Lives of the great songs: Go mild in the country: In the latest excerpt from our history of the hits, Allegra Huston follows the trail of a classic with a twist: I'll be your baby tonight

Allegra Huston
Saturday 15 October 1994 23:02

ODD THAT it should be Bob Dylan, revered by two generations of literary critics and street revolutionaries, who wrote the plainest of plain country songs. John Wesley Harding (Columbia, 1968), recorded in Nashville in late 1967, was Dylan's first album to be released after his near-mythical motorcycle crash. Gone is the florid jangle of Blonde on Blonde (1966); in its place is brimstone biblical imagery, echoing the itinerant preachers of an ageless past, who invoked the presence of God in everyday life.

'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' is the last track on John Wesley Harding, and very different from the rest of the album. It was one of only two songs which emerged fully formed, words and music together. Although it is gentle where most of the album is fierce, a private rather than a public speech, it shares the same ethos: it catches the promise of understanding in a very ordinary moment.

This directness, both spiritual and emotional, called for a new kind of lyric. It couldn't be conveyed in Dylan's signature whirl of symbol. The poet Allen Ginsberg recalled Dylan 'telling me how he was writing shorter lines . . . there was to be no wasted breath. All the imagery was to be functional rather than ornamental'.

Dylan sketches a scene in words that are few and simple enough to be those of one who has never been to school. Three verses consist of three extremely short lines followed by the refrain:

Close your eyes

Close the door

You don't have to worry any more

I'll be your baby tonight.

Then there is a central verse in a different key, more rollicking and even more defiantly unsophisticated. The music has a sound untouched by the decades - easy, rolling pedal-steel guitar with a snatch of harmonica as the only decoration.

From the first line ('Close your eyes') the outside world falls away. The scene is a room - it could be any room - with a bird singing outside and a clear night sky, and two people, one slightly fearful, the other easy and reassuring. There is a bottle of liquor, and a shade at the window. That's all.

The timelessness of the picture is partly owing to the scarcity of detail, and partly to the central verse. 'That mockingbird's gonna sail away': rural America, unchanged for generations. 'That big old moon's gonna shine like a spoon': the traditional rhyme for inarticulate passion, straight from an age of sentimental valentines. Though Dylan pokes gentle fun at the down-home

images of country music, the emotional integrity of the song is beyond question. The words are no less true for being store-bought.

But what is the fear? Maybe the girl is uncertain, afraid of falling in love. Maybe it's just a coy tentativeness that a few swigs from the bottle will release. Here is the delicacy of the song: the singer is the seducer, the persuader, but threat and pressure are taken away. Not 'Be my baby tonight', but 'I'll be yours'.

This is the feminine mode of seduction, and on the whole, women sing the song better. As Dylan performs it, it's a song of contentment, and he embraces its cliches with the joy of a city boy released into the countryside. The song has been covered many times, but a curious number of singers seem to lose confidence in it. Either they're embarrassed by the hokey central verse and bluster through it, or, like Graham Bonnet shouting 'I'm gonna be your lover baby]' at the end of his hard-rock version (c 1978, reissued on The Rock Singers Anthology, Vertigo 1990), they try to push the song to a sexy climax that clashes with the careful tenderness of the lyrics.

Unlike Bonnet, Adam Faith doesn't try to turn the song into something that it's not, but still his country-flavoured version is a template of disaster (Midnight Postcards, Polygram, 1993). Obviously worried at the gaping holes that his gravelly growl leaves between the words, he's added a 'shadow vocal' which soon runs off with the melody. Faith flails chaotically in its wake, and it seems to be a great relief when the instrumental break comes. 'Let's just lay here and listen to the music,' he says to his potential lover, who must already be disconcerted by the presence of a third person in the room. Now a saxophone player pops up as well.

Dylan's bare, precise details are like the fine threads of a net holding the song together. They can expand to accommodate other styles, but if the intimacy is broken, the song falls apart.

The boppy reggae beat provided by UB40 on Robert Palmer's 1990 version (Don't Explain, EMI) is so natural that the song might have been written that way. It's still an uncomplicated evening, but now we're in the Caribbean - a warm night, a bamboo shade, a bottle of Jamaican beer. The moon shines with a tropical brilliance. But suddenly, the spell is broken. Into this idyll lollops a whole troupe of backing singers, chorusing 'Be your baby' like a gang of schoolgirls mocking some poor tongue-tied teenage Romeo. Even after they've shut up, you feel as if they're still loitering round, watching for shadow-patterns on the windowshade.

