Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Author's Voice: Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International

Film critic André Bazin
The French film critic André Bazin once offered that the reason we get so few great movies from great books is that film directors are intimidated by the author's voice. He speculated that the film adapter, who obviously loves the work of fiction, feels in danger of falling short of the book's greatness. Therefore, Bazin thought, it was much easier for filmmakers to make great movies out of ordinary books, bad books, or even pulp fiction. It's an interesting theory. He's right, for example, that there are few great films made out of classic writers such as Dostoyevsky (remember William Shatner in Richard Brooks' woebegotten The Brothers Karamazov?), Virginia Woolf (let's just give a huge pass to Michael Cunningham's nod to Woolf in The Hours), or Tolstoy (War and Peace with Rod Steiger, anyone?). But Jim Thompson (The Grifters), Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) have provided some pretty terrific pictures. Coppola's The Godfather may be the best example of a great film coming out of a mostly lousy book. The only exception to Bazin's rule perhaps is Charles Dickens, celebrating his 200th birthday this year somewhere in the great beyond, who has had more good movies made from his books than any other great writer. But that's likely due to Dickens writing in a popular dramatic style; that is, constructing his stories in a manner that anticipated the model for film narrative which D.W. Griffith would build upon in his first silent pictures. (Outside of Dickens, Henry James and James Joyce might be two other exceptions.)

In considering André Bazin's general observation, I wondered if the same held true for singer/songwriters and the endless number of tribute albums we see these days. The foundation of the American songbook, the infamous Tin Pan Alley, was built solely by songwriters who composed simply so that others could interpret their songs. But this all changed in the Sixties when The Beatles (who wrote and sang their own material) turned Tin Pan Alley into a premature graveyard for the tunesmith. Just consider that you can probably count on the fingers of both hands the number of memorable Beatle cover songs. Which is to say that these four lads from Liverpool were so successful in putting their own distinct voices on their tracks that no one else could claim those songs as their own. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is in a whole other league. Besides being one of the best modern songwriters, as well as the most prolific, and one who has put a very distinct voice on his own material, he also wrote his songs for others to sing. And sing them they did. From Joan Baez, to the 1910 Fruitgum Company, to William Shatner, to The Byrds, they've all tackled Dylan - good and bad. But in performing his songs, each artist has had to deal with Bob Dylan's canny and incomparable voice, to claim it, reject it, or risk failure in trying to do both.

The new omnibus 4-CD set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, a vast selection of Dylan songs that features 73 cover tracks by over 80 artists, has its fair share of both successes and failures. But its sheer range of both material (from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to Time Out of Mind) and genre artists makes it a fascinating listen. Chimes of Freedom, which includes indie rockers (Silversun Pickups), young pop hit makers (Miley Cyrus, Adele, Kesha), reggae favourites (Ziggy Marley), punk bands (Bad Religion, Rise Against), rappers (K'naan) and veterans (Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Pete Townshend and Steve Earle), also celebrates 50 years of Amnesty International which, given their sometimes paradoxical political agendas, makes them an interesting bedfellow for Dylan who walked away from leading charges to the barricades. Be that as it may, no other songwriter could provide a more nuanced selection of social and political material than Bob Dylan. After all, he basically took the topical folk song, which traditionally served the social cause by denying the singer a subjective role in singing it, and turned that tradition inside out. For Dylan, the topical song was purely subjective, where he performed it from his own perspective and not with a socialist realist objectivity. But he also wrote love songs, surreal adventures, blues and gospel, which opens up the territory for such a variety of performers that populate Chimes Of Freedom.

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, Diana Krall's reading of "Simple Twist of Fate," perhaps one of Dylan's most delicately affecting songs about the fragility of romantic longing, is so narcoleptic in its breathy delivery that she could be sleepily reading the lyrics from across the studio floor. Rise Against, on the other hand, tries to bring an overbearing strength to their version of "Ballad of Hollis Brown" by merely cranking up their amps and Tim McIlrath's voice. While "Ballad" begins strongly, the Chicago band ultimately crush the pathos in the song by overdramatizing it. (My Chemical Romance make the same mistake doing "Desolation Row" where all they do is destroy the tune so that you can't hear the wittiness of the lyrics.) Queen of the Stone Age better shows how to effectively turn up the volume in their ripping version of "Outlaw Blues." Carly Simon is far too precious doing "Just Like a Woman" which she sings with a narcissistic coyness as if letting us in on some forgotten secret that the song was always about her. Angelique Kidjo becomes so dead earnest in her take on "Lay Lady Lay" that this slight pot boiler is DOA.

