By Jochen Markhorst
When Sonny Bono dies after a skiing accident in 1998, he is still the only member of parliament in the history of the American House of Representatives with a number one hit (“I Got You Babe”) – plus numerous top 20 hits. Bono is co-author of “Needles And Pins”, for example, and, in addition to the many hits with Cher, scores one solo hit (“Laugh At Me”, ’65). And of course he writes the world wide hit that will become the epitaph on his sober gravestone: “And The Beat Goes On”.
In politics his name lives on in the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, better known as the Sonny Bono Act or under the mock name Mickey Mouse Protection Act. President Clinton signed the law in October 1998, nine months after Bono’s death, thereby extending copyright protection by twenty years – the work of an artist is now protected for seventy years after his death.
It is somewhat ironic though, Sonny Bono’s zeal for the protection of copyrights. He himself usually has little restraint when citing from other people’s work, not always with reference to the source, and that also applies to his inspiration.
After the success of The Byrds with “Mr. Tambourine Man”, for example, he keeps a close eye on what McGuinn and his colleagues are doing in the studio. While The Byrds are still busy mixing up another Dylan cover, “All I Really Want To Do”, he and his Cher rush down in a headlong haste to record their own version, with only one important quality requirement: the single must precede the one by The Byrds in the store. It does, however, not alter the fact that he is indeed a great, original, musical talent and really deserves a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The committee that has to decide on the bill, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary of the 104th Congress, hears proponents and opponents and reads written statements, including from Bob Dylan. Dylan declares that he is in favour of an extension, because the prospect that his heirs can benefit from his work longer encourages creation.
That sounds rather thin. It is quite unlikely that Dylan will write fewer songs if his heirs can benefit from them for 20 years less, or suddenly feels an extra incentive if that period is extended. Note: the deadline already was fifty years, so if Dylan should die in, say, 2020, “Blowin ‘In The Wind” would have been a golden goose for his great-great-grandchildren until 2070, 108 years after creation, which will now be 2090, so 128 years.
In addition to that rather thin argument, there is a ethical sore point. After all, the self-proclaimed thief of thoughts owes a substantial part of his colossal catalog to the creativity of others. “Blowin’ In The Wind”, for example, itself is a reworking of the old slave song “No More Auction Block”, which Dylan himself reveals with so many words (in a radio interview with journalist Marc Rowland, 1978). But Dylan makes no attempt to trace the heirs of the song’s author, or of any other song from which he “borrows”, for that matter; his engagement with copyright is not too idealistic.
Dylan’s move to a legal superpower in itself also raises some eyebrows. Judges, jurists and lawyers are Dylanesque archetypes in his songs – the legal profession is actually an overrepresented field in his catalog.
The judges are corrupt and abuse their power (“Seven Curses”, “High Water”), they are cruel and sadistic (“Percy’s Song”, “Jokerman”), disdainful (“Joey”) and simply unjust (“George Jackson”, “The Death Of Emmett Till”). The artist Dylan trusts the judiciary far less than the private person and the businessman Dylan does. The latter regularly goes to court if he thinks his interests are threatened and now does not hesitate to go to lawmakers, senators and congressmen to safeguard the commercial stakes of his still unborn great-grandchildren.
Conversely, from the judicial side, admiration and love for the artist Dylan is towering. Dylan is the only songwriter who is even quoted in statements from the Supreme Court of the United States. In 2008, Chief Justice John Roberts quotes – not quite literally – “Like A Rolling Stone”: When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose and his colleague Antonin Scalia follows two years later by writing in a judgment: “The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty ”
In courts and tribunals of a lower echelon than the Supreme Court, it is not uncommon that lyrics penetrate the idiom of both lawyers and judges, and there Dylan is also by far the most cited artist. The well-known verse line You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows from “Subterrenean Homesick Blues” is used countless times to reject witness statements and experts who just come to state the obvious. A New York court is unimpressed by a lawyer’s plea and replies that his defense amounts to “It ain’t me, babe,” and just as dry-humorous is the judge who is struggling to understand a plaintiff’s 40-page complaint and gives up. His written rejection of the case opens with the words from “Ballad Of A Thin Man”: Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?
So songs from the canon, mainly – “Blowin” In The Wind” is perhaps the most cited song – but occasionally a more obscure song comes along. When a father loses a custody case, he complains with a quote from “Hurricane” (All of Ruben’s cards were marked in advance / The trial was a pig circus, he never had a chance), the Indiana Supreme Court resorts to “Long Time Gone” to underline the right of the judicial body in this case: “A family court judge’s task is not easy, but it is terribly important, and at the end of the day those judges remember children’s faces best.”
“Most Likely You Go Your Way” is the twelfth Dylan song in which a judge comes along, and once again he is not a friendly, wise magistrate: he is an unstable, haughty (he “walks on stilts”), resentful boss, who will call or even “fall on you”.
