Standing on assembly in senior school I struck up a conversation with a young teacher who I knew was interested in music. We shouldn't have been talking. He should have been patrolling the class groups telling us to be quiet. But, with over 1,000 students standing in the hot sun, our brief chat didn’t attract any attention. That he would talk when meant to be acting out an adult role silencing us boys was what we all liked about him.
And he liked Bob. He was telling me about a Dylan single B side that had a different version to the album version and I was intrigued. I’d already latched on to the full album version of “Just Like A Woman” with it’s long, affectionate and pained harmonica outro that was cut to a few seconds for the single. The song he told me about was a live variation, and Bob’s always said that’s how his songs should be heard, how he hears them.
Variations on a musical theme have been at the core of composition since the Stone Age — either variations throughout a single piece, or variations in the way different people play it, at different times, variations in the instruments used, or variations in how the same person plays it depending on the location, their mood, or a zillion other variables.
We can all cite hundreds of examples of great re-readings of major hits, e.g., by Joni Mitchell (whose songs were never bedded down into a single thing anyway), impressively by Joe Cocker and, my favourite, Bruce Springsteen’s transformation of the (misunderstood as nationalistic) stadium rock anthem “Born In The USA” into a chilling acoustic accusation against those who forget what the values are that made America “great”, values that bound millions of migrants (poor and dispossessed) together on to common ground, symbolised in The Boss’s story of the treatment of a Vietnam veteran.
I’m not sure how to move into this paragraph, because I don’t want to give even a hint of an impression I think I’m in the same galaxy, let alone universe, as the examples above, but I want to give my own example, via “If I Give My Heart To You?”. Quite by surprise, this is (by a long shot) the most listened to of the “Midnight Rain” tracks on my Soundcloud site. This song actually has a long bridge in the middle that you won’t hear on “Midnight Rain” or anywhere else, yet. When I did a run through of this for Heath at Night Train Studios I was worried the bridge made it a bit too long and boring so I didn’t play it. When we sat down and listened to the take he had, we both looked at each other and said “That’s it!” — straight, clear, uncluttered, notes ringing out my declaration of love.
Not long after recording that version I sat at my piano at home in a very different mood, this time much more pensive, not even starting out to play this song at all, as you can hear from “new” intro on the sound file attached; this variation only recorded because I must have been hopeing a new song might happen. The sound quality could be a lot better but this is one variation I don’t want to try to, don’t think I could, repeat — reaching, fumbling, hesitant, then gentle, affirming and calm, in hope and trust that the unspoken heart’s answer is also affirmative.
The sheet music for “If I Give My Heart To You?” is now up on my music web page. What variations can you play?