A Dylan Cover a Day episode 160: Tryin’ to get to Heaven

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

  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’
  148. The Wicked Messenger
  149. Things have changed
  150. This Wheel’s on Fire
  151. Thunder on the mountain
  152. Till I fell in love with you in the north of Norway
  153. Time Passes Slowly – just sit down and close your eyes
  154. To be alone with you
  155. To Ramona: unexpectedly yes!
  156. Tombstone Blues
  157. Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You
  158. Too much of nothing
  159. Trouble as you have never been troubled before

One comment

  1. How on earth Bowie’s deleting most of Dylan lyrics above (New Orleans gets left in), “rescues” his ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ song is beyond rational comprehension.

    For most listerners (at least in America?), Dylan’s words matter.

    Above, the song is drowned not rescued.

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