A Dylan Cover A Day: The Wicked Messenger


By Tony Attwood

Having spent a rather beumisng hour or so meandering around cover versions of Wicked Messenger, I found more than anything that I wanted to remind myself of what Dylan offered us in the original recording.   I’ll put a recording of that original at the end – not because I am suggesting you might not remember it, but just in case you find that listening to these reworkings of the song makes you wonder, as they did me, what these fine artists were doing taking “Wicked Messenger” down the routes that they chose.

So in no particular order, other than the fact that this is the order I listened to these covers in… and the fact that I have left the best til the last of the covers, off we go.

Steven Keene

We can pick out the musical phrase that is the centre of Dylan’s original, and hear that much of the melody is the same, but there’s a bounce in here which keeps us jogging along, so that when we get to that key line of “If you can’t bring good news then don’t bring any,” I am reminded of where Dylan took us.

I like this version except for the long instrumental extemporisation that eventually fades out.  Up to the fade, I liked it, but the fade feels all wrong to me.   Dylan gave us a short simple song because that makes the point of the lyrics – the messenger just turns up with a note which pretty much declares its all over.   That’s it.  If this piece had finished at around 2 minutes 30 seconds, that would have worked far better, I think.

Patti Smith

Patti Smith gives us a feeling of the wind blowing across the plains (or maybe the desert) and the feeling of impending doom is now to the fore.  But I really don’t think the half-spoken half-said end of every other line quite works.  And as the song goes on it feels as if everyone is trying too hard to make the point… and I still don’t quite know what the point is.

That not-quite-knowing effect doesn’t matter to me with the Dylan version as it is all so simple and actually we don’t quite know… the messenger comes and is dismissed with a simple line that sends him off.   But with this type of production that irony is utterly lost.   “If you can’t bring good news then don’t bring any” is not a profound insight into human nature – it is dismissal with the wave of the hand.

The Black Keys

Yes I get the fact that we are talking about something that looks very much like the end of the world (“And the seas began to part…”) but does a pounding beat really put that across?  Dylan it seems to me gets it right, by sticking with the simplicity, as in “Sorry guys, but it’s all over.”

Legion of Mary

Legion of Mary get the opening right, following my thesis by making this whole approach mysterious, but I get the feeling that the guitar and organ are fighting each other to see who can convey the weirdness of it all the best.  In the end neither of them can because they are too busy fighting each other.  (Although maybe that’s the point about the end of the world).

But no, the point to me is the utter contrast between the end of the world message delivered as utterly simple, and what the message actually means to everyone.   And no one seems to get that in these covers so far.  Perhaps the most profound statement in the video above is that we get about a minute of silence at the end of the video.  Maybe the guys knew there was more to this than bashing out that 13 note theme over and over again.

Alex Harvey

Now this is at last a relief – and I hope you have managed to survive this far.  The point is that Alex Harvey recognises that there is mischievousness in the way the Messenger behaves.   He turns up to announce the end of the world, but doesn’t shout it out to everyone: he delivers a note.    That to me is the point, that’s the joke.   Does God play dice with the universe?    Well, if he does, this is one way He might do it.

In this context I love the way the clarinet solo creates such fun and mischief at the end.  Please, if you are still here, let that track above play to the end.  It is only 2 minutes 15 seconds, and for once the end of the world is exactly portrayed in the context of what the wicked messenger is all about.

And back to Bob

I don’t know if I have managed to make my thoughts on this song clear, but if you have stayed with me through this journey thanks.   My final thought is that re-working Dylan does not necessarily mean adding lots of noise – sometimes the joke in the lyrics is more important than any wild improvisation.

