Bob Dylan recorded the song Death Is Not the End at the time that he was working on his 1983 album, Infidels. That’s one of my favorite Dylan albums, despite the fact that many knock it for not including Blind Willie McTell and some other songs that leaked out later. Personally, I don’t think it makes much sense to knock an album for songs it doesn’t include. (Sgt. Pepper would have been so much better if only the Beatles had put Strawberry Fields on it!)
In any case, Bob Dylan’s version of Death Is Not the End was not officially released until 1988 on his hodge-podgy album Down In The Groove. We know it’s the same version he recorded during the Infidels sessions because, like the rest of that album, it features Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and Mark Knopfler. Down In The Groove has a number of interesting gems, and this has to count as one of them on the basis of the song itself. However, I can’t say that I think Dylan does all he can with the tune in this particular rendition (not that there’s any other rendition by Dylan himself of which I know). The song’s verses present a litany of dark and hopeless scenarios, punctuated by the refrain, “Just remember that death is not the end.” It’s a solid concept, but with the the way that Dylan sings it, and the rather morose musical pace of the performance, the fact that “death is not the end” comes across as being a rather cold comfort.
Someone who heard the song from a bootleg tape of those Infidels sessions was the singer Mike Scott of a combo called the Waterboys. He heard a different kind of spirit in the song, and, while performing live on an Irish radio show (The Dave Fanning Show) round about 1986 he and bandmates Steve Wickham and Anthony Thistlethwaite belted it out with some gusto, vigor and a fair bit of vim. The performance was replayed on that show many times and was later chosen in a poll by listeners as one of their favorite pieces of music of the year, officially released or otherwise.
You can listen to it via YouTube right here. I think you’ll agree that it’s a rather joyful and rabble-rousing (in a good way) version of the song. And since first hearing it, it’s how I’ve always heard the song in my mind’s ear.
There’s another cover of the same song on YouTube, featuring Nick Cave, Kylie Minogue and Shane McGowan. However, it owes a little too much to Dylan’s own noirish rendition for my taste.
The Waterboys of that era were a truly great band, by the way, and they’re best represented by the very fine album Fisherman’s Blues, mining a rather wonderful musical vein. After that time, however, it seemed to me that the lead singer and songwriter, Mike Scott, didn’t really appreciate all that he had going on, and went off on some far less resonant musical tangents. In any case, I lost touch with wherever he was going.
Their great version of Death Is Not the End has only been available, as far as I know, on a slightly hard-to-find double CD called The Live Adventures of the Waterboys.
Speaking of tangents, and death not being the end, I can’t resist noting this headline from ABC News:
“Johnny Cash Releasing Another Posthumous Album”. You might click on it expecting to see further news on how Johnny will be promoting his new album in an appearance on “Regis and Kelly” next week, followed by a concert tour, maybe with Buddy Holly opening for him. I can’t believe that such a headline was put on the story, and that it still hasn’t been changed online, after being out there for days. What’s wrong with “Another Posthumous Johnny Cash Album Being Released”, or “American Recordings Label Releasing Another Posthumous Johnny Cash Album”? Johnny himself isn’t actually taking any action here, after all. His doing was done, over six years ago.
The album is another in the series of Rick Rubin productions, and is called American VI: Aint No Grave. It will feature Johnny’s version of Satisfied Mind — a song which Dylan fans would know from Bob’s album Saved.