This Wheel’s On Fire: Evolution Of The Cover

It’s not an uncommon thing for an artist to license one of his own songs–or even ghostwrite one–for a less-talented… but perhaps more photogenic artist. There’s nothing wrong with it, unless you feel that only the writer–as the one who originated the work and therefore has the true depth of it to speak with–has the valid performance, with all others being… well, covers.

Anyway, here’s ‘This Wheel’s On Fire,’ written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko. This isn’t the version you’ve heard. But bear with me. We’ll get to it.

That was the first release of the song… as a psychedelic pop tune. I guess Bob needed a payday or something… though that doesn’t make sense, as by that point he’d already become a world-famous folk star, turned his back on that and hired The Band. That’s how the song was written in the first place. Well, whatever the process, people have been doing their own versions of this tune for years. It’s actually a great example of how different artists can interpret one great line–This wheel’s on fire, rollin’ down the road.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a big believer in the individual interpretation of artistic material–that is to say, each performance of a piece is as valid as any other. I mean, there are obvious quality differences–I don’t care how hilarious you think it is, there is no way a solo acoustic guitar can perform ‘The Phantom Of The Opera.’ But the idea that different artists can leave their own mark on a traditional set of lyrics or chords–that’s just exciting.

As a matter of fact, it strikes me that with this sort of thing becoming more and more common–artists reaching back into the same stable of tunes to find ones to dust off and rerecord–rock is beginning to assume shades of jazz, in that the particular piece performed becomes overshadowed by the way in which it is performed. I wonder if we could step back, if rock and roll would assume some other qualities jazz seems to have these days–a niche market property, almost a fetish.

In different artists’ hands, the song can assume many different moods–mournful, mysterious, joyful, prophetic or ominous, this song can be anything a talented performer wants it to be. Maybe that has to do with what real songwriting’s all about–a quality to a piece that will allow it to be interpreted in such a way. I guess that’s why you don’t see many bands covering Serial Joe.

But stranger things have happened.

There’s long been a sort of unwritten list of standards every jamming rock musician should know. All Along The Watchtower, Come Together, For What It’s Worth, Heart Of Gold, The Weight. For anyone who’s going to jam with me, Free Bird will end up on the set at some point, as well as Till I Am Myself Again,  I Tried To Leave You and something rockin’ by The Tragically Hip. They’re just going to happen. So how does one go about choosing which of those songs to change, to bugger up, rather than perform as close to the original as possible? I was talking with some of the boss’s students about that tonight–and the consensus seemed to be that once one has performed a song enough, one develops a closeness with it that seems to be… well, it gives you license to play around with it. I know tonight, While My Guitar Gently Weeps sure sounded interesting with a song by The Ventures welded to the front end of it and solos peppered throughout instead of low-spoken vocals.

I don’t know why people are so hard on The Byrds. That was cool. But I guess, like all covers, one version usually stands out above the rest–an iconic, unapproachable version. I guess it makes sense there would have to be one–how else would everyone know how well the song CAN be done, to want to recreate it in their own style?

Argue if you want, but this one is best. It just… is. This is what this song sounds like, fully realized, immediate and full and powerful and rolling just like the person (or the wheel) in the lyrics. If you haven’t introduced yourself to The Band, and have any interest at all in rock and roll, Canadian music, or the evolution of either, you owe it to yourself to listen to as much of this group as you can.

PS I leave you with this. I was wrong. About that one thing, anyway.

And after every plan had failed / And there was nothing more to tell / You knew that we should meet again / If your memory serves you well.

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