that with his typically grunge like guitar solos in-between verses that threatens to tear the whole song to shreds. The way he plays is as if he is fighting for his life, or running away from an impending doom, which is what Dylan had suggested all along in the song. And Young just manages to perfectly realise this in the performance.
In her album of Dylan covers entitled Just Like A Woman ... Judy Sings Dylan, Judy Collins gives a truly remarkable acapella version of "With God On Our Side". This is how the song should be sung, a beautiful angelic voice like Collins to deliver an almost gospel vocal that makes the song sound almost timeless. Moving, stark and stately even, "With God On Our Side" is transformed into an uncompromising anthem.
Dylan's backing band during 1966 has turned into one of the most significant American bands in rock history. But that was before they opened their debut album with a song called "Tears Of Rage", a Dylan composition that was co-written with The Band's Richard Manuel. A beautiful and aching ballad sung with utter passion and commitment by Manuel himself. The Band's ensemble playing provides a stirring atmosphere to add to the already somber tone. Fewer Dylan songs have been sung or played better.
Sophie B. Hawkins may be filed under a one-hit wonder, but on her debut solo album, she did an impressive cover of Blonde On Blonde's "I Want You". Her Stevie Nicks vocals is laid against a layer of synth-strings and drum machines, giving the song an updated contemporary mood as opposed to the original countrified version. Hawkins's strong and assured delivery only sweetens what is already a very delicious track.
Rod Stewart's famous sidekick, Ronnie Wood has always assumed the role of sidemen in his long career in the rock business. His own solo work has been largely overshadowed by his association with both Stewart and the Rolling Stones. But, thankfully, Wood has also manages an incredible recording of Dylan's "Seven Days" with great gusto and enthusiasm. His singing is his best as he overcomes a thin voice to bring home the song's message of surviving a break-up with flashes of his trademark guitar riffs.
Joan Baez has been known to cover Dylan songs for most of her career, but her most delightful Dylan cover would have to be "Love Is A Four-Letter Word". It is a song that she urged Dylan to complete in a hotel room in 1965, as seen in the rockumentary Don't Look Back which was filmed during his last acoustic tour in England. Her version is deliciously filled with her sensuous voice, coupled with exotic Indian sitar trailing her voice at the end of every verse.
Eric Clapton's hit from his 461 Ocean Boulevard album was a surprisingly successful cover of "I Shot The Sheriff". This newfound interest in Bob Marley could have triggered him to cover Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" in a reggae style as well. Clapton manages to transform Dylan's original western-style ballad into a jaunty and almost upbeat and laid-back song. His lazy singing on this only enhances the light-hearted mood that seems worlds apart from the original version.
From the same 30th anniversary concert also comes a hard rocking treatment of "My Back Pages", originally found on the acoustic only Another Side Of Bob Dylan. Here, the ensemble of Dylan, McGuinn, Tom Petty, Young, Clapton and George Harrison perform together with such vitality and spirit that one would be surprised that these performers are past middle-aged. Each singer takes a turn at one verse, with both Clapton and Young contributing their trademark electric solos in-between verses. The only blemish may be the fact that Dylan had to redub his part for the official release, but even that could not prevent this monumental performance of a group of legends becoming legendary itself.
There are probably more brilliant or interesting renditions of Dylan songs elsewhere, but the selection here hopefully suggests that Dylan's own songs have an infinite quality about them. Whether it is Dylan himself constantly rearranging and recreating his songs in concert, or new and old artists finding new ways to do his material, it is undeniable that people will continue to be entranced, charmed, moved or just simply be curious about Dylan's songs. Most of the time, Dylan's own performance of his song should be the definitive version. But once in a while, like all the covers mentioned here, it is also wonderful just to listen different interpretations of the words and music of Bob Dylan.
4th June 1997