What about Bob?

17 May

He's 70? That kid?

Not long ago, my older daughter asked me to put together a mix CD for her friend to introduce her to Bob Dylan. This was a monumental musicology assignment, boiling down his nearly 50-year career into 18 tracks to demonstrate how he transformed popular music and influenced every rock musician who’s come behind him.

No pressure.

When I was younger, he was a lot to absorb: the rambling lyrics; the wheezing harmonica; the adenoidal delivery. None of it appealed to me. Well, “Everybody Must Get Stoned” (sorry: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”) was kind of fun even though I was too prudish to approve of the drug references. And he did do a cool music video:

Other than that, it was all nails on a chalkboard.

Clearly, I needed an interpreter. Thankfully, there are plenty: Jimi Hendrix with “All Along the Watchtower;” the Byrds and “Mr. Tambourine Man;” Eric Clapton doing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” In college I had three versions of “I Shall Be Released,” none of which were Dylan’s.

I’m still intrigued by how well artists other than Dylan can perform his material and even outpace the original. The successful performers refurbish the arrangement and allow the melody and lyrics to flow through their own particular style. The soundtrack to the Todd Haynes’ homage I’m Not There featured all kinds of delicious reinterpretations, much as the film reinterpreted the man as everyone from Cate Blanchett to an African-American boy. For example, here’s Detroiter Sufjan Stevens’ version of “Ring Them Bells,” which some enterprising videographer set to scenes from my recent vacation spot, Charleston, SC:

(Did you catch that chorus? If you didn’t, listen to it again … and again … until the chills start.)

The power of Bob Dylan is revealed as your life requires it, I believe. There are times, now that life has become as complex as his lyrics, when only the original will do. As impressive as Adele is, a 21-year old just can’t inhabit “To Make You Feel My Love” like a guy with a bruised heart and a voice like Beelzebub’s older brother.  (I can only hope this link works so I’m not the only one with this song on continuous repeat in her head.)

So … if it were your mix CD, what would be on it? What Dylan should a teenage girl know by heart, and who’s the Dylan you need in your life right now? I’d love to know.

See you on the flip side … and Happy 70th Birthday, Bob!

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2 Responses to “What about Bob?”

  1. Tom Doyle May 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    I’ve had a similar experience with Dylan vs. the covers. Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is apocalyptic brilliance, while Dylan’s original is just so-so. I think his life and work are a deliberately constructed screen on which his audience can project what they want (and I generally prefer more information from the artist). That makes your job of choosing the songs for someone else all the more difficult. Are there high quality recordings of his tours around 10 years ago when he was “on”? He tended to rock out pretty hard then–in a sense, covering and reinventing his own material.

    • lpon45 May 18, 2011 at 2:05 am #

      Who knows (other than the man himself) how much of Dylan’s life and work is a construction and how much just kind of happened then other people added the meaning to it.

      I’m not up on his concert work from the last few years, although I do like the stuff he’s been churning out lately, maybe because he doesn’t seem to be taking himself so seriously. Together Through Life, featuring Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and Los Lobos’ accordion player David Hidalgo, is pretty terrific. I love “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” a rare late-vintage tune that has a beat (a slinky, peg-legged waltz) and finishes in under six minutes.

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