Growing up, I never worshipped Bob Dylan, though I was of the proper generation. I recognized that he was an icon, I heard him (you couldn't avoid it on college campuses of the sixties), and even liked the odd tune here and there. For the most part though, I preferred the directness of Otis Redding and Rolling Stones, just as I preferred William Carlos Williams to Rimbaud.
In the 90s, I had occasion to see Dylan live, twice over the course of a couple of years. It was during a phase when he was happily playing the hits. I remember thinking, "Damn, this guy has written a lot of great songs!" Seems like a no-brainer right? But too often Dylan the Man of Mystery or Dylan the Spokesman for a Generation overshadows Dylan the Songwriter.
Bryan Ferry's affinity for Dylan's songwriting is long standing. He recorded "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" on his first solo record over three decades ago. On Dylanesque (a Ferryesque title if there ever was one), he covers eleven songs that span Mr. Zimmerman's career.
The joy of this recording is that it focuses our attention on Bob Dylan the Pop Songwriter. Zimmy himself has said that he is just a "song and dance man," but we refuse to believe him. This is partly because Dylan's general lack of interest in the production of his records has minimized their "popiness." Ferry on the other hand has no qualms about treating these sacred-to-some works as the radio-ready tunes they are. It helps that his personal style is so powerful that he easily makes them his own. But it is more than that.
Whatever qualities Dylan has a performer--and there are many-- vulnerability is not one of them. While Dylan castigated the previous generation in "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Ferry firmly but gently reminds his own (and Dylan's) generation that a paradigm shift is upon us once again. Dylan the Songwriter may have written "Make You Feel My Love" and "All I really Want to Do," but it was always hard for me to believe Dylan the Sly Trickster's performance of them. Ferry presents no such problem. The Prince of Romance was born to sing the former and fully brings out the seductive qualities of the latter.
Though loose by Ferry standards, Dylanesque is still a finely crafted piece of work. The singer lets his distinctive voice deliver the words while his crack band keeps the musical interest coming over verse after verse of the haunting "Gates of Eden." If you wonder if the world needs another version "Knocking On Heaven's Door," the answer is yes when it is delivered as an aging roué's lament.
Dylan is content to lay a batch of songs on us every so often, and we are grateful. Bryan Ferry has turned them into a record, and a terrific one. We should be grateful for that as well. • Michael Ross