By Tony Attwood
I was surprised to see how many covers there have been of “Tryin’ to get to Heaven” as from simple recollection of the song I was unsure that there were going to be that many ways to vary the performance and produce something new. It’s the problem with slow songs: they tend to define themselves in the original format, and it gets hard to see others ways of working that retain the integrity of the song, but still offer something new.
But I was wrong, not least because there is one masterful version of the song available, and it is one that we’ve covered before: Jochen highlighting the David Bowie version in his article on the piece.
That of course is a definitive review of the song and its antecedents and reception, but here I’m casting around for other versions that fascinate – but I’ll still have to end with Bowie.
Starting with Robyn Hitchcock; what we have is the idea of keeping the speed as slow as possible and the accompaniment as simple as can be. What I like here are the occasional vocal harmonies; what I don’t like are the unexpected changes of melody at the start of the second half of each verse. Just listen to the line “You broke a heart that loved you”. It really doesn’t work for me.
Sofia Laiti has the band give us the thought that this could be a reggae version, but it’s not. But she too feels the temptation to do something with that fifth line in each verse but this is much more successful in my view, and gives us a piece that maintains the interest.
And that really is the issue: it is a strophic song of five musically identical verses, and by now we all know the lyrics … but what this version does is has some fun in the instrumental break in a way that isn’t expected (unless you know this version of course). That gives us a refreshed outlook for “I’m going down the river” which really works for me.
But I really could do without the coda from 4’30” on. What were they thinking?
Lucinda Williams goes for the simplest of accompaniments, but for me puts so much into her opening vocals that I can’t imagine what can happen thereafter, except to bring in the band. And that is what happens.
There is a gorgeous instrumental break, but then we are back to where we were. And this is the problem with cover versions…by the time we get there we know the song so well, but it needs some real inspiration to hold attention. That’s there with the instrumentation here, but the focus is on the vocals for most of the time, and they offer little that is new.
I’ve touched on the work of Joan Osborne a number of times before, and I really do think she has an intuitive grasp of Dylan’s work for many of her recordings. But with the opening of this cover I get a feeling of drowning; there is just too much happening with the electric piano, being played as if it is doing a solo. Indeed if it were there on its own it could make a really interesting piece. Just as we could have if Joan Osborne were performing without any accompaniment. But put it all together and… no it loses me.
And so to the track that Jochen picked out, with a quite remarkable video accompaniment too.
Bowie seemed to have an automatic, instinctive musical vision which allowed him to perform songs in utterly unexpected ways – ways that really no one else would ever imagine. Here he, and those who worked with him on the arrangement, take this song to utterly unexpected places while retaining the integrity of the song. It is wonderful, and incredibly hard to do.
Even the addition of Bowie’s voice as a chorus in an over-the-top arrangement from 2’30” onward works, not least because it is successfully taken back down.
I think the point here is that the arranger and artist didn’t just say, “hey let’s do it as xxxx” and stick with that one idea. This is a multiplicity of ideas – after four minutes we are into another aspect of the whole arrangement, and although there is a use of repeat and repeat Bowie can still carry it off.
Plus remarkably and thankfully, no one suggested doing a fade out. The song has a complete and fulsome ending, and the door is still open.
As I have mentioned before, I am a convinced atheist, and often feel the need to stand up to what I consider to be the remorseless state-funded propaganda of organised religion in my country, but even I can forgive the late Mr Bowie on this occasion. I hope he made it, if it exists, which I don’t think it does.
Previously in the series
- The song with numbers in the title.
- Ain’t Talkin
- All I really want to do
- Apple Suckling and Are you Ready.
