by Jochen Markhorst
With his first band, he’s already taken to the studio of famous producer Joe Meek (for an inelegant, cutesy recording of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”, 1964). When Swingin’ London gets into the grip of psychedelics, Howe is at the forefront with the legendary one-hit-fly Tomorrow (from the underground hit “My White Bicycle”, 1968) and on the eve of their world fame, he accepts the invitation to join Yes. The Yes Album, his first album as a member of Yes, is the commercial breakthrough, successor Fragile (1971) the artistic highlight.
In the ’80s he still fills stadiums with the “super group” Asia, after which Howe allows himself to go as him pleases. Solo projects here, reunions there and the occasional remarkable guest appearance – he’s the only guitarist ever (except Brian May, obviously) to play on a Queen record; that flamenco solo on “Innuendo” is Steve Howe.
An impressive career, in short, but apparently no overlap with the Dylan universe. Surprising therefore is Howe’s declaration of love from 1999: Portraits Of Bob Dylan, a respectful fan collection of twelve Dylan covers. Recorded with a star cast of guest musicians, of which especially the violation of Allan Clarke’s restraining order catches the eye. After the disastrous Hollies Sing Dylan (1968), the universal, tacit agreement was in fact that Clarke could never come near a Dylan song again. Here he sings Don’t Think Twice, and he doesn’t revenge himself – his rendition is just as saltless as the rest of the record.
This one particular skill then, the ability to interpret a Dylan song in a catchy, enriching way, Howe does not have, unfortunately. However, his love is real and deep, Dylan is under his skin. He calls his first child Dylan, for example, and in interviews he likes to sprinkle with Dylan quotes. Like at the eternal question as to when Yes will finally be accepted in The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame:
“I don’t lose any sleep over that. I’ve got a mess of gold albums, lots of awards. I’ve been top guitarist. I can be proud if I wanted to be but I’m very pleased with what we’ve done. As Bob Dylan says: I wouldn’t crawl across cut glass to make a deal.”
The quote is from “Sweetheart Like You”, one of the most beautiful Dylan songs from the lean 80s. Lyrically, the grand master is back on top here; after the poetically less successful lyrics on the trio preceding evangelical records, Dylan brings hope back into the hearts of the fans with Infidels (1983). The opener “Jokerman” already is very satisfying, number two Sweetheart equals that.
The text marks both a break in style and a return to old values. Just like for example in “Visions Of Johanna”, the words suggest that a story is being told here, but the content is so fragmentary that a plot cannot be discovered. The image of a café scene looms up vaguely, in which the slightly inebriated narrator, hanging at the bar, has reached a rosy state of candour. His attempts to flirt, lines like what’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this, are clumsy and worn down. However, the verses have an epic, evocative power, in which the choice of words heralds a familiar characteristic in Dylan’s oeuvre: paraphrase is the stylistic tool.
A first test of this can already be seen in “Heart Of Mine” (1981) and it suits well, apparently. In album opener “Jokerman” the poet continues with classical quotes like fools rush in where angels fear to tread (originally by Alexander Pope, 1709), in Sweetheart the paraphrases really start flowing. So far, we have come to know the poet Dylan as a sponge, fruitfully influenced by admired artists. From the 1980s onwards, he allows the influences to be traced back, almost unedited, directly to his lyrics – to an extent that will eventually lead to awkward plagiarism or inspiration discussions. This is less sensitive for the master himself. After all, he publicly declares himself to be a thief of thoughts as early as the early 1960s.
And he’s good at it. Under Dylan’s hands, other people’s side-lines blossom into aphorisms, giving them the power of a proverb or truism. Steal a little and they throw you in jail / Steal a lot and they make you a king is one. The American Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill wrote his sensational, taboo-breaking play “The Emperor Jones” in 1920: For the little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For the big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in the Hall o’ Fame when you croaks. O’Neill often hits a Dylan string, by the way. From the same drama the bard also snatches fragments for “Trouble” and for “Spirit On The Water”.
At least as quotable is the marble verse before this one, They say that patriotism is the last refuge / To which a scoundrel clings, and that too is a paraphrase, or rather a pimped up version of Samuel Johnson’s one-liner patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel (1775). The context of Dr. Johnson’s statement is unknown, but the impact is huge; it inspires centuries later films like The Dirty Dozen.
A similar proverbial quality has vanity got the best of him. It seems inspired by an old article in Life (May 27, ’66: “The Guru Comes To Kansas” by Barry Farrell). The article is a beautiful, thorough, almost poetic portrait of Dylan’s friend Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg is portrayed like this:
Allen Ginsberg is eating breakfast: sterile, plastic coated Danish pushed crumbling into great Hasidic beard, sips of tea pale as tears, molecules mating in gastric Oneness, sleepy visionary poet munching morning food of Kansas students in afternoon of campus cafe.
An excerpt that seems to be the inspiration for Pink Floyd’s “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, the closing song of 1970’s Atom Heart Mother. Which it isn’t, by the way – the title is derived from the background noise: band roadie Alan Styles preparing breakfast.
But another excerpt is undeniably influential:
Whenever his vanity got the best of him, nudging the poet out of control, Kerouac, his friend and advisor, would warn him of the danger and denounce him as “a hairy loss.” So, in 1961 he resolved to disappear into the Orient – for awhile, at least.
Ginsberg, Kerouac, Dylan is mentioned too, plus the exact same expression and the subsequent “leaving in style” or “leaving after sundown” … certainly not watertight, but much too distinctive to be coincidental.
Apart from these and other reformulations, the connoisseurs get their money’s worth with Dylan originals as well. The witty heaven/hell reversal at the end is one of them, especially in the light of the rather rigid, humourless lyrics that the minstrel produced on the previous records. Different from the competition up in Heaven, one gets upon entering in hell, as we now learn, not a harp to pluck, but one you play until your lips bleed – a mouth harp that is. Dylan does not suddenly turn away completely, though; in your father’s house there’s many mansions is a Bible paraphrase (“In my Father’s house are many mansions,” John 14:2).
The studio version is beautiful. The outtakes, including a slower, yet livelier version, are also very enjoyable, but the combination of the two guitar heroes Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on the chosen recording is phenomenal – especially the ex-Rolling Stone’s guitar solo lifts the already exceptional song even higher. Taylor is undoubtedly inspired by his introduction to the undisputed masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell”, a week earlier. That particular song has gotten under his skin – his cover is beautiful (on A Stone’s Throw, 1999) and live it’s been in his Top 5 of most played songs for three decades now (the Stones classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is number one).
Beautiful covers of Sweetheart most certainly exist, but there is not much to improve. Dylan’s vocals are exceptionally good, the accompanying band, with the unsurpassed Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare as rhythm section can hardly be matched. The extremely talented Dylan disciple Jimmy LaFave comes very close, both live and in the studio (on Buffalo Return To The Plains, 1995).
Rod Stewart’s singing is theatrical and overdone, but he has a breathtaking band behind him. And the live version by The Blessing is a soulful, exciting exercise. Few ladies venture into it, perhaps because of the dubious, rather sexist third verse, but still: Judy Collins overstretches.
The only one who really knows how to step out of Dylan’s shadow is Guy Davis. Splendid arrangement (with double bass and accordion) and, above all, sweltering performance art – Davis is that slightly inebriated barfly. On the record of the same name from 2009.
That guitar, by the way, Steve Howe hadn’t improved either.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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