A Dylan cover a Day: 39 “Gates of Eden” as never before

By Tony Attwood

Today (2 January) is a public holiday in England, wherein I reside, and as a result there ain’t much doing.  No dances are scheduled, the football team I support are not playing (having been beaten yesterday) and most of my friends seem to be asleep, recovering perhaps from a week of holiday celebrations or just not answering the phone.

And so, thinking that maybe you too might be living in a land where there’s not much to do, and given that next up on the schedule for “A Dylan cover a day” is “Gates of Eden”, I thought I might go rather overboard and offer not just one, two or three covers, but lots of them.

Because “Gates of Eden” is a bit of an oddity.  It has not been covered by nearly as many people as some of Dylan’s most famous tracks, but where artists have had a go, they’ve normally come up with the goods.  At least as far as I can see.

Now, if you are a regular here you will have seen and heard most of these before, not least in Jochen’s master series on the song (of which the last episode is here and that contains an index to the whole series).

And in part I have done this because an amazingly high percentage of covers are actually very good indeed – which is perhaps surprising because the song is utterly strophic, has a distinctive beat, and was issued of course as a solo piece.  So off we go…

Totta Näslund starts with a solo guitar and it’s only as we go along the realisation occurs that there is a further accompaniment (unless one is paying very close attention).  The artist takes a huge risk running the song at this speed – for he has to keep the piece running for over seven minutes, and we all know the lyrics by heart.  Which means what he has is the magic of his voice, and that slowly evolving accompaniment.

And wow, suddenly a chorus turns up and the arrangement evolves… but never once interrupting or overlapping the singer.   This really is an incredible achievement, I’m still here wanting to hear this song I’ve heard I don’t know how many thousand times.

Even when he sings fractionally out of tune, it is still grabbing me – every word is delivered as if he feels this is the key to the whole song.  Stunning – and a superbly done simply ending too.

(I regret that since this article was written seemingly all videos of this version have been removed from the internet, but if you are a subscriber to Spotify you can find it there.  It is on Totta’s Basement Tapes: Down in the Flood.)

Marc Carroll gives us full accompaniment from the off, and his own vision of the final line of the verse.  Then in comes the percussion with a relentless six beats a bar – surely no one else has ever tried this before: I mean six beats a bar????

In fact it builds up to such a degree that by the time of relationships of ownership one is beginning to feel, “What on earth is going to happen?”

In fact what happens is we get an instrumental break after which the arrangement takes us down a notch or two, which is a huge relief – but it is only a relief for one verse, we’re back with the full blast next time around.

I’ve no idea who did the arrangement but whoever it was is a total genius.  It is relentless, phenomenal, complex and demanding, but leaving the vocalist free to create his delivery, so that by the time his lover comes in telling him of her dream, we are part of the dream, the vision, the hope, the nightmare, the ruins, the ideals… everything.

This is stunning beyond belief, as is the ending.

If you have played Marc Carroll’s recording to the end this next version – an instrumental –  is now offered to help you  calm down.  Arranging this is quite a task, because in essence what the music consists of is one line repeated, a counterpart line ending on the dominant chord, and then the verse resolving itself in the fourth line.

I’ve never played this type of jazz in an ensemble, but I imagine the key point is to key everyone aware of exactly where they came from and where they are going to, and that is exactly what happens.

And now by way of contrast back to one performer – Gene Clark.  If you are particularly drawn to his music, there is a web page featuring several of his covers of Dylan songs.   It is reported that he was buried beneath an epitaph that reads “No Other.”

There is an enormous power in this version, and Gene Clark’s early passing is surely a reminder of the destructive nature of the industry that produces these extraordinary pieces of music.  And yes I know that sounds trite, but it is a reflection that I have listening to these performances.

Bryan Ferry undertaking any song is bound to give us something memorable, and this must be one of my favourite performances, because the gentleness of the performance contrasts so utterly with how I have always perceive the words.  And I love the way Mr Ferry physically seems to become part of the music.

And who thought of combining a blues harmonica with an occasional wordless female voice?  And who thought of making the female counterpoint to the harmonica just two notes.  Haunting is not the word – it is much more than that.

Bryan Ferry takes it verse after verse knowing that we are going to be there following each line of the lyrics, taking us in a different direction.  And when we get to “no words but these to tell what’s true” I can utterly feel it.

Julie Felix’ arrangement is of the more obvious variety: let’s start with the lady on her own and then bring in some instruments – but what marks this out is the counter melody of the flute, complete with trills, because we then have the quasi-military drum as well.

But what really works here is that there is no descent into making the piece build and build – it is not that sort of song, for each verse delivers a sit of images that are as powerful as all that has gone before and is yet to come.

If you are still with me (as opposed to playing a little bit of each recording and then jump forward) then you’ll be getting the feel of just how many variations this song offers.

DM Stith was of course not even conceived of when Dylan wrote this masterpiece, and maybe that is what liberates him in creating this extraordinary version.  There really is nothing like this version anywhere – every verse, indeed every line is original.

I have a friend who I asked to listen to this version and when I then went back and asked for an opinion, the answer was “didn’t like it”.  So I said, “But what about the black Madonna verse?” to which he replied, “I didn’t get that far”.

Of course what you listen to is totally your business; I merely pass a public holiday in mid-winter gathering these together and writing about them, but I would argue, one can get an extra insight into what Dylan’s compositions have given to our civilisation by listening to recordings such as this.  And if one is going to listen, then surely one must listen to the end.

If you have been, thank you for listening.


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