I have heard hundreds of Dylan covers over the years, and have liked very few.
I’ve certainly never preferred one to a Dylan original.
Until I heard Bettye LaVette sing ‘Most Of The Time’ on ‘Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International‘.
For vague vocal context, imagine Mavis Staples, Millie Jackson and Billie Holliday being spirited into one gorgeous woman.
Well, that beautiful lady would sound like Bettye LaVette.
She has beauty. She has soul. She has the larynx of love, life and liquor. And she has been singing since the early 1960s.
So, how come I am 50 years old and have never heard her?
It’s some kind of crime.
Okay, I’m a pale-skinned Englishman, but it’s not like I haven’t been interested in music.
I have spent my whole life either playing, writing or listening to it.
Music is my Religion, and finding this new voice is like finding a new Dead Sea Scroll or an eleventh Commandment. It’s fantastic.
‘Most Of The Time’
“At my age I’m not trying to make any kind of impression on anyone”
The way she finds the blood and bruises in this song is transfixing. I can imagine Dylan nodding when he heard it, knowing that this lady nailed it.
Anger, regret, sorrow and wit. They bleed through it.
The musicians are superb, too, creating a dark and reverbed chamber for this soul baring to take place. It is bar-room perfect.
The altered line, “I don’t even notice that the mother******’s gone…most of the time” makes me smile every time. It’s the way she delivers it.
If there’s an iPod in Heaven, and I make it up that far, then I know I’ll be hearing Ms LaVette on every angel’s playlist.
‘Before the Money Came (Battle Of Bettye LaVette)’
“I know everybody in Detroit over 50. No matter how rich or poor they may be, I’ve seen ’em drunk or broke or nekkid; sometimes all three.”
This self-composed track is startling and inspiring because it is so honest.
It is a beacon of hope for every artist’s bleakest canyon of self-doubt and despair.
It is life-affirming.
I won’t spoil the fun of listening to the story, but I would estimate that there are currently a million performers who will nod with recognition when they hear it.
I hope she writes some more songs herself because she clearly has a talent for it.
‘Talking Old Soldiers’
“I’m far more selective about what songs I’ll sing. If I can’t re-sculpt them and, in many instances actually reinvent them to be part of my story, I can’t make them come to life.”
Let me say upfront that I’m not a fan of Elton John’s work. I like a few of the old hits but that’s because they remind me of certain fondly-remembered times. I have never taken to his quasi-american vocal style and that kind of ‘showmanship’. I do respect the guy though – I respect anyone who can survive in the music industry and compose hit after hit after hit. I just don’t like his stuff much.
The reason I mention Elton John is because I just Googled the song title and was surprised to see that he and Bernie Taupin wrote it.
The reason I Googled it, is because it is the title of Bettye LaVette’s best vocal performance – that I have heard.
She lives the song. She has sat at the bar. She knows the names on the headstones.
It’s not a cover, it’s an invasion.
It resonates with me, too, because people I love are starting to die, and it can be a hard world as a result.
This is the most haunting and moving song about getting older that I have ever heard. If you thought Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ was moving – check this baby out.
It’s something else.
Thankfully, there are plenty of Bettye LaVatte songs and albums to explore, from Souvenirs (Original previously unreleased Atco LP from 1973, finally released by Art & Soul in 2000), through I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti- 2005), The Scene of the Crime (Anti- 2007) up to Thankful N’ Thoughtful (ANTI- 2012).
Music is one of the rare occasions when finding a woman with a lot of baggage is a good thing.
I have just purchased three of her LPs, because if her music sounds this good as compressed-to-hell mp3 files, then I can’t wait to hear it on vinyl.
My life is a brighter place thanks to discoveries like this and Bettye LaVette is a keeper.
I’m glad the money’s coming in and I hope she keeps recording and performing for many years yet.
Bettye LaVatte is beautiful.
Whatever you do, do not listen to ‘Talking Old Soldiers’ on the tube. Unless you want your tears to be witnessed and ignored by a hundred blank-faced strangers.