Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan
Various artists
2012

What was the first rock ’n’ roll song? Scholars debate “Rocket 88” (1951) vs. “Rock Around the Clock” (1955). As if! The first rock ’n’ roll song was obviously “Please Please Me” (1963), because that was the first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned.

I have no memory of how “Please Please Me” entered my little world. The perp might’ve been one of my younger, hipper aunts, the one who could correctly identify Jerry Lee Lewis and The Beach Boys. The record could also have come from my father’s only known visit to a record store. In the wake of The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on Ed Sullivan, my dad, Run-DMIrving, went in search of music that would appeal to Young People, as he had three of them at home. At the store, Dad (who cries every time he hears Mike Douglas sing “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life”) was advised by two teenage girls and returned with a stack of 45s: The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Glenn Miller leading his band in “Moonlight Serenade,” Liberace leading an assault on Mozart, nursery rhymes, country songs about prisons and coffee, something about a purple people eater, and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” I don’t know who those girls were, but I’ll bet they’re the ones who invented satellite radio.

I quickly lost the paper sleeve to “Please Please Me,” but we had crayoned all over it anyway. We probably tried the same trick on the black-and-silver inner label. Then, to completely erase the value of this artifact, I played it repeatedly on our 1940s-era turntable. The tone-arm tracked at a sure-footed 10 pounds and you could imagine if not actually see slivers of vinyl curling up in the wake of the needle. This record rests in peace today inside the huge console phonograph my parents bought in 1970, sandwiched between the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof and Grand Funk Railroad’s Closer to Home.

Whatever your choice for the first rock ’n’ roll record, no one back then would have believed that anyone could make a living for 50 years in this business. Most bands never have a hit and most of the ones that do have only one. But here’s Bob Dylan in 2012 with 50 years of music behind him, still touring, still recording, and still holding the attention of fans, critics, scholars, and idiot bloggers.

Amnesty International is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tribute to Bob Dylan: Chimes of Freedom. This is an enormous block of music, four CDs in its initial release and two CDs in a follow-up from Starbucks. Because I’m not a fan of Dylan, I opted for the set I could buy at my neighborhood Starbucks, which also gave me an excuse to buy a cranberry-orange scone.

Run-DMSteve vs. Bob Dylan
I admit I have made a few comments about Dylan that have not been entirely positive. However, it doesn’t matter what I think of the music of Bob Dylan or the films of Bob Dylan or the art of Bob Dylan or the many religions of Bob Dylan or the man Bob Dylan. What does matter is that the only artists who have had a greater influence on popular music in the past 50 years were John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Dylan deserves all the acclaim he gets, though he probably doesn’t deserve Ke$ha covering “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” which is what happens if you buy the four-CD version. I’d rather hear Lady Gaga take a swing at “Lay Lady Lay,” but I regret that that one only exists in my head.

The Starbucks Chimes of Freedom is not a history of Dylan’s career. More than half of this set is from the 1960s, with most of those songs from two albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’. Well, those are two pretty good albums, even if they leave the final g off their verbs. Starbucks also omitted “Lay Lady Lay,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” most of Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire, and everything he’s recorded since 1997’s Time Out of Mind.

What this is is a series of loving tributes. Unfortunately, while the 31 artists from around the world are undeniably talented (not counting Sting), most of them are way too loving. An air of reverence, almost as if they’re asking for permission, inhibits them from cutting loose and owning the song they’ve been assigned. No one goes head-to-head with Dylan à la Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Beck’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”

It doesn’t help that several people tried to imitate Dylan’s voice. I can hear that from any street-corner musician on my lunch break. Two tracks from Blonde on Blonde suffer this fate. Mick Hucknall of Simply Red does a pretty good Dylan on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and the Israeli Oren Lavie proves on “4th Time Around” that he can imitate Dylan and Leonard Cohen simultaneously. This is not an evolutionary advantage.

