Bob Dylan’s eighth studio album, John Wesley Harding, was named after the American outlaw of Old West and a controversial folk figure who was well known for fabricating his life story. Sentenced to serve prison time at the age of 23, he spent 24 years in jail with the charge of murder. In a time when psychedelia dominated popular culture, Dylan’s agrarian-themed album was seen as a reactionary approach to his contemporaries such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as the musician isolated himself from the trend. The album also marked Dylan’s return to semi-acoustic instrumentation and folk-influenced songwriting after three albums of lyrically abstract, blues-indebted rock music.
Released on December 27, 1967, by Columbia Records, the album contained the song ‘The Wicked Messenger’ along with some of Dylan’s most popular efforts such as ‘All Along the Watchtower’, ‘Dear Landlord’, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ and more. Here, however, we focus on ‘The Wicked Messenger’. Recorded in the Columbia’s Nashville studio in November 1967, the song is written in an evocative style with the use of bold imagery and the surrealistic extravagance just like the other songs in the album. According to Allen Ginsberg, Dylan had talked to him about his new approach, telling him that he was writing shorter lines, with every line meaning something different. He wasn’t just making up a line to go with a rhyme anymore; each word had to advance the story, bring the song forward. There was no wasted language, no wasted breath. All the imagery was to be functional rather than ornamental. The song creates a profound image yet leaving room for interpretation.
The three-versed song contains dark religious undertones with a number of Biblical allusions. In his book, Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s, Mike Marquese writes, “The song title appears to be derived from Proverbs 13:17: A wicked messenger falleth into mischief: but a faithful ambassador is health. [In the song] the character first appears in public, unbidden, as an obsessive… The wicked messenger is the artist, the prophet, the protest singer.” In an interview with Toby Thompson in 1968, Dylan’s mother, Beatty Zimmerman, mentioned Dylan’s growing interest in the Bible, stating that “in his house in Woodstock today, there’s a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He’s continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.” Furthermore, Andy Gill claims that the high priest Eli was one of the more intellectual figures in the Old Testament. To have been sent by Eli implies a reliance on intellect. Gill suggests that “perhaps Dylan felt he had valued rationality too highly over spirituality.” However, much like his other songs, this one too can’t be solely interpreted from the religious point of view, especially when the album is dedicated to a debatable figure.
One of the most popular covers of the song was by the American poet, singer-songwriter and activist Patricia Lee Smith famously known as Patti Smith – the ‘punk poet laureate’ who fuses rock and poetry in her work and famously became an influential personality of the New York punk rock Movement with her 1975 debut album Horses. The song was included in her album Gone Again which was released on June 16, 1996, by Arista Records. The production of the record was preceded by a series of deaths of Smith’s close friends and peers, including her husband Fred Sonic Smith, her brother Todd, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Sohl and Kurt Cobain. All the other songs included on the record are either written or co-written by Smith and are originals except, of course, her rendition of Dylan track ‘The Wicked Messenger’. The album is a deeply personal requiem that presents Smith at her emotionally naked state and where the cover song can be seen as one last stab at fighting off sorrow.
Smith’s bond with Dylan dates back to 1975 when the later discovered the talented writer (Smith), in a coffee house in New York. Their mutual love for music and poetry further strengthened their bond and manifested in a powerful duet performance of Dylan’s song ‘Dark Eyes’ in 1995. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Smith recalls how she behaved “like a jerk” when Dylan came backstage after her band finished performing. “He came over to me and I kept moving around,” she explained. “We were like two pit-bulls circling. I was a snot-nose. I had a very high concentration of adrenaline. He said to me, ‘Any poets around here?’ And I said, ‘I don’t like poetry anymore. Poetry sucks!'” but, from that moment on, the two creative became intrinsically linked.
Smith’s version of the song is stormier. The variation of the beat from “Swing” in Dylan’s to a 6/8 form in Smith’s, changes the semi-acoustic, country tone into an amalgamation of blues and grunge. The cover song benefits an eerie mood due to the music arrangement that helps it to reach a climax and flesh out the lyrics which I personally think is missing in the original.
Without further ado, let’s listen to Smith’s rendition of ‘The Wicked Messenger’.