Monday, June 6, 2011

Dylan Cover #16 Pearl Jam "Masters Of War" Live on Letterman

In this ongoing Monday Series we will be exploring various artists versions of Bob Dylan song's. Today's tune comes from Pearl Jam and is a live cover of "Masters Of War"

Thoughts on Dylan Original:
Ranking as one of his most accusatory and cutting tracks is no easy measure but Dylan condemns the whole "war machine" on this classic and vital track (the "hope that you die" line is so facking cold it is brutal).  Often misrepresented as an attack on war itself (Dylan always said he wasn't a pacifist) this track calls out the government for using war-as-business (the Cold War in Particular) and business-as-war models when lives are put on the line for meaningless reasons.  As alive and burning now as it was in 1962 when he wrote it which I am sure is the reason the Seattle boys covered it...   

Thoughts on Cover Artist:
Pearl Jam are a rare beast in today's musical landscape.  Touring giants who really don't need to put out any more albums but do in order to stay current and relevant.  Not everyone agrees with what they do and not all new records are hits but the band are so well oiled that they can take covers and their own fantastic arena rock songs and mine them for meaning and nuances.  Pearl Jam is one of the great American rock and roll bands ever and currently one of the best live arena acts out there....catch them if you can. 

Thoughts on Cover:
After taking another week off with Memorial Day last week, we wanted to come back strong and what better way then Eddie Vedder belting out a Dylan all-time great?  The first time I heard Eddie's take on "Masters of War" was during the 30th Anniversary celebration at MSG.  Playing with just Mike McCready the duo did a phenomenal job with the tune.  Vedder's baritone vocals add power while the acoustic undertones add some harmony.  Today's version has the full band largely acoustic...except for Eddie's Fender (having him alone playing electric shows how far he has come as a guitarist) and the tune rises in rage and volume towards the end.  The "Hope That You Die" line mellows out to keep its chilling effect.  The group was playing the tune on Letterman before they left for the Vote For Change Tour, and wanted to make a statement.  They certainly did with this fairly straight ahead cover of one of the most powerful songs written in the 60's.

Grade:   Solid B.
Wilsons Take:

Unlike most Dylan songs, which can be picked up by any artist, I've never thought "Masters of War" was ripe for the covering. Much like "It's Alright Ma", "Masters of War" was birthed in the early hours of Dylan's genius. It belongs to Dylan. It belongs to that time in American history when young Americans began questioning the military industrial complex. Transported to 2008, as it is played here on The Late Show with David Letterman, the song loses its essence. Pearl Jam's cover of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" is far more relevant to our bizarre age.

The real issue at stake is that a song like "Masters of War" exposes the subsequent generation's failure to write its own political anthems. We needed music of colossal depth to chronicle our times...and it never came. It was as if the Baby Boomers sucked all of the oxygen out of the room and relegated music of true political depth to the basement of cliches. Generation X had front row seats in the theater of "what happens to moments of revolution in America," and the resounding answer was: they get abandoned once they become inconvenient to the pursuit of fun. The tumult of the 1960s devolved into the depression of the 1970s, followed promptly by the cocaine-fueled money crusade of the 1980s. That generational cop-out ruined, for a time, the next generation's will to pursue cultural change with a straight face. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Generation X's music (out of decency, we will politely ignore the generation that filled stadiums for Devo and The Bangles). Thus we get the 1990s. To be sure, Grunge was beautiful, ironic and far more spiritually-honest than the American 1960s. In the 1990s, grunge artists honed in on what America had really been about since its inception: the individual. And by the 1990s, the individual was jaded and socially-ambivalent.

Jaded, social-ambivalence does not prepare one for romanticizing human culture. And at its tap root, any protest song is an act of romanticism. The ability to write a song like "Masters of War" requires the writer to be a closet optimist; both an observer and admirer of other people. You have to be somewhat optimistic about mankind's true possibilities to so cuttingly and beautifully identify his horrors. Dylan, in his youth, was a bard of that caliber. The songwriters of the grunge era never embraced the notion that man was fundamentally good. Cobain shot himself and Vedder routinely hinted at that possibility before settling down with a supermodel, having a kid and splicing world tours with social causes.

However, Eddie Vedder is a remarkable talent, especially when he's being authentic. When he's embracing his talent, he's on. He has no superior among his peers. Yet we all know - and this is hardly a knock - that like all admirers of early rockers, he has a strong penchant for inauthenticity (see early emulations of Jim Morrison, and early-90s "I'm on the edge!" camera-pandering to put any politician to shame). It's a testament to Vedder that even when he's faking it, he's still better than most. A far better reprisal of "Masters of War" was given by Eddie Vedder in a 1992 tribute to Dylan...whereas this Late Show performance just doesn't get it done. Musically it sounds flat and Eddie Vedder sings like he's going through the motions. To see the better side of Vedder's appetite for protest, and a simple yet not-half-bad song, check out "No More War".

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