Mr. Tambourine Man: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, William Shatner

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider Mr. Tambourine Man, a wonderful song from Bob Dylan and one that jump-started the field of folk-rock music. We will review the original by Bob Dylan, a cover of that song by The Byrds, and also William Shatner’s cover of the song.

Bob Dylan and Mr. Tambourine Man:

We previously discussed Bob Dylan in our blog post on the Ian & Sylvia song Four Strong Winds. The song Mr. Tambourine Man appears at a critical juncture in Dylan’s career. The photo below shows Dylan performing at a voter registration drive in 1963.

Embed from Getty Images

In his early career, Dylan was a folk-singer who first caught the public eye while performing in Greenwich Village. He befriended the terminally ill Woody Guthrie and for a while inherited Guthrie’s mantle as the author of folk anthems like Blowin’ in the Wind and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.

However, once the Beatles hit the scene, Dylan was impressed by their songs, and in particular some of the Beatles’ songs that touched on personal issues. It occurred to Dylan that he needed to expand his musical horizons beyond folk protest songs.

Mr. Tambourine Man was written in spring 1964, and was first recorded in June of that year, during taping sessions for the album Another Side of Bob Dylan. At that time, Dylan’s songs were accompanied by just his acoustic guitar and harmonica. The original version of this song was a duet with Rambling Jack Elliott; however it was left off that album as Dylan was not satisfied with the production.

Cover of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia Records, 1965)

Cover of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia Records, 1965)

After being re-recorded, the song was included on Dylan’s next album, Bringing It All Back Home, which was released in March 1965, and is shown at left. That album was most notable for being the first in Dylan’s transition from acoustic folk to electric rock music. The album begins with Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, a rocking tune that supplements Dylan’s guitar and harmonica with electric guitar, piano and drums.

Mr. Tambourine Man basically serves as a transition between Dylan’s acoustic and rock phases. Although the recording includes Bruce Langhorne’s electric guitar, the song remains in spirit an acoustic song, as it features Dylan’s acoustic guitar and harmonica. On the other hand, in contrast to Dylan’s prior folk-protest songs, Mr. Tambourine Man is a deeply personal song.

The sleep-deprived singer aims his song at a somewhat ambiguous muse. He promises to follow his muse, searching for a spiritual experience that will allow him to “forget about today until tomorrow.” The song begins:

[CHORUS]
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.

One interesting aspect of the song is that it begins with the chorus. The four verses that follow are simply dazzling. Dylan was always a master at piling images on top of one another, but the surreal portrait here is absolutely wonderful. Personally, I find the line “take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind” to be the most impressive in the song, but one could equally well choose half a dozen other images.

So, here is Bob Dylan performing Mr. Tambourine Man at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.

First off, note that the song was not yet released at that time, so the audience was hearing it for the first time. Also, this particular version is indeed acoustic, just Dylan accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica (in my opinion, this is some of his finest harmonica work).

Apparently Pete Seeger, who was expecting a folk-protest song, did not know what to make of the song; and it’s possible that several audience members were also baffled about the meaning of this intensely personal tune. There is still controversy surrounding the “meaning” of the song. Does it contain surreptitious drug references? Is it religious? Is the “tambourine man” Jesus? Does he offer salvation?

But really, what does it matter if the meaning is ambiguous? The song is sublimely beautiful, the imagery stunning, the tune hypnotic and mesmerizing. Here is the audio from the album; note Bruce Langhorne’s lovely and unobtrusive electric guitar in the background.

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The album Bringing It All Back Home set Dylan on an entirely new path. His abrupt transition to rock music made him the focal point of attention from both folk and rock music fans. In spring 1966 Dylan set off on a somewhat schizophrenic European tour. The first half of his concerts was the “old” Dylan: just the singer accompanied by acoustic guitar and harmonica.

But for the second half of the concert, Dylan brought on an electric backing group, The Hawks (soon to become The Band). Many in the audience were fascinated to hear what was coming; however, “purist” folk music fans were not amused. I was fortunate to see Dylan’s May 1966 performance at Royal Albert Hall, where as I have said the atmosphere was, in a word, electric. A handful of people even got up and left the hall at the point when Dylan began to play with The Hawks.

