Sebastian Cabot, Actor / Bob Dylan, Poet, A Dramatic Reading With Music, 1967

Here’s the supposed antidote to all those instrumental albums of 1966—a spoken word album of Dylan songs. There is music here, arranged by Irving Spice, the same dude who conducted the Gotham String Quartet’s collection of Dylan covers. It might even be played by the same quartet—the music is minimalist light classical and rarely overwhelms the voice; usually background. They play the tunes while Cabot does his voice-acting thing, though he doesn’t voice-act in time with the music.

So, Cabot and his voice acting thing. It’s only 1967 and we’ve already run a fairly wide range of styles for Dylan cover albums. Dylan himself only had seven albums out by this stage, whereas this is already the twelfth Dylan covers project. This is a novelty record through and through. Here’s what it does achieve—it forces you to listen to the words and think about them. Cabot is not always successful; sometimes he’s laughably bad, over earnest and misses the point, despite his fame for acting talent. He was 49 years old in 1967. His accent is naturally British, slightly baritone, bit gruff, and quite versatile. He can do different voices, as showcased on the opening track ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ Kudos to Cabot for not reading this as ‘poetry’ either; he keeps the pace up and avoids a poesy voice. He does his best to say the words, as if someone’s actually saying them. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes he doesn’t seem to get the sentiment right, or his voice is too friendly, when the words call for snarl. Often he’s so earnest, you can only laugh. One more good point however is that he always recites the exact lyrics as Dylan sang them, never changing a word. If Dylan threw in a redundant ‘babe’ here or there to fit the rhythm, Cabot throws it in too.

I have to say though that two or three spins was as much effort as I could muster for this review. It’s really not all that interesting listening to a barrel-chested middle-aged Englishman recite Dylan lyrics as if he’s down with the kids. The only track that really works well is ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ because it utilizes so many different voices. Not that Dylan doesn’t do a great job on the original, but Cabot’s is interesting and fun to listen to. For a point of comparison, see Linda Mason’s cover of this – utterly atrocious.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this is the terrible selection of tracks. Cabot had so many great wordy Dylan ‘poems’ he could have used: ‘Desolation Row,’ ‘Chimes Of Freedom,’ ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ or ‘Gates Of Eden’ for example. So many better choices but instead we get hackneyed stuff like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ again, groan. And did we really need to hear a fat bearded bloke reciting ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, or ‘Tomorrow’s A Long Time’? Hell no. You could’ve done better Sebbo and actually, I do mind because I had to pay $10 for this carp.

Who Killed Davey Moore…opens with a short organ, then a loud flourish of wild strings, as Cabot shouts out “Who killed Davey Moore?” and proceeds to launch into the referee’s voice. Next an even louder ‘angry crowd’. The strings are cinematic-dramatic. Next is the ‘manager puffing on a big cigar’ and he does this well, as though he has a cigar in his mouth. Next is the ‘gambling man’ which he also does brilliantly in a kind of Brooklyn accent. Then we get the boxing writer, and finally the ‘man whose fists laid him low in a cloud of mist’. This is hilarious. He does a great job of making this furiously dramatic by divining each character’s voice.

It Ain’t Me Babe…for which Cabot uses a slightly gruff but tender voice. He adds these little touches of nudge nudge laughter in between, “It ain’t me babe, (heheh) no it ain’t me babe.” He never once pauses or tries to read with a particular rhythm. It’s over really quickly because of that.

Boots Of Spanish Leather…but this one is not. He puts on an Irish voice for the male part; fine, but then he doesn’t  bother to sustain it on the second and third verses! He reads the parts quite quickly, in keeping with that whole ‘authentic’ thing, as if these people are really having a conversation with each other. There’s a meandering violin in the background, and other string parts. Theoretically this one should have worked, but Dylan’s love songs are a bit silly done as voice acting.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right…as is this one.  I laugh at his casualisms such as “Look out ya winda / I’ll be gone.” His “So, don’t think twice, it’s all right” is quite funny in that earnest voice, as though he’s trying to be nice to the girl, which I think misses the point a little. It’s sort of tossed off too quickly like he really doesn’t care, rather than only pretending not to care. But no, he should not have chosen a song like this to cover. It’s too much of a great pop song in its own right.

Tomorrow’s A Long Time…and this is the worst choice of all. Why oh why did he think this was a good idea? His voice is so earnest and precious here, but the lyrics are so overtly sentimental, that they need to be sung so as not to sound slushy. And Cabot only makes it worse by treating it with too much reverence. Not that he would do it ironically, but he shouldn’t have done it all.

Blowin’ In The Wind…aargh, and this was a terrible choice. It’s impossible for him not to make this sound like a joke. He tiptoes around the words, treating them cautiously, like he’s handling them with kid gloves. It’s virtually impossible to voice-act, “How many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?” without sounding utterly pretentious. Cabot does have the wherewithal to admit this song is ‘actor-proof’ on the back cover. So why cover it then? The whole side is over in about twelve minutes.

Seven Curses…was at least an interesting choice insofar as Dylan wouldn’t officially release his version until the The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3.  The lyrics are all about Old Reilly who stole a stallion but he got caught and sentenced to death. His daughter tries to save him, tries to bribe the judge, but the judge wants her instead. He does this pretty well actually, using different voices for the different parts. See this is a story, with different characters, so it works to some extent. The music is kind of fiddly, string quartet stuff. The counting up of the seven curses at the end is hugely dramatic. Gotta earn yer chops somehow I suppose, Mr. Cabot.

All I Really Want To Do…now here’s a song with a lot of playful lyrics, but Dylan already does this brilliantly, and the whole point of the neat rhyming is to make it an enjoyable-to-listen-to clever kind of rap, so that to voice-act it, and to lower your voice on “All I really want to do / Is baby be friends with you” in such an earnest way completely misses the point. Dull.

The Times They Are A-Changin’…ugh, and here Cabot puts on a pompous British gentleman’s accent. What’s the point in that? There’s a kind of operatic diva wailing in the background. This is amusing but I don’t get it. I don’t get why he uses that voice. It makes no sense whatsoever for these words to be coming from a well-to-do older sounding Englishman. And he makes it so pleasant, it’s truly awwwful.

Quit Your Lowdown Ways…now this is good. Here’s he puts on a kind of holy roller Southern Baptist preacher voice. And he uses a bit of rhythm to give his voice soul. Along with ‘Davey Moore’ and ‘Seven Curses’ this is another that wasn’t released until The Bootleg Series. Not bad.

Like A Rolling Stone…I don’t mind this one too. Cabot uses what surely must be his own voice here, a fairly matter of fact, explanatory voice. He changes his voice a lot, in terms of mood, like he’s really interpreting the words in his own way, and speaks the whole thing in conversational tones. This is far better. This is what he should’ve been doing with the whole album—a genuine from-the-heart interpretation of the lyrics in his own voice, except for where a song calls for different characters. There’s a funny little woodwind and xylophone playing the tune.

And Mostly They Sing…is not a Dylan song. It is, according to the liner notes, a tribute to the talents of young men, composed by two chaps called Stallman and Hirsch. “Mostly they sing / And though the song stops and momentarily dies / Its meaning goes on…” is the refrain. “My aim has been to seek that meaning and bring it to you, as clearly and simply as I can,” says Cabot on the sleevenotes. This sounds quite heartfelt. He provides his own nice old gentlemanly voice here.

I would estimate that the whole album is barely 20 minutes long.  I may have found a few things to like about it, but in the end, I’m afraid to say that it’s pretty much a complete waste of time, and I’m going to have to rate it as the worst Dylan covers album thus far reviewed. Although I suspect EMI’s 1974 album Strings For Pleasure may release Cabot from that ignominy once I get to it.

Notes

Click once to expand, again to magnify.

Cabot was born in 1918, died in 1977. He was variously a mechanic, a cook and a chauffeur before getting involved with the theater world. He made several movies in the late 40s and early 50s followed by further movie and TV roles in the US, including Bonanza.  Apparently his best known role was a character called Giles French, a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ on a 60s sitcom called Family Affair. According to Cabot himself, “Dylan’s a spokesman, neither for his generation nor any other; rather he’s an articulator who tells you who he is, what’s happening and where it’s at (which is not a place). Dylan represents the best and most wasted natural resource of America—the talents of her young men—and he must be for every young songwriter the goal without being the target.”

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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