A Dylan cover a Day: the staggering beauty of one version of Positively 4th Street

By Tony Attwood

Love songs, lost love songs and hate songs… when it comes to pop and rock, love and lost love songs win hands down.  I suspect there are a million songs in each genre to every song of hate or utter disdain, and most of those hate / disdain songs will hardly have made it above the waterline.

Except of course for “Positively 4th Street” – and indeed in 1965 Dylan wrote, or at least made known, four such songs

He then laid off the subject, coming back to it only occasionally with pieces such as “I don’t believe you (She acts like we never have met).”  It is after all a hard subject to turn into a song, and requires an audience that is ready to spend cash on engaging with repeated negative emotions – which is a pretty dispiriting thing to do, at least after a while.

Dislike, hatred, disdain… they can all be used as the themes of popular songs but they don’t seem to sit easily within the genre – if one wants to write negatively, protest against the current situation, and politicians in general are far more popular than pointing out the horrible attributes of an individual.  Thus “Masters of War” is of course about the whole weapons industry, and even on that score, although I used to agree this was a good target, I think maybe I’ve changed my mind since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.   I want Ukraine to be able to defend itself against the invader, which means having weapons.   (Oh to be able to regain the naivety of youth!)

And as for songs against a group of individuals, I guess one could have a bash at politicians as a class (maybe “You’re all self-seeking bastards” would be a decent working title), economists (“You never once got it right” has possibilities for an as yet unwritten example  of the genre), and of course ex-lovers.  But then most ex-lovers’ songs focus primarily on sadness and regret, not an expression of downright disdain or even hatred.

So “Positively Fourth Street” remains an outsider in terms of content – and yet it has had a large number of covers – although sadly (in my estimation, and as ever of course this is just me pontificating on my own thought patterns as I write), not many are that good.

And all this led me to wonder what artists and arrangers actually think when they tackle a Dylan song.   Is it, “hey we might sell a few extra copies when people realise it’s a Dylan” or “it must be good, Dylan wrote it,” or… well, I don’t know.

The covers of this song I really don’t like are the ones in which the arranger simply copies the Dylan recording, complete with the distinctive organ part, and there are dozens of these.   Which is why I start with Lucinda Williams.  Personally I am not 100% ok with the voice, because I don’t like that much vibrato, but the simplicity of the approach gives me the deep sense of sadness rather than absolute anger, that is, if not refreshing, then at least something I can come out of after the piece finishes.

There is something here about the continuity of the two guitar parts which adds to the sadness and sense of desolation, and the sudden arrival of vocal harmonies in the “come out once and scream it” line, really is a great touch.  And a great idea to bring it back for “And just for that one moment”.   It makes the “what a drag” line really work.

Paul Westerburg choose a rocking beat and this works with the meaning of the song, in the sense that the singer is bouncing along, happily throwing out insults as he saunters past.  It’s a clever idea, and it maintains interest through what is, after all, nothing but two lines of music repeated over and over and over again.  But sadly, the instrumental verse is really not very inspiring when it could be and indeed needs to be.   After all that lead guitar is doing interesting things thereafter.

Mary and Jay of Bitter Sweet show us from the start that they are at least going give us a guitar part that does something else.   There are slight changes of nuance in the vocals as well.  But entertaining though the instrumental verses are, in the end, we are still just left two lines repeated over and over and over.

All of which makes Sharon Mcnally refreshing (sorry that just came out like that, it wasn’t meant to be a pun on Coldwater).  Suddenly I want to listen again.  Yes suddenly again I can feel the pain as well as the disdain – and for a song of disdain really to work it needs to bring in some of the pain too, in my view.   That voice is utterly suited for the song, so congratulations to the band, and to the arranger for keeping the band behind the singer.   No one else has ever got the “such a fool” line so perfect.  I feel it utterly, each time I replay this version.  Same with “and scream it”.   Brilliantly played and sung.

So moving on from the sublime to the … well yes the Persuasions version is ridiculous.  All the meaning is retained by the exquisite lead vocalist and destroyed by the bom bom boms and other accompanying lines.   These are quality, quality vocalists.  Did they think this is funny, or did they not think?  Or were they just told “you need to do a Dylan”?

Brian Ferry knows his Dylan of course and knows what he is doing.   He once said that if he met Bob he’d say, “I hope you don’t mind”, and how could Bob ever mind this gorgeous rendition which understands and interprets every single word, as does the accompaniment?

Brian makes us feel he really does know the reason why she talks behind his back.  He feels that she is taking him as a fool.   He really wishes she could stand inside his shoes.   He really does want her to know what a drag it is to have to see her.   And the band invent a new approach to an instrumental verse – whatever else you do, I beg you, listen to this all the way through.

Absolutely not for the first time I am so utterly indebtedly to Mr Ferry and the musicians and arrangers with whom he works.  This is staggering.

And then I find there is nothing more to be said.  There is nothing more that can be said.    Of course Brian Ferry won’t ever read my rambling words of tribute, but I do wish that just one time he could hear his own work as I do and realise what an amazing contribution he has made to this song, and indeed to my life.   Dylan of course created the piece.   Brian Ferry gave it the realisation that the composition deserved.

If anyone who has contact with Brian Ferry ever reads this, tell him thank you from me.

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