I’m going to explain the validity of a “Bob Dylan Stories” readers’ survey by simply initiating a Bob Dylan story. It was my hometown, I’m working another crappy job, but I manage to at least get a Thursday night off, and there’s a music festival going on. In general I’d been bit**ing on facebook about a lot of the local music acts just being cover bands, and this plague persists, by and large, but in the case of the slightly torpid but well-meaning folkie Doug Harsch: the cause was withstanding, and full of payoff.
It was a swanky bar, one I’d never been in, would never otherwise go into, but it was the only show going on, so I checked it out. Going in, I got to the first seat in there and popped a squat, me not noticing the performer, the performer not noticing me. Naturally, I thought about the old days of the South Bend hometowners Umphrey’s McGee rocking sets downtown, or out in St. Pat’s Park — all the kind of spirited funk-rock that graces the ghosts of our town and gets people dancing, an idea that still lives on. Well, credit Harsch for not trying to cash in on this and copy, but rather doing his own thing, which like I said was a brand of mellow folk verging largely on realms of torpidity, but not necessarily lacking in originality or emotional integrity, to too great a degree.
My favorite part of his set, though, was his Bob Dylan cover. No, that’s not what I mean. What I should have said was, if not for his scintillating, paint-peeling cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” I would have no idea, to this day, who Doug Harsch is, the man who ended up opening up for Dylan when he came to our main venue the Morris Civic. It was a perfect cover — actually, he eliminated from the song Dylan’s penchant for overacting, and transformed the vocal from an unruly, atonal mess into a nice, controlled melody, and he played and sang the song like somebody perfectly justified in doing so, which personally, is all the da**ed proof I need.
As we all know, Bob Dylan is one of the most oft covered musicians in history, and he’d even take it a step further: he’d write songs for The Band to play, and to call their own, in copyright in everything. Then in interviews, he’d be so nonchalant: “Yeah, those were just songs for Robbie and them to play, and somehow I got wound back into them.” But Harsch was just perfect on his own for “Marie,” although the defining Dylan element of the song, along with the beautifully drawn chord progression and the deliberate verse/chorus structure, was the added, unconventional two-bar addendum at the end of the chorus: “Where are you tonight sweet Marie?” As Harsch sang these words in The Exchange Whiskey Bar in May 2015 in my hometown, I FELT that longing which Dylan originally had transcribed into original song form in the mid ’60’s, and though, sure, the music did fee like a tribute and somewhat antiquated, it also felt like it’s necessary sometimes in life to take a step backward and reflect on our foundations, especially our musical foundations, and those who have lain the groundwork for the world as we know it today. Bob Dylan has given us “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and countless other lyrical messages which have become ingrained into our psyche, but the fact that he’s so coverable speaks volumes of the most important part which is songwriting ability, and I got chills up and down my spine on this night rediscovering the art of the cover.
When I first heard of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize my first thought was what took so long? The man has been writing meaningful and relevant music for well over 40 years. His music will last forever because it gives the listener a glimpse into the era from which it came. Everything from his folk/country album Nashville Skyline to the obscure New Morning album tells a story. If I go on to my I-Tunes and type Bob Dylan I could play 135 different songs that would span 10 hours. I have never seen Bob Dylan live and I’m not sure that I would want to now. No disrespect to the guy, but I love the young, free wheelin’ Bob Dylan and he just can’t be that anymore. My favorite album of his would have to be Blonde On Blonde. The album plays so well from front to end. Just Like A Woman, Visions Of Johanna, and 4th Time Around are some of his best in my mind. I can always listen to Bob Dylan no matter what kind of mood I’m in and I think that is the best compliment I could ever give his music. Every generation after our own will grow up and hear the name Bob Dylan and hopefully they will give him a listen, just like I did as a teenager in my parent’s basement.
2014 was the first temperate summer in the Midwest in five years. I got a living arrangement in the South, getting the fu** out of what I and others considered the “Midwaste,” got down there, got my bike stolen, got wacked on the head, concussed, and nearly killed by a series of beer bottle blows, and then something just hit me. It was like a calm, amidst the rainy June month, amidst the bevy of beautiful, serene girls in the bar I’d go to: I’d say, this isn’t me.
