The Ugliest Girl in the World: The Reanimation of Bob Dylan in the ‘80s
Bob Dylan covers have been popular for longer than Bob Dylan has, starting with Peter, Paul and Maryâs No. 2 hit with âBlowinâ in the Windâ in 1963 when Dylan was still an opening act for Joan Baez. The full-length tribute craze began in â65 with Odetta Sings Dylan, the surf-guitar rambles of Duane Eddy Does Bob Dylan and, after the surprise smash of Dylanâs own âLike a Rolling Stone,â 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 â68, The Hollies released The Hollies Sing Dylan in â69. Thereâs also Jesse Lauterâs personal favorite, Lo And Behold by Coulson, Dean, McGuinness and Flint, capturing a batch of then-unreleased basement tunes in â72. The tributes havenât ceased since; Dylanâs 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 Griffithâs transfixing âBoots of Spanish Leather.â Some offer listeners new frames, like the heartbroken Italian swoon of Francesco De Gregoriâs âIf You See Her, Say Helloâ 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 âAll Along the Watchtowerâ that stretches from here to Hibbing, with a possible exception granted for Neil Young and the MGâsâ take on Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.
So why do we need any more Dylan covers?
âIf 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?â Dylan poses in Chronicles, and it is a wonderful point he raises. âMusicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians.â
Alongside Lauter and OâBrienâs Bob Dylan in the 80s this season comes another remarkable new addition to the Zimmy tribute canon, Buda Musiqueâs From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan, the product of French producer Alain Weber. The collection posits Dylanâs Chronicles question even more directlyâ13 songs sung in 13 different languagesâan album almost literally impossible for any one person to understand.
To Weber, Dylanâs lyrics contain âa sense of spirituality, morality and wisdom, using double meanings, where every word has a real importance,â and he moved through Dylanâs songbook to find lyrics that reflect different traditions. âFather Of Night,â from 1970âs New Morning, is âa tribute to the creator, describing nature in a sacred way, as do the Aboriginal people with their songlines.â Weber had songs translated into local dialects and soon discovered that the musicians âall wanted to appropriate the songs, go beyond the original melody or adapt it to their own culture,â he says. âIt 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.â
The results are sometimes unrecognizable, even by Dylanâs 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 âJokerman.â Iranian singer Salah Aghili is given âEvery Grain of Sandâ 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 JalaĚl ad-DiĚn RuĚmi. From Australia, the Aboriginal People Yolingu of Yalakun boil âFather Of Nightâ into a ritual chant accompanied by clapsticks and didgeridoo. That the song is generally as maligned as anything from Dylanâs â80s songbook becomes immaterial.
From Another World has the answer, and the answer, my friend, is that Dylanâs songs are about more than either the words or the melodies, but horcruxes heâs locked inside each one. You can tell itâs the right answer because the album even solves the âAll Along the Watchtowerâ conundrum. Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoaâs sly, swinging version is great.
What's great about the original âWiggle Wiggle?â Whatâs terrible? What did you want to bring from it to your version?
âThe entire song really hinges on the lyric âwiggle âtil you vomit fire,ââ says the former Ween frontman Aaron Freeman. âIt provides the answer to all three questions.â One of many artists assigned a song by the producers, he enthuses to Lauter, âThis is the song I was born to sing.â
New Yorkâs Yellowbirds tackle the surrealistic Oh Mercy outtake âSeries Of Dreams,â a song likewise suggested by Lauter and OâBrien. A fan of Dylanâs classic periods, as well as the turn-of-the-century masterpieces Time Out of Mind and âLove & Theft,â Yellowbirds leader Sam Cohen suggests, âI think Iâm the guy this album is designed to educate.â
âI heard Dylan and the Dead [recorded in 1987] around age 13 when I had my first band going, and just thought, âHow cool!ââ he continues. âEverything that is popular in music usually sticks to a shtick and a format, and they were just playing together and being musicians. It wasnât an act. It just struck me as a cool way to be.â He wasnât far off from what Lauter and OâBrien would discover a quarter-century later.
The duo figures out session bands for the songs theyâre producing themselves, including New York staple trio of drummer Joe Russo, guitarist Scott Metzger, and bassist Dave Dreiwitz (dubbed âThe Jokermenâ for the occasion) to back The Hold Steadyâs Craig Finn. The producers also hatch deeper concepts, getting in their argument for Dylanâs melodic skills by challenging keyboardist Marco Benevento to an instrumental take of âEvery Grain of Sand,â in Lauterâs words, âarguably the greatest song from the â80s.â
Out go the tunes and back come the results. âI was mainly trying to create a similar mood, which is ethereal,â says Benevento. âSometimes when people hear [Dylanâs] music from the â80s, their immediate response is that it sounds cheesy, mainly because of the heavy production,â he continues. â[But] I like hearing artists changing and growing with the times and experimenting with recording techniques of the time frame that theyâre in.â