It’s funny how one thing leads to another. For a long time I have been an admirer of the pianist/ composer/ educator Ben Sidran. He has been active for many years now from the piano chair in Steve Miller’s Band to his own solo career as a jazz musician. His albums have often occupied the middle ground between pop and jazz and his considerable abilities as a composer and soloist make each of his records a particular joy. One of his more recent projects has been the album ‘Dylan Different’ where he takes twelve of Bob Dylan’s songs and interprets them with a crack band. This record is, like all his others, a rare treat and I would recommend it warmly. But as I listened to it, I found myself sent back to the originals, or some of them.
I have lots of Bob Dylan records but I don’t listen to them as much as I should – sometimes they strike me as the product of a mind that doesn’t seem to care less about them once they are done. This does not mean to say that they are ill conceived or lyrically unconvincing, every record contains at least one or two gems. But Dylan can be capricious; he sometime discards great songs in favour of others, and his career often veers off in what seems like odd and unexpected directions. Who could have foreseen that the singer of songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘Masters of War’ could have become the latest interpreter of the Great American Songbook? I once called Dylan a master of ambiguities and I think that term is apt; he is never where you expect him to be, which I suppose is the mark of a great artist. Anyway, Ben Sidran’s ‘Dylan Different’ led me to the following songs;
‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ to listen to the original reminds me just how although these early records came out of a ‘folk’ background, the rhythm section is a frantic mix of rhythm and blues and rock and roll – and let’s not forget the voice and the lyrics!
‘Tangled Up in Blue’/ ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, two songs from a dark record, in ‘Blue’ the first line of the lyric “Early one morning” starts in the folk tradition but the story that unfolds takes me in a different direction, again there is the understated instrumentation that puts the story (and the storyteller – Dylan’s own description of what he does) front and centre. ‘Twist’ has an understated but effective bass line shadowing Dylan’s guitar and again there is a compelling story about star crossed lovers and the accidents of life and fate. The final verse sums it up perfectly;
“People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring
She was born in spring, but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate”.
‘Standing in the Doorway’/ Trying to Get to Heaven’, two great songs from the great ‘comeback’ album. Every time I listen to it I find this record very moving, there is something about it that is hard to quantify. The songs seem to be haunted by illness and mortality, and faith. I defy anyone not to be moved when Dylan sings (in ‘Doorway’) “I know the mercy of God must be near”. Personally, I feel that that line shows a deeper faith than that exhibited on his so – called ‘born again’ recordings! ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ (before they close the door) is another gem. It’s gospel inspired piano/ organ and the slight dub – like guitar line and the singer’s fabulously cracked vocal is again, something I find really moving.
‘Changing of the Guards’ / ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power). Two songs from an album which I think is quite under rated in the canon. The first is an apocalyptic/ historical mash up which seems to be about the inevitability of massive change. Those in the know suggest that this song marks Dylan’s move towards the particular brand of American evangelical Christianity he was soon to embrace. And ‘Senor’ has all the hallmarks of a classic, apart from the “trainload of fools brought down in a magnetic field”, its atmosphere of (colonial?) menace reminds me of a long youthful trip to an airfield in the south of England to see Dylan (and others). All I can remember are the awful toilets and a man in a top hat on a stage in the far distance!
‘New Pony’/ ‘Every Grain of Sand’. Finally, a song from the ‘Street Legal’ album that I always skipped when I bought the record. Despite the slightly odd lyric this song has a rare sort of charm, perhaps it’s author was telling someone else’s story (Could it be true that Dylan has made the business of unreliable narration into an art form?). My final song here is an out and out masterpiece. Recorded for the album ‘Shot of Love’ it is a song that, again, I find very moving in its discussion of faith and mortality. The line about ‘every hair’ and ‘every grain of sand’ both channels words attributed to Jesus (in the context that, to quote Mother Julian “all things will be well”), and fills them with a new and urgent sense that, even for an artist like Dylan, faith is all we really have.
Bob Dylan’s life and times has been endlessly chronicled and his every move (and word) endlessly detailed and discussed, but personally I find many of his songs as moving as they are infuriating. When Daniel Lanois the musician and producer of ‘Time Out of Mind’ described him as ‘eccentric’, it could qualify as the understatement of the century! Yet the songs remain and as I was thinking about the photo I chose I obviously thought of Dylan’s use of biblical imagery, but then it occurred to me that his songs are like a map (with the story teller as the weary traveller!) that we can follow as we listen. These songs are a remarkable witness to the collision of life, fate, love and faith. It is surely the best testimony to a musician’s art to say that very time you listen you find something new, and in terms of his influence on music and culture it must be true to say that all roads (still) lead to Duluth.