When I was about 12 years old, I openly mocked my father for his love of Bob Dylan. I used to say things like, “He’s such a horrible singer and sounds like he’s gurgling glass.” One day, presumably tired of my inane, pedantic ramblings he turned to me and said, “You talk about him as if you’re the ultimate critic. When was the last time you really listened to what he was saying?” I only knew a few songs that played on the local oldies station, but I felt that was enough for me to condemn his complete discography. I admitted that I’d never really listened to what Dylan was saying.
He took his headphones placed them on my head and said, “Don’t pay attention to his voice, though it isn’t as bad as you think. Don’t listen to the melody, though it fits perfectly with what he’s trying to say. No, the important thing is the words, the lyrics, and his point. Listen to what he is saying. Listen intently to the point and don’t let that other bullshit sway you. If you can honestly say when you’re done listening that he isn’t the greatest writer music has ever seen then I’ll buy you whatever you want at the record store.”
I did as he said, convinced that I would be off to the store to buy the next N.W.A., Run DMC or Vanilla Ice tape, because I was something of a hip-hop kid (more of a wannabe in hindsight). He rewound The Times They Are a Changin’ to the beginning and I closed my eyes to fully take in what was being said. This was a bet I couldn’t lose or so I thought. It wove like a story of the ‘60s. I listened intently and felt myself being shamed with each passing word. I could almost see them floating through my mind’s eye as he mumbled his way through songs like “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
I fell in love with Bob Dylan instantaneously. I dove into everything he ever did and even loved his Christian phase somewhat. Bob Dylan is the center figure on my musical Mount Rushmore. That brings us to Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years Of Amnesty International, the 75 song anthology of Dylan with artists ranging from Silversun Pickups, Avett Brothers, Johnny Cash, Gaslight Anthem to Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Darren Criss and Adele. I’ll admit I delved into this apprehensively. There are some people who have no idea what good music sounds like (looking at you Ke$ha) and having them cover an artist of Dylan’s magnitude is borderline sacrilegious.
About Ke$ha, I was dead on, she’s terrible. She butchers a great song and really shouldn’t make music. Miley Cyrus’ version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” was surprisingly fantastic. The real quality comes from bands like the aforementioned Silversun Pickups, who still aren’t a household name yet, egregiously. Their version of “Not Dark Yet” from one of my favorite Dylan albums Time Out of Mind is the highlight of the album. It captures that feeling of acceptance and yet desperation in what he was trying to get across. Christopher Ricks author of Dylan's Visions of Sin says, "Dylan's refrain or burden is 'It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.' He bears it and bares it beautifully, with exquisite precision of voice, dry humor, and resilience, all these in the cause of fortitude at life's going to be brought to an end by death."
A few of the other highlights include Gaslight Anthem’s “Changing of the Guard,” a departure from the original that sounds so loud and anthemic (pun might be intended) that I had to search out the original Street Legal version to see if maybe Gaslight didn’t sneak a Springsteen song in. I like this version so much more than Dylan’s, others perform which isn’t surprising because many of the songs I adore by the poet better than he did.
For instance the Irish infused “Times They are A-Changin’” by punk rock’s resident Irishmen, Flogging Molly, is a high speed triumph of overcoming the bs social mores that to this day we are still suffering through. By making it a bit more modern they make it a bit more fun and concurrently relevant. My Morning Jacket, who has covered Dylan in the past, again is better than anyone realizes. Singing Blood on the Tracks brilliantly penned, “You’re a Big Girl Now” Jim James succinctly captures the spirit in which the song was meant to be sang. He has a way of making a song his own without ruining it beyond recognition (looking at you again Ke$ha).
Bad Religion’s, “Its All Over Now Baby Blue,” and Johnny Cash and the Avett Brothers doing a duet (don’t ask how) of “One Too Many Mornings” are highlights. For pop aficionados (are there really pop aficionados?) Adele is the best thing since marmalade on crumpets. “Make You Feel My Love” sounds like the beginning of an angry rapist’s anthem, but it’s really a sweet song and the Brit’s perfect pitch makes it even better. She has an amazing way of singing a song without going all Mariah Carey on it. Adele excels in the way that Dusty Springfield and even Diana Ross excelled. She has a diva voice without the diva attitude. It’s comforting to know that something in pop music is revolved around talent and I hope she comes back to full strength, because as you can see on this tune, she is absolutely mesmerizing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the band that came together by happenstance. The Airborne Toxic Event does a very nice job of covering one of my favorite Dylan songs of heartbreak, “Boots of Spanish Leather.” It really highlights Mikel Jollett’s voice, which is deep and verbose, but fitting with a song that tugs at the heartstrings of those that have ever tried a long distance relationship. The boy at home seems content to wait for his one true love to come home to him “unspoiled” and yet the girl insists on sending him a gift in attempt to assuage her from the guilt she undoubtedly feels for cheating on him. It’s a great version and haunting in its emotion.
This is the reason this album works. Music is all about interpretation. How does the listener interpret the lyrics? How does the artist interpret the lyrics and music and impart that to the listener? Especially when covering a song. It’s not enough to merely sing the lyrics like Ke$ha. The artist must feel the song, impart that feeling to the listener and have some connection to the song. What does it mean to you? Because if you’re just singing without feeling then you might as well be reading a passage from Mitt Romney’s book. For $20, it’s a steal for the amount of quality you really do get and the profits go to a good cause.
It’s albums like this that I wonder, with the eleventh anniversary of my father’s passing is a few short weeks away, what he would have thought of today’s artists? Would I have had that same opportunity to tell him about bands like he told me about Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles later work? Would I have been able to talk music with him in a way that many fathers and sons talk about sports (we could’ve talked about that too)? My tastes in music are derived from him. I fell in love with words because of my father’s influence. I fell in love with music because my father stood over my shoulder and said, “What is he saying?” and if I didn’t know he’d tell me to repeat lyrics and define them. He wanted me to know what I was repeating like some trained seal. Sometimes, I like to think that he still hangs there over my shoulder gently nudging me towards one artist and away from another helping me remember that time when it wasn't dark yet, but it was getting there.