by Jochen Markhorst
There are thousands and thousands of Dylan covers, and a small percentage of them are worth listening to. And a small percentage of this small percentage steps out of the shadow of Dylan’s own version and achieve what a cover should achieve; it enriches the original. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” is one of the best examples, and there really aren’t that many more examples, despite those thousands and thousands of attempts.
The cover artist has a greater chance of success, as a tour along the covers shows, with songs that never left the sketching phase. For the treasure hunter there are dozens of Dylan songs that the master himself never let mature in the rehearsal room, never performed on stage, never really refined or finished. There is of course a hard core of Dylan fans who stick to the slightly dramatic adage Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan, but the vast majority of the music-loving community is very happy with the beauty that artists like The Byrds, Jack Johnson, Derek Trucks or Sinéad O’Connor find in Dylan’s odds and ends.
The Basement Tapes are a true treasure trove in that category, which has been sufficiently proven. “Quinn The Eskimo” is little more than some droll little ditty until it is elevated by Manfred Mann to the monument that it has since become. “Clothes Line Saga” is a corny, deliberate monotonous joke and has long been forgotten, until The Roches’ sisters polish it up and reveal that the song contains a sparkling jewel. “Crash On The Levee”, “Please Mrs. Henry”, “This Wheel’s On Fire”… all of them raw gems with a deeper beauty that is only uncovered later by the colleagues (and occasionally also by Dylan himself).
The height that The Roches and Manfred Mann are able to achieve is matched by Jim James, who, together with the men of Calexico, takes care of the wallflower “Goin” To Acapulco”. Their contribution to the Dylan film I’m Not There (2007) is one of the undisputed highlights, partly because director Todd Haynes places the song in a sensational, surrealistic context.
The Dylan character, in this excerpt played by Richard Gere, walks observingly into a village during the American Civil War. The atmosphere is chaotic. On the left and right, dozens of civilians, frantically dressed fairground customers and tired soldiers hurry somewhere. A giraffe walks stiffly through the image. The flow of people is concentrated in front of a music chapel, an ostrich strolls along. Then everything comes to a breathless halt when Jim James’s unearthly voice blares across the village: “I’m going down to Rose Marie’s.”
The stage of the chapel is filled with musicians who looted Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band’s wardrobe. The nostalgia seeps from their stage presentation and from the music they play. An older couple seeks comfort when two men raise an open coffin on the same stage; the corpse of a young woman, still a girl, who seems to be looking with eyes open, quite celestially, over the spectators to the Heavenly Kingdom. Solemn, sad attention binds the so diverse bystanders.
Director Haynes is, that much is clear, not only inspired by Greil Marcus’s weird old America, but apparently also by Dylan’s alienating statements about “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. Still full of the mercury beauty of that song, Dylan hails it as “religious carnival music”.
A hard-to-follow qualification. Some religious symbolism and devout devotion may be found (but far too little to justify the label religious), and wherein the artist thinks to hear carnival is mysterious. Just as challenging as it is to get a clear picture Dylan’s mysterious classification; religious is a state of soul or spirit, carnival or funfair appeals to sensual, carnal pleasures.
But behold: when Jim James’ rendition, Dylan’s song and Haynes’ images come together, then we are there indeed: religious carnival music.
Most commentators point out the scabrous nature of the protagonist’s visit to Rose Marie, which then has the character of a visit to a prostitute; he “blows his plums”, “scratches his meat”, “gets something quick to eat” and “has some fun”. Not all of them are unambiguous, and some metaphors are rather eccentric, but the overall idea is pretty clear – he ain’t here for a cup of tea.
Dylan’s recital, however, adds a deeper dimension, and Jim James does reinforce it. The rendition is dramatic, rather a Job-like lamentation than the roar of an overexcited john. This is a lonely, unhappy soul seeking salvation. And he does not turn to some cheap harlot, but to Rose Marie, Maria, Our Lady with the Roses, who is always good for him. Probably the same Maria as in “Just Like A Woman” (Queen Mary, she’s my friend, I believe I’ll go see her again).
The poet does seem to steer in that direction, before publishing the lyrics, first in The Songs Of Bob Dylan 1966-1975 and later in Lyrics (1985), as he deletes, adds and scraps quite a lot from the most ambiguous passages. Thus the lines of text with the alcohol and the juicy fruit disappear,
I can blow my plums, and drink my rum,
and go on home and have my fun,
… and get replaced by
If the wheel don’t drop and the train don’t stop
I’m bound to meet the sun,
…with which the poet makes it a lot harder to discern filth. And a lot clearer that the protagonist is on his way to enlightenment. Likewise, the dubious meat scratching does not survive Dylan’s prudish second look;
I’m just the same as anyone else,
When it comes to scratching for my meat
… is rewritten into
I’m standing outside the Taj Mahal
I don’t see no one around,
… meaning that the wooer is suddenly no longer on the way to a house of pleasure, but is languishing lonely in front of the world’s most famous monument in memory of a lost love. On the other hand: the ambiguous goin’ to have some fun is maintained. In the chorus, the poet only changes soft gut into fat gut, for unclear reasons – both unusual expressions evoke an unsavoury abdominal girth.
The interventions are neither poetic nor narrative defensible, but the censor does succeed in increasing the ambiguity of the song. Now, on paper, “Goin’ To Acapulco” is already almost this religious carnival music, and Todd Haynes and Jim James provide the final push. Dylan the song composer delivers the beautiful melody and the misty poetry, Jim James the sacred, heartbreaking recital and Todd Haynes that mesmerizing setting, in which a multi-coloured group of birds of paradise and Biedermeiers is united in a grand, churchly devotion for something higher.
Credit also deserves the accompaniment. The men of Calexico equal the original with their modest, slow backing and still surpass the expressiveness with the use of wind instruments from the first chorus.
Even more than the Basement version, this cover inspires the professional confrères. The idiosyncratic Bonnie “Prince’ Billy, the most famous alter ego of Dylan fan Will Oldham, moves the entire song to Bourbon Street by dressing it in an attractive New Orleans jacket and turning the pace even further down, to a funeral march pace. To be found as a B-track on the beautiful EP Lay & Love (2006), which also features a uncommonly intimate, sober cover of “Señor”.
And Chris Robinson, the former frontman of the Black Crowes, who for years now is distinguishing himself with loving and glittering Dylan covers, plays a beautiful, dragging “Goin’ To Acapulco” a dozen times in 2015 and 2016 with his brethren of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Robinson seems to have the ambition to fill the empty space that the regretted Jerry Garcia has left behind. Not only in appearance – Robinson is gradually developing a large, full, fluffy beard that is starting to turn grey – but also with regard to the melodic and often long, drawn-out versions of well-known and less well-known Dylan songs. Robinson’s “Time Passes Slowly” is unsurpassed, for example. And also his Jerry Garcian tackling of Acapulco is memorable – most of his performances clock over fourteen minutes, and are compelling until the last, usually awkwardly dying away, second. The performance in San Rafael, December 30, 2016, where the Brotherhood fills a complete live set with Dylan and Grateful Dead covers, offers a wonderful rendition.
Goin’ To Acapulco starts at 28’10”
You might also enjoy “The 100 Greatest Cover Versions of Dylan songs” selected by readers of this site.
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