However, Dylan subsequently proceeded to move squarely into rock music. From there he later made a transition to country-rock with albums such as Nashville Skyline. He even converted to Christianity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and put out a couple of “Jesus” albums. Whatever direction Dylan has chosen, he has inevitably been a trailblazer and has helped define the trajectory of rock music for several decades.

Is there anyone who has made such memorable, seminal contributions to rock music? I would put the Beatles #1 in terms of their total output, but I can’t think of an individual artist whom I would rank ahead of Dylan. Certainly there are more covers of Dylan songs than of any other artist. And, he’s still touring, on what is called the “never-ending tour” that began nearly thirty years ago. Wow.

The Byrds and Mr. Tambourine Man:

The Byrds were one of the most influential bands in rock music. Although Bob Dylan really invented the field of folk-rock music, it was The Byrds who made it commercially successful. Following that, the group next spearheaded the psychedelic rock movement. Finally, although by this time their commercial success was waning, members of the Byrds were also prominent in the development of country-rock.

Roger McGuinn earlier played banjo and guitar with folk groups such as the Chad Mitchell Trio. In early 1964, McGuinn met up with Gene Clark who had previously sung with the New Christy Minstrels. The two of them began to perform at LA’s The Troubador folk club and were soon joined by David Crosby.

Here is a photo of the Byrds circa 1965. Back row L to R: Gene Clark; Michael Clarke; Roger McGuinn; front row: Chris Hillman; David Crosby.

Embed from Getty Images

The trio began performing in West Coast coffeehouses and clubs, and were taken on by manager Jim Dickson. At this point, the group began to pick up the vibes from a cosmic musical convergence. They were inspired to combine Bob Dylan’s folk music stylings with the pop sounds that were such a craze with the Beatles and British Invasion music.

Their big break occurred when Dickson got hold of an acetate disc of Dylan’s unreleased Mr. Tambourine Man. He persuaded the group to work up a folk-rock arrangement of the song. Although the band was not impressed with Dylan’s song (!), they did produce their own version. Dickson actually brought in Bob Dylan to hear their arrangement of his song. Dylan enthusiastically responded,
“Wow, man! You can dance to that!”

Well, Dylan’s endorsement convinced the band to release the song. They next added drummer Michael Clarke and bassist Chris Hillman, and changed their name to The Byrds (haha, very clever, a deliberate misspelling in the spirit of The Beatles). In January 1965 the group recorded the single Mr. Tambourine Man.

However, at that time the group’s producer Terry Melcher did not consider their musicianship to be up to par, so Roger McGuinn is the only Byrd to play guitar on their first song. All the other instrumental parts were played by studio musicians now known as The Wrecking Crew. That group backed hundreds of rock music sessions on the West Coast, and were the session musicians used by Brian Wilson for many of the Beach Boys records.

The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man was released in April 1965 and rapidly shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. The song was a tremendous smash hit. Whereas at that time Bob Dylan’s vocal stylings were considered too rough and raw for the general public, the tight harmonies of the Byrds were just right for the pop market. In fact, McGuinn deliberately chose his vocal style to be a fusion of the musical presentations from Dylan and The Beatles. Tambourine Man became the first #1 hit for any Bob Dylan song.

Furthermore, Roger McGuinn’s jangly guitar also set the standard for the sound of folk-rock music. He used a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar whose output
was heavily compressed to produce an extremely bright and sustained tone.
This made a tremendous impression on music groups. Following The Byrds, a host of other folk-rock groups sprouted like weeds, such as
The Turtles, Barry McGuire, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, The Grass Roots and We Five.
Several of these folk-rock groups sounded suspiciously like The Byrds. In a fascinating instance of cross-pollination, the Beatles themselves appeared to incorporate some aspects of folk-rock into their 1965 album Rubber Soul, with songs such as Nowhere Man.

The Byrds followed up Tambourine Man with another cover that became a giant hit, Turn! Turn! Turn! This was a cover of a folk song that Pete Seeger had adapted using quotes from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The Byrds converted Seeger’s moving folk ballad into folk-rock, reprising their formula of tight vocal harmonies backed by McGuinn’s trademark Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. Released in Oct. 1965, Turn! Turn! Turn! also hit #1 on the charts. The song also had deep appeal to anti-war sentiments (remember, the Vietnam War was heating up at this time) with Pete Seeger’s exhortation “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

In early 1966 the Byrds released the single Eight Miles High, which marked a radical departure from the Byrds’ earlier folk-rock formula.  Many people credit it with being the first psychedelic-rock song, although there are several contenders for this honor. Roger McGuinn’s guitar playing on this song reflects both his interest in John Coltrane’s jazz saxophone stylings, and the influence of Ravi Shankar’s Indian raga music.

