A Dylan cover a day: “What was it you wanted?” From soulful soul to bouncy bounce


By Tony Attwood

Bob only gave “What was it you wanted?” 22 outings on the Tour, and yet as the cover versions below show there is a lot in the song that an inventive musician can play with.   Is it to be soulful, secretive, accusatory, even a trifle amusing in parts… however you see the song you can make it into something new.

Willie Nelson takes the song with a lot of reverence to Bob’s original as you might expect, not least because  from the last news I heard the two old timers are playing together on the Outlaw Music Festival Tour this year.

Thus this version pays total respect to Bob’s original, including even the details of the harmonica part.  The vocal is fractionally more delicate and there are a few more twists in the background music, but in essence this is a copy of what Bob laid down.   There are some guitar variations at the end, but they almost seem like doing something different just for the sake of it.  You’d buy this if you are a Willie Nelson devotee, but if you are a Dylan fan, you’ve pretty much already got it.

Chris Smither however gives us some interesting guitar work at the start and a really offbeat but very light percussion from the beginning, which gives me a greater sense of time passing in its regular manner.   As a result this is all about the atmosphere which is in fact the essence of the song.   Although I know the song inside out, hearing this did bring back the magic of the lyrics… that puzzlement and uncertainty of the situation.

Indeed it is very easy to lose the thoughts behind these lyrics as the singer loses track not only of what was wanted but who the person is that he is confronting.   This version re-finds that spookiness and delivers it as the main part of the message.  There is also a gorgeous background to the last few seconds that leaves me with a shiver.

Roli Frei and the Soulful Desert

Here we get a very laid back opening to the point of almost being hidden which looks to take the atmosphere even further.  And indeed it really works, while keeping the guitar effects quiet and in the background until the “somebody looking” verse where the singer expresses the anger in the lyrics very successfully, I felt.  Indeed this sort of contrast is harder to do than you might imagine.

Same again with the middle 8 – he takes it right up but then successfully brings it back down.  It’s a version I will need to play several times to get the full measure of, but on the first run through I have to say I’ve really enjoyed this.

The Lucky Losers

It is a shock to move away from Roli Frei to this version.  Yet the harmonies of the vocals really do work for me – I suppose in part because in listening to Roli Frei I felt it wasn’t really possible to take the mystery approach any further.   And here are a couple who haven’t tried, but have gone in the opposite direction.

And this is a major part of the joy of Dylan covers… the songs have so much in them they can be re-worked in all sorts of ways.   I must admit I would never have thought of an approach like this in a million years, but it is fun.

Now I must admit part of the fun comes from having listened to the cover versions above first, and I really needed to be taken up and out of the gloom.  That this version comes next is pure chance – I’ve put them here in the order of finding the recordings, nothing more sophisticated than that.   But sometimes serendipity works.

I love the “who are you anyway” in this version.  It gives a totally new thought about the whole piece.

Bettye LaVette featuring Trombone Shorty

Bettye Lavette has sung so much Dylan we can always be sure that she knows the song and its context and has given a lot of thought to how approach the piece.  Here she uses her voice to give a new extra layer of uncertainty and the anger that uncertainty can bring.

There are some lovely unexpected elements in the accompaniment.  Indeed if you can, take your mind away from her voice and listen to exactly what is happening behind her.   And even if not, just focus on the fact that we now have a trombone playing a solo.   Whoever would have thought of that for this song?  Certainly not me.  If someone had said that I’d have said “Noooo” in no uncertain terms, but within the context of this total re-write it works.

It’s a version that is full of surprises and no less enjoyable for that.  I’m not sure I’m going to come back to it, but I’m glad I found it.


Stef Kamil Carlens and the Gates of Eden

Now we are back to where we started with the mystery, and as can happen with these articles I feel almost overloaded by the song by the time I get to the end.   This is a fairly standard interpretation, taking the music and lyrics as they are, and letting the instrumentalists add their bits and pieces behind.

But I think I’m a bit overwhelmed by all that has gone before, and maybe if I came back  to this version in a few days without hearing the other editions first, I’d get more out of it.  Which is of course the problem with the series and this style of writing while I listen to the music.   It helps me to get down my first impressions but maybe loses some perspective.

However, the addition of the chorus in the latter parts of the song really did make me think.  It might have been interesting to give the organ a break sometimes, but still, it’s enjoyable and another insight.  And do stay with this to take in the instrumental section at the end.  It’s worth it.

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
  160. Tryin’ to get to Heaven
  161.  Unbelievable
  162. “Up to Me” and a return to earlier days
  163. Visions of Johanna
  164. Walking down the line
  165. Whatcha gonna do
  166. Well Well Well
  167. Went to see the Gypsy.
  168. What good am I

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *