It has been noted for years that Bob Dylan’s catalogue is comprised of some of the most covered and most coverable folk and rock songs ever written. And while it’s hard to argue with the first part of the equation — countless artists have, in fact, performed and recorded his songs — the implication that they’re easily
covered is woefully inaccurate.
It was one thing, of course, for Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, or for Jimi Hendrix or even the Turtles, who, despite likely knowing they were destined to sit at least a rung or two below Dylan on the ladder of rock iconography, were really just covering the work of one of their peers, a practice that was far more common at the time.
But for an artist who takes on such a task today, there’s a whole lot more at stake. It’s not that his songs are, technically speaking anyway, terribly difficult to perform, but there’s an added intimidation factor at work now that history has already been written and Dylan has rightfully been assigned to the role of The Greatest and Most Important Artist of the 20th Century, Certainly in Rock and Roll, But Probably in Any Art Form. And as if that wasn’t daunting enough, dude is still alive
, hanging out wherever the hell he hangs out, doing whatever the hell it is he does. It would be unfair and misleading to say that he’s here, living among us, exactly, because he’s not. Hasn’t been in a long time. He’s a ghost, a grumpy old soul who seems to hate everything
, and whose presence looms over everyone like a strong, silent authority figure ruling not with fear or loud threats, but with a rare, keen ability to make it so that his underlings desperately do not want to let him down. Covering Dylan is, more often than not, a lose-lose situation: It’s not as if there’s a great need to keep his music alive, or to inspire others to discover it, and chances are you’re not going improve upon anything he’s done, so the very best you can hope for is that you don’t completely fuck it up.
So, all that said (and perhaps I’m showing my true colors here, those being whatever colors are usually worn by insecure, hero-worshipping rock-nerd guys), if I were in a band, I’d totally stick to semi-ironic indie-pop covers of Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’.
But if everyone shared my timidity, Todd Haynes would have been left without one of the most marketable facets of his acclaimed and already immensely marketable biopic I’m Not There
, in which six different actors portray Dylan at six different points in his life. Haynes called on a huge number of artists to record covers of their favorite Dylan songs, and, not surprisingly, he got some pretty big guns to contribute. Not Tom Petty, Beck, Keith Richards or Sheryl Crow — who, as far as I can tell, have appeared on every single tribute album made in the past decade — but a slew of newcomers, with a definite focus on today’s most prominent indie rock acts. The more blogger-friendly bands were passed over, thankfully, in favor of giants like Sonic Youth, Stephen Malkmus, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Calexico, the Hold Steady and Jeff Tweedy.
As for the results, well, for the most part, they succeed in not completely fucking anything up, which is more than many would have expected. Cat Power’s faithful reading of ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’ is outstanding, and actually serves as a sad reminder of what her last album, The Greatest
, probably should have sounded like. Jeff Tweedy sounds exactly as comfortable as you’d assume he would on ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, and Charlotte Gainsbourg performing ‘Just Like a Woman’ with Calexico as her backing band is light years better than you’d assume. Malkmus is all over the place, contributing versions of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Can’t Leave Her Behind’. The most successful tracks on the record, like the ones already mentioned, come from the artists who were able to perform the songs faithfully, while injecting just enough of their own personality so that neither they nor Dylan is overshadowed. Sufjan Stevens, on the other hand, gets a touch too cutesy (shock of the century, I know) with ‘Ring Them Bells’; Eddie Vedder does the exact same stupid cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ everyone else has been doing for years; and Karen O could probably be arrested for what she does to ‘Highway 61’.
This whole thing could have gone much worse, for sure, and it forces us to think a little more seriously about the themes of cultural appropriation put forth in the film. It’s also sort of nice to think maybe it will encourage younger artists to perform songs by their contemporaries, a practice that has faded away for no apparent reason. But as far as essential versions of the songs go? There’s still not much reason to look beyond the original source.