David C.: The first time I heard The Byrds’ cut of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was in a History of Rock class in college, because some of us didn’t have the privilege of being raised on proper music – In fact, some of our hippy dads cut their hair (Look away, David Crosby!) and started listening to nothing but modern country in the ’80s and didn’t return for a long, long time. My first thought, though, when those vocals kicked in was “What is this easy listening bullshit?!”
A lot of artists back in the day thrived on taking Dylan’s tunes and paving over his acquired-taste vocals with a more popular and more easy-to-swallow formula. After all, Bob’s never been precious about his songs — For example, just take a listen to how unrecognizable they are during any given touring cycle these days. His songs aren’t museum pieces to him. Anyway, there are solid cover examples and then there’s The Four Seasons covering “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” in what may be the most misguided and bizarre attempt at ruining a song I’ve ever heard. [But speaking of Roky Erikson, check out The 13th Floor Elevators doing a rough and ready version of “It’s All Over Now (Baby Blue)”.] The Byrds really took to covering Dylan – After all, their first album, which is *named* Mr. Tambourine Man, is 33% Dylan covers and their next album has two more covers of Dylan tracks. [They broke free on the trippy Fifth Dimension.] It was a boom business for them in those early days. In fact, their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” came out at roughly the same time as Bobby D’s, and the public immediately made its choice: The Byrds for the win. Critics haven’t reversed that decision to this day.
I get it. There’s that irresistible 12 string electric intro. There’s the historical context of popularizing folk in a rock template and basically starting folk rock. There’s also the fact that this jingle jangly sound inspired COUNTLESS bands down the ole dusty trail of time. But my question is: Does that necessarily make it the best version of this particular song?
Out of Dylan’s four verses of absolutely divine poetry (and I don’t say that of him too often. As soon as Highway 61 hits, he starts leaning really heavily on tropes and pop culture figures in the lyrics for my tastes. ‘Robin Hood and Captain Hook chatting in the Bastille / Kings and Queens are cards but they know how to feeeeeel!’), but out of four excellent verses, The Byrds chose only the trippiest one, i.e. the verse that makes this into a simple song about trippin’ balls on whatever drug you’ve got laying around, and isn’t that kinda anti-magical? McGuinn sounds like he’s just barely clinging to consciousness when he slurs “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship / My senses have been stripped.”
Also, when you’ve got all those vocal harmonies, shouldn’t it be “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for us”? Just sayin’.
Robby Zimmerman’s original, while it can be exhaustingly long especially when you’re the asshole singing it at karaoke, has complexity. He’s on the record as saying it’s not about drugs – He hadn’t even been introduced to the good stuff at that point. The Tambourine Man in Dylan’s world is some kind of otherworldly entity, a pied piper to a better world. He’s mystical, and Dylan’s singular, weary grit of a voice stands alone calling out to him. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s a story, it’s a painting, it’s an alternate reality.
Hey, but The Byrds’ version actually has some tambourine in it, so…
Dan: A complete reimagining. A conjuring of spirits from a base being. A flock of angels risen from the frame of a single sparrow. A sparrow being a Byrd. And The Byrds being the conjurers in question, the band that gave Robert Zimmerman his pop wings. Make no mistake: Bob Dylan would have been a niche folkie, on the same level as his GF Joan Baez or his axe-wielding rival Pete Seeger, had it not been for Roger McGuinn and his Beatle-booted, Brian Jones shag cut crew. The only times you would see Bobby D these days would be on those PBS “American Rusty Folk Roads” or whatever shows or during late night half-hour 60s folkie sets low on the FM dial. Because nobody recognized any mass market potential encoded anywhere in the DNA of any Dylan song before this garbled eight minute dirge about a hash dealer caught the ear of a princely young sonic wizard named Roger.
Five years after The Byrd’s shimmering, otherworldly version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” became a Number One hit single on the Billboard charts, the story goes that Bobby D. scribbled a slew of words on a piece of paper in the studio one night. The words were:
The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes
That’s where I want to be
Flow river flow
Let your waters wash down
Take me from this road
To some other town
When asked what he was going to do with these lyrics, if he was going to record them or come up with a melody line, the ever-enigmatic Bobby D. simply said, “Nah, send them to Roger McGuinn. He’ll know what to do with them.” The lyrics in question became “The Ballad of Easy Rider” which soundtracked the legendary film and gave it its name. In this instance at least, it seemed that Mr. D. agreed with me that The Byrds could do his songs better than he could. They could take his knotty poetics and hone them down, amp up the hidden melody lines, make the whole creaky apparatus soar.
Not that The Byrds needed Bob Dylan songs to start or popularize at least three major musical genres that countless bands are still wallowing within. They tended to use his songs at key turning points, utilizing them as conduits to shape shift into new dimensions whether the originals pointed that way or not. The confessional “My Back Pages” was turned inside out and shot through with raga tones to usher in psychedelia alongside Byrdsian originals like “Eight Miles High” and, even better, “I See You”. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was given a rollicking, steady-rollin’ hippie country vibe that said everything The Eagles ever had to say before that band even existed. In a way, The Byrds were less Dylan admirers than they were Dylan deconstructionists. They took his tracks and played around with them, knocked them around a bit, sometimes just cancelled the original melody altogether and took it someplace else. Sometimes you even wonder why McGuinn bothered to use Dylan as a template at all. The end results are often so different all he had to do was give them different lyrics and they would be Byrds originals so completely rearranged that Dylan could never touch them with a lawsuit.