This is an intrusion, but for sheer absurdity imagine 50 people at once offering to be your baby tonight, as on the gospel version by the Brothers and Sisters. Gospel covers traditionally demand imaginative indulgence - the line 'Kick your shoes off' being addressed to the Lord Jesus would be the problem here - but, perhaps nervous of blasphemy, the Brothers and Sisters hold back from giving Dylan's song the full devotional treatment. The soaring call of ecstasy isn't there, so the 'you' is firmly mortal. Even if the 'you' were Don Juan, he would blanch.

These are all later covers. At first, it was the country chanteuses who picked up the song, and within two years five versions were recorded. Unlike the men, they feel no need to fill in the silences, but swoop and glide on the long-held notes. Emmylou Harris provides the most unashamedly country version (The Legendary 'Gliding Bird' Album, 1969, Jubilee) - surprisingly, since it was recorded in New York before she moved to Nashville. Though she begins with the sound of heartbreak catching in her voice, she is the most declarative, as if she herself takes heart from the words 'Do not fear'. Linda Ronstadt (Hand Sewn, Home Grown, 1969, Capitol), like Rita Coolidge, is more seductive. But where Coolidge's version (The Lady's Not for Sale, 1972, A & M) sports a racy ragtime piano intro, Ronstadt brings the tempo down to a mesmerising slowness. She too seems uncomfortable with the central verse. A crude striptease drumbeat cuts into her lingering phrasing, and suddenly the pressure is on, the tenderness lost.

The other two come to grief with the bottle. Anne Murray (Snowbird, 1970, Capitol) has to drag her wholesome voice along the river-bottom to make it sound as if the bottle contains anything stronger than milk. Maria Muldaur (remember 'Midnight at the Oasis'?) has the opposite problem, slithering around the melody so uncontrollably that it sounds as if she has already downed most of her bottle (Pottery Pie, 1970, Carthage). With her pleading little-girl voice and distracted 'la-la-la's at the end, she could be Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

For me, only one recorded cover can stand beside the original. Marianne Faithfull released Faithless in 1978 (reissued in Britain in 1988, on Castle Classics). She almost had to make a country album just to use the title. It was her first album since the Sixties, and her pretty voice sounds as if it has been grated through rusty iron; tattered and torn, it holds knowingness, frail hope and a longing for shattered illusions.

This splendidly ravaged voice belongs to no backwoods sweetheart. On 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight', it suggests a motel room at the edge of some rural town, and two people blotting out the time with a bottle of bourbon and each other. 'Do not fear,' Faithfull cajoles, as if her man might be married and afraid she won't let him go in the morning. This is a woman aware that she can do no more than carve one night of companionship out of the scorched earth of her heart. Behind her, the upbeat rhythm sounds slightly forced, like someone smiling through pain.

There is one terrific unrecorded version as well. In the 1980s the actor Harry Dean Stanton toured California with a small band. They appeared live on a Los Angeles radio station, KCRW, and played 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight'. Again the contrast between a sad, wistful voice and the cheery bounce of the music haunts the song. Stanton is backed only by two guitarists, who stop playing at the start of the refrain and sing close harmonies. For once other voices aren't an intrusion. The three come together, slow and a capella, like one sweet voice, and on the next line Stanton's solo vocal sounds like its yearning shadow. I hope one day he will record this. My bootleg tape is almost worn away.

Adapted from 'Lives of the Great Songs' (Pavilion, hardback, pounds 14.99), edited by Tim de Lisle. The book comprises all 24 articles that have now appeared in our series, plus 12 more. It is in the shops now, but readers can order it by post at no extra cost. Just ring 0235 831700 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm) with a credit card to hand. If you prefer to pay by cheque, write to

Bookpoint Ltd (Mail Order Dept), 39 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4TD, making the cheque out to Bookpoint. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

] To hear 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight', tune in to Gary Davies on Virgin 1215 at 9-9.30am today. Virgin is between 1197 and 1260 kHz MW, depending on where you are, and in stereo on satellite and cable TV.

'There was to be no wasted breath': the song was written and sung by Bob Dylan (pictured, centre) in his Nashville period. Instead of his usual whirl of symbolism, he used a handful of simple, down-home images: a mockingbird, the moon, a bottle. Among those who have liked the song enough to remake it are Robert Palmer (top) with UB40, Marianne Faithfull, and (unrecorded, but extremely good) the actor Harry Dean Stanton

(Photographs omitted)

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