Many believe—including myself—that Bob Dylan is the "Shakespeare of our time." One reason is his song lyrics are so durable. Dylan's words can withstand melding into about any interpretation—from classical music compositions to the most eclectic pop improvisation.
The Graduate Center at the City University of New York demonstrated this clearly Thursday night with a program on musical adaptations inspired by Dylan's words. Greil Marcus, the prolific writer who penned The Old, Weird America, the story of Dylan's The Basement Tapes, began with a discussion including John Corigliano, a composer who used Dylan's lyrics to write the classical song cycle titled Mr. Tambourine Man, and Howard Fishman, who is performing a highly acclaimed reevaluation of The Basement Tapes.
Corigliano, an Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, used Dylan's words, but not his music, to create a millennium commission for Carnegie Hall. Not familiar with Dylan's work when he began, Corigliano ordered a book of the songwriter's lyrics and began his cycle using only the words as poetry.
Claiming that his piece depends on a soprano who does not sound like an opera singer ("that would be a disaster," he added), the performance part of Mr. Tambourine Man betrayed the intent. Amy Burton, the excellent soprano who sang excerpts from the work, sounded exactly like the opera singer that she is. As a result, the songs were disappointing to my ear.
Far more impressive was Howard Fishman, whose interpretation of The Basement Tapes has gotten widespread acclaim over the past three years. I was lucky enough to be in the audience all three nights during a marathon, three-night performance of the complete Basement Tapes at Joe’s Pub in New York City over Memorial Day weekend in 2006. That show was recorded and is the basis for Fishman’s excellent CD of the material. Since then the project has taken off, taking the Fishman band to Lincoln Center and on tour dates throughout the United States.
Fishman and his band did several songs from the suite on Thursday night, but most impressive were I'm Not There, Dylan's unfinished masterpiece, and Pretty Polly, not written or performed by Dylan on The Basement Tapes, but which was important to Dylan's career as a songwriter.
Marcus explained that I'm Not There was barely written, made up of fragments, and "lines that you hear and think you know what they are and the next time you hear them you have no idea." Yet, Marcus continued, "the entire performance is invested with an emotional commitment with a sense of high stakes. It has the sense that someone's life is at stake. It's like a film that has been edited completely out of order. That only adds to the gravity...the sense of a whirlpool sucking you down."
He said Fishman is the first performer ever to complete the lyrics to I'm Not There and record it. "Where did you get the nerve to do that?," Marcus asked Fishman.
"I went for what it seemed like Dylan was going for," Fishman responded. "I just did the best I could with it, listening to it over and over again. Pressing the pause button, writing a few things down. And then trying to cobble together a lyric that made sense."
The Fishman band members are Mazz Swift on violin, Nathan Peck on bass, Fishman, and Michael Daves on guitar. Behind Fishman on drums is Mark McLean.
Fishman's work was completed before the release of the Dylan film with the same name. He said he had been a fan of The Basement Tapes for a long time. But reading Marcus's book, The Old, Weird America, inspired him to take the project public.
"I found the emotional lynchpin in reading your book," Fishman told Marcus. "When you hear the music for the first or hundredth time, you have all the feelings. But they are not necessarily articulated in your head. Then when I read your book, it nailed it for me. I had the feeling, but hadn't quite gotten there with my intellect and my heart. Reading the book gave me the courage to do it."
In fact, Fishman always reads sections of Marcus's book before doing certain songs, in order to give them context. He was elated, after sending a recording to Marcus, that the author responded with an endorsement of his project. Fishman read from Marcus's book on Thursday before performing Pretty Polly.
The section was about Dock Boggs, the 1920's old time singer from Virginia who was rediscovered in the 60s folk music renaissance. Boggs was a man who specialized in making primitive-modernist music about death. In an interview with the late Mike Seeger, Boggs, who sang Pretty Polly, told of his plans as a young man to kill the entire family of his wife because “they had a tendency to be overbearing and kind of run over me.”
Boggs, a young man at the time, decided not to do it. As an older man he looked back, saying that's the kind of person he used to be. Now, someone would have to do much more to get him that riled up, Boggs said.
"Now I've got more understanding, and I know more about life, and I know more about what it's about than I did then," Boggs continued. "I just didn't want to be run over and walked on. I'd as much as kill someone as to be walked on. Today, I'd let a fellow walk on me a little bit before I'd kill 'im."
After setting the mood, Fishman and company launched into Pretty Polly, an old murder ballad telling of a young woman lured into the forest where she is killed and buried in a shallow grave. The band always experiments with the song, changing the performance each time. On Thursday night, it was electrifying.
In his early days, Dylan used to perform Pretty Polly at the Gaslight in the Village. That is until he wrote the Ballad of Hollis Brown, which is based on the same chords, tune and verse-structure of Pretty Polly.