The passage about that judge can be found in the bridge and is the only part of the song that is ambiguous and colourful. The surrounding couplets and the chorus are remarkably unpainted – it’s the Beatles’ idiom of Rubber Soul, the vocabulary and theme of “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You”, the songs in which Paul McCartney says goodbye to his sweetheart Jane Asher. Dylan does the same here, to an unidentifiable lady.
“Probably written after some disappointing relationship,” he records in the booklet to Biograph, “where, you know, I was lucky to have escaped without a broken nose.”
The musical accompaniment is not too complex either. On The Cutting Edge we can follow the evolution: starting out as a pleasantly strolling tune, in which guitarist Robbie Robertson, apparently also inspired by the Beatles-like couplets, sounds like George Harrison. Charlie McCoy opts for a slightly silly polka party accompaniment on the bass, and after the second take the song is already fixed. There we also hear Charlie McCoy’s trumpet, who achieves the impressive tour de force to play bass and trumpet at the same time. Dylan initially rejects the trumpet part because he does not like overdubs. McCoy tackles that problem, as Al Kooper remembers in his superb autobiography Backstage Passes And Backstabbing Bastards:
“There was a little figure after each chorus that he wanted to put in on trumpet, but Dylan was not fond of overdubbing. It was a nice lick, too. Simple, but nice. Now Charlie was already playing bass on the tune. So we started recording and when that section came up, he picked up a trumpet in his right hand and played the part while he kept the bass going with his left hand without missing a lick in either hand. Dylan stopped in the middle of the take and just stared at him in awe.”
Because that stunt distracts him too much, Dylan asks if McCoy can stand behind a curtain while he sings.
Equally remarkable are the lyrics of the middle eight: initially just as straightforward as the rest of the song:
Now, over in the corner there you sit
You know he’s gonna call on you
But he’s badly built
And he walks on stilts
And he might fall on you
Apparently the poet feels the lack of a surrealistic touch. The following takes are interrupted each time before the bridge is reached, and on the sixth, final take suddenly that vindictive judge steps onto the stage.
It is a nice, driving blues rocker with funky accents, but the master doesn’t feel too much love for it after that successful recording. He ignores the song for eight years, until it is fully restored from 1974 onwards. At the first performances, January ’74, it is the bouncer, but soon it becomes both the opening ánd the bouncer of the shows. The beautiful live album Before The Flood also opens with a driven, dynamic performance of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”. After that Dylan puts the song on ice again, but from 1989 on it returns to the set list almost every year; he has played it more than three hundred times by now.
In between the song reaches some cult status when in 2007 Dylan allows the producer Mark Ronson to make a remix, intended to promote the compilation Dylan. Striking, because Dylan hardly ever allows that (the only other is the remix of “Like A Rolling Stone” by the Italian hip-hop collective Articolo 31, for the soundtrack of the Dylan vehicle Masked And Anonymous, 2003). Ronson restrains himself, mainly fiddling with the wind instruments and drums and creates a very swinging, soulful update from one of the crown jewels of Blonde On Blonde. Ronson’s approach is certainly not uncontroversial in fan circles and among music journalists, but the accompanying video clip can appeal to a broad audience; a beautiful, melancholic, moving walk through half a century of Dylan, perfectly produced.
Most covers are true to the original. Both the trumpet and the martial drums of Kenny Buttrey are often copied one on one, as well as the tempo. Only the early birds (1967) The Yardbirds ignite the turbo and reach the end almost a minute earlier – and that doesn’t do the song any good. Patti LaBelle, on the other hand, opts for a stretched performance, with thumping, winding funk bass, fantastic wind instruments and a cheerful piano part. Halfway she risks overproduction, but she switches back just in time. LaBelle also knows how to smirk, and at the end it even sounds as if Wanda Jackson herself is taking over (on her debut album LaBelle, 1977).
The Dutchman Gerry van der Laan is certainly distinctive in terms of arrangement; he limits himself to an acoustic guitar and dresses the song in a Jim Croce jacket. Nice, although the souce completely evaporates from such an approach.
Closer to the source remains the British progrock collective Hard Meat with a heavy, Teutonic approach plus Kinks-like guitar on their flopped debut album from 1970. Illuminated with psychedelic details, and still light years away from the thin mercury sound, of course, but it has an antiquarian charm.
This also applies, bizarrely, to Thomas Cohen’s contribution to the Mojo project, the Blonde On Blonde Revisited tribute disc (2016); Cohen’s contribution sounds like a recovered outtake from It’s A Beautiful Day or another random West Coast psychedelic rock band from, say,1971.
No, the little adventurous veteran Robben Ford is still the most enjoyable. Made his name as a guitarist for Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis and George Harrison, among others, but this time the major role is for a corny supermarket organ – only in the last minute he demonstrates a fraction of his skills on the six strings (on Bringing It Back Home, 2013). Let’s hope he paid the copyright.