The Dylan Cover a Day series

  1. The song with numbers in the title.
  2. Ain’t Talkin
  3. All I really want to do
  4.  Angelina
  5.  Apple Suckling and Are you Ready.
  6. As I went out one morning
  7.  Ballad for a Friend
  8. Ballad in Plain D
  9. Ballad of a thin man
  10.  Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
  11. The ballad of Hollis Brown
  12. Beyond here lies nothing
  13. Blind Willie McTell
  14.  Black Crow Blues (more fun than you might recall)
  15. An unexpected cover of “Black Diamond Bay”
  16. Blowin in the wind as never before
  17. Bob Dylan’s Dream
  18. BoB Dylan’s 115th Dream revisited
  19. Boots of Spanish leather
  20. Born in Time
  21. Buckets of Rain
  22. Can you please crawl out your window
  23. Can’t wait
  24. Changing of the Guard
  25. Chimes of Freedom
  26. Country Pie
  27.  Crash on the Levee
  28. Dark Eyes
  29. Dear Landlord
  30. Desolation Row as never ever before (twice)
  31. Dignity.
  32. Dirge
  33. Don’t fall apart on me tonight.
  34. Don’t think twice
  35.  Down along the cove
  36. Drifter’s Escape
  37. Duquesne Whistle
  38. Farewell Angelina
  39. Foot of Pride and Forever Young
  40. Fourth Time Around
  41. From a Buick 6
  42. Gates of Eden
  43. Gotta Serve Somebody
  44. Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall.
  45. Heart of Mine
  46. High Water
  47. Highway 61
  48. Hurricane
  49. I am a lonesome hobo
  50. I believe in you
  51. I contain multitudes
  52. I don’t believe you.
  53. I love you too much
  54. I pity the poor immigrant. 
  55. I shall be released
  56. I threw it all away
  57. I want you
  58. I was young when I left home
  59. I’ll remember you
  60. Idiot Wind and  More idiot wind
  61. If not for you, and a rant against prosody
  62. If you Gotta Go, please go and do something different
  63. If you see her say hello
  64. Dylan cover a day: I’ll be your baby tonight
  65. I’m not there.
  66. In the Summertime, Is your love and an amazing Isis
  67. It ain’t me babe
  68. It takes a lot to laugh
  69. It’s all over now Baby Blue
  70. It’s all right ma
  71. Just Like a Woman
  72. Knocking on Heaven’s Door
  73. Lay down your weary tune
  74. Lay Lady Lay
  75. Lenny Bruce
  76. That brand new leopard skin pill box hat
  77. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
  78. License to kill
  79. Like a Rolling Stone
  80. Love is just a four letter word
  81. Love Sick
  82. Maggies Farm!
  83. Make you feel my love; a performance that made me cry.
  84. Mama you’ve been on my mind
  85. Man in a long black coat.
  86. Masters of War
  87. Meet me in the morning
  88. Million Miles. Listen, and marvel.
  89. Mississippi. Listen, and marvel (again)
  90. Most likely you go your way
  91. Most of the time and a rhythmic thing
  92. Motorpsycho Nitemare
  93. Mozambique
  94. Mr Tambourine Man
  95. My back pages, with a real treat at the end
  96. New Morning
  97. New Pony. Listen where and when appropriate
  98. Nobody Cept You
  99. North Country Blues
  100. No time to think
  101. Obviously Five Believers
  102. Oh Sister
  103. On the road again
  104. One more cup of coffee
  105. (Sooner or later) one of us must know
  106. One too many mornings
  107. Only a hobo
  108. Only a pawn in their game
  109. Outlaw Blues – prepare to be amazed
  110. Oxford Town
  111. Peggy Day and Pledging my time
  112. Please Mrs Henry
  113. Political world
  114. Positively 4th Street
  115. Precious Angel
  116. Property of Jesus
  117. Queen Jane Approximately
  118. Quinn the Eskimo as it should be performed.
  119. Quit your lowdown ways
  120. Rainy Day Women as never before
  121. Restless Farewell. Exquisite arrangements, unbelievable power
  122. Ring them bells in many different ways
  123. Romance in Durango, covered and re-written
  124. Sad Eyed Lady of Lowlands, like you won’t believe
  125. Sara
  126. Senor
  127. A series of Dreams; no one gets it (except Dylan)
  128. Seven Days
  129. She Belongs to Me
  130. Shelter from the Storm
  131. Sign on the window
  132. Silvio
  133. Simple twist of fate
  134. Slow Train
  135. Someday Baby
  136. Spanish Harlem Incident
  137. Standing in the Doorway
  138. Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
  139. Subterranean Homesick Blues
  140. Sweetheart Like You
  141. Tangled up in Blue
  142. Tears of Rage
  143.  Temporary Like Achilles. Left in the cold, but there’s still something…
  144. The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar
  145. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
  146. The Man in Me
  147. Times they are a-changin’

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