Diana Krall, Bob Dylan and Miley Cyrus 
There are a number of other performers that make the common mistake of paying tribute by being too reverential which, in turn, denies them their own voice. For instance, Lenny Kravitz does such a note perfect version of "Rainy Day Woman #12 &35 (Everybody Must Get Stoned)" that he sounds like he's terrified to make a mistake (which is the wrong tact for a song that Dylan made sound like a protest song sung by bawdy drunks). You'd think Taj Mahal would allow himself the sly humour on "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" that he once brought to his own work like "Cakewalk Into Town," but he sounds so rushed on this epic track as if he can't wait to get to the end. With his gravel voice, he grinds down on every lyric merely proud that he got all the words right. Brett Dennen sings the lovely country track "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" in a silly hayseed voice that sounds like he's spent too much time watching The Beverly Hillbillies. The Dave Matthews Band do a Nobody's Home rendition of  "All Along the Watchtower" perhaps hearing Jimi Hendrix in their head and then quickly giving up the ghost.

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in 1969
But the rest of the collection contains some pretty nice treasures. The set opens with Johnny Cash & Bob Dylan from an unreleased recording in 1969 doing a duet on "One Too Many Mornings" that producer Rick Rubin uses for a gorgeous mash-up with The Avett Brothers. (Almost all the songs on Chimes of Freedom have never been released before.) Patti Smith brings a stirring immediacy to the moral parable of "Drifter's Escape," while Pete Townshend offers a touching rendition of "Corrina, Corrina." Soul singer Bettye Lavette makes "Most of the Time" all her own as if Dylan conceived it with her in mind. Ziggy Marley's "Blowin' in the Wind" has a way of invoking his father's "Redemption Song" (Bob Marley's own "Blowin' in the Wind") in his thoughtful rendition of the Dylan classic. Bryan Ferry, no stranger to Dylan covers, gives a sombre reading to "Bob Dylan's Dream." Mark Knopfler turns "Restless Farewell" into a beautifully hushed prayer. I'm not sure what to make of Mariachi El Bronx's highly dramatic reading of "Love Sick," in Dylan's hands a dark dirge of romantic obsession. In this cover, "Love Sick" becomes a mariachi adventure that conjures a doomed Sam Peckinpah escapade into Mexico. Raphael Saadiq does a saucy and sexy cover of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat." One of the surprises of Chimes of Freedom is how some artists even redeem lesser Dylan tracks. The Belle Brigade turn the turgid "No Time to Think" into a memorable waltz about fleeting obligations. Dierks Bentley's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" becomes a much more sobering lament on regret than Dylan's original on Street Legal. There are also some nice surprises like Miley Cyrus's aching "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," and Evan Rachel Wood turning the lovely ballad "I'd Have You Anytime," which Dylan wrote with George Harrison for his All Things Must Pass album, into a cute cocktail number.

Sinéad O'Connor on Saturday Night Live
But if there's one wild card on Chimes of Freedom it's Sinéad O'Connor's revival of Dylan's "Property of Jesus" from his 1981 Shot of Love album. Written during the period when he was a born-again Christian, "Property of Jesus" was once performed by Dylan with the same self-righteous piety as some of his previous religious work like "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." But O'Connor, likely remembering the night she was booed off the stage at Madison Square Gardens during a Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert, brings the Biblical fury of great gospel that burns the smugness right out of the track. In October 1992, O'Connor had appeared on Saturday Night Live as their musical guest. She sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley's defiant "War" which she performed with the intent of criticizing the Catholic Church's complicity in child abuse. (She changed the lyric "racism" to "child abuse" in the song.) Afterwards, she presented a picture of Pope John Paul II in front of the camera and then proceeded to tear the photo into pieces which she then flung at the camera while shouting, "Fight the real enemy." In a largely Catholic city, the incident caused a major furor. Curiously, few people took up the issue she was actually raising by her gesture.

Two weeks later, O'Connor was scheduled to perform Dylan's "I Believe in You" at the Dylan tribute concert. She was greeted by the audience with a hailstorm of jeering for her actions on Saturday Night Live which got so loud that she stood silent, refusing to start and staring down the angry crowd. Then signaling for her piano player not to begin, she met that force once again with her rendition of "War" and then stormed off the stage to the supporting arms of Kris Kristofferson. Her version of "Property of Jesus" imparts the residue of anger and pain that she carried from that night, in the same way that Bob Dylan's 1974 live version of "Like a Rolling Stone" contained the anger and pain from the booing he endured on his 1966 tour when he played electric music and outraged the folk purists who wanted him to stay acoustic. When O'Connor sings, "He's the property of Jesus/Resent him to the bone/You got something better/You've got a heart of stone," she strips it of Dylan's self-pity and instead delivers it with a defiant roar of self-preservation. "Property of Jesus" is one powerhouse track, an article of faith that equals the force of religious fervor often heard in Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Bob Dylan & The Band's 1974 tour
Chimes of Freedom, which rightly concludes with Bob Dylan's own version of his song, may be a mixed bag of treats, but the album itself is an overwhelming and diverse palette of talent and ambition. Despite the dead spots and honest failures, there is more than enough really good music to consider and I've been playing it a lot lately. It grows on you. But I can only wonder how André Bazin might have interpreted its success.  
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier began a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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