Over the years, Bob Dylan has been covered more times than Centre Court at Wimbledon. In fact, if he receives any more six-string prayers then he’ll probably be able to declare himself a tax-exempt institution. Thus, when it comes to championing a favourite cover version of his own work, he has swathes to choose from.
In his memoir, Chronicles One, the folk forefather takes a moment of pause to pour some praise on one particular cover of his work and it isn’t a big star back-pat, a drop of the hat to a celebrity friend or the common artistic trait of finding a way to celebrate one of your lesser-known/loved outings either. What’s more, you’d have to be deaf not to concur with Dylan regarding the brilliance that his cover of choice concocts.
It is, in fact, Johnny Rivers and his version of ‘Positively 4th Street’ that receives Dylan’s seal of approval. “Of all the versions of my recorded songs,” Dylan begins. “The Johnny Rivers one was my favourite. It was obvious that we were from the same side of town, had been read the same citations, came from the same musical family and were cut from the same cloth.”
He then goes on to say that he actually liked his version better, writing: “Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’s version had the mandate down – the attitude, the melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it.”
As it wouldn’t happen, the song in question, ‘Positively 4th Street’, happened to be a humble B-side for Dylan despite being one of the best in his entire gilded back catalogue. In fairness, ‘Positively 4th Street’ was intended as an A-side and only found itself usurped by ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’ as an error while printing, thus fate has sealed its place amid the best flipside ever, and we can all be glad of it because it’s one of Dylan’s greatest songs of all time.
As for Johnny Rivers, he is an American singer-songwriter who charted in the 1960s and ’70s with a string of songs that straddled the world of folk and blues-rock. In his time, he rubbed shoulders, sometimes quite aggressively with stars such as Elvis Presley and worked alongside the likes of P.F. Sloan crafting studio hits for big names, always dabbling onto the scene himself with a few of his own favoured ditties.
His version of Dylan’s epic bad blood break-up track was released in June 1968, three years after Dylan unleashed it upon the world at the height of his electric Judas phase. Rivers placed it on his chronically underrated solo record Realization and it soon caught Dylan’s ear and earned admiration from the star with whom his path had crossed on the wayfaring roads of the folk scene.
The song itself is the twin brother of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. It packs all the same punch and caustic acerbic wit, riding along on a slightly sweeter organ tone. The gem in the crown of this piece of folk-rock perfection is the very last verse, perhaps one of the best break-up verses ever penned, “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / And just for that one moment I could be you / Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
Rivers’ version celebrates the same juxtaposition that Dylan offered, with unbridled disdain parading on a sanguine soundscape to give the impression of pure indifference. With an acoustic guitar tone of such honeyed belle for the perfectly picked intro, Rivers offers no hint of the bags long ago packed lambast of the chorus to come. If hell hath no fury like Dylan scorned, then Rivers proved he can handle the heat. He harnesses the tempered wrath and forges his own little beautifully filigreed and sweet ‘fuck you’, which deserves all the praise that Dylan has given it.