I wanted my hometown again, and moved back, getting another crappy job, getting another earful of sh** from basically everyone, all the time. Then came the Mondays in the restaurant I worked at. I was picking up hours dishwashing, basically the lowest life form on Earth, but yes, free food, and I got to put music on. Two and a half miles I’d trudge through an unprecedentedly cold South Bend in early November, having let “What Goes on” by The Velvet Underground be the perfect soundtrack to that awesomely temperate summer, and I’d have my CD player in my backpack, a Sony boombox.
I don’t always smoke pot before work, but when I do, I prefer Bob Dylan. They were two library finds: and I’d brought a solid 30 CD’s with me, but the whole six-hour shift I only utilized two, extremely down numbers compared to the usual obnoxious dance club crap people would play, and they were The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue, and In Concert – Brandeis University 1963. And yes, for anybody still reading, I have just listed only two album titles there.
Let me shift gears here: and this is all information I read in this Rolling Stone article around this same time, but apparently during one prominent rehearsal for basement tapes stuff, Band pianist Richard Manuel was observed to be doling out a little lick which would eventually materialize into “I Shall Be Released.” The song, featured with whip-cracking brilliancy on Live 1975, features a chorus that goes “Any day now / Any day now / I shall be released.” This is the man who brought us “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” of course, a song which is also featured on Live 1975. 10 years and change down the road, Manuel would commit suicide.
I mention this, maybe for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, other than it’s if nothing else undoubtedly a haunting story, but maybe also to show the staggering, sheer level of feeling, going into this music. It was a beacon for these young men, something larger than life, and when the well apparently dried up, life was not preferable to its lack. The Band, for all we know, are comprised of men who without Dylan might have ended up as meth-head child molestors working in factories. Maybe, maybe not. Nobody really dredges up the bowels of America, only metaphysically, from a distance, by way of great music.
But for all the poignant death dance going on all over this double CD album, Live 1975, my favorite is still the ulterior rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Slowed down a bit, stripped of what was maybe the contemporary edginess manifest from the desire to just get this stuff out there as protest music, by this point we’ve evolved to the point of heavy metal and punk rock… but Dylan still finds it within him after all these years, after Blood on the Tracks and New Morning, to further apply his MUSE to the unfolding situation to where we not only get a heartfelt performance of an old song like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but an actual moderation on it, in the form of some divinely crafted guitar frills garnishing the chorus, and Christ, just the sound in his voice.
Not sure if you still need this, but I do love Dylan. I grew up on the 60s hits, as my dad always had the local oldies station on (CBS FM 101.1), but I didn’t actively start seeking out his music until 1993 when I heard “Hurricane” in Dazed and Confused (and I must’ve stayed in the theater to watch the credits, as it would’ve been hard to figure out who sung the song pre-internet). Shortly thereafter I bought a vinyl copy of Desire with money I made raking leaves in my grandfather’s backyard and basically only listened to “Hurricane” and “Isis” (it would be years before I explored the rest of the album).
The only time I saw him perform was at a Bruce Springsteen show at the now demolished Shea Stadium in Queens in 2003. Dylan came out for the encore and played guitar, and honestly I don’t remember it being all that great. Oh well.
During the Collapse years the whole band got really into his catalog, specifically the late 60s/early 70s period. At one point we considered covering “Romance in Durango” and may have jammed on it a couple times but nothing ever happened with that (as a side note, I always wanted to dress like the Rolling Thunder Revue did on that ’75 tour, with the headscarves and all). We spent a lot of time with Self-Portrait and New Morning (“If Not For You” was my wedding song!). As I got older I got into the “less revered” parts of his catalog; 1978’s Street-Legal (fantastic, kinda bloated record, and completely different mixes on vinyl and CD) and the Christian era (Saved is awful but Shot of Love is a rough sounding fun record, Infidels has tracks). I’ve cherry-picked songs from later records and never truly delved into the ’90s stuff. Not a fan at all of his current weird Tom Waits/troubadour phase, but thankfully you can get lost in his back catalog any time.
Hope this helps!