A Dylan cover a Day: Mr Tambourine Man

By Tony Attwood

There are hundreds, hundreds and literally more hundreds of covers of this song.   Including a surprising number of instrumental ranging from modern jazz to straight reproductions of the original accompaniment.   There are versions that take in all the verses, and versions that cut down the verses, into the style of the Byrds hit of 1965 and versions that change the lyrics as they go along.

And much as I would like to say as your dedicated reviewer of covers that I have been through them all, that would not be your actual truth, because even with a superb song like this, there is a limit to how many reproductions of the Byrds version I can listen to.  And that is what we get, over and over again.

Of course, a lot of the problem is that issue we have mentioned before: we know the song so well, there is now little (if anything) that we can learn from the images.   And when someone does play a little bit with the lyrics it is more likely to sound odd or wrong rather than enlightening or entertaining or informative.

I’m not quite sure why this is, but it is certainly something I feel with the arrangement by Cloud Cult, which Jochen highlighted in his review of the song.  He called it “Brooding, hypnotizing and magical”, but I can’t find I agree.  Maybe I am getting even more pedantic in my old age but the pulsing beat removes any chance of brooding.  Yet I must agree, it does start so wonderfully.

Maybe it is the changes to the lyrics that get me.  I don’t mind lyrics being changed, but I do want them to insightful or different.  I suspect you’ll know the lyrics as well as I do, and maybe the changes don’t worry you, but I keep thinking “why?”  Why change such a wonderful collection of words that have been part of my world since the 1960s?  (I have just realised I now sound by my wonderful late mother, who herself wondered why the old songs had to be changed.   Goodness, that is quite a thought).

The point is that the changes to the music can be exciting and challenging and they do open up new possibilities but the changes to the lyrics generally just seem trivial and trite.   I’m not knocking Cloud Cult who have indeed done a huge amount to take music forward, but this changing of the lyrics in this way seems a dead end to me.

Apparently, the first release of the song was not by Dylan but by the Brothers Four, who managed, in the one move of changing the rhythm, to destroy the meaning of the entire piece.  I don’t normally put up versions I don’t like but I’ll add this one just to show how (in my view) covering should not be done.   And in case you listen to a bit and think, ok I’ve got the idea of what he’s talking about, do try and persevere to the bit where they repeat “jingle jangle”.  Although those of a nervous disposition may choose not to.

I suspect that to make a really decent contribution to the annals of Tambourine Man musicians involved in the project need insights not only into Dylan but also into the music and the lyrics.   Some do make a decent attempt, but all too often the final result isn’t quite there.

Lenka, I felt, got halfway there, but then stumbles across one of the big problems of this song.  It is quite long and since we all know the lyrics by heart the accompaniment needs to be really interesting but not overwhelming, and not too repetitive.  Bob got away with it at the start because we didn’t know the lyrics so intimately, but now all these years on, it’s a problem.   Lenka has originality, but not enough to keep me interested all the way through, and her arranger can’t find variation in the music that is needed to help it along.

The modern jazz musicians have engaged with the song many times, but somehow for me (and of course as ever this is all just a very personal view) they can’t quite bridge the fact that I know the lyrics and the original so well.    I can appreciate how the accompaniment here reinterprets the words in a perfectly reasonable manner, so that makes me think, maybe this is just me.  Perhaps I’m not really wanting such a reinterpretation having lived with this song through much of my life.  Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps I should not be looking at cover versions of Tambourine Man at all.

Very frustratingly however, there is a recording of Tambourine Man which does meet all my requirements of how to do it… but it is a recording taken from the Australian production of the Voice – a TV talent show that would normally lead me straight to the exit.   I can’t find a recording of AP D’Antonio performing this in a studio without wild hysterics, either on Spotify or on the internet generally but if you can screen out all the noise etc, then beneath all that is a performance that to my mind does the song justice

But I suppose, mostly the problem is that it is possible to do almost anything with this wonderful song, but most of the roads out of the original turn out to be blind avenues.   Like the notion of changing the time and playing it in 12/8 – and then ending in 4/4.   It just sounds rather odd to me.

I have no idea how long I have spent going through hundreds (yes literally) of versions: instrumentals, performances by children, and in multiple languages, and my brain, if not curdled before, is now.

But then right at the very final moment when I was about to give up, I found this.  Maybe I like it because it is so unpretentious in the music and the performance sounds so honest and straightforward.    Maybe because I have spent so long trying to find someone else’s version of the song that really does justice to it without copying Bob I am now clutching at straws.  But I feel I can add this and defend my choice.  The volume is very low but hopefully, you can turn it up enough to hear what’s going on.

He, alter Liedersänger by Steinbäcker,Timischl & Schiffkowitz


The Dylan Cover a Day series

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