30 September 2010
Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard
"Absolutely Sweet Marie"
Original Dylan version found on Blonde On Blonde (1966)
Last year, a seemingly odd pairing hit the road, promoting a soundtrack that the duo had written for a documentary about - of all things - the time Beat novelist Jack Kerouac spent in Big Sur, California. The music Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard created for One Fast Move or I'm Gone drew varied reactions. But the tour that the two undertook across the US garnered raves.
Farrar, the St. Louis based musician who became a favorite on the alt-country scene with the groups Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, is a talented guitarist and harmonica player with a distinct sounding voice. Gibbard, front man for indie darlings Death Cab For Cutie, is an adventurous vocalist and guitarist from Washington state.
As the set list solidified, Farrar & Gibbard took to encoring with "Absolutely Sweet Marie." The original, recorded by Dylan in a Nashville studio, couldn't have sounded further from Opryville with its jaunty organ reflecting the swinging '60s. In this cover, performed at Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre on 23 October 2009, the arrangement is turned inwards, with pedal steel prominent and a great harp solo by Farrar. The lyric is in Farrar's wheelhouse, a Neil Youngish vocal take complimented nicely by Gibbard's harmony.
Dylan never performed "Absolutely Sweet Marie" live until the end of the 1980s, and only sporadically pulls it out of his tour bag now. In a 1991 interview, Dylan talked specifically about the phrase "yellow railroad" that appears in the last verse of the song:
That's about as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It's all true. On a literal and on an escapist level.... Getting back to the yellow railroad, that could be from looking someplace. Being a performer, you travel the world. You're not just looking out of the same window everyday. You're not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don't have to observe. It hits you. Like, "yellow railroad" could have been a blinding day when the sun was so bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind.... These aren't contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out.
Original Listening: Bob Dylan, "Absolutely Sweet Marie"
Another Cover: George Harrison, "Absolutely Sweet Marie" (The 30th Anniversary Celebration, 1993)
Still Another Cover: Jason & The Scorchers, "Absolutely Sweet Marie" (Fervor, 1983)