COMMENTS: The Byrds recording of "Mr. Tambourine Man" is maybe the best ever Dylan cover (give or take Hendrix singing "Watchtower"). They took Dylan's regular wheeze-and-blow demo-as-master recording, and turned it into a proper pop record more than fit for a jukebox or car radio.


The song describes a sleepless late night reverie, and makes perfect sense once you understand that at the time it was common in some places for dope dealers to sell their wares on streetcorners from upturned tambourines. The melody and the trademark Byrds vocal harmony arrangements describe a quiet, calm, dreamlike bliss that would be recognizable as an idyllic marijuana high to those who know even without any lyrical clues. Yeah, if you wanted to accuse the Byrds of proselytizing for the use of drugs, this record would be a much more insidious come-on than the more infamous "Eight Miles High."


Usually, I would consider myself an opponent rather than an advocate for REM. Their self-satisfied, cheap, preachy liberal "counterculture" attitude doesn't get it with me, and particularly some of their typical stupid lazy decadent aesthetic ideas. You know, stuff like words not needing to make any sense, lack of respect for music history, bitching about having to play the hit single, stuff like that. Yeah, they have plenty of integrity, but it is to a significant degree integrity to stupid ideas. Bob Dylan could get away with some of the same crimes because of his absolutely superlative talent; REM cannot.


It pissed me off when I read an interview with Michael Stipe proudly claiming that he had never listened to a whole Beatles album. He's supposed to be, by many accounts (including implicitly his band's own), the leader of the progressive musical community. Yet here he is, boasting of the effort he's gone to to resist learning about the pioneers of his field. It is, to use the strongest condemnation I can find, highly unprofessional. And he's way too impressed with his own genius. I mean, does he think he's too good to learn anything from John Lennon or Paul McCartney?


Yeah, well, listening to this record, however, it is obvious that somebody has been sneaking into the oldies section of the record store. Michael Stipe may not be listening to the Beatles, but if he tries to claim ignorance of the Byrds, I'll call him a lying motherlover. The circular guitar riff that supports the song, the weary melody that really does approximate an REM almost-asleep dreamy brain state:


"And the train conductor said 'Take a break Driver 8,

Driver 8, take a break -

We've been on this shift too long.'

We can reach our destination.

(Still a ways away)"


Son-of-a-bitch, but these lyrics even make perfect literal sense, and clearly complement the actual melody of the song; the words and the music are about fighting sleep, much like the Byrds record. In contrast, "Driver 8" is not giddy with stoned delight, but instead more a description of a quiet determination to stay the distance. After all, we're not out partying here, we're at work.


They took stylistic clues from their forebears, and added their own twists, such as the Southern tone and more aggressive musical attack. They end up with something uniquely their own, and (in this case) arguably even a little better than the teachers.


Of course, this all probably constitutes selling out.




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