Saturday, January 17, 2009

Under The Influence

Do we really need another Bob Dylan book? Sure. Especially when an authority like Derek Barker (founder and editor of Dylan magazine Isis) is the author and the subject is one which hasn´t been covered in book form this extensively before. And that´s the case here, as Bob Dylan Under The Influence - The Songs He Didn´t Write is a voluminous encyclopedia on all the songs Dylan chose to cover - live and in the studio - during his long career. Thoroughly researched and well written, it´s an inspiring read.

As Barker says in his commentary on the song Rocks And Gravel: ´Much has been made in recent years of Dylan´s use of blues lyrics within his own songs (on Time Out Of Mind, "Love And Theft" and Modern Times). Wild hysterical accusations of plagiarism have rung out around the world yet Dylan, like countless great blues artists, has employed this approach to his song-writing from day one. In fact, it is the main reason that this book exists. Because not only has Dylan covered the songs in this book, he has also borrowed from and been influenced by many of them. His song-writing would not exist in its present form without the rich heritage of traditional folk and blues music.´ Well said, and very true.

I may have quite a few tomes on Dylan already:

but Under The Influence sure is a valuable addition. It may be a reference book foremost, but true Bobcats will probably read it from A (the entry on A-11 by Hank Cochran) to Y (Your True Love by Carl Perkins). And for those uninitiated in Dylan´s shadow oeuvre, it would make an excellent starting point in collecting all these wonderful live shows that are out there somewhere.

"Come all you old time cowboys and listen to my song...
please do not grow weary, I'll not detain you long,
Concerning some wild cowboys who did agree to go
spend the summer pleasant on the trail of the buffalo..."

Take the entry on Dylan covering the classic traditional Buffalo Skinners (a.k.a. Trail Of The Buffalo). Barker gives a lot of historical background on the song, which is apparently based on a true story. He points out that although variants of this song have been recorded by many artists, Dylan´s original source was undoubtedly Woody Guthrie. He also notes Dylan´s versions feature different dates and settings for this song, ranging from Griffin to Jacksboro, Texas and from ´63, ´65, ´73, ´83 to 1900... Funny. Finally, Barker asks himself the question if it would be possible that Dylan had the ´our trip it was a-pleasant´ line from this song in mind when he wrote ´my trip it hasn´t been a pleasant one´ for his own composition Drifter´s Escape. A splendid observation, which just might be true, too.

Dylan recorded Trail Of The Buffalo for the first time in the East Orange, New Jersey home of the Gleason family - good friends of Woody Guthrie - in early ´61. This, by the way, is the first tape on which Bob can be heard playing the harmonica, although not on this fine take. He later tried the song, now entitled The Hills Of Mexico for some reason, during the famed Basement Tapes sessions in ´67 with The Band. After a false start at the beginning the guys resume the song, but when Dylan stumbles again later he tells Garth Hudson to stop recording as they´re ´just wasting tape´. Shame, as they were just getting a groove going.

Woody Guthrie - Buffalo Skinners MP3
Bob Dylan - Trail Of The Buffalo MP3
Bob Dylan & The Band - The Hills Of Mexico MP3

I´ve always loved the garagy electric-with-band performance of the song Dylan gave in the early days of the Never Ending Tour, on June 10 ´89 in The Hague, a concert I was lucky enough to attend. Yup, that´s the underrated G.E. Smith on guitar. Barker states that although it´s a fine version, he has difficulty listening to Trail Of The Buffalo in an electric setting. I don´t have that problem at all myself (maybe because I saw it live), but I can see where he´s coming from. So let me also include here what Barker calls the ´far better, stunning acoustic rendition´ from West Point on October 13, ´90. You choose.

Bob Dylan - Trail Of The Buffalo (Live The Hague ´89) MP3
Bob Dylan - Trail Of The Buffalo (Live West Point ´90) MP3

"Come gather round me, people, here's a story you never heard,
'bout me and my friends and some shit that occurred..."

As an encore - it´s not mentioned in Barker´s book, and has no place there either - I´ll add Beck´s delightful take on Buffalo Skinners, now called Mexico. Keeping nothing but the melody and story outline, Beck modernizes the tale to hilarious effect. The protagonist is working at a McDonald´s, but gets the sack after a robbery occurs. Together with some pals he first tries to rob a 7-11, which doesn´t work as the clerk pulls out an Uzi, then holds up the same McDonald´s before heading over to Mexico, where things don´t quite work out. His friends call their parents and take the bus back home, while he ends up working for a Mexican McDonald´s. As this one stems from one of Beck´s early lo-fi cassettes, don´t expect great audio quality. I know there´s a better sounding version from a radio show out there: anyone?

Beck - Mexico MP3

Update And we´ve already got a winner... Reader Brad came to the rescue faster than lightning: thanks a mil! So here´s the much better sounding version of Mexico I was looking for, live on KCRW radio.

Beck - Mexico (radio version) MP3


Rockstar Aimz said...

Fantastic post! I'm on this book like a Canadian on donuts!

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