Covering Dylan

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  November 20, 2007

The best work here comes from Jim James & Calexico, who deliver a mournful “Goin’ to Acapulco”; from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who makes “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” sound as if one of Dylan’s cracked characters were singing it; from Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová with a lovely, rustic-sounding “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”; and from Yo La Tengo, who nail “Fourth Time Around” and rave up the joint on “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”

There are two tracks, however, that tower above the others. John Doe covers “Pressing On,” a song from Dylan’s gospel period, adding further proof that that sequence of his career needs to be re-examined. Doe gives a stately, soulful grandeur to the song; it’s the sound of a man longing for salvation and as confident he’ll find it as Buddy Holly was that he’d find true love. And Marcus Carl Franklin (the young actor who plays Woody in Haynes’s film, Dylan as a black 11-year-old free spirit riding the rails), accompanied by Joe Henry on acoustic guitar, does such an unaffected, deeply felt reading of “When the Ship Comes In” that it makes the rest of the contributions seem a bit suspect. Utterly unburdened by any reverence for Dylan, any need of measuring up to or bettering the original, Franklin digs right into the song, singing so truly that it almost might be singing him. It’s a miniature version of the freedom and reinvention that’s at the heart of the movie.

The great news about the DVD The Other Side of the Mirror is that someone was there to capture Dylan’s performances at Newport. The bad news is that is was Murray Lerner. A terrible filmmaker, Lerner seems to know instinctively the wrong place to put the camera. Dylan’s face is obscured by a microphone in some scenes, or he’s held in close-up in others, a real problem in the 1965 performance, where we’re denied the interchange between Dylan and his band and the faces of the crowd booing them. At other places, we only get snippets of a song, or we get entire duets between Dylan and Baez — which, if they do nothing else, make it plain that her piercing, sexless, humorless voice cannot blend with his.

And yet, The Other Side of the Mirror is essential. Dylan is so open, so funny, so direct as the young troubadour of 1963 that you can understand why the audience at his 1964 appearance, where protest music has given way to the poetic avalanches of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom,” treats him less as one of theirs than as an idol, and why the 1965 audience feels such hatred for the barbed, aggressive “Maggie’s Farm” and the dandy singing it. No one watching the 1965 performance will ever again claim that people were simply yelling because they couldn’t hear the words. (Pete Seeger has been putting that whopper around for years.) This is hatred, pure and simple, the sound of voices demanding a human sacrifice. And Dylan, both mollifying and defying them, severs his relationship with the folk community by reappearing to sing an acoustic “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” tears rolling down his face. It’s devastating.

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