If someone had told me, around the time of the first few Sonic Youth albums, that one day they’d perform quite possibly the best and most comfortably fitting cover on a collection of Bob Dylan songs, I don’t think I would have believed you. But in fact, Sonic Youth’s cover of the obscure (i.e., massively bootlegged but unreleased until now) Dylan song “I’m Not There” is a highlight of the soundtrack to the film of the same name. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I intend to.)
The world evoked by Dylan’s music of the period this song comes from (1967, recorded at the same time as the songs later released as The Basement Tapes) is shadowy and carnivalesque: images of drifters, gypsies, and other dubious characters recur – the sleeve art for The Basement Tapes gives you a good idea. Dylan’s music at this time tended to feature at least two guitars (electric and acoustic), both piano and organ, and bass and drums, along with Dylan’s vocals and harmonica. The interplay among the instruments, and the circus atmosphere evoked by the garish organ and Dylan’s wheezy, neon-blue harmonica, complemented that imagery so effectively that musicians still evoke it in their arrangements if their lyrics are particularly Dylanesque. Dylan’s version of “I’m Not There” doesn’t feature his harmonica, but the calliope-like organ wheeling away steadily in the background against the somewhat tentative mix of strummed guitar and loping bass (clearly an early take, since there are several clams in that bass part) suggests shady proceedings just outside the door or around the corner.
Sonic Youth’s version, by contrast, has a slightly more threatening pulse in its rhythm, the heavy drum strokes seeming to stalk the beat. In the background, replacing that carnival organ, there’s the ghostly, corroded, metallic code of distorted electric guitar. That sound evokes archetypal Sonic Youth of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when their music was steeped in the mise en scene of Bladerunner, William Gibson, and Philip K. Dick, an imaginary realm of iffy reality, multiple yet sketchy identity, infinite mobility beyond the physical, the guitar seeming far less embodied than Dylan’s organ.
I think it works, though, because there are similarities between the old, weird America of Dylan’s mid-sixties work, the underworld whose surrealistic menace seemed indebted both to Nathanael West and to the Marx Brothers, or an inversion of Whitman’s exuberant and muscular democracy of the body. Gibson and Dick also seem concerned with limning the coded imaginary linking their everyday, underground characters with those from the powerful elite, and despite the way a wired interconnectivity extends characters’ reach outside the bounds of their bodies, those bodies tend to reassert themselves, or be reasserted, in both writers’ often pungently physical descriptions of sex and violence – a directness powerfully present in the music of Sonic Youth as well.
Though Sonic Youth is more aggressive in staking out such claims for itself and its listeners, both musicians explore a rootlessness, an absence and lack of home, in their music. I’d say it’s no coincidence that the two recent film treatments of Dylan and his influence have been titled No Direction Home (Scorcese’s 2005 work) and I’m Not There. And Dylan’s role-playing – so at odds with the early ’60s folk community’s emphasis on authenticity and genuineness, and later at odds with mainstream rock’s fetishization of the authentic – seems almost postmodern in advance, a public figure glorying in being who he’s not: an Okie, a holy clown, a mystic recluse, and so on…all the while enjoying what would seem to be transparent attempts at “putting on” the press (most notoriously in Don’t Look Back‘s “science student” scene). Sonic Youth don’t overtly role-play in the same way (sometimes I think they’d be better if they did: when they’re too sincere they approach insufferability), but the world of their music – both lyrically and sonically – certainly deconstructs the notion of a single, stable identity.
Sonic Youth’s done a lot of cover songs over the years – but it’s curious that my two favorites might be this one and “Superstar” (the Carpenters’ song, apparently about a stalker, whose inherent creepiness Sonic Youth’s version brings well forward). A curious side note: Todd Haynes, who directs I’m Not There, also directed Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (that’s the one that uses Barbie dolls…)