When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 12: A Bob Dylan song, for those of you with Google


When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 12

by Jochen Markhorst

XII        A Bob Dylan song, for those of you with Google

“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is among the handful of songs whose cover we get to know earlier than the original. Hardly the lesser songs, by the way. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” has appeared about 10 times on other people’s records (Ian and Sylvia, Odetta, Judy Collins, Elvis) before we get to hear what Dylan himself does with the song, also on Greatest Hits Vol. II in 1971. Dylan’s own interpretations of Basement songs like “Quinn The Eskimo” (Manfred Mann), “This Wheel’s On Fire” (Judie Driscoll), “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (The Byrds) and “I Shall Be Released” (Boz Burrell) we don’t hear until years after the premieres either. Or never at all, like, say, “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” (Joan Baez) or “Sign Language” (Clapton). And then we have “Seven Days” (Ron Wood), “Blind Willie Mctell” (The Band), “Make You Feel My Love” (Billy Joel)… well alright, it’s more than a handful, but within Dylan’s vast oeuvre still no more than a fraction anyway.

One difference with all those recordings is the side effect, the consequence that most of those songs get confiscated, as it were. “Quinn The Eskimo” is not a Dylan song, it has since long become a Manfred Mann song, and of “Make You Feel My Love” an estimated three-quarters of the audience singing-along with Adele does not even know it is a Dylan song. Which seems to be the case for “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” as well, since Guns ‘n’ Roses.

But the status of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is diffuse – there are about as many music fans who deem it a Band song as fans who consider it a Dylan song. Plus a splinter fraction of Masterpiece fans who think it has become a Grateful Dead song. At least, that can be gathered from the many, many covers of the song. Musically from all corners of the globe, of course. Bluesy, bluegrass, rock, folk and all their mixtures, translated into Japanese, Finnish, German, Romanian and whatnot, but at least textually we can make a three-way split: The Band’s version from Cahoots, the Dylan version from Greatest Hits and the fictional version as chronicled in the official lyrics.

We hear the “Cahoots version” – obviously – on the wonderful 2007 tribute album Endless Highway: The Music of the Band, on which Josh Turner accounts for “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. An impeccable folk-rocking performance with banjo, fiddle and steel guitar for the rustic couleur, though not too adventurous. However, the contribution to the tribute album does demonstrate that the song is considered a Band song by its compilers. Which also seems to be the case with A-listers Emmylou Harris and Blake Mills. Identifiable by the choice for the girl from Greece and the Coca-Cola bridge, rather than Botticelli’s niece and no bridge.

Emmylou’s cover (on the compilation box Portraits, 1996) is gorgeous and rather safe; largely acoustic, not substantially different from The Band. Not surprising – it is a 1993 recording with her own Nash Ramblers, the band featuring highly skilled men like Sam Bush on mandolin and Al Perkins on resonator guitar, guys who have Americana in their blood.

More idiosyncratic and therefore more interesting is the 2015 exercise of the rightly acclaimed Blake Mills, five years before he will put such a brilliant mark on Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways. In a dilapidated side room, alone on a kitchen chair, a guitar amplifier and a microphone, and above all: Dylan’s Stratocaster. The Dylan-goes-electric-guitar from Newport 1965. The 1964 Three-Tone Sunburst Strat he had left behind in a private plane at the time and only found in the attic years later in 2004, by the daughter of the now-deceased pilot Victor Quinto.

Mills knows how to appreciate it. He conjures a magical, supremely elegant and tasteful arrangement of Masterpiece from the antique treasure (the Strat was eventually auctioned for the staggering sum of $965,000), reverently turns the guitar towards himself after the last note and says: “Wow. Awesome. Thank you, guys.” Introducing the clip is a confession of love from die-hard Dylan fan Blake Mills: “To me he is a torch and an example of a lot of bravery”. And at later concerts where Masterpiece is on the setlist he always faithfully mentions that this is a Dylan song (“A Bob Dylan song, for those of you with Google”), though he still sings the Cahoots version of the first verse (with the girl from Greece). Then again, he does not sing the bridge – but sometimes incorporates it instrumentally in the virtuoso guitar interlude between the second and third verse (the live performance at the Greek theatre Los Angeles 2016 is a highlight after the chilling opening with his own brilliant song “If I’m Unworthy”).


Comparable in terms of idiosyncrasy is the most compelling cover of this variety: Elliott Brood, the Canadian band obviously staying true to their compatriots’ version: “We recorded this Dylan cover at Revolution Studios in Toronto. I think some of the words are wrong, but we had a blast doing it. We were referencing The Band’s version anyways.” The three-man band is usually pigeonholed as an “alternative country band”, but this interpretation is steeped in grunge. Thanks to the heavy, lingering fuzz guitar, illuminated by the heavenly harmony of the second and third vocals, and an irresistible harmonica.

The Dylan faction, the artists who got to know and love the song via Greatest Hits Vol. II is about the same size and is led by Jerry Garcia. Masterpiece was on his setlist as early as ‘72: with Merle Saunders on 6 February at Pacific High Studios. Like the Leon Russell version of Greatest Hits without bridge, but remarkably this one time with the pretty little girl from Greece, whom Jerry in February ’72 can only know thanks to The Band. He converts quickly, though. In the many, many solo and Grateful Dead renditions hereafter, then usually sung by Bob Weir, she remains Botticelli’s niece. As do such tribute bands as Dark Star Orchestra and Uncle John’s Band – Grateful Dead tribute bands, so apparently they consider it a Grateful Dead song.

With which, incidentally, Dylan surely would have no problems at all. His love for the Grateful Dead, and Jerry Garcia in particular, is well-documented, and takes on another layer when concert promoter John Scher gives us a behind-the-scenes look on the Bob Lefsetz Podcast in December 2023. He reminisces about Garcia’s funeral in 1995. Scher is on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next day: “Bob Dylan with an unknown person leaving Jerry Garcia’s funeral,” Scher quotes with a laugh. What were you guys talking about, host Bob Lefsetz wants to know.

“What I really remember about it is while we were walking out, Dylan leaned over to me and said, ‘You know what, John?’ I said, ‘What, Bob?’ He said, ‘The guy lying there (referring to Garcia), he’s the only one in the world who knows what it’s like to be me.’ Which was pretty profound.”

Thus Dylan gives, indirectly and posthumously, his blessing to whatever Dylan song has been covered by Jerry. And a quarter of a century after Jerry’s funeral, he is even more outspoken in The Philosophy Of Modern Song, chapter 55. “One thing Jerry knew was his place in the universe,” Dylan says, then bringing Garcia back to the Roman Empire:

“He knew, as the great Roman orator, philosopher, and statesman Cicero did, that there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that.”

He did leave some ancient footsteps, Jerry Garcia.


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 13: I spent time with Bob. Got two words.


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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