Who the fuck was Bob Dylan any way? The folkie, Woody Guthrie inspired acoustic troubadour folk hero who stood behind MLK during his famous ” I Have a Dream,” speech? The electric rebel who took his three chords and fed them back to his betrayed audience with a backfeeding grin of defiance in 1965? The country-esque crooner who tweaked his voice during his Nashville sessions? The man who found God in the ’80s?
Was he all of these or none of the above? The shades and former past lives of this same enigmatic artist we have loved for all of these years are channeled in the new Todd Haynes directed bio-pic I’m Not There.
There are many music fans out there who don’t grasp the poetic master that is Bob Dylan. Just like many readers didn’t fully comprehend the language and lyrical nuances of The Bard, William Shakespeare. To my ears, Bob is our nation’s artistic counterpart. Like Shakespeare wrote plays that changed drama and literature as we know it, Dylan wrote albums and songs that inspired, shook and revolutionized the music we have always adored and love today. You see, understanding Dylan, is a rite of passage. You are not a real music aficionado until you appreciate the poetic power of Bob Dylan. Without him and his songs there would be a giant void in the sounds coming from our stereos and iPods.
Since 1960, there have been many covers of Dylan songs, some breathtaking like Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower,” and others not so good. You are not truly an artist until you honor the majestic poet that is Bob Dylan by covering one of his songs, and doing it right. To honor our greatest living singer/songwriter, Haynes had gathered some of the most influential artists of today to cover some of Bob’s song for the soundtrack of his eclectic film.
The artists on I’m Not There do Dylan justice and do not disappoint. The soundtrack kicks off with killer version of “All Along the Watchtower” by Eddie Vedder and The Million Dollar Bashers. The Bashers are a musical dream team of today’s best musicians, including Sonic Youth stars Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist Smokey Hormel and keyboardist John Medeski, all brought together as a backing to supply the magical rhythm track to Dylan’s timeless muse. Through out this amazing disc, The Bashers provide the landscape for the singers to do their tributes to Bob.
There are two discs full of incredible performances, here, and I have my favorites, such as Sonic Youth tearing up The Basement Tapes outtake, “I’m Not There.” Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame, of whom I was never really a fan, shines brightly on his bluesy version of “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Cat Power does her best female Dylan voice and seductively succeeds on “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” John Doe’s trademark Golden State voice gives Dylan a fitting soulful treatment on “Pressing On.” Calexico and Parisian Chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg come together on a graceful version of one of my favorite Dylan songs, “Just Like a Woman.” David Mansfield’s fiddle soars so beautifully along with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy’s brilliant rendition of “Simple Twist of Fate.” Mark Lanegan, the post modern Johnny Cash, brings a powerful elegance to “Man in the Long Black Coat.” Calexico and Willie Nelson’s Mariachi vibe of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is one of the soundtrack’s standout and most memorable covers. But my favorite has to be Antony and the Johnson’s stunning performance of Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Antony’s angelic vocal brings the Dylan’s sacred lyrics alive with his faithful and modern day treatment of this Dylan classic.
So many performers to mention that a dissertation could be made on the CD and the film, which brings me to my only complaint of I’m Not There, of the artists who do not appear on the soundtrack. It would have been perfection to fit such luminaries like Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst and PJ Harvey on this soundtrack, but is this being greedy on my part? I don’t think so, but in any case, I’m Not There will make the perfect gift this holiday season for the die hard fan or even the novice looking forward to take that musical journey inside the undiscovered country that is Bob Dylan.
In the film and soundtrack there are many faces that portray and bring to life on the screen and in song for I’m Not There, which goes to suggest that the myth of Dylan will outlive the man. The music and his message is what we will always remember. And when the day comes when he will not be there with us, his voice, his words and songs will still resound through all of us. I believe what Haynes is trying to say is that we are all Bob Dylan. Each one of us, man, woman and child, who listen to Dylan’s lyrics become a part of the mythology. We personally piece together his puzzling lyrics by incorporating them with our own memories and lives by making these legendary songs our very own. Just like the artists covering his songs, we wear the masks of his melodies every time we sing his sons. And I’m Not There is the ultimate tribute to the artist who will always be here, there and everywhere, within us in the rhymes and rhythms of his eternal songs.
Various Artists – Velvet Goldmine OST
Shudder to Think – First Love, Last Rites
Bob Dylan and the Band – The Basement Tapes