The Bob Dylan Cover Theory

I have a love/hate relationship with the music of Bob Dylan. Likewise with covers. I hate covers that twist around a song just to make it different. Toad the Wet Sprocket once did a cover of KISS’s Rock n Roll All Nite as a ballad (check it out here). Very clever but it doesn’t work for me. The original is a party anthem, and it works very well as that. It doesn’t need a new identity, it already has the perfect one! Those kinds of covers annoy me.

Then there are the kind of covers where the artist takes a song, and makes it his own. It’s played faithfully (not necessarily note for note), and it takes on the sound of the artist playing it. I love those. And there are covers that lie halfway between these two: where a song is given a new spin, that while not denaturing completely the original, puts it in a fresh light, or updates its sound.

And this brings me to my love/hate for the music of mister Robert Zimmerman. He’s a great artist for sure, one of the greatest of our times. But I have a hard time with the tuneless mumbling, the bare arrangements and overall lack of energy (he seems bored more often than not). And a few years back, I realized something: the definitive version of almost any Dylan track has been recorded by someone else. All Along the WatchtowerJimi Hendrix please. Knocking on Heaven’s Door? Give me some Guns ‘n Roses for that (even though, as George Harrison once pointed out “There’s only three chords in it, but they managed to get one of them wrong.”) or even some Eric Clapton. Lots of people would also point to the Peter, Paul & Mary version of Blowin’ in the Wind as another example, or The Byrds‘s take on Mr Tambourine Man.

This led me to come up with the following theory:

Everyone who has ever covered a Bob Dylan song has done it better than the original.

Now, every rule must have some fine print. In this case, I define “everyone” as any valid artist with a modicum of talent as recognized by others. So if your aunt Jane rented a studio one afternoon to record her version of Lay, Lady, Lay that made her the star of the family gatherings, it doesn’t count. Hey, it’s my rule, I can define it as I want.

This rule held for a few years, until I encountered this version:

So Dave Matthews single handedly disproved my theory. In short, his take on the track sucks. (in my opinion, but this is a blog: everything is in my opinion!)

So I had to go back to the drawing board . The DMB amended rule of the Bob Dylan Cover Theory™ now states:

Everyone who has ever covered a Bob Dylan song has given it a fresh new life.

Judging from the Youtube comments, that DMB version has some fans, so I think this works. Same caveat concerning “everyone” though.

And I still stand by part of my original theory: in a lot of cases, other artists have produced the definitive version of Dylan songs. And that, to me, is where the genius of Bob Dylan lies. His poetry knows no genre, and its universal appeal allows it to be adapted to many contexts. Likewise, his simple chord progressions, and minimalist arrangements make his songs the perfect chameleons: they can be adapted to any genre without feeling that the original is de-natured, because the original avoids committing to a specific genre. The weakness I perceive in his music is actually its greatest strength. Dylan’s music is able to absorb the DNA of the artist playing it, and lets itself be adopted.

So, do I like Dylan? Hell yeah! But if possible, give me a good cover. 🙂

For a truckload of good Dylan adaptations (marred by the aforementioned DMB one), check out this 2012 compilation: Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan You can also check this reviewer’s idea of the 50 best Dylan covers.

Here are some of my favourite Dylan covers. What are yours?

http://youtu.be/zxO0t9ClfrI

And some really surprising ones:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3QYNsxYzhs

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Jean-Frederic Vachon

Manager in the video game industry by day, rock journalist by night, Jean-Frédéric fills every waking moment of his life with music. Diary of a Music Addict is the little corner of the Internet he's claimed for himself to share his passion with the world.

He's also a regular contributor at the very rad site Montreal Rampage
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2 thoughts on “The Bob Dylan Cover Theory

  1. Great article on a very interesting topic. Thanks for it! I enjoyed reading it immensely. I tend to agree with a few examples (as in these lines: “All Along the Watchtower? Jimi Hendrix please. Knocking on Heaven’s Door? Give me some Guns ‘n Roses for that … . Lots of people would also point to the Peter, Paul & Mary version of Blowin’ in the Wind as another example, or The Byrds‘s take on Mr Tambourine Man.”), and I fully agree with your conclusion to the effect that Dylan’s genius shines in the fact that his “music is able to absorb the DNA of the artist playing it, and lets itself be adopted”. But as a die-hard Bob Dylan fan, I (of course! lol) strongly disagree with the following assertion: “IN A LOT OF CASES, other artists have produced the definitive version of Dylan songs”. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of masterpieces by Dylan, and only a fraction of those have been given a better reddition by someone other than the master himself. For instance, almost every song on Blood on the Tracks is a stroke of sheer genius, and none of them has been given (to my knowledge and own personal taste at least) a cover version that is better than the original version.

    • I’ll admit that I generalized a little, and that my conclusion is highly dependant on your general appreciation for Bob Dylan. And I should have addressed the fact that not all of his songs have been extensively covered. But I really feel that many of his songs are more enjoyable being played by other artists. (Maybe using the word “definitive” is too superlative?)

      As for Blood on the Tracks, I’m not an expert, but I’ll point to Ed Roland’s version of Shelter From the Storm on the Chimes of Freedom album as superior in my opinion. And I’ll admit defeat in the case of Tangled Up in Blue. There aren’t that many covers of it on iTunes, and none top the original.

      It’s a good thing I softened up my original theory! 😉

      Thanks for the great comments Martin!

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