Absolutely Sweet Marie by Jason and the Scorchers
Absolutely Sweet Marie
Performed by Jason and The Scorchers and written by Bob Dylan. You can hear/see the video for the song here. You can see the lyrics here. You can see/hear a video of a live performance here. You can buy the song form iTunes here. The song appears on at least two albums, Lost and Found, and the live Midnight Roads and Stages Seen. Check out the Jason and the Scorcher’s website.
To live outside the law, you must be honest
A great version of a great song, Jason and the Scorchers demonstrate how to do a cover song. I want to talk about this song first, then riff for a bit on cover songs and list some great covers.
Jason and the Scorchers burn through this song with a frenzy that completely remakes the Dylan original. They do what great cover versions require: They make the song their own with no regard to the original. They re-envision the song so we see it anew again, see it in ways not imaginable before, yet obvious once we hear the new version. Where Dylan’s version played coy and danced around the swirl of images, Jason and the Scorchers roar through the verses, turning gentle references into dangerous shards and making clear the sexual longing and thwarted lust. Whipping guitar, pounding drums and bass and Jason’s snarl remove any doubt about the meaning of the song:
I’m just sitting here beating on my trumpet
With all these promises you left for me
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?
This is not a mere broken heart; it’s more basic, more primal.
Absolutely Sweet Marie is another Dylan song full of longing for a love that just won’t happen, another failed attempt at finding his Beatrice to lead him out of Hell, and the loss comes out as anger at the woman of his dreams. Jason Ringenberg, lead singer and caption of the band, shouts, scratches, pleads and lashes out, conveying both his longing and anger while the band thrashes away behind him in what sounds more like speed country that cow punk.
The song plays out in a metaphor of a man stuck in jail for reasons that have something to do with Sweet Marie and she’s promised to help spring him. Actual jail, the prison of unrequited love, the lock up of sexual frustration, it’s all there. The song includes some of Dylan’s more famous lines, though Jason and the band refuse to genuflect before them. They’re riding this train for different reasons. In a moment of self-pity and acerbic wit, the song swears:
Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously
But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately
Sitting in prison and waiting for an escape, Sweet Marie instead delivers six white horses to the penitentiary, a long time blues symbol of death. Take that sucker. (“See that My Grave is Kept Clean,” a song sung by Blind Lemon Jefferson and covered by Dylan on his first album has the lines, “Six white horses in a line/Taking me to that burying ground.”) In response, we hear the lines:
But to live outside the law, you must be honest
I know you always say that you agree
He may hate her now, but the singer is still jonesing for what Sweet Marie has to offer. He can’t help himself:
Well, I waited for you when I was half sick
Yes, I waited for you when you hated me
The wailing of the guitar and Jason blowing his demonic harmonica perfectly match the lyrics. Hate her, love her, this song gives voice to the full fury of that clash of hormones and ego.
Making a Great Cover Song
Jason and the Scorchers skip several verses from the song as Dylan wrote it. Sacrilege? They decided they didn’t need those verse to do what they wanted to do. And that’s the point of a great cover: use what you want to make it your song and skip the rest. There’s no better example than what comes of Dylan covers. Some have been wonderful re-imaginings of his original – is there any better cover than Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” – but there have been more terrible covers of Dylan songs than perhaps any other artist. Too often, the cover artist treats the song as sacred material, so earnest, so faithful that they miss the point. You can never do it the way Dylan does, so don’t bother. And please no more museum pieces, versions handled with white gloves, that treat the lines as if so fragile that exposure to air and light will break them.
Here’s a list of some covers that work because the artists made the song their own (in no particular order and with no claim to completeness). Please add your favorite covers:
|Song||Cover Artist||Original Artist|
|All Along the Watchtower||Jimi Hendrix||Bob Dylan|
|Hurt||Johnny Cash||Nine Inch Nails|
|I Need Love||Luka Bloom||L.L. Cool J|
|Gloria||Patti Smith||Them (with Van Morrison)|
|Damn Your Eyes||Bettye LaVette||Etta James|
|Baby, It’s You||Smith||The Shirelles|
|House of the Rising Sun||The Animals||Traditional – Covered by Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk among others|
|You Don’t Even Call Me by My Name||David Allen Coe||Steve Goodman|
|Crazy Mary||Pearl Jam||Victoria Williams|
|Yo La Tengo||Blitzkrieg Bop||The Ramones|
|Good Morning Little School Girl||An Morrison/John Lee Hooker||Sonny Boy Williamson|
|Hound Dog||Elvis Presley||Big Mama Thornton|
|Live and Let Die||Guns and Roses||Paul McCartney and Wings|
|Mustang Sally||Wilson Pickett||Sir Mack Rice|
|Me and Bobby McGee||Janis Joplin||Kris Kristofferson|
|Proud Mary||Ike and Tina Turner||Creedence|
|Nothing Compares to U||Sinead O’Connor||Prince|
|Take Me to the River||Talking Heads||Al Green|
|Jersey Girl||Bruce Springsteen||Tom Waits|
|Because the Night||Patti Smith||Bruce Springsteen|
|Respect||Aretha Franklin||Otis Redding|
|Personal Jesus||Johnny Cash||Depeche Mode (and Marilyn Manson)|
|Louie, Louie||The Kingsmen||Richard Berry|
|Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)||The Doors||Brecht/Weill|
|My Way||Sid Vicious||Frank Sinatra|
|Superstar||Sonic Youth||The Carpenters|
|I Fought the Law||The Clash||Bobby Fuller|
|Hallelujah||John Cale||Leonard Cohen|
|Sweet Jane||Cowboy Junkies||Velvet Underground|
|Walk this Way||RUN DMC & Aerosmith||Aerosmith|
|Jolene||White Stripes||Dolly Parton|
|Maybe I’m Amazed||The Faces||Paul McCartney|
|Goin’ to Acapulco||Jim James and Calexico||Dylan and The Band|
Jason and The Scorchers were a forerunner of what became Alt-Country, mixing genres as the spirit moved them. You can check out their website and find more recordings on line:
No Depression, as usual, has some good pieces on Jason and the Scorchers, including a good posting by Don McLeese that explores how Jason and the Scorchers link the Flying Burrito Brothers to today’s Alt-Country. Ben Greeman reviews the Scorchers latest album, Halcyon Days, in the New Yorker. Jason Ringenberg has his own website here.