‘Please Don’t Put A Price On My Soul . . .’

Originally posted March 18, 2008

As 1967 drew to a close, the world – or at least that portion of the world that paid close attention to rock music – waited to hear from Bob Dylan. He’d been silent since a motorcycle accident near the end of June 1966, and the music world had moved on without him.

Most accounts say that Dylan injured some of his neck vertebrae and had a concussion from the accident; other accounts over the years have said those injuries were overstated. Whatever the truth, it’s a fact that Dylan withdrew from performing and from releasing new material. After Blonde on Blonde, released just weeks before the accident, there came silence and rumors. Vague reports surfaced that Dylan was recording something with the Hawks, as the group that had backed him on his 1965-66 tours was then called. Exactly what was being recorded was unclear.

What was clear was that rock music’s direction was changing even as Dylan and the Hawks worked in isolation in Woodstock, N.Y. In August of 1966, the Beatles released Revolver, a remarkable album. In early 1967 came the even-more-remarkable double single of “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever,” and in June 1967, the released the extraordinary Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The reaction from upstate New York was silence.

In November 1967, the Rolling Stones released their response to Sgt. Pepper, the inconsequential Their Satanic Majesties Request. Its baroque complexities and psychedelic flourishes now seem self-conscious, but it was heard at the time as the most recent statement in the three-way conversation between the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan. Those complexities and flourishes made Dylan’s response, at the end of 1967, startling and baffling.

That response, John Wesley Harding, could not have been more different from what had come before, from others and Dylan both. In terms of Dylan’s own work, it was a huge shift away from what Dylan himself had called the “thin, wild mercury sound” of Blonde on Blonde. That contrast in itself was surprising, but when one compared the spare, almost countryish sound of John Wesley Harding to the more recent work by the two groups that critics and fans considered his great rivals, the Beatles and the Stones, the gulf between the works was astounding.

(Had those critics and fans been aware of the music that Dylan and the Hawks – soon to be rechristened The Band – were recording, the sound of John Wesley Harding would not have been such a surprise. It would take until 1975, with the release of The Basement Tapes, for the listening public to have authorized access to the Americana – alternately spare, ebullient, whimsical and cryptic – that provided in retrospect the bridge from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding as well as to The Band’s 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink.)

John Wesley Harding, it seems to me, occupies a distinct place in Dylan’s collected works. Not because of any deficiencies: It’s a great album, and it was a popular one, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and staying there for two weeks. But even for an artist known for abrupt shifts in focus, John Wesley Harding showed a startling shift in direction. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, its music not only followed sensibly in the wake of The Basement Tapes but also anticipated the hybrid of country and rock that many musicians would aspire to in a very short time. (One of those musicians, Gram Parsons, certainly didn’t need to look outside of himself for inspiration, but I wonder sometimes what impact Dylan’s shift to a country-like sound had on Parsons’ goals and self-assurance as he led the Byrds toward the mid-1968 release of their classic country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.)

Like most of Dylan’s music over the years, the songs on John Wesley Harding have lent themselves to significant cover versions. The most well-known – and maybe the best – would likely be Jimi Hendrix’ take on “All Along the Watchtower.” Hendrix’ take on the song was so good that, over the years, Dylan would occasionally incorporate portions of Hendrix’ version into his own live shows. Another measure of how well Hendrix covered the song is that “All Along the Watchtower” gave Hendrix – whom I view as the quintessential album rocker – his only Top 40 single; the record went to No. 20 in the autumn of 1968.

There are other good covers from the album; every one of the twelve songs on John Wesley Harding has been covered by at least two other performers, which to me is just one more indication of the album’s greatness. The best of those covers? Richie Havens recorded “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” on his Richard P. Havens, 1983 album in 1969. Johnny Jenkins’ Ton-Ton Macoute! album from 1970 contains a saucy version of “Down Along The Cove,” with Duane Allman on guitar. But to my mind, the best cover of a song from John Wesley Harding is Joe Cocker’s take on “Dear Landlord” on his 1969 Joe Cocker!

Joe Cocker – “Dear Landlord” [1969]

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