Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #101: I Shall Be Released

Author's note - Sorry about the lack of updates; things got a little hectic in real life. Let's hope I still know how to do this...

A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Wilco in concert (an experience I would highly recommend, by the way), and as their final encore for the night they pulled out a cover of "I Shall Be Released". I mention this not because I want to show off what kind of hip, cool cat I am, but because this experience is not one unique only to Wilco concertgoers. "I Shall Be Released", one of the few songs that is more famous as a cover than as a Dylan original and one of the few Basement Tapes masterpieces that didn't make the official album cut, has been covered many, many times by artists ranging from Bette Midler to Nina Simone to, er, OK Go, and represents possibly the Band's (and Richard Manuel's) finest hour. It is a gloriously simple song, one that lends itself to both literal and figurative interpretations, and it's a wonder that Dylan himself never gave it as much mind as the artists that covered it (the only Dylan versions officially released prior to the Bootleg Series was a live take from the Budokan and the rather inferior Greatest Hits Vol. 2 version). I don't think I'm speaking out of turn in saying that it's one of Dylan's best songs.

What gives "I Shall Be Released" that unending popularity, I suspect, is that the song has the one quality that appeals to artists of any stripe and any medium: it is a song that means both exactly what it says and so much more. The obvious meaning, then, is the thought of a man in prison, waiting for the day when he can reenter the larger world and reintegrate himself into society. We probably don't think too much about this, but just imagine how small a percentage of our population has actually ever served or is currently serving time in prison. Very few of us (including myself, of course...as far as you know) can really understand what it means to be cut off from the world, spending much of your life in a prison cell, visits from friends and family limited to the odd phone call or the occasional visit behind a clear, impenetrable wall. Dylan, even without having had that experience (though he very well could've known somebody who had, through his folk singer days), channels the pain of that experience with a perfect simplicity, ditching the florid emotion a lesser songwriter might use for lines as sharp as that brilliant first verse: "They say everything can be replaced/Yet every distance is not near/So I remember every face/Of every man who put me here". An entire story, condensed into 24 words.

Now, if you wanted to just take the song as the lament/promise of a prisoner who hopes of the day where he can shake his friend's hand and see if the sea is as blue as in his dreams, that wouldn't give the song any less emotional power. But, as you no doubt are aware, there's never any outright mention of jail or of incarceration throughout the song. Sure, you hear about the man "crying out that he was framed", but he's not making that cry from a cell, but from a "lonely crowd" that he stands in. It is in that seemingly contradictory phrase - "lonely crowd" - that the other meaning of the song can take shape. It isn't just from a prison, after all, that we might want to be released from. We have all found ourselves in situations that we don't want to be in, situations where we believe that we are wrongly accused, and moments in our life where we would simply want to be anywhere else. And in that famous chorus, Dylan simply says "any day now/I shall be released", and we know exactly what he's talking about. Maybe you hear it the way Joan Baez did (she dedicated the song to political prisoners when performing it live in the 1960s), or maybe you could hear it the way, say, a battered woman might, but you can still see yourself in that song, the same way the narrator sees his reflection staring back at him, far above the wall that keeps him hemmed in.

Many of you will probably consider the Band's version to be the superior one, and with Manuel's powerhouse vocal performance and a much more fully fleshed out accompaniment from his bandmates, it would be hard to find fault with that. However, in my estimation (this will come as no surprise, I'm sure), the Basement Tapes version is the one that I return to over and over, as it manages to be both the simplest and the most emotionally gripping version of them all. The Band, far more tentative in their backing here than on their own cover, opt for a simplicity in their playing that matches the starkness of the lyrics, a sympathetic backing so typical of their best work throughout the sessions. Dylan, for his part, is somewhat shaky in his singing, but that somehow adds to the endearing factor of the take, and he conjures up a very special magic when Richard Manuel joins him to harmonize during the chorus. You never get the feeling that Dylan actually *becomes* the narrator of the song decrying his lot in life (as some other music critics might suggest), but he does properly summon up the requisite heartache to do the lyrics justice, and that's just as good. Perhaps the recorded version might not have had enough of an "official" feel to make the cut, but its emotional power alone should have been enough to allow the track to make the light of day, rather than be consigned to Great White Wonder/demo for other artist use status.

It is an oft-cited truth in music that the simplest songs tend to become anthems, simply because our human minds are often trained to lock onto a catchy chorus or more direct lyrics (cf. Reagan appropriating "Born in the USA" for something it certainly was not meant to be used as). This is not always a bad thing (although one kind of wishes that a song as reasonably decent as "Imagine" hasn't been blown up to almost Messianic proportions); after all, to touch the most hearts your sentiment has to be as non-specific as possible purely by default. And if you can write a song that touches those universal sentiments without descending into sappy nonsense or a litany of cliches, then you've done something truly remarkable indeed. Bob Dylan, with "I Shall Be Released", managed to do just that. And I guarantee that every artist that covered that song, that memorized those lyrics and sang them with his or her own unique voice, heard something of themselves in those words.

BONUS: I would not consider myself the world's biggest Jeff Buckley fan - his voice is truly astonishing and he had a wonderful band behind him, but at a certain point all of his songs tend to blend together - but I've always loved his impromptu cover of "I Shall Be Released", sung on WFMU radio *over the telephone* while some musicians performed in studio. Give it a listen, at least once. You will not be disappointed.

Jeff Buckley - I Shall Be Released

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10 comments:

Pearce said...

Yer back! Awesome...

This is truly one of Dylan's best, ending off The Last Waltz with it was a pretty inspired choice.

Oh, the link you posted to the Jeff Buckley version isn't available anymore :(

Md23Rewls said...

The song, to me, has always carried a hint of religion, to me. It could easily be looked at as Christ's crucifixion, if that's the view you want to take. Christ up on the cross, waiting to "be released." It's not an overt thing, and I know it's possible that once you start looking for a religious meaning to any song, you can start overreaching, but Dylan's always been good at mixing biblical rhetoric into his songs. It certainly has the sort of anthemic power that would be appropriate. I try not to overread Dylan, but the song's always had a biblical tone to me.

OldBobFan said...

One of Bob's Best. Here's a link to his 1986 Martin Luther King Day interpretation of the song. No where near the heartfelt Basement Tape version, but radically different in lyrics and form.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK9vk8BDaSo

Anthony Wayne Thompson said...

Great blog you have here. I've never given this song much thought, I guess I always thought having been born after it was written that it just wasn't for me or my generation. But you've made some good points here, I'll defn. revisit the song.

Shawn said...

Dear Anthony Wayne Thompson -

Stablejelly says, "Music and movies did not become better just because your parents decided to have sex."

I always go by what the Jelly man says..

Anonymous said...

You can rate this song here: http://www.tweedlr.com/songs/465/i-shall-be-released

daniel said...

I'm wondering who exactly wrote this song? Was is Richard Manuel AND Bob Dylan or just Dylan? I can't remember where I read that it was a collaboration between the two of them. Maybe you'll know?

Anonymous said...

If you like the Jeff Buckley radio version, also check out his Live at Sin-e version, just him and and a guitar. Amazing, just amazing...

Anonymous said...

Goosebumps. Thank you for that cover so much. Great interpretation of a song too.

Harper Yannoulis said...

I agree, that's how I always interpret it. It just somehow has religious overtones permeating throughout the whole song. My personal favorite version is by the Jerry Garcia Band.