- As I went out one morning
- Ballad for a Friend
- Ballad in Plain D
- Ballad of a thin man
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- The ballad of Hollis Brown
- Beyond here lies nothing
- Blind Willie McTell
- Black Crow Blues (more fun than you might recall)
- An unexpected cover of “Black Diamond Bay”
- Blowin in the wind as never before
- Bob Dylan’s Dream
- BoB Dylan’s 115th Dream revisited
- Boots of Spanish leather
- Born in Time
- Buckets of Rain
- Can you please crawl out your window
- Can’t wait
- Changing of the Guard
- Chimes of Freedom
- Country Pie
- Crash on the Levee
- Dark Eyes
- Dear Landlord
- Desolation Row as never ever before (twice)
- Don’t fall apart on me tonight.
- Don’t think twice
- Down along the cove
- Drifter’s Escape
- Duquesne Whistle
- Farewell Angelina
- Foot of Pride and Forever Young
- Fourth Time Around
- From a Buick 6
- Gates of Eden
- Gotta Serve Somebody
- Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall.
- Heart of Mine
- High Water
- Highway 61
- I am a lonesome hobo
- I believe in you
- I contain multitudes
- I don’t believe you.
- I love you too much
- I pity the poor immigrant.
- I shall be released
- I threw it all away
- I want you
- I was young when I left home
- I’ll remember you
- Idiot Wind and More idiot wind
- If not for you, and a rant against prosody
- If you Gotta Go, please go and do something different
- If you see her say hello
- Dylan cover a day: I’ll be your baby tonight
- I’m not there.
- In the Summertime, Is your love and an amazing Isis
- It ain’t me babe
- It takes a lot to laugh
- It’s all over now Baby Blue
- It’s all right ma
- Just Like a Woman
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door
- Lay down your weary tune
- Lay Lady Lay
- Lenny Bruce
- That brand new leopard skin pill box hat
- Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
- License to kill
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Love is just a four letter word
- Love Sick
- Maggies Farm!
- Make you feel my love; a performance that made me cry.
- Mama you’ve been on my mind
- Man in a long black coat.
- Masters of War
- Meet me in the morning
- Million Miles. Listen, and marvel.
- Mississippi. Listen, and marvel (again)
- Most likely you go your way
- Most of the time and a rhythmic thing
- Motorpsycho Nitemare
- Mr Tambourine Man
- My back pages, with a real treat at the end
- New Morning
- New Pony. Listen where and when appropriate
- Nobody Cept You
- North Country Blues
- No time to think
- Obviously Five Believers
- Oh Sister
- On the road again
- One more cup of coffee
- (Sooner or later) one of us must know
- One too many mornings
- Only a hobo
- Only a pawn in their game
- Outlaw Blues – prepare to be amazed
- Oxford Town
- Peggy Day and Pledging my time
- Please Mrs Henry
- Political world
- Positively 4th Street
- Precious Angel
- Property of Jesus
- Queen Jane Approximately
- Quinn the Eskimo as it should be performed.
- Quit your lowdown ways
- Rainy Day Women as never before
- Restless Farewell. Exquisite arrangements, unbelievable power
- Ring them bells in many different ways
- Romance in Durango, covered and re-written
- Sad Eyed Lady of Lowlands, like you won’t believe
- A series of Dreams; no one gets it (except Dylan)
- Seven Days
- She Belongs to Me
- Shelter from the Storm
- Sign on the window
- Simple twist of fate
- Slow Train
- Someday Baby
- Spanish Harlem Incident
- Standing in the Doorway
- Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
- Subterranean Homesick Blues
- Sweetheart Like You
- Tangled up in Blue
- Tears of Rage
- Temporary Like Achilles. Left in the cold, but there’s still something…
- The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar
- The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
- The Man in Me
- Times they are a-changin’
- The Wicked Messenger
- Things have changed
- This Wheel’s on Fire
- Thunder on the mountain
- Till I fell in love with you in the north of Norway
- Time Passes Slowly – just sit down and close your eyes
- To be alone with you
- To Ramona: unexpectedly yes!
- Tombstone Blues
- Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You
- Too much of nothing
- Trouble as you have never been troubled before