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Bobís boys
The Byrds and the Dead do Dylan
BY WAYNE ROBINS

Everybody does Dylan: a Swedish Web site (www.bjorner.com/Covers.htm) that appears to be a reliable source tallies nearly 6000 covers of 350 different Dylan songs by 2791 artists. But itís a safe bet that none of them ó from acolytes like Joan Baez to hysterics like Half Japanese ó does Dylan with the ease and entitlement of the Byrds.

The jingliní, jangliní proof is the new 20-track The Byrds Play Dylan (Columbia/Legacy), which has finally seen the light of CD. (The Byrds Play Dylan was first released in a 13-track version on vinyl in 1979.) The Byrds understood that the skeletons rattling in Dylanís closet were the bones of Buddy Holly, that his visions were those of Elvis, that his motor was ignited not by Woody Guthrieís ghost but by the rock revolution lorded over by the Beatles. The sentimentalized Dylan of Peter, Paul & Mary and the sanctified Dylan of Baez were idealizations that never realized his mass-culture ambitions. The sweetly rocking Rickenbacker of the Byrdsí " Mr. Tambourine Man " was so lyrical and original in that summer of 1965 that it sent Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson back to the woodshed.

The Byrds covered four Dylan songs on their debut album: besides " Tambourine Man, " a number-one single, there was " All I Really Want To Do, " " Chimes of Freedom, " and " Spanish Harlem Incident, " all mildly electric elaborations on acoustic Dylan originals and all elevations, gently prodding Dylan himself and an entire burgeoning rock-and-roll culture forward. The synergy was essential for the Byrds, since even after a second 1965 album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, only Gene Clark (credited solely as tambourine player on the original album jacket) had settled in as a songwriter: Jim (now Roger) McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman were all still learning the craft. The Byrds owned " Lay Down Your Weary Tune " the moment they played it; " The Times They Are a-Changiní  " was the only sign of coasting in the early Byrds/Dylan relationship.

Personnel migrated from the Byrds as often as Dylan changed hats, but rarely did the bandís match-ups falter. " This Wheelís on Fire, " a rendition second only to the Bandís, gave ballast to the mood-swingy Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. When they went country with Gram Parsons leading the congregation on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the two Dylan songs ó " You Ainít Goiní Nowhere " and " Nothing Was Delivered " ó stood out as masterpieces, the pedal steel pealing with a soulful rustic spirit no future country-rockers would ever match. With its haunting harmonies, their " My Back Pages " (originally on Younger Than Yesterday) might be the greatest of all Dylan covers, a farewell-to-all-that, rich in sorrow but never pity.

The misfires are few. Neither of the two versions of " Lay Lady Lay " suits the Byrds. And a live version of " Positively Fourth Street " lacks the viciousness the song demands, revealing the groupís renowned weakness in concert.

Which of course is the last thing one could say about the Grateful Dead. All the same, their early-í90s tour with Dylan was a disastrous musical mismatch. The concert I saw in Minneapolis sounded as if it had been taking place in some dome of doom, with technical and spiritual incoherence ruling the artificial night.

Fortunately, Postcards from the Hanging: Grateful Dead Perform the Songs of Bob Dylan (Grateful Dead Records/Arista) doesnít dwell on that tour, though the notes tend to be sketchy. The material ranges from 1973 to 1990, and the rawness, spontaneity, and genuine oddball quirkiness of the performances are appealing, despite the occasional unsteadiness of Bob Weirís vocals. (The first time I put the CD into my Discman, Weirís singing was so wobbly on " When I Paint My Masterpiece " that I thought the batteries needed changing.) But thatís the Dead for you, and as so often happens, what falls apart at the beginning comes together in the middle, bless Jerry Garcia, before floating gently back to earth. This is the pattern on " She Belongs to Me, " which finds Dylan on lead squawk, and on " Maggieís Farm, " in which Weir canít get his phrasing synchronized with what the lyrics demand and the band are playing. Doesnít matter: sooner rather than later Jerry lobs off a thrilling guitar run that galvanizes the musicians and the song.

The Dead never get close to definitive Dylan: to them heís a major riddle to be explored and filtered through their own set of constantly changing variables. " Postcards from the hanging " is a line from " Desolation Row, " and this lengthy Dylan opus is navigated gorgeously, the Dead triumphing by the sheer audacity of the vast undertaking. Less ambitious but no less solid is " Just like Tom Thumbís Blues, " and Weirís diction, for once, allows you to hear lines you never caught before, like: " I started on the Heinekenís/Then I went on to the stronger stuff. "

Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
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