Here’s what good
Joan Baez sings “Seven Curses,” a track that was dropped from the Freewheelin’ album. I’m astounded by the purity of her voice, as she’s been around as long as Dylan. Airborne Toxic Event gives us a memorable “Boots of Spanish Leather,” though the chorus threatens to slide into “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” K’Naan, a Somalian rapper, works against an intrusive string section to transform “With God on Our Side” into a heartfelt foot-tapper. Raphael Saadiq (from the USA) is no Beck, but I like how he turns “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” into a languid honky-tonk.

Then there’s RedOne, a Moroccan who produced Lady Gaga, and Nabil Khayat, who is from Lebanon and who otherwise is a mystery to me. Their version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” rewards more than one listen, despite the echo of the 1993 Guns N’ Roses version.

Patti Smith gives “Drifter’s Escape” a real country flavor, befitting one of the gems from  John Wesley Harding but something I wouldn’t have expected from her. Diana Krall does a lot with “Simple Twist of Fate,” one of only two songs here from Blood on the Tracks. The reverence that undercuts others somehow works for her.

Mexico’s Ximena Sarinana is an actress and a singer, like Zooey Deschanel but with a more appealing voice. She turns “I Want You” into a cross between a low-budget carnival and a high school march. Mariachi El Bronx’s “Love Sick” is fun but slow, as is the Silversun Pickups’ rendition of “Not Dark Yet,” which is dreamy and U2-like without U2’s ability to floor it.

Kris Kristofferson’s “Quinn the Eskimo” is so singular, it’s too weird to listen to a second time!

The trouble with big names
Just because you recruit a famous artist to interpret the song of another famous artist doesn’t mean you’re going to wind up with something famous. What bigger name is there than Johnny Cash? His duet with Dylan on Nashville Skyline’s “Girl From the North Country” was the highlight of that monumental album. Here he sings another ’60s favorite, “One Too Many Mornings,” but he’s in the harness with a North Carolina folk duo named The Avett Brothers. The Avetts play well, and they sing OK, but OK isn’t good enough when you’re standing side by side with Johnny Cash, mister.

Seal is a British soul singer; Jeff Beck is a Stone Age guitar god and jazz-fusion pioneer. They were assigned the most awesome Bob Dylan song ever, “Like a Rolling Stone” (#1 on Rolling Stones’ list of the top 500 songs of all time). Sadly, combining Seal’s voice, which is brassy and opaque, with Beck’s guitar playing, which is fast and furious, gets us just about nowhere. But they’re livelier than their cohorts Pete Townshend, Bryan Ferry, Mark Knopfler, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Adele, and Jackson Browne. These folks are simply uninteresting, except for Jackson Browne, who also manages to be irritating.

Ziggy Marley does fine with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and if I liked reggae I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed it.

Bottom of the barrel
The one irredeemable track comes to us courtesy of Sting: “Girl From the North Country.” I can’t tell if Sting is serious, if Sting is kidding, or if Sting has a head cold. Somewhere in the middle his mind wanders and he strays dangerously close to Simon & Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will.” I can forgive him for his cover of “Little Wing” on Nothing Like the Sun, but this means war.

In a category by themselves
The Dave Matthews Band’s core competency is sanitized rock ’n’ roll. They always make me think of the ribbon of white paper you have to break to use the toilet in your motel room. They were assigned “All Along the Watchtower,” and I don’t envy them having to walk in Dylan’s and Hendrix’s footsteps. But what I heard on this track was the Dave Matthews Band deciding to have fun in their doofus Dave Matthews way.

And they do! Dave’s voice sounds as if it’s been filtered through a kaleidoscope, and there’s some inane horn-playing and scat-singing, but this is one of their few songs that I’ve ever listened to all the way through. I especially liked the part where they flirted with “Stairway to Heaven.” The song ends like a car full of crash-test dummies.

Consumer report
There’s something inherently wrong with these multi-decade career retrospectives. I can’t figure out who listens to these things. If you love Bob Dylan, do you love him in every one of his decades? If you agree with Dylan that everyone must get stoned, do you want to hear his Christian music? If you were attracted to Dylan by his conversion to Christianity, how will he win you over with the rest of his oeuvre? It seems to me that tributes work best when the band didn’t change much over the years (Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode), didn’t last long (The Smiths), or when the artists are covering a single album (This Bird Has Flown, the 40th-anniversary salute to Rubber Soul).

