Bob by Others

Today’s Bob Dylan‘s birthday. I spent part of yesterday afternoon listening to my The Times They Are A-Changin’ LP, and I’m reminded yet again that the man is (or at least was) a peerless lyricist. That said, generally I still prefer his work when it’s interpreted by others. I know it’s an overly obvious thing to state, but his delivery doesn’t often work for me. The visceral Blood on the Tracks is one of the few of his albums to which I often return, but quite a bit of his catalog leaves me col. I recently spent a couple of hours with Before the Flood, a live document of his mid-70s tour with The Band. I really enjoyed The Band’s material there, but Dylan’s reinventions of his own songs left me confused, more than anything. I understand an artist’s need to keep things interesintg by changing-it-up, but the radical re-arrangements struck me as a bridge too far. Of course Dylan’s made a career of doing that kind of thing ever since. Good for him, I guess.

In any event, other artists have made careers of their own through interpreting Dylan’s work, filtering it through their own particular skill set and aesthetic sensibilities. South African keyboardist Manfred Mann has been particularly successful at this: his “Quinn the Eskimo” from the 60s was a good-timin’ hit, and his Earth Band reading of “You Angel You” is a personal favorite.

Of course The Byrds and the Hollies are celebrated examples, but as a my own best-loved Dylan tune, I would offer up Wire Train‘s cover of “God on Our Side.” As is necessary with a Dylan interpretation, the band truly makes the song their own. Dylan’s powerful, gut-wrenching lyrics remain largely intact, but the arrangement is filled with the best elements of 80s “college rock” (for lack of a better term). This is, for me, the greatest Dylan cover of all time, though if you ask me tomorrow I might have a different answer. One of my few music-related regrets of the 1980s is that I never saw Wire Train live onstage.


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