Monday, July 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #10: House of the Rising Sun


What is it that makes a good cover? Most of us can probably figure out quite easily what makes a good cover from an awful one, but it's not always a cut-and-dry process; more often, there's something more ephemeral going on, something you can't really put your finger on. Take, for instance, Hendrix's beloved version of "All Along The Watchtower", and, say, Orgy's affront to nature that is their cover of "Blue Monday" (and, thankfully, the last we've seen of Orgy). Both of them were big hit singles, and yet one of them is a stone-cold classic and the other one is a dated relic from the late 90's that hardly anybody thinks of today. Admittedly, it might seem unfair to compare an amazing showcase for possibly the best guitar player to ever live with a one-off from an alternative also-ran; nevertheless, the comparison is educational. Hendrix's version manages to be distinctive right off the bat, propelled by the sheer energy of all the players, those famous chords serving as bedrock for solo after solo. It sounds like an original, and you could be forgiven for thinking Hendrix wrote the song himself. Orgy's version, on the other hand, is limp, way too dependent on the original, and sounds a lot like the derivative alt-rock nonsense that helped kill alternative music radio. Not only does it have way too much to do with the original, but it does very little to kill the memory of New Order's version.

So does it really just come down to talent? I wouldn't think so - plenty of crappy bands with nothing else on their resume have recorded great covers. In fact, another New Order song has made for a fantastic cover version - Australian pop also-ran Frente's version of "Bizarre Love Triangle". And in this version is a hint to what makes a truly great cover. Performed acoustically, the guitars actually suggest the synthesizer lines of the original, while the vocals make the song sound sweeter and, oddly, more joyful than the original. It brings to mind New Order's version, but doesn't lean on it for that famous-song rub.
Leaving aside the obvious notion of how subjective musical tastes are, it seems obvious that the best, most enduring covers manage to walk a fine line between paying homage to the original and keeping it at arm's length. In that sense, the original should serve as a blueprint for an old house that's being spruced up for resale; the foundation's there, but the walls need repainting and the carpet has to be cleaned. Hendrix's version is fully informed by the John Wesley Harding original, but Hendrix's remarkable arrangement turns it into something far more incredible than could ever be expected.


I covered a lot of what I wanted to talk about with "House of the Rising Sun" in the "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" post, but let's get this out of the way: the Dylan Chords page for this song notes that the arrangement - along with some records - was "borrowed" by Dylan from Dave Van Ronk, one of Dylan's folk heroes in the early Greenwich Village days. Van Ronk has also stated that Dylan beat him to the punch with the Bob Dylan version before he could record his own, which probably caused a hurt feeling or two. And, remarkably, this version was NOT the basis for The Animals' chart-topping version in 1964 (although people would later say that Dylan ripped off the Animals' version, forgetting the two-year gap; such is perception when one version is far more successful than any other). Obviously, Dylan was in the wrong here - far from the more abstract borrowing from Ramblin' Jack, to steal an arrangement from a man you consider a mentor and stick it on your own album is simply not cool.

Then again, Dylan must have known something, because his version is decidedly dramatic and, after some consideration, my choice for the best song on the album. Beginning with those familiar chords (strummed here, unlike the circling guitar notes of the Animals' intro), Dylan keeps everything as low-key as he can. He drops most of the vocal affectations he uses throughout the album, making this sound closer to something on The Times They Are A-Changin', and this suits the song very well; he infuses the already-dramatic lyrics with an additional tension that builds as the female narrator's tale reaches its climax and she heads back to New Orleans to die of whatever venereal disease that she contracted as a woman of ill repute. Even when he does push his voice, it works, because that just rachets up the tension even more. Somehow, Dylan manages to be convincing as a woman prostitute, which is something he should be very, very proud of.

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Sissy Judy said...

I love the Animals' version (they're from my home town, though that's not the crux of my love for it), but I can't help but be amused by a slight lapse lyrically speaking; while Bob is clearly singing from a woman's perspective, pretty much par for the course in traditional music, Eric Burdon is unequivocally singing from a rent boy's perspective. That's of course all well and good, admirable, even, but certainly pretty far from what he presumably intended. Speaking as a "ze", it's remarkable what a shift in personal pronouns can do. I wonder if anyone else has spotted that... (I'm sure that they have).

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there Tony. yes another interesting essay. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to all the great versions of this song.