With “Tambourine Man,” McGuinn ushered in the type of gliding, tingly folk strider track that six out of ten bands specialize in all the way up to this year of our lord 2018. It’s incredibly surprising that Bobby D. didn’t seem offended in any way by this rendition and has never spoken ill of it, considering McGuinn took one look at the 17 or so verses and said “Um, fuck all that shit” while shaving the whole thing down to just one economical verse sandwiched by two choruses that swoon so hard they probably made Brian Wilson sit straight up in his sandbox with fear. And then there’s that twelve string riff, chiming tones so bright they seem to morph into sunshine itself, gliding over everything like a benevolent god. The end result lands so far away from the original that it stops being reverential. The song is a great success not because it copies or builds upon the original but because it disrespects it, whipping the thing into shape like a mean trainer on his last day at that particular gym. They say that the best way to match your idols is to challenge them, and though Roger clearly idolized Bob Dylan he certainly risked his ire with this track that completely overhauled a song Bob was clearly proud of as it stood.
There exists a photo of Bob Dylan hearing The Byrd’s version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time. What is that look on Bobby’s face? What is he thinking in this moment? He realizes he’s about to become very rich, certainly, but is there something else? Is he awed by the melodies he didn’t know existed within his own song? Is he surprised how his basic chorus is set alight in AM airwave Dayglo swirls? Is he maybe a little pissed that Roger chopped 90% of his lyrics? Three full verses gone like they meant nothing? Does he even sense a tiny glimmer of sarcasm on McGuinn’s phrasing of his lyrics? And is he perhaps disturbed that this monster will no doubt be a smash hit far beyond any he would ever achieve with his originals? The look on his face in that photo says it all, really. The usually enigmatic and inscrutable Bobby Dylan in his visceral mid-60s prime, shocked and awed like he’d never been before.
[David C. Interjection: Purportedly, Bob’s actual response to hearing the song was “Wow, you can dance to that!”]
In a number of ways, The Byrds did themselves a great disservice in covering so many Dylan songs. This is a band who, over just a six year existence, evolved so fluently and covered so much ground that listening to their catalog chronologically can make your head spin. Each album was a complete revelation and rebirth. Sometimes even each track. Sometimes even within a track. Sometimes even several times within a track. Gods passed through McGuinn’s ranks. David Crosby. Gram Parsons. Gene Clark. All of them set to gold within his orbit. Many songwriters would sacrifice their souls to the devil several times over just to touch a McGuinn original like “Lover Of The Bayou” or “Artificial Energy”, not to mention any of the Clark, Parsons, and Crosby tracks, immortal bangers like “Eight Miles” and “Everybody’s Been Burned” and “Hickory Wind”. And yet to some ignorant individuals, this band will always be known as the dudes that covered Dylan a lot.
But make no mistake, “Mr. Tambourine Man” is very far from a cover version. It’s cultural vandalism. It’s a deconstructionist masterpiece. It’s a graffiti tagged museum. It’s The Bible rewritten to allow for cheap sin. It’s a bully turning mere poeticism upside and shaking it until gold falls from its pockets.
Here’s another one I thought was going to be easy (Dylan, right?). But giving the songs a good listening-to, and considering the historical significance, I’m going to have to go with the Byrd’s version.
The one-two effect of the 12-string Rickenbacker intro, along with the unique harmony styles1 of Roger McQuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark, make for the most striking opening twenty seconds of any recording debut. I still stir a bit when I first hear the opening bars, and I imagine the impact on the listening public must have been exponentially more intense some 50-plus years ago. (By the way, that D-A opening bass line is equally key to the entire groove.) The novelty of this song has not been lost on me, despite it being in some heavy FM rock-radio rotation during my early years.
That’s not to trivialize the Dylan version. Dylan’s delivery is sublime and lyrical during the “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man…” refrain, with a simple, yet instantly recognizable, melody. The verses play with a thematic variation, weaving between melodic and static treatments of the tune. The understated electric guitar playing of Bruce Langhorne keeps me engaged, adding an ever-varying line beneath Dylan’s performance. Bruce’s playing here is the type you hardly notice, unless you were to hear the same song absent of it.
With the Byrds’ version of Mr. Tambourine Man, we have the genesis for the architecture of an entire sub-genre. This influence was in no way contained within the folk(-rock) community, but indeed can be heard well across the pond – No Byrds’ version, no Nowhere Man. Because this is the template to so many other tunes, this factor weighs heavily for me in this discussion. In the context of Dylan’s canon, or even the album Bringing it all Back Home (on which the tune appears), I’d be hard pressed to say that we’d still be discussing Dylan’s version without the Byrds sublime interpretation.
1 To learn just what made the Byrds harmony standout out, read this article Slate.com.