A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I let myself be talked into moving to Arkansas. I was just out of college and the economy was kind of crappy… let’s just say not much was “trickling down” my way. Upon graduating I took a job for a large corporation in Fort Smith, Arkansas – sight unseen. They offered me the chance to go down and check it out before moving there but I just blindly said, “yes, I’ll take the job.” If I had gone down to check the place out, there is no way in Hell I would have moved there (Sorry, Arkansas). There wasn’t a single woman in the tri-county area. I consider that time, “My Time In Exile.” Not that Kansas City is Rome or Florence, but Fort Smith tested the limits of my endurance… I felt like Dante.
Finally, my corporate overlords at the time realized the huge mistake they’d made in putting me in that awful, desolate outpost, removed from humanity and the opposite sex and transferred me to Fayetteville, Arkansas. This was much better as the University of Arkansas is located there. While I didn’t have much more success with the co-eds than I did with the lone woman in Fort Smith, at least I could buy U of A baseball season tickets. The problem with Arkansas for me was that everybody knows everybody. If they don’t know a person, they know somebody who does know that person. I was from Kansas City and likely considered a “carpet-bagger.” With my lack of an accent I was eyed with great suspicion. In my sullen celibacy I began to joke that I couldn’t get laid in Arkansas because I didn’t have any relatives who lived down there. That never got the laugh I thought it would. I treated my time in Arkansas the way Dylan did when he sang, “Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m just passin’ through…”
This was all brought into intense clarity for me one night, when my buddy Arkansas Joel (name changed to protect the guilty) drove up from Ft. Smith to do some drinking in Fayetteville, down on Dixon Street where the hippies and the coeds mingle in intoxicated bliss. I had met Arkansas Joel who was also exiled to Ft Smith when I moved there, and frankly my friendship with him, that has lasted to this day and is something I cherish, is the only good thing to come out of those horrid three years. It was Arkansas Joel who turned me onto U2… I mean, I liked them, but he made me understand them.
Arkansas Joel and I decided to hit the “hot spot” in Fayetteville, down on the town square (which I might add is a cool thing about southern small towns, they all have a town square), named The Post Office. It was so named because in years past, it was actually the post office. Oh, the irony. I think the last time I was in Fayetteville, the building is now a flower shop but I digress. We walked into the ol’ P.O. and it turns out Arkansas Joel knows everyone in the bar. They’re all from his home town, Helena, Arkansas, on the east side of the state by Memphis. Helena was the home of the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show when I was a kid, giving Arkansas Joel even that much more musical credibility. Mind you, I’d been walking into bars, well, let’s admit it, every night I lived in Arkansas, and I never knew a soul. I couldn’t get arrested in that state, although I certainly tried. Yet, we walk into the Post Office on a Tuesday and suddenly Arkansas Joel is the fucking Mayor of the Post Office. It was the Helena Town Hall Meeting. People were sending us drinks. I realized, I gotta get out this state.
I mostly stood off to the side that night, while Arkansas Joel regaled his fellow Helena citizens with stories of high school and people named Scooter and Skeeter… At least that’s how I remember it. I was pretty bored… Sensing my boredom and an impending tantrum, Arkansas Joel drew me into a conversation with a guy from his high school, Tim or Todd (name changed to protect B&V), I don’t recall. We got on the subject of music because, well, it was me and that’s all I talk about. This guy was pontificating about who was good and who was bad when the subject of Bob Dylan came up. I’m a huge Dylan fan and pretty much have been since my ol’ roomy Drew turned me onto him in college. This guy, Tim or Todd, said, and Arkansas Joel and I quote this to this day, “Dylan, he’s a poet man. A real poet, but he can’t sing for shit.” I don’t remember swinging at the guy or even threatening to do so, but I remember Arkansas Joel getting between us when he saw that crazy look in my eye, and the next thing I knew, we were in another bar. I seem to remember mumbling, “stupid fucker,” a couple of times…
Ah, youth. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that many people would actually agree with Helena, Arkansas’ foremost purveyor of rock culture, drunk blowhard Tim. The Rock Chick especially despises the sound of Dylan’s voice, much to my chagrin. It didn’t help that when I took her to see him in concert his vocals could most generously be described as “wheezingly inaudible.” And, all these years later, the Nobel Committee apparently agrees with Helena Blowhard Tim, Dylan’s lyrics are actually poetry. I have played versions of Dylan’s songs covered by other artists that have received the Rock Chick seal of approval and then turned around and played the Dylan version only to get a blank stare. This was taken to the next level when Amnesty International released “Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan” with dozens of groups covering Dylan with varying degrees of success. My favorites from that collection are Jackson Browne’s “Love Minus Zero,” and Miley Cyrus, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Yes B&V fans, you read that right, Miley Cyrus. Put the crazy aside, the woman can sing… and she’s easy on the eyes. Ahem…
Anyway, since the days of the Helena Town Hall Meeting in the Post Office Bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I’ve always kept a running list of my favorite Bob Dylan cover songs. I even have a playlist that collects my favorites. This is by no means an exhaustive list of his covers, they number in the thousands and I can’t type a list that long… this isn’t Wikipedia for God’s sake. Here are what I consider to be the best of his cover songs… One caveat, there are typically multiple versions of each of these tunes, I went with one version for each tune selected. I’ll try and call out other notable versions where possible. I’ll be the first to admit there is a preponderance of Rod Stewart here, what can I say, the man knows good lyrics when he sees them…
- Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi owns this song. It all starts here in terms of Dylan covers. This is the high water mark.