Although Eight Miles High narrowly missed cracking the Billboard pop top 10, it is today considered one of the earliest influential psychedelic-rock songs. A possible reason for its limited commercial success was that the song was banned from many radio stations because it was alleged to promote illegal drug use (you think?). In any case, The Byrds were a major force on the directions taken by rock music in the mid-60s. They later turned to country-rock; and although by this time the group had fragmented, they once again are considered major influences on this field of rock music.

Here is a very young Byrds quintet performing Mr. Tambourine Man on one of their first national TV appearances, May 11, 1965 on Hullaballoo.

So, what did you think? For subtle reasons, this is quite an unusual video. First, the vocals are live, whereas the instrumental parts are simply the track from the record. Remember that of this group, only Roger McGuinn had played an instrument on this recording; the others just sang while session musicians played the other instruments.

One clue is that Roger McGuinn is not actually playing the guitar here – his guitar-playing features a three-finger-picking style derived from his earlier work as a folk banjo player, while in this video he’s simply simulating strumming. So this video represents a weird melange of live and recorded music. Also, did you notice that the MC for this Hullaballoo segment was Frankie Avalon?

I was tremendously impressed by Roger McGuinn’s rectangular blue shades – to me, he looked like the coolest dude on the planet! And if you are going to start a folk-rock group, it’s hard to do better than to add David Crosby, one of the greatest harmony singers in pop music history.

And here is The Byrds’ audio recording of Mr. Tambourine Man. I include it because the fidelity of the studio cut is much better than from Hullaballoo. Also, this is one of the most iconic rock songs of all time. Anyone familiar with this song can likely identify it after hearing just a single note of Roger McGuinn’s opening guitar lick — try this on your friends and see!

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At the beginning of their career, The Byrds were rather prolific. They released their first three albums in a span of eleven months from June 1965 to July 1966. However, like all ensembles, there were real tensions within the group. As the Byrds transitioned from folk-rock to psychedelic rock to country-rock, in each case there were serious differences of opinion as to the appropriate direction for the band.

The first to leave the Byrds was Gene Clark, in February 1966. There were many reasons leading to his departure, although a key one was financial. I have previously mentioned that when songs were played on the radio, the songwriter received royalties but not the artists. Early on, Clark had written nearly all the Byrds’ original songs, thus making him by far the highest-paid Byrd, which led to some resentment from his bandmates.

But probably the most serious reason for Clark’s leaving the group was his crippling fear of flying. After Clark had a panic attack and had to disembark from a plane before it took off, he was basically given an ultimatum that
“If you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd.”
Clark then left the Byrds and began a solo career that was critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful.

David Crosby and Michael Clarke left the group in fall 1967. During the Byrds’ performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that summer, Crosby’s rambling, disjointed rants to the crowd had pissed off his bandmates. In addition, there were serious disagreements within the band about their musical directions and choices of songs. A final straw was that during Monterey Pop, Crosby had sat in with Byrds rivals Buffalo Springfield, in place of Neil Young who had recently departed.

So Crosby was fired from the Byrds in October 1967, for being a pain in the ass and generally impossible to work with. However, Crosby arguably had the last laugh, as he turned around and joined up with two other disaffected folk-rockers, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. Stills had left Buffalo Springfield after repeated clashes with Neil Young, while Nash departed from The Hollies following creative differences over that band’s musical directions. The resulting supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash (and also, for a short time, Neil Young) became enormously popular, and they are still touring today.

During the period 1968-73, the Byrds added guitarist and pianist Gram Parsons. Under considerable pressure from Parsons, the group transitioned from psychedelic rock to country and western. The group moved to Nashville to begin recording their first country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. However, there soon developed enormous friction between McGuinn and Parsons, which led to the recording sessions being moved back to Hollywood. On three of that album’s songs, McGuinn deleted Parsons’ originally recorded lead vocals, substituting his own instead. That was the final straw for Parsons.