Enough philosophizing. Dylan never fails to provoke, and how many pop artists can say the same after 50 years? Or even five? If you adore Bob Dylan, buy the four-CD set. As for Starbucks, every now and then they come up with a winner. Unfortunately, their Chimes of Freedom isn’t one of them. Everybody must get sconed? No, those aren’t good for you either.

I’ll see you in 2062 for the 100th anniversary tribute to Dylan, featuring Grand Dame Gaga, Yo-Yo Ma 2.0, Clone McCartney, Sir Justin Bieber, Adele (looking for a do-over), and probably Sting.

Comments
  1. Jerry Kaufman says:

    I have the four-disc version, as well as a MOJO cover-mount CD of yet more people covering Dylan. I should have lots to say, but will probably wait until I’ve listened more times. I am a fan of Dylan’s voice in the 1960s and 1970s – although not the Nashville period – but have never warmed up much to the music he’s written more recently. Frequently I buy the newest album, listen a few times, then recycle.

    On Patti Smith, I am not surprised by her cover, as on one of her own albums she covered “The wicked Messenger,” with much the same approach.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I concur with my learned colleague regarding Dylan’s voice. After Blood on the Tracks (1975), I lost interest in Dylan, just as I lost interest in the Rolling Stones after Tattoo You (1981). I’ve tried some of his later albums, but like you I end up walking away from them. But Dylan is one of those rare artists who speaks to different generations with different voices. It doesn’t take anything away from him to say that you only listen to one decade of his music, because how many musicians can offer you a whole decade? As for his Nashville period, I dislike country music, but I enjoy John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. I’m kind of baffling that way.

  2. MisterSeaside says:

    WEAR YOUR LOVE LIKE HEAVEN

    “Allah kiss me once more
    That I may, that I may
    Wear my love like heaven……..” Donovan

    Interesting that some lyric websites replace “Allah” (which I believe is in the original lyrics only one time?) with the typical “Lord” usage in the song.
    Sign of the times, sadly.

  3. MisterSeaside says:

    Steve-Nice Mr. Zimmerman Tribute, in a round-a-bout way. I know that it was hard for you to write, given your (in the past and probably present day) dismissal of Dylan’s fine voice and a multitude of other winning but under appreciated attributes. Yeah, he did/does pretty fine for someone who at a very young musical age just wanted “to do something important in life, like plant a tree on the ocean.” Props to an artist, in this overzealous world, that has the personhood to change when he needs to so as to remain honest. And the balls to try on another face from time to time…just to see how it fits.

    Mr. SS

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I have immense respect for Bob Dylan. (But not for his voice.) I was genuinely disappointed by this tribute, as I wanted something better for him. That’s a great quote about the tree and the ocean! It doesn’t matter how old you are — it’s never too late to do something important in life. I think I’ll plant a tree in my back yard.

  4. Number 9 says:

    Run-DMSteve – Thank you for buying this set so I don’t have to. You’ve told me everything I need to know. (You might want to fix that little typo at the top, as you obviously are aware that the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan was in 1964, not 1963.) Here’s an unrelated trivia question – in what Donovan song does he refer to “Allah”? It’s not obscure – I heard the song in the grocery store tonight. Really, I think the Donovan revival is about to hit.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I’m happy to perform this act of consumer activism, though I would’ve been happier if Starbucks had simply given me the CDs to review. Howard Schultz refused to do this and in fact pretended he didn’t know me. And after all those scones! Thanks for once again correcting my sense of history; you’re right, it was ’64, not ’63. My 9-year-old mind has forever linked JFK’s assassination with Ed Sullivan….I’m not going to thank you for mentioning Donovan, though it suddenly occurs to me that Donovan made Sting possible. I just felt a cold, cold chill.

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