Or Why Most Covers Don’t Uncover Anything New
This is my badass cover of the Bob Dylan classic, Blowing In The Wind.
The original idea for the groove and pedal-point in the bass came when I was playing with my son Emanuel (5 at the time.) He was playing his toy bongos. I was on the somewhat-in-tune Acrosonic spinnet in the living room. And as usual, when it was playtime with the kids, I was trying to not-so-surreptitiously sneak in a little “me time.” In this case composing, or, more accurately, arranging.
I had, for reasons I don’t quite remember, decided to come up with a cover of iconic 1960s anthem. Maybe it was because I had heard a terribly boring cover of this tune while watching coverage of the 2000 Democratic convention. But it’s possible that I heard that during coverage of the 2004 convention, in which case I’m retroactively projecting into the future. But I digress. And in either case, the Dems lost both of those elections and seemed to be blowing in the wind themselves.
Uncovering the Truth About Cover Songs
But it does bring to mind the elephant in the room of cover songs. Which, as you probably know, is that they are almost always terribly boring. This is usually because of one of three miscalculations on the part of the artist:
1. They aren’t that talented
2. They are trying too hard to honor the original
3. They are trying too hard to be different from the original
In the first case, lack of talent, it’s really more of a lack of judgment, as in, you think the fact that you’re merely playing the song actually matters. Of course, it does. To you. Maybe you’re in the intermediate stage of musical development where simply “making the changes” is important. And that OK. Or maybe you’re a middle-aged orthodontist who plays in a blues band on the weekend. You know your music is not going to change the world, and that’s also OK. In both cases, as long as you’re cognizant of the limited context in which you’re version of the famous song matters (e.g., to your drunk friends), it’s all good. The problem comes when you think something musically important is happening when in fact you’re playing the tune in the least musically offensive unthreatening way possible. (Unless you’re just playing it horribly, in which case you’re being musically offensive but for the wrong reasons.)
Veneer vs. Forced Radical
And speaking of least musically offensive and unthreatening, that is is precisely the problem with the artist who tries too hard to pay tribute to the original. Several years ago I heard a cover of Neil Young’s classic, “Old Man” on NPR. The production was flawless, every note clear. The singer was clearly more polished than Neil Young who happens to be the ideal vocal interpreter of Neil Young. The cover had the veneer of being “modern”, meaning it didn’t “sound” like 1972 when the track was originally recorded. The problem was it added absolutely nothing to the song. It was like an offering to Neil Young, making sure to get everything right so as to not offend the master. I doubt that Neil would give a crap one way or the other.
And then there’s the opposite—trying too hard to be different from the original. Trying so hard that you lose sight song of the song’s spirit altogether. This, in fact, was precisely where I was at with Blowing In The Wind in early 2003 when I was playing with my son and trying to come up with a badass Bob Dylan cover. The backstory is that I had already come up with a version: it was in an uptempo modern modal jazz style. McCoy Tyner meets Bob Dylan. And it sort of worked, but it didn’t work for THAT song—it’s lyrics, mood, story.
The Best Bob Dylan Covers?
I was curious about what other people (like music critics, who are people too) considered the best Bob Dylan covers. I found plenty of lists. One put Jimmi Hendrix’s version “All Along The Watchtower” as #1. So I listened to it. I found absolutely nothing distinctive about it at all. It was fine, but nothing special.
#2 on this site was one I’ve actually heard, Johnny and June Cash’s cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Well, it is distinctively Johnny Cash (and I do like him) but, again, besides its obvious cashé, it doesn’t bring out anything remarkably new in the song.
And I stopped there. I’m sure there are plenty of great Dylan covers; I just don’t have the energy to find them.
Instead, here’s another of my own, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” I’m going to say that it’s not quite as radical as my take on “Blowing In The Wind” but it captures the essential disgust and underlying sadness of the song in perhaps a more dramatic setting than the original.
Serendipity Blues #67
So there I was, playing but not playing with my son, hoping at all costs to get engage him in a sort of cross-generational jam session. Never mind the fact that he was 5, I was 42, and so on. I simply didn’t want to help him build with his blocks or play another game of Chutes and Ladders.
So I start playing this bass line in my left hand in 6/4 time, trying in vain, to get Emanuel to play in a triple meter instead of his usual insistence on playing everything in goddamn 4/4 time. (He still that way as a professional, 17 years later!) He insists on playing the groove in 4/4, but that’s OK because after three bars we’re back on the downbeat together. (4+4+4=12 6+6= 12.) But then, almost on a lark, I start singing the opening lines of “Blowing in the Wind” over this mixed up groove. I’m singing the melody exactly as Bob wrote it, but in the relative minor (A minor instead of C Major in this case.) And I’m thinking, “this is kind of messed up.” So I keep going with it.
The Answer My Friend
And then I arrive at the refrain (“The answer my friend…”) and realize I need to do something different. So I play a G flat major chord over the pedal point A in the bass. The chord is not even remotely in the key, but its top note, F, is in the melody. So I’m thinking as I sing the first “blowing in the wind” that, well I’ve committed this egregious harmonic sin already, so let’s keep it going.
Well, at least with the “blowing” I play an F Major 7, half a step down from the first chord and that is in the key. But on the next “answer” I realize I’m moving down in parallel major 7th chords and going down another half step would be just too symmetrical, so I go an extra half step to E flat major 7th. Also, completely outside of the key, and unlike the G flat major 7th that started this whole “insane refrain” movement, there’s not a single note from the melody that is contained in that chord. It’s just completely wrong.
The Right Combination of Wrongs
But completely right, as it turns out. Because this arrangement does capture the dark mood of the tune while adding something entirely new to it: it’s even darker.
I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to my son because in his insistence on playing in the wrong time signature he ended up forcing something new out of me.
But when it came time to record it, I did have the drummer, Jeff Stitely, play in 6/4.
About the Track
Originally recorded in 2003, I added the background vocal trio and a new lead vocal a few years later—unfortunately after releasing the original album, Things Better Left Said. Today, however, I’m rectifying that situation with the release of Uncollected Songs, Volume 2 (2001-2005). In addition to remixes from the original album, there are several previously unreleased tracks here, including a pretty sweet cover of another Dylan tune.