Only a Pawn in their Game: the unique cover versions

By Tony Attwood

“Only a pawn in their game” is one of those famous Dylan songs that very few professional musicians have attempted to cover.

And that number gets even lower when one searches not just for professional cover versions but for cover versions that are widely and freely available on the internet.  In fact I just found two.

The Lenny Nelson Project is a band of which I know very little indeed – I’d not come across them before finding this track, and then when I went a-hunting on the internet all I found were references to this track.

This was released in 1988 with vocals by Lisa Lowell, known for her work with Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny, and released her own album “Beautiful Behavior”.

And that’s all I know, so mystery upon mystery.

But this is a remarkable reinvention of the song which Dylan of course sings with a very liberal interpretation of the beat and rhythm in order to maximise the emphasis on the lyrics.

However the fact is we all know the lyrics which makes this song ripe for re-interpretation, but still artists have not been forthcoming.

In fact the only other version I have found which I can share with you is Morrissey’s approach…

Wiki’s article on Morrisey states that his music contains “recurring themes of emotional isolation, sexual longing, self-deprecating and dark humour, and anti-establishment stances,” which gives us a wide enough range to make this a song that is perfect for him.

Now what has stopped people taking on this song, I think, is the singular approach of Dylan’s recording, and thus an alternative singularity is needed by anyone brave enough to take this on.

And this is what Morrisey gives us – not least by changing the accompaniment as the piece development.   The rhythm continues but somehow the power of the voice means that I want to listen to this and thus hear the lyrics afresh.

Even the ending in the Morrisey version is a surprise – there is no sense in the vocal or accompaniment that makes one feel that this is the end – it just is.  Which makes it all the more powerful.

I must admit, knowing the song and Dylan’s original version off by heart I don’t think I have played Bob’s version for years.  If I want it, I can play it in my head.   And given that he only played it live eight times (and all those renditions between July 1963 and October 1964) there was little chance of a reworking of the song.  So Bob has obviously not felt there is potential for a re-consideration.

And thus we just have two covers (or rather just two covers of which I can find publicly available copies).  Yet both really are worth hearing in my view.

I’m rather glad I went a-looking.


One comment

  1. Hi. You may be interested of the recording of Only a pawn in their game that I did with my band a while back. It´s a rockabilly arrangement I came up with to make it more interesting as the original is quite dull, musically.
    Search for “Chronicles -Bob Dylan Tribute Band” on Soundcloud and have a listen.
    First 13 tracks are studio recordings, including Dylan´s unreleased “Dirty lie” from 1984.
    Press the blue link ‘Chronicles_Dylanband’ and you´ll get live recordings as well.
    Greetings, Jonas

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