“God, I’m glad I’m not me.”
Recently, I told my father (a retired seventy-something philosophy professor and disavowed leftist) that I’d gone to see a Bob Dylan concert. He asked, “So are his songs about Iraq and Afghanistan now?”
In a knee-jerk response, I said, “Bob Dylan hasn’t written a protest song since 1964.”
Glib and a bit suspect. (“Au contraire, mon frere,” someone will comment, “what about “George Jackson", “Hurricane” and …uh…“TV Talkin’ Song”?”) However, it is true that his Dylan, the old black and white, finger-pointin’ Dylan of '63-'64, turned out to be just a fleeting facet of the man.
Everyone* has their own Dylan. Dylanologists (and, of course, Todd Haynes) have over the years, delineated these variegated Dylan archetypes (traditionalist, protest singer, rocker, country crooner, gypsy, Christian, hack, old cowboy etc.) which everyone is free to warp into their own one and only Dylan. Witness the depths that Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone and Sean Curnyn at Right Wing Bob will plumb to twist Dylan’s every twitch into a signal of allegiance to their own political vision. (As Joan Baez, in No Direction Home, informs those who ask if Bob will come and join their cause. “He never comes, you moron. When are you gonna get it?")
My own Dylans are a hopeless mish-mash. At the age of ten “Gotta Serve Somebody” played alongside “You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore” and “I Will Survive” on my cheap transistor radio. At eleven, a cassette of Greatest Hits smeared together the earliest Dylans for an awkward pre-adolescent. Following a plunge into fundamentalist Christianity, I bought a used LP of Saved and topped it off with the, then-current, Knocked out Loaded. That duo – a gospel album and a hodgepodge – cooled me on Dylan for years. But, much later, I came back, and devoured his entire catalog – finding the wheat even in the chaff-ridden albums. I concluded that with each Dylan being rewarding (even if some are much less so) that picking a single favourite is an affront to the man's work.
However, pushes turning to shoves, that stark, earnest, tune-pilfering Dylan of the early sixties is damn compelling for me. This is the Dylan of my father (a man who has ignored Bob for forty-some years yet can still recite whole verses of “The Times They Are A-Changin'”).
One crucial favourite of this era is “When the Ship Comes In” from The Times They-Are-A-Changin’. This hard-charging battle anthem seems to be about civil right but is in fact all about personal indignation. Joan Baez says after Bob, in all his scruffiness, was turned away from a hotel he wrote the song in a fury. It’s a short jump from the belligerence of this song’s, “Then they'll raise their hands/Sayin' we'll meet all your demands/But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered” to “Positively 4th Street’s”, “You got a lotta nerve/To say you got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on/The side that's winning”. That anger, open or hidden, is one of the many constants in all of Dylan's guises.
In the end, each of the facets are of a piece; there is no Dylan but Dylan.
“There was a time in my life when I fervently wanted to be Bob Dylan. Then I realized that practically everyone else in the world wanted to be Bob Dylan, too, and that even if we all got our wish, being Bob Dylan would be so common that it would be completely meaningless to be Bob Dylan even for the actual original Bob Dylan and the world would end up exactly the same as it was before.”
Frank Portman, King Dork
Here for your listening pleasure, possibly, are twenty two different versions of "When the Ship Comes In."
In 1963 at Carnegie Hall Dylan gave one of those the rambling introductions (“There are crueller Goliaths…”) that would later get him in trouble and then tore into the song, throwing a punk snarl into the consonants. Video (March on Washington) here.
The phoniness that oozes from the living corpse named David Crosby may taint the Byrds for some but Chris Hillman, on the other hand, has a history including once leading this sterling bluegrass band (alongside future country star Vern Gosdin) who in 1964 effortlessly thrust the song back to another time and geography.
This live version from 1994 , with Pete Seeger (supposedly), feels laboured as Arlo’s Dylanesque voice (which he possess for very good reason) clashes with an inflated lite-rock arrangement.Video here
Underwhelming vocals and half-hearted accompaniment on this 1965 version of the song make this band sound like a wa-a-a-y too polite version of the (already pretty damn polite) Seekers. Video here
Bragg's recent version of the song gives it a slightly mournful take, akin to Dylan’s later-period sad readings of “The Times They-are-a Changin’”, which is a shame as the world could use a clanging solo-electric guitar version like Bragg did for that damn "Times...." song.
Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem
That hammy introduction (“You never thought you’d hear Dylan with an Irish accent did you?”) for this version of the song from 1992's 30th Anniversary Concert reminds us that the Clancy’s are actors who bring a broad, theatrical feel to the song, perhaps bringing the song back to it’s roots in the song “Pirate Jenny” from Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. Video here.
Carl Marcus Franklin
In his 2007 film, I'm Not There, director Todd Haynes cast Franklin to portray Dylan as a pre-teen African American named Woody and the young actor digs into the song's gospel elements .Video here
While this band, led by former Long Ryder and author Sid Griffin (who did justice to the Clash's “Something About England on the Sandanista Project - previously) may not have created the lost Byrds version they aspire to this 2001 version still stands as a fitting tribute to Chris Hillman's take on the song.
Le Jour où le Bateau Viendra is a translation by French, (“French from France” as a good Franch-Canadian would specify) singer and Dylan pal, Aufray who gives the song a more heroic but still faithful read.
Idlewild go all sad n’ piano here for a version that will (for a lucky few) recall singer Roddy Woomble’s stunning solo album, My Secret is my Silence (which might better Idlewild’s tense but melodic sophomore 2000 album 1,000 Broken Windows from which this song is a b-side.)
It’s 1979 – the Clash have unleashed London Calling, Daniel Amos are preparing to break Christian rock free of the Eagles grasp with Horrendous Disc and somewhere there still existed this freeze-dried Mighty-Wind Christian folk band (not-to-be-missed album available here) full of banjo and church-choir break-it-down sections.
Mark Haines and Tom Leighton
In 2002 this East Coast Canadian folk duo did a fine accordion and tin whistle take on the song which has clearly become a Celtic standard thanks to the Clancy Brothers.
Totta & Wiehe
Totta Näslund, a veteran Swedish rocker, died of liver cancer in 2005 just before finishing an album of Dylan songs including this one of When the Ship Comes In (apparently a Euro-Dylan favourite) translated to Swedish (as När Vårt Skepp Slår Til) with Mikael Wiehe.
Peter, Paul, Mary
This trio was always disparaged for sanitizing Dylan (didn’t the Byrds do that too?) and this bouncy, yet sincere 1965 cover will not change anyone’s views on a group who are as static as Dylan is mercurial. Video here
Hampered a bit by trying so hard to sound like their earlier selves, this Shane McGownless-less, but Joe Strummer-fortified (previously), version of the Pogues circa 1996 do get the closest to doing a punk rock version of this song (albeit with heavy tin whistle).
Not only did the Hollies do a Dylan covers album as late as 1968 (it’s wretchedness causing Graham Nash to quit and inflict Crosby, Stills and Nash upon an unsuspecting world) but the syrupy arrangement here makes the Slkie sound like the Stooges. Video here
Roky Erickson (13the Floor Elevators.)
Like many Roky semi-bootlegs, this rough demo of uncertain date sounds like someone paid a derelict a mickey to sing into an old boombox. Yet, in his madness, Roky gets an apocalyptic death grip on the song that both Brecht and the Dylan of ’64 would understand.
Bruce T. Holmes
Barry McGuire and Terry Talbot
Y’know, Barry gets a lot of grief for Green, Green, Eve of Destruction and a batch of tepid Christian folk albums (including this one from 1995) but that gritty voice is a biting instrument that can give strength to even his, almost invariably, weak material.
The Golden Gate Strings
Their web-site says, “Come and hear the Golden Gate Strings and see how this exciting ensemble can add
incomparable elegance Muzak to receptions, fundraisers, weddings and corporate events. “
Bob Dylan (with Ron Wood and Keith Richards)
Here, in all its shambolic glory is the Live Aid version from 1985 with the rambling, heretical, introduction that kept Dylan on the outs with the cultural cognoscenti for a decade. In all fairness, Bob Geldof had it coming, as does anyone else who thinks that Dylan meet will meet their expectations. Video here.
If you truly believe you can withstand twenty-two versions in a row of the same song
here is the compilation in its entirety (for preview purposes only to be deleted from your computer in 24 hours etc. etc.)
the first chapter of which is titled "At Midnight, All the Agents..." after the line in "Desolation Row" plus chapter
ten is called "Two Riders Were Approaching" after the final line of "All Along the Watchtower".