By Tony Attwood
Bob Dylan tried a dramatic re-write of Wicked Messager in 2001 (this recording from Seattle on 6 October that year) and made a few variations along the way. It was a very similar approach to that used for “The Drifter’s Escape” – but far more successful in my view.
Here’s the original – just in case you haven’t heard it for a while…
It is quite an interesting melody running over the repeated instrumental accompaniment and with a harmonica part in between each verse which really doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything else in the song – either in terms of the chords, the melody or indeed the feeling.
Now here’s the reworked live version…
As you can hear there is an element of the original instrumentation retained but the entire feel of the song is utterly different. Where there was previously a calm journey across the plains or deserts (or wherever the messenger had come from) it is all fairly calm.
And this indeed makes some sort of sense with regards to the last verse – although the lyrics are changed slightly
The leaves began to falling And the seas began to part And the people that confronted him were many And he was told these last few words Which opened up his heart "If ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any"
But what we have now (I feel) is a sense of panic – which is then continued in the solo part at the end of the song.
In fact, without us knowing what on earth was in the message from God (Eli), or what is going on (apart from the seeming fact that those in power ignore its contents), we have a totally different song.
And in this regard, the rock version makes sense in its own way, just as the original folk version does. God can just let silly humans get on with their own vanity (the original album’s simple folk version) or He can swipe mankind away with a flick of the finger (this reinvented rock version).
Or maybe Bob said to the band members, “let’s just do some JWH tracks with a beat.”
What we have to remember is that this electric version was performed ten years before Thea Gilmore brought out her version which totally reconfigured the song, but around 28 years after Hendrix did his typically Hendrixian version. Also there was the fascinating reworking of the piece by the David Nelson Band and I have always had the thought that maybe Bob was trying to find something that neither David Nelson nor Hendrix had actually achieved with the song.
Of course that is pure speculation on my part – but I think it is relevant, because of why I chose this piece as a highlight. Not because it is a musically brilliant re-interpretation or a sublime live performance but because it expresses to me Dylan’s thought processes as he seeks to find a reinvention not just of his original work but of other people’s re-interpretations in the cover versions.
In short, I find it a highlight because it shines a light on the working process, not because of the end result – although I do enjoy this reworking enormously as an illumination of Bob’s regularly changing views on religion. The “When He Returns” era is long since gone and with this version of the song I am left wondering who the messenger now is, what his message was, and whether he feels the whole message delivery thing is worth the trouble.
And there is that line, “If you can’t bring good news then don’t bring any,” that is so anti-Christian in its approach (for Christianity brings us not just the news of the Second Coming but also the work of the Devil) that it does seem to me (as a non-Christian) that Bob really had shaken a lot of the Christian era out of his thinking. A feeling that is emphasised by the ending as it descends down and down to the final note.
Of course a very personal interpretation, but then, by and large, they all are.
- 1: John Brown 1987
- 2: Desolation Row. 1990.
- 3: She Belongs to Me
- 4: Tangled up in Blue
- 5: I and I – power without meaning
- 6: It ain’t me babe – go lightly.
- 7: Perfection in desolation – Gates of Eden
- 8: Girl from the North Country.
- 9: When He Returns
- 10: It’s alright Ma
- 11: Satisfied Mind
- 12: Visions of Johanna
- 13: Dark Eyes
- 14: Man in the long black coat
- 15: Don’t think twice (2000)
- 16: Silvio (1998)
- 17: Gates of Eden (2000)
- 18: One Too Many Mornings 2001.
- 19: It’s all over now baby blue 1994