Beautiful Obscurity: Bob’s rewriting of Chimes of Freedom

An index to some of the earlier articles in this series.

Beautiful Obscurity is an exploration of some of the best or more unusual of Dylan cover versions.  The recordings are selected by Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood has the job of writing comments.  But Tony only has the time of playing the recording once to write his commentary – no cheating and going back to play it again.

Oh yes and Aaron and Tony never talk on the phone, what with being on different continents, so Tony only knows what’s coming as he starts to write.   It’s all just a bit of a game, but it keeps us off the streets.

Aaron:  I wonder if you’d like to take a journey across the years via 5 different versions of Chimes Of Freedom? Let’s see what ones you like best!?

10/8/87 – with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Roger McGuinn

Tony: As mentioned many a time, I’m a great lover of Tom Petty’s work, both with Dylan and independently, and the magic of “Learning to Fly” played in a darkened auditorium with everyone holding up lights will be with me forever.

The problem with the songs I know so well is that, well, I know them so well that new versions have to be radical indeed to grab my attention.  Here, once I’ve got the hang of how they guys are treating the song, then fine, I’ve got it.  Except for the harmonies and oh what I would give for a clearer version to hearing the harmonies properly.  That is fantastic – or at least I think so.

And I have to admit I have hit return a few dozen times to take my writing down the page and get the video out of my view – it is horribly distracting.

But by the third verse (I think) Bob is just calling out the lyrics.  However the harmony based latter part of the verse pulls him back in.   My suggestion is that after you’ve finished reading this you play the video again and turn the screen off, or look the other way.

And maybe wish, like me, we had a better recording of the gig.

Aaron: 12/7/87 – with the Grateful Dead

Tony:  I am not at all sure the introduction adds anything to the song – it just seems to be bits and pieces as if to torment the listener.  But of course once they start we know where we are.

Lovely contrast with the version before.   And this is from the period when I wonder if Bob suffered from repetitive strain injury in his right hand.   Could be an explanation for the strange guitar work that has been commented on a number of times by Mike Johnson in the Never Ending Tour series.  And if so he has my sympathies – I have RSI from the combination of piano playing and typing at the computer, and wear a support that looks quite like that on my left hand when at the computer.   It’s a pain ain’t it Bob?

Not too sure Bob gives us much more in this version but the lead guitar really does – that is what makes this recording worth hearing.   The short instrumental breaks really do add a meaning as fast as Bob’s singing takes it away.   (Sorry that is probably sacrilege and I shall expect the Dylan Police to be knocking on the door within minutes of this being published.)

And there are some lyrics changing too – but oh that lead guitar reworking of the song will stay with me.  I’ll play in on the piano when writing this is over, RSI or not.

But I tell you what, that line “And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing” is one of my all time favourites, from Dylan.

1/17/93 – Bill Clinton’s First Inauguration Concert – apparently 1 million people are in attendance!

Tony:  This shows just how readily Bob has appealed to so many different group.  But what Bob has done here!  The point about the song musically is that it is in 12/8 – a very very unusual time signature for pop or rock or folk.  But in the original it is a slow and stately 12/8 so you could reimagine it as a 3/4 and dance a waltz to it.   Now it goes at full blast and he’s added a modulation in the penultimate line.

To me it is fun, but also more of a musical gimmick than a serious reinterpretation, and I am not quite sure what is amusing the President so much.  Is it Bob’s appearance on the stage, or the choice of the song, or is the President musical enough to realise how Bob has just re-worked the song upside down and inside out?   Or the fact that Bob is playing it so fast that he seems just to want to get it over with?

Clinton did replace Bush, from my recollection, and was seen as a spark of reforming lights – so maybe it was just the compliment of Bob playing for him.

From October 1998 – studio recording with Joan Osbourne – released on the soundtrack CD to the miniseries “The 60s”

Tony: From the very start I am intrigued.  The harmonies work and nothing is rushed – a complete contrast to the version for the President.  (Maybe some idiot told Bob he only had four minutes in that gig!)

I like this because Bob really really sounds like he means it.  The time signature has changed to 4/4 and that allows the song to roll along in a way that suits this type of accompaniment.

But most of all the lyrics stand out.  Every line sounds to me like I have never heard it before – and this is a song which when I first heard it in my childhood / teens transition had me reduced to tears (I am stupidly emotional, and that goes back to my childhood – although it has allowed me to work throughout my life in the arts, which has been very enjoyable).

Lines now stand out – oh this is by far, by far by far the best version so far.  This is the one I will go back and play again.  If I want to have a negative, it is the organ playing – I could have done with out…  I want  to go on but the time is up.   Superb.

10/18/12 – live in San Francisco

Tony: And now it is a waltz!  But it is that style of singing where Bob makes his voice jump an octave at the end of some lines and in other places – for reasons that never become clear to me.   I’m really just waiting for this to play through – I don’t think Bob has ever really mastered the waltz, although trying to do so stayed with him for years; at least up to his multiple attempts to record “Tell Ol’ Bill”, which I covered yesterday (at least I think it was yesterday).

Does this tell me anything new?  Does it entertain me?  Does it give me new insights into these wonderful majestic lyric?   Does it do what the Joan Osborne recording does?

Nope.  I’ll stop here, so I can play that version Osbourne version again while I proof my rambling copy for spelling and grammatical errors.  (That’s allowed isn’t it Aaron?)




One comment

  1. Yes, the lyrics of Chimes were originally writtento be emoted as an expression of sorrow, and that is lost when sped up in a situation that is not conducive to sorrow, or likewise accompanied by souped-up music in a live performance before a large rather than a small audience
    – the medium, the situation, becomes the message.

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