Parsons then departed for a solo career, but died in Sept. 1973 at age 26 from an overdose of morphine and alcohol. Two of the other original Byrds members have also passed away. Gene Clark died from a bleeding ulcer in 1991 at age 46; and Michael Clarke died in 1993 at age 47 from liver failure.

William Shatner and Mr. Tambourine Man:

Earlier we reviewed William Shatner’s life and career in our blog post on the song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. We will provide just a summary of Shatner’s career here.

William Shatner is a classically-trained Canadian actor from the Montreal area. His interest in the theatre became apparent during his days as an undergraduate at McGill University. Following his graduation Shatner began a performing career at Stratford, Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Here is a publicity photo of William Shatner circa 1970.

Embed from Getty Images

Although he seemed to have a promising future, Shatner never got the big break that would gain him fame as a Shakespearean actor, so he continued to take whatever acting jobs he could scrounge. In 1966 Shatner bagged the lead role as Capt. Kirk in the TV series Star Trek. Although the show’s budget for special effects appeared to be approximately zero, it was an innovative and thought-provoking show. Many of the episodes were similar in spirit to those from the earlier program The Twilight Zone.

In its initial run, Star Trek struggled to sustain a large core audience. After suffering from disappointing ratings, it was cancelled by NBC in 1969. The initial impact on Shatner was devastating; typecast from his Capt. Kirk role, he found it difficult to find work. His wife divorced him, he lost his home, and for a short period of time he was living in the truck bed of his camper.

However, once Star Trek ended up in syndication the show attracted a massive cult following. “Trekkies” watched the re-runs, made their own Star Trek costumes, and loyally followed their favorite show. In 1972, the First International Star Trek Convention in New York was expected to draw roughly 500 people, but 3,000 attendees packed the conference hotel. That was nothing compared to the 15,000 attendees at the 1974 convention. Shatner and his fellow Star Trek actors became cult figures. Comedians joked that
“the 50% of the early world wide web that wasn’t porn was made up of Star Trek: The Next Generation fansites”

The phenomenal and lasting popularity of Star Trek turned Shatner’s career around. He subsequently reprised his role as Capt. Kirk in six Star Trek motion pictures. Afterwards, Shatner landed starring roles and garnered acting awards in the TV series T.J. Hooker, The Practice and Boston Legal.

But let’s return to 1968; while Star Trek was still on network television, Shatner released a spoken-word album The Transformed Man. This was a fascinating mash-up. It utilized Shatner’s Shakespearean training, including dialogue from characters like Hamlet and Romeo, and paired those monologues with dramatizations of pop tunes like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Mr. Tambourine Man.

Although Shatner’s spoken-word album represented an intellectually serious attempt at combining classical theatre and pop culture, the critics were not kind in assessing this effort. Unfortunately, the album seemed to invite mockery, and Shatner found his album being derided as pompous and silly.  In response, Shatner displayed an endearing ability not to take himself too seriously.

Shatner managed to endure withering criticism of both his spoken-word album and his acting style, and made a fortune from it.  He has parodied his “Capt. Kirk” role both on TV and in several movies.  And for many year Shatner has starred (and parodied himself) as the spokesman for Priceline.com.
So without further ado, here is William Shatner’s presentation of Mr. Tambourine Man from his album The Transformed Man.

Well, you have to agree, Shatner’s “spoken word” performance really begs to be satirized! While Bob Dylan’s original song appears to be a simple request that a muse guide him to some desired spiritual destination, in Shatner’s treatment there seems to be much greater urgency, even a sense of danger that I totally didn’t pick up from the original song.

I must give a shout-out to whoever put together the montage of Shatner Star Trek clips that accompanies this music video. First off, at the line “take me for a trip on your magic swirling ship” we see a shot of the Enterprise. Next, I had forgotten just how cheesy and low-tech Star Trek was until I saw the sets and costumes in these photos.

Finally, at various points in the tune, rapid cuts between different still photos make it look as though Shatner is actually mouthing the words to the song. Nicely done!

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Mr. Tambourine Man
Wikipedia, Bob Dylan
Wikipedia, The Byrds
Wikipedia, Roger McGuinn
Wikipedia, William Shatner
Mr. Tambourine Man: the Life and Legacy of The Byrds’ Gene Clark; John Einarson, Backbeat Books, 2005

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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One Response to Mr. Tambourine Man: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, William Shatner

  1. Pingback: Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize for Literature, 2016 | Tim's Cover Story

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