by Jochen Markhorst
In his highly entertaining autobiography 31 Songs, Nick Hornby devotes Chapter 7 to the favourite from his teens: Rod Stewart. Rod Stewart, he argues almost apologetically, is the equivalent of Oasis in the early 1970s – you absolutely did not have to be ashamed of the man who recorded Every Picture Tells A Story and Smiler. The embarrassment comes later, with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and the endless line of Britt Ekland lookalikes and the straw hats and “Ole Ola”, the 1978 Scottish World Cup song. But before that, however, Hornby argues, the records with The Faces and Stewart’s subsequent first five solo records, before 1975, Rod is absolutely fine.
On those first solo albums Dylan is a common thread. Stewart records beautiful covers of “Only A Hobo” (on Gasoline Alley, 1970), “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” (Every Picture Tells A Story, 1971), “Mama You Been On Mind” (Never A Dull Moment, 1972) and “Girl From The North Country” (Smiler, 1974).
And as the best example thereof, Hornby chooses Stewart’s interpretation of “Mama, You Been On My Mind”. One of the points Hornby wants to make is: that version is more moving, elevates the original, “Stewart’s reverence seems to dignify it, invest it with an epical quality Dylan denies it.”. With this, Hornby builds a bridge to Chapter 8, about Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window”, in which he already confesses in the third line, slightly provocatively: “I’m not a Dylan fan”. But, as he nuances in the following paragraphs, he finds to his own surprise that he has more than 20 Dylan CDs (“In fact I own more recordings by Dylan than by any other artist”), he must admit that he has much more pointless Dylan knowledge available than he has of, say, Shakespeare and he cherishes, Like “anyone who likes music” the three mid-60s albums plus Blood On The Tracks and Hornby launches the very quotable hit “there’s a density and a gravity to a Dylan song that you can’t find anywhere else”.
But a fan, no.
In any case, Rod Stewart is a real, straightforward fan. The beauty of his (many) Dylan covers is debatable, but they are all respectful and loving (only his “Forever Young” is quite scandalous). Now, you don’t have to be an outspoken fan to fall for “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, obviously – even for those who don’t fancy Dylan all that much, this is a song of the outside category. It is sublime love lyric; indeed, one of those lyrics in which Dylan reaches that “density and gravity that can’t find anywhere else”. Dylan finds simple words to describe a complex amalgam of emotions that strike him through an everyday but profound experience of life: the end of love.
The listener, or the reader, is moved by the narrator, mainly by virtue of the elegance the poet manages to maintain from the first line to the last. Nowhere does the text become lachrymose, the I does not give in to sourness, ridicule or reproach, the pitfall of self-pity is fortunately avoided, as well as the usual clichés.
It doesn’t take anything at all to let the image of the loved one haunt him or her again. Not a particular smell, or a song on the radio, or a scene from a film – maybe it’s the weather or something like that, but suddenly I have to think of you again. Which already reveals heart-breaking vulnerability. The following verses then surprise by the unrecognizable maturity, the soft melancholy with which Dylan speaks to his ex-lover. Is this the same man who so bitterly dismisses this same lover in “Don’t Think Twice”, so viciously in “Ballad In Plain D”? This abandoned lover resigns and has a big heart, has achieved an inner peace allowing him to be tender and sensitive, this abandoned lover is at peace and is credible when he says it no longer torments him when she sleeps with someone else. This is no longer the vindictive genius we know from the other “Suze songs” – crawling all the deeper under your skin. The poet Dylan here has found the tone of Sinatra’s Sings For Only The Lonely and In The Wee Small Hours , of the very best the American Songbook has to offer – though this poet has an even better way with words than the Jerome Kerns, the Sammy Cahns and the Johnny Burkes.
How fragile that regained inner harmony is, the music reveals. The chord progression is already unconventional, but especially the stuttering tempo and the occasional slipping from four-quarter to three-quarter time illustrates: that wound has not healed completely yet, a small push seems enough to make the narrator lose his balance.
Perhaps this is an answer to the big question as to why Dylan rejects this grand masterpiece for Another Side Of (when that record could certainly have endured another climax, if only as an antidote for Plain D) and hardly ever plays it for eleven years – is it just too personal? Too close to home perhaps? He then donates it to Baez, who – of course, she is certainly no fool – gratefully accepts. And in the long run, we also owe it to her that the song eventually returns to Dylan’s set list: during the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. After that the ban has been broken and to the enthusiasm of the audience Dylan keeps on performing the song; since that tour over two hundred times.
Joan Baez is by no means the only one who greedily throws herself on this brilliant throwaway. The inevitable Judy Collins is next, also in 1965, and the long list of covers is still growing steadily. In the sixth decade after the song’s conception, half the Premier League (Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Jeff Buckley, to name but a few) has placed the song on a pedestal and the echelons underneath, right down to the YouTube living room videos, are not lagging behind. Thanks to the song’s exceptional class, the covers are almost always at least tolerable, often very pleasant and sometimes brilliant – the song has a similar indestructibility as “Not Dark Yet” and “To Ramona”.
There is one notable difference: this one time the ladies do not really succeed. Some singers solve the gender problem by, like Baez, changing “Mama” into “Daddy”, others choose “Baby, You’ve Been On Mind” (Linda Ronstadt, for example) and that alone is an impoverishment, as you lose the alliterating mama – my mind. Within the women’s competition Ronstadt’s version still scores high, but apparently there is something gender-specific about this song: in a (fictional) top 10 there really are only men.
Nick Hornby does have a point; Rod Stewart’s is great, partly thanks to a beautiful, melancholic arrangement and ditto instrumentation. The lamented Jeff Buckley surpasses the intensity of the original – like Dylan, he does it without an accompaniment band and can therefore fiddle with tempo and metre forms, which works very well with these lyrics in particular. On the other hand, the driving, pulsating drive that We Are Augustines, without drums, injects into the song is just as irresistible (on the Amnesty album Chimes Of Freedom, 2012). Particularly successful is the interpretation of one Kristian Bush, also on a tribute project (The Times They Are a Changin’: A Tribute to Bob Dylan Volume 2, 1994).
The winner is Jack Johnson’s utterly attractive contribution to the I’m Not There soundtrack (2007). Inspired by the cadence of the flood of words, Johnson lets Mama flow smoothly into a rap on the words of “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”; a brilliant, marvellous find.
From 1981, after five albums without Dylan cover, Rod Stewart returns to his old love at irregular intervals. On Tonight I’m Yours he sings “Just Like A Woman”, in 1995 “Sweetheart Like You” appears on Spanner In The Works, he records “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”, in 2006 “If Not For You” and a gruesome “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” in ’97, but he never approaches the intensity and unpolished beauty of the early seventies. The low point is the smoothed, cotton-candy adaptation of “Forever Young”.
Some rehabilitation is achieved on The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998 (2009), a compilation of unreleased material and alternative versions. On side 4 an unknown version of “This Wheel’s On Fire” from 1992 surfaces, on which the hard rocking, unpolished and stomping Rod “Faces” Stewart suddenly shows his best Dylan side again.
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
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
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