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – No one was more surprised than me when I first heard this.
- Pearl Jam, “Masters of War” – This one is hard to find, it’s on the all acoustic live LP, ‘Live at Benaroya Hall.’ Eddie Vedder doing one of Dylan’s most intense protest songs, sign me up.
- Kenny Wayne Shepherd, “Everything Is Broken” – The blues wunderkind does a nice job on this late period Dylan gem.
- Rod Stewart, “Mama You Been On My Mind” – One of many Rod covers of Dylan. Rod could release an album of strictly Dylan covers.
- The Band, “Blind Willie McTell” – I won’t go so far as to call the Band’s version definitive, but it’s close.
- Ronnie Wood, “Seven Days” – Ronnie happened to be there when Dylan offered the song to Clapton and he declined… Ronnie jumped in. Ah, timing.
- Mike Ness, “Don’t Think Twice” – This one from Ness’ wonderful solo album “Cheating At Solitaire.”
- Beck, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” – It’s like Dylan on a slip and slide, turned upside down. Great track from the genius that is Beck.
- Bruce Springsteen, “Chimes of Freedom (Live)” – There’s a long preamble speech about Amnesty International but once you get past that, this is a great take on a great Dylan tune.
- Mick McCauley & Winifred Horan, “To Make You Feel My Love” – Billy Joel does a great version of this song, but my daughter who knows how much I love Dylan and this song used Shazam to identify this song in a Home Depot and then text me. I love this version for that story alone.
- The Band, “This Wheel’s On Fire” – The Band who backed him best doing the definitive version of this song.
- Norah Jones, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – If only that were true…heh, heh..ahem. This is a bonus track on her debut album.
- Warren Zevon, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – Many people have covered this song, from Clapton to GnR, but Warren did it on his farewell album, “The Wind” and I found it very touching.
- Rod Stewart, “The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” – One of Dylan’s great, mid-period, blues stompers.
- Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” – From the sensational album “Going Back Home.” If you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor and pick that LP up.
- The Rolling Stones, “Like A Rolling Stone” – I think it was inevitable the Stones would do this song… Hendrix does a great version, live, on the LP ‘Winterland.’
- The Faces, “Wicked Messenger” – The Faces nail the ominous tone of this song.
- Sheryl Crow, “Mississippi” – Sheryl does a great version of this late period gem. Dylan recorded a number of versions of this tune himself…
- Rod Stewart, “Girl From the North Country” – One of the best tunes from the much maligned ‘Smiler’ LP.
- Robert Plant, “One More Cup of Coffee” – This was also covered wonderfully by the White Stripes on their debut LP, but I love Plant’s voice matched with the exotic nature of this tune.
- Super Sessions (Bloomfield, Kooper, Stills), “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” – I think Stills is playing lead on this one, not Bloomfield who had played with Dylan when he went electric.
- Cowboy Junkies, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” – “…or else you gotta stay all night…” Great turn on this song with the female lead vocals.
- George Harrison, “If Not For You” – George covering his pal Dylan expertly.
- Rod Stewart, “Sweetheart Like You” – One of my all time favorite Dylan songs. I like the Dylan version better, but then I almost fought a guy in Arkansas over Dylan’s voice once…
There are an infinite number of Dylan songs covered by an infinite number of artists. I’ve probably missed some of the key ones or one of your favorites. Feel free to add to my list in the comments! Enjoy!