07 May 2010

Your Weekly Dylan Cover (#3)

The White Stripes

Original Dylan version found on Desire (1976)

[Ed. note: Regular readers of this blog know that Bob Dylan is affectionately referred to as the "Patron Saint" of TNOP. This weekly feature sifts through the thousands of cover versions of Dylan songs and provides you with our favorites, as well as a quick memory to our first exposure to the Dylan original.]

Some of the best stories in rock and roll are about the artists that go against the grain of what seems to be pervasive in the musical world at the moment. And so it was that Jack White and his "sister" Meg unleashed their raw, garage band assault on the blues at the beginning of the new century. It was contrary to in-your-face rap and the growing impersonal electronic noodling on the rock landscape.

It should not be surprising, then, that Jack White would form a musical bond over the years with another famous contrarian, Bob Dylan. The native Detroiter's choice here (from 2001, when the duo was just starting to draw international attention) is "Isis," a chorus free song written by Dylan and Jacques Levy from Desire. (The White Stripes' debut album included "One More Cup of Coffee," also from Desire.) White's vocal urgency here is definitely traced to the feverish delivery of Dylan on his performances of the song during the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.

The White Stripes have also been known to pull out covers of "Outlaw Blues" and "Love Sick" in concert. In addition, the debut album of White's side project, The Dead Weather, includes a version of Street Legal's "New Pony."

Dylan himself has often tipped his hat to The White Stripes: in addition to joint live appearances (see below), the band's songs have been included on Theme Time Radio Hour. Jack has also popped up as a guest on the show; and Meg was mentioned as a female drummer in the episode "Musical Instruments."

It comes as no surprise that Jack White has supposedly been quoted that he is the progeny of his biological father, spiritual father (God) and musical father (Bob Dylan).


First off, a side note. There's no doubt I was drawn to "Isis" this week simply because of its reference to "the fifth day of May" - Cinco de Mayo. But "Isis" is also one of my personal Dylan favorites.

Like many in their teens, when Desire came out in the beginning of January 1976 there was great anticipation. To me, there was still a newness about Dylan; I certainly was on an on-going discovery of the bulk of the vital 1960s output. But in the midst of the singer-songwriter revolution in the early 1970s, Blood On The Tracks was a watershed to those my age, from a melody as well as lyrical standpoint.

Dylan had been in the pages of Rolling Stone pontificating about the innocence of boxer Rubin Carter and a single tracking the athlete's plight, "Hurricane," had made quite a splash. He would also play some benefit concerts (that presumably cleared no profit) on behalf of Carter, who had been convicted of murder (and would be exonerated in 1985). This was the first time that I had really witnessed Dylan entering into the public fray. But, not surprisingly, reaction to his strident stance on the former middle-weight champ's innocence was decidedly mixed.

Now the majority of that band had assembled in New York City to record a new set of Dylan tunes, and the title Desire was stamped on the album. So placing the 33 1/3 disc on the turntable, carefully placing the needle on track two, I held my breath for the first new shot of Bob. A simple rolling piano riff played by Dylan introduced me to "Isis." And off I went into a land that seemed drawn from one of those old John Ford westerns. The fable unravels in verse after verse - there is no chorus - and is dominated by the violin of Scarlet Rivera. The tale of a mysterious stranger and the lure of buried treasure is countered by the narrator's love of an equally mysterious woman. And Dylan gives the narrator's wife the name of the ancient Egyptian deity Isis, the goddess of magic and light.

As luck would have it, one of my teachers was writing his doctoral thesis on Isis, and this fact made me more drawn to the song. Not that I could understand all the nuances.

In his liner notes to Desire, Dylan writes: I have a brother or two and a whole lot of karma to burn . . . Isis and the moon shine on me. At that stage of my life, no light of understanding was shining on me as to why Dylan was throwing in, for example, a Middle East pyramid into "Isis," a story presumably set in Mexico or America's Wild West, and anchored by a clearly Celtic harmony. But hell if it didn't leave me more intrigued.

Original Listening: Bob Dylan, "Isis"

Live Listening: Bob Dylan, "Isis" (with The Rolling Thunder Review, from Biograph)

Further Collaboration: Bob Dylan & Jack White, "Ball & Biscuit" (Detroit, 17 March 2004); Bob Dylan & Jack White, "Meet Me In The Morning" (Nashville, 19 September 2007)

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