Once or twice: How “Spanish Harlem” frightened Bob and all cover artists… except one

 

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

Once or twice:A recently inaugurated review of songs that Bob has performed just once or twice on stage. Previously we looked at 

Today it is “Spanish Harlem Incident”, and how one band took a single rather bland live performance, and transformed the song into a really memorable piece.

By Tony Attwood

For me it is the attempt to make this a solid fast-moving piece through the unchanging guitar part that makes this live performance unattractive.  I suspect the response to this one performance persuaded Bob not to continue with the song.

For this is an occasion in which a varied accompaniment is essential to the holding of our interest, not least because in the first part of each verse there is not much dynamism in the song itself.

When we combine this with the fact that the melody in the verse is often non-existent but combines with lyrics which themselves don’t really grab attention, then we can see why the song in this form is lacking something when it comes to a live performance.

Take for example…

I've been wonderin' all about meEver since I seen you thereOn the cliffs of your wildcat charms I'm ridingI know I'm 'round you but I don't know where

… that third line is actually really interesting – anyone who pauses over the lines will surely be asking “what are these wildcat charms?” and “how is he riding them?” (salacious thoughts spring to mind).   Not to mention how the cliffs actually fit in with the whole concept of the piece.

But musically all we get is one note.  Now that can work if the guitar rhythm is doing something interesting, or the melody is engaging us elsewhere, or perhaps there is a moving accompaniment.  But here Dylan is doing neither of the first two and has no accompaniment beyond the guitar to help him out.

I feel it was at this stage that Bob was learning that in a live performance, the lyrics are not enough – for indeed if all we have is the lyrics then is probably better to leave the piece as a poem.

And so after this one performance, Spanish Harlem Incident was left – at least by Dylan, and by most cover artists.   But do spare a moment if you can to listen to Dion’s version from 1978, which tackles every single one of these issues, and shows us what the potential of the song really was.

So yes, good reasons for Bob not to go forward with the song in its original form, but a lesson can be learned here by all cover artists – just because Bob drops the song doesn’t mean that the song is not worthy of further investigation.

In fact well over half of the songs listed on the official Dylan site have been performed by Bob either never at all, or only once.   There is a treasure trove there for bands who want something different and potentially exciting and written by Dylan, if only they would bother to look.

3 Comments

  1. Hello Tony
    Most of the time when I comment on your posts I am agreeing with you, and perhaps pointing to a cover which you may not have considered.

    But I can’t agree with “lyrics which themselves don’t really grab attention”. From the startling image in the opening line (a place with hands that seek to hold you captive …), to the plea at the end (“so I can know if I’m really real?”), they are full of imagery which paints a fascinating picture of the gypsy girl.

    The Dion version certainly has interest musically, but I don’t think it captures the girl’s mysterious, untameable nature. I prefer some of the others you selected for your “Dylan cover a day” post – in particular the one by Adrian Sicam and Mark Shilansky (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AYqQrhFpzw) which treats her with the respect (almost reverence?) which the lyrics suggest is her due.

    But no doubt everyone has their own individual interaction with the song.

  2. Thanks Andy, and yes of course your are right – my articles are very much personal views. But I would say in my own defence I am always offering to publish contrary reviews by others. I’m expressing how I feel about each piece, hopefully with some evidence from time to time, but I’m very much open to anyone else who wants to put forward a contrary review.

  3. How can we forget the Byrds’ gorgeous, melodic version of this song?

Leave a Reply

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