The story goes that the one song Bob Dylan said he wished he had written was the classic track from Johnny Thunders, ‘Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’. Well, that’s according to an interview at the very end of the biography Looking for Johnny. While the claim has never been substantiated with Dylan himself, the track is arguably one of Thunders’ finest. His time with the New York Dolls and later the Heartbreakers has rightly given Thunders a place in the history book of music but one of his finest performances came from a cover of the great Bob Dylan.
It’s not unusual for artists to cover Bob Dylan, the freewheelin’ troubadour has been such an ever-present figure in music that it would almost be remiss to not have a Dylan cover in your canon. But while few can attest to having matches dor bettered the original (save Jimi Hendrix, of course) Thunders’ version of the brilliant ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ embodies the spirit of the song and its original creator.
The song is widely considered one of Bob Dylan’s greatest of all time and, as such, has been granted a plethora of different covers over the years. Everybody from Bob Marley to Green Day and everyone in between have given the song a cover during their time. Thunders’ version of the song, however, sticks out among the rest for one reason: it’s groundbreaking.
Musically, the song is simple enough and Thunders’ performance, direct from the studio in the below clip, is relatively regimental too, despite the odd punk-tinged inflexion or affectation. But the real reason the cover is groundbreaking is that punk, on the whole, has always rejected anything with even a whiff of ‘hippie’ on its breath. For many, Bob Dylan was just another facet of that hippie culture which for many punks, in fact mainly the UK’s fanbase, was the antithesis of their movement.
The New York punks, however, weren’t afraid to step out of their comfortable path and take on a folk song or two. Johnny Thunders’ cover of Bob Dylan is most certainly one of the best examples of it. What’s more, unlike the Ramones who have taken on Bob before, Thunders did it all with an acoustic guitar. The audacity and the outrage!
Perhaps confirming himself as the archetypal punk by treading where few punks would dare to lay a singular Doc Marten, Thunders’ cover is wonderfully gilded with authenticity and trembling honesty. The song was originally written for Edie Sedgewick, Dylan’s one-time beau and muse, but Thunders makes it ubiquitous. He opens up the connective moments of the song by reducing them down to their bare bones.
While it is incredibly hard to say whether Thunders’ version of the song matches Dylan’s original, largely due to the inextricable position of the song as many people’s favourite Bob Dylan song, it is possible to recognise the cover as one of the best we’ve ever heard of the song. Simple and sacred, Thunders keep the real beating heart of the track throughout the cover and adds an extra dose of tenderness to boot.