I’m something of a Bob Dylan obsessive.
Let me rephrase that; I am a rather psychologically unbalanced Bob Dylan obsessive. In my own defense, I would like to point out that I am not a completist like I am with Robyn Hitchcock. For me, Dylan has a good dozen years, followed by nearly a quarter century of dreck (some rare exceptions, mind you – I like the throwaway silliness of the Traveling Wilburys), one solid album and then more dreck. But those good twelve years…
I’ve accumulated, through the internets and judicious use of the Google, more unreleased and live performances from that wondrous dozen years than anyone has any need for whatsoever. Alternate takes of tracks from Blonde On Blonde with The Band; radio performances on Studs Terkel’s Wax Museum radio show; an unreleased live album, complete with the planned Columbia Record’s cover picture; Further recordings made with the incredible session musicians that played on Nashville Skyline. All amazing, and in most cases, better than any of his released material.
I don’t bring this up to brag – like I said, judicious use of Google will find the same sources and recordings. What this utterly unnecessary cornucopia of Dylanalia makes clear is that the axiom that Dylan was/is not the best interpreter of his material is a big load of bunkum. I will not argue that many artists have covered Bob’s songs with great effect – from Area Code 615 (the very musicians who played on the aforementioned Nashville Skyline) with “Just Like A Woman”, to Yo La Tengo with “I Threw It All Away.” I love these covers, as well as many others. But Dylan, as evinced by both released performances and the plethora of bootlegs, continued to explore and recast his own work to great effect. A good example of this can be found on the officially released Biograph box set, and the blistering live version of “Isis.” The crazy compulsion apparent in the lyrics is now matched with an arrangement that is all forward propulsion, a train careening off the tracks. Another fine example is from the now oft-mentioned Nashville Skyline, and the version of “Girl From The North Country”, arranged for two voices and performed with Johnny Cash. The wistful lyrics are coupled with a slow dirge of an arrangement, making it a lamentation – the two singers do not respond to each other; here, Dylan and Cash sing from the same point of view, seemingly giving voice to a young man and his older self, with Dylan’s voice encapsulating the longing of youth and Cash as the melancholy understanding of loss that comes with age. Of course, I could be off my rocker with that interpretation, but so be it.
I’ll probably do a Dylan centered podcast one of these days, assuming I can trim down to under 30 minutes the “gems” I want to share. But until then, I want to share one great “Bob on Bob” re-visioning – an absolutely ripping version of “Shelter From The Storm”, originally on Blood On The Tracks (speaking of which, a great bootleg exists of the original NY tracks Dylan cut for this – he felt them “incomplete” after listening, and redid many of the songs). From a solo acoustic performance to this barn-burning full band take: