The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde Talks Bob Dylan Covers Series
When Chrissie Hynde heard Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute elegy he had recorded about John F. Kennedy and surprise-released in late March, she was caught by surprise. “It really knocked me sideways,” she tells Rolling Stone. “It’s so magnificent.”
Like everyone, she was in what she describes as an “odd frame of mind” due to the pandemic-related lockdowns that had gone into effect a few weeks earlier. So with no outside distractions, the song teleported her back to her youth. “It brought back my whole childhood and my past,” she says. “I remembered exactly where I was sitting in the sixth grade at my desk when the news [of JFK’s assassination] came over the Tannoy [P.A.] system. Then I was thinking about Bob and how significant he’s been throughout my lifetime — and everyone’s lives. I’ve gone to see shows of his and there are grown men, older than me, standing up, like, in tears just because he’s there.”
After Dylan released another new song, “I Contain Multitudes,” that she found “fucking devastating,” she realized that now was the perfect time to pay tribute to a man who had inspired her for most of her life. She had grown up with Dylan’s music and has had the opportunity to pay tribute to him in the past — she joined him at Wembley Stadium for renditions of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in 1984, and she sang a stunning rendition of “I Shall Be Released” to him at his 1992 30th anniversary concert — but she has long wanted to do more. “Any singer-songwriter would like to do every Bob Dylan song they can get their hands on, and there’s thousands to choose from,” she says.
Hynde had planned on hitting the road this spring with the Pretenders, in support of their hard-hitting new album, Hate for Sale, but now she had an empty diary. She’d seen Dylan live a few times with the band’s lead guitarist, James Walbourne, and had remarked to him she would love to cover some Dylan songs.
In late April, Hynde and Walbourne released the first installment of what they dubbed their “Dylan Lockdown Series,” “In the Summertime.” Dylan’s version of the track, which appeared on his 1981 LP Shot of Love, was a mid-tempo, harmonica-soaked nostalgia piece. Hynde and Walbourne toughened it up a little with some forceful acoustic guitar, a lusher chorus, and an organ replacing some of the harmonica, as she hung onto his words to fit them to her voice. “I sent James a rhythm track on my phone, he added to it, and I put a vocal to it,” she says, explaining their quarantine-era methodology. “Then we sent it to [engineer] Tchad Blake, who is out in the wilds of Wales, to mix it. I love working with him.”
After she was pleased with the finished product, she started picking more songs. They made Blood on the Tracks’ “You’re a Big Girl Now” sound a little more country and contemplative. They took the gospel-tinged Time Out of Mind number “Standing in the Doorway” and opened the windows on it, making it into something more uplifting. And they interpreted the gentle “Sweetheart Like You,” from Infidels — the album Dylan was touring on when Hynde joined him at Wembley — and made it sound sparse, with just guitar, piano, and Hynde’s voice.
“I just love always discovering new Dylan stuff and discovering old albums,” Walbourne says, on a break from learning the chords to the Infidels-era outtake “Blind Willie McTell” on the piano. “When I saw Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder doc on Netflix, I had no idea [Dylan] was that crazy during that time.”
“With a catalog like Dylan’s, there’s so much there,” Hynde says. “I mean, I’m not one of these Dylan … … what do they call them … ‘Dylanologists’ to get on chat lines and discuss every lyric and everything. Although why not? But you know, I’m not into it from an academic, intellectual point of view. I wouldn’t take it in a college course. But if there’s songs I’ve lived through, such as when ‘Like A Rollin’ Stone’ and [similar songs] came on the radio back in the Sixties, they really changed the way songwriting was across the board. Probably even James Brown was affected by him; he started writing songs like ‘The Big Payback.’ And, I mean, Hendrix. Anyway, and so there’s this huge catalog and you can dip in if you want.” She waits a beat. “And I want.”
That said, she admits that Dylanologists have been keeping her on her toes. “You don’t want to fuck up a Dylan song and have thousands of Dylanologists gunning for you,” she says. When she covered “Sweetheart Like You,” she struggled a little with how she wanted to sing some of Dylan’s words.
“These days, you don’t have to change the gender of a lyric because it doesn’t matter anymore,” Hynde says. “That was always a problem in the past, since sometimes it kind of compromises the song. Like if it didn’t sound right to change, ‘She loves me’ to ‘He loves me,’ let’s say. These days, you can do anything.
“But there was one second verse in ‘What’s a Sweetheart Like You’ that said, ‘She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child,’ and I thought ‘That’s gonna be really awkward,’” she continues. “I couldn’t figure out how to make that mine. So I went through the archives of different versions he’s done and found a Spanish translation that had a different verse, so I just used that one. I mean, he sang it in English, maybe it wasn’t the official, and then I thought, ‘Oh, these guys are gonna come after me now and say, “That’s not what he wrote.”‘ But it is what he wrote.”
This week, Hynde and Walbourne uploaded the final entry in their Dylan Lockdown Series, their rendition of “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a quiet acoustic folk number that debuted on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. Hynde and Walbourne kept it acoustic but made it more upbeat with organ and plinking cymbals, even when she sings, “If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time, then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all.” You can hear both her deference to Dylan and how the song is personal enough that she feels comfortable making it her own.
“Everyone goes back a long way with him because everyone has their own personal history [with his songs],” she says. “In his case, it’s very personal, because his songs are so personal. People who are fans of his really are fans. He’s not a lightweight; he’s a heavyweight. He’s been there for a longtime with us, so he’s seen us through many things, and we’ve seen him through.”
She pauses and considers just what it has meant to her to sing these songs. “It sounds like it’d be so easy, but first of all, you’re trying not to sing them the way you’ve heard them over the years because you get locked into that,” she says. “You can’t consciously sing them differently, so you just have to find your own thing. So it’s been an interesting and a fun thing to do. I’m very grateful to have the time to do this, because otherwise I’d be on a tour bus right now.”