Bob Dylan Countdown #102: “Make You Feel My Love”

If I had to pick two musicians who irked me the most back in 1997, it would have been Billy Joel and Garth Brooks. Both covered “Make You Feel My Love” around that time. Should I feel some ambivalence about the song because of that fact? To what end can a song be blamed for the artists who cover it?

First, some background. When I was a kid, I loved Billy Joel. I played the heck out of Innocent Man on my tiny cassette player when I was 13. I grew out of that somewhat as I hit college, felt like some of the music was derivative and a lot of the lyrics weren’t on the same level as the artists I began to admire (Dylan chief among them.) Not too long after his release of “Make You Feel My Love,” I saw Joel give a lecture at a college, and he came off as annoyingly self-deprecating to a degree that it seemed disingenuous, I would have preferred him to puff out his chest and say, “Yeah, that’s right, I’ve made a gajillion dollars writing unoriginal songs that will be irresistible to girls at the jukebox too drunk to know any better and guys looking to dedicate love songs with a nasty edge to their significant others. Suck it!” After that night, I couldn’t deal with Joel.

Brooks was an even bigger offender. I am a professed Beatlemaniac, and I was a humorless one back then, which is the most dangerous kind. I was personally offended that Garth made it his goal in life to break the Beatles sales records, using all kinds of special editions and the like to get people to pay over and over for the same songs. It provided me with perverse pleasure when his whole Chris Gaines alter-ego project flopped like an Edsel filled with New Coke.

Ah, but I was so much older then, and, well, if you’re reading this blog, you know the rest. I try not to judge so glibly anymore, and my opinions have, I’d like to think, matured. I can give Joel credit for being an expert melodicist even if his lyrics will never be my cup of tea; I even felt sorry for him when some clown wrote a popular internet piece a few years back deriding Billy as the worst artist ever in what was clearly an attention-grab by this writer who wouldn’t know music if it crapped in his ear. As for Brooks, well, his music still does nothing for me, but at least the dude stayed retired, which is something that few retired celebrities actually do.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to “Make You Feel My Love.” Even in those years when I couldn’t stand Brooks or Joel, I never held it against the song. Dylan’s own performance is beyond charming, that harmless growl of a voice wrapping around those honeydripper lyrics. How can anyone resist it when he sings, “You ain’t see nothing like me yet?”

The point is that Bob Dylan need not always write Bob Dylan songs. He has afforded himself the privilege to write adult contemporary that doesn’t try to solve the world’s problems or elucidate some great human mystery. He has earned the prerogative to simply write about a man professing the lengths to which he will go to prove his love to a woman. In the case of “Make You Feel My Love,” he does this very well, as well or better than others who make their living writing such songs, and the overall effect is as powerful or even more so than many of Dylan’s weightier songs.

And so, I’ve come all the way around on this subject. Once upon on time, I condemned Garth Brooks and Billy Joel for tainting a Bob Dylan song by their associations with it. Now, I say bully for them for having such good taste.

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