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The Ugliest Girl in the World: The Reanimation of Bob Dylan in the ‘80s

by Jesse Jarnow on May 13, 2014

Bob Dylan covers have been popular for longer than Bob Dylan has, starting with Peter, Paul and Mary’s No. 2 hit with “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963 when Dylan was still an opening act for Joan Baez. The full-length tribute craze began in ‘65 with Odetta Sings Dylan, the surf-guitar rambles of Duane Eddy Does Bob Dylan and, after the surprise smash of Dylan’s own “Like a Rolling Stone,” the Glen Campbell-abetted Dylan Jazz. While the former Mr. Zimmerman was off the grid recuperating from his 1966 motorcycle crash, the demand only increased.

Joan Baez did Any Day Now in ‘68, The Hollies released The Hollies Sing Dylan in ‘69. There’s also Jesse Lauter’s personal favorite, Lo And Behold by Coulson, Dean, McGuinness and Flint, capturing a batch of then-unreleased basement tunes in ‘72. The tributes haven’t ceased since; Dylan’s endlessly nourishing songbook is open to anyone willing to form chords and try singing. Its meandering pages welcome reinterpretation, suggesting themes and passageways and eye-widening vistas.

Some of the tributes are one-cut wonders, like the otherwise drab Dylan Country from 2004, redeemed by Nanci Griffith’s transfixing “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Some offer listeners new frames, like the heartbroken Italian swoon of Francesco De Gregori’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” on the Masked & Anonymous soundtrack. The vast majority remain unattached to albums, a long and distinguished list, as well as a nearly infinite supply of unimaginative blues-rock jams on “All Along the Watchtower” that stretches from here to Hibbing, with a possible exception granted for Neil Young and the MG’s’ take on Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.

So why do we need any more Dylan covers?

“If my songs were just about the words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock-and-roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs?” Dylan poses in Chronicles, and it is a wonderful point he raises. “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians.”

Alongside Lauter and O’Brien’s Bob Dylan in the 80s this season comes another remarkable new addition to the Zimmy tribute canon, Buda Musique’s From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan, the product of French producer Alain Weber. The collection posits Dylan’s Chronicles question even more directly—13 songs sung in 13 different languages—an album almost literally impossible for any one person to understand.

To Weber, Dylan’s lyrics contain “a sense of spirituality, morality and wisdom, using double meanings, where every word has a real importance,” and he moved through Dylan’s songbook to find lyrics that reflect different traditions. “Father Of Night,” from 1970’s New Morning, is “a tribute to the creator, describing nature in a sacred way, as do the Aboriginal people with their songlines.” Weber had songs translated into local dialects and soon discovered that the musicians “all wanted to appropriate the songs, go beyond the original melody or adapt it to their own culture,” he says. “It was something natural, so I just had to let it go that way, even though at the beginning, I wanted them to respect the melody.”

The results are sometimes unrecognizable, even by Dylan’s own liberal standards, and yet they are familiar. As at a Dylan show, it might take one a few verses to realize that he or she is hearing “Jokerman.” Iranian singer Salah Aghili is given “Every Grain of Sand” and recognizes the depth of the lyrics. But even more, he recognizes its melody and is inspired to scrap the translation and instead sing verses by the Persian mystic poet Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmi. From Australia, the Aboriginal People Yolingu of Yalakun boil “Father Of Night” into a ritual chant accompanied by clapsticks and didgeridoo. That the song is generally as maligned as anything from Dylan’s ‘80s songbook becomes immaterial.

From Another World has the answer, and the answer, my friend, is that Dylan’s songs are about more than either the words or the melodies, but horcruxes he’s locked inside each one. You can tell it’s the right answer because the album even solves the “All Along the Watchtower” conundrum. Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa’s sly, swinging version is great.

What's great about the original “Wiggle Wiggle?” What’s terrible? What did you want to bring from it to your version?

“The entire song really hinges on the lyric ‘wiggle ‘til you vomit fire,’” says the former Ween frontman Aaron Freeman. “It provides the answer to all three questions.” One of many artists assigned a song by the producers, he enthuses to Lauter, “This is the song I was born to sing.”

New York’s Yellowbirds tackle the surrealistic Oh Mercy outtake “Series Of Dreams,” a song likewise suggested by Lauter and O’Brien. A fan of Dylan’s classic periods, as well as the turn-of-the-century masterpieces Time Out of Mind and “Love & Theft,” Yellowbirds leader Sam Cohen suggests, “I think I’m the guy this album is designed to educate.”

“I heard Dylan and the Dead [recorded in 1987] around age 13 when I had my first band going, and just thought, ‘How cool!’” he continues. “Everything that is popular in music usually sticks to a shtick and a format, and they were just playing together and being musicians. It wasn’t an act. It just struck me as a cool way to be.” He wasn’t far off from what Lauter and O’Brien would discover a quarter-century later.

The duo figures out session bands for the songs they’re producing themselves, including New York staple trio of drummer Joe Russo, guitarist Scott Metzger, and bassist Dave Dreiwitz (dubbed “The Jokermen” for the occasion) to back The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. The producers also hatch deeper concepts, getting in their argument for Dylan’s melodic skills by challenging keyboardist Marco Benevento to an instrumental take of “Every Grain of Sand,” in Lauter’s words, “arguably the greatest song from the ‘80s.”

Out go the tunes and back come the results. “I was mainly trying to create a similar mood, which is ethereal,” says Benevento. “Sometimes when people hear [Dylan’s] music from the ‘80s, their immediate response is that it sounds cheesy, mainly because of the heavy production,” he continues. “[But] I like hearing artists changing and growing with the times and experimenting with recording techniques of the time frame that they’re in.”

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