Artist Profile: Noah Zacharin on Bob Dylan

As I mentioned yesterday, Sunday May 24 is the birthday of Bob Dylan. To Celebrate, a great bunch of people (including myself!) are getting together at C'est What in Toronto to sing some of his song. One of the highlights for Sunday night will definitely be the performance of Noah Zacharin. Noah has been in the business a long time. Played a lot of shows, released 6 solid albums, and had the honor of sharing a stage with such legends as Odetta and Dave Van Ronk. I got a chance to catch up with Noah the other day over pizza and and a veggie wrap...

Where do you start with Bob Dylan?

For me? Long time ago! You know, in fact the first time I ever played music with someone else, I was at camp. And I wandered into the camp councilors bunk, where I knew everything was happening, it was all... that's where the sex and drugs was going on. I badly wanted to be a councilor but I was too young, and the year I could have been, the camp shut down. but, I wandered in and one of the councilors was singing. And I had my guitar with me, he was singing Positively 4th Street, and I tuned my guitar down, as if I was playing bass. I was probably 13 or 14. My first experience playing it I guess. I don't know if I'd ever tried his song before, I guess I was aware... I was probably 12 years old, and I got a barmitzfah present, a friend of my mom offered me 3 or 4 records of my choosing, so I chose "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits", because it had Positively 4th Street on it. So it was probably back then. I may have heard him on the radio. Probably heard it there. I think the first song I ever tried to sing was If Today was Not an Endless Highway. [Tomorrow Is a Long Time- ED]. I used to think it was the most beautiful love song ever written. That's how I'd introduce it.

Did It take time for you to Get into his music?

No. Right away. No Problem! Dylan is Dylan.

What about the music really stood out for you?

Well, he's a good writer. You know, it's more that the words and music. There's obviously a vibe to it. You see folks doing covers of his songs, and not doing them well, and they miss a lot of the magic. But, you know, his performance of it, and the content... his intrepid nature as a writer. And over the years he's changed so many times, and I think that's the only way to stay alive as an artist. And he seems to always have... except for a brief few years after his accident, when he went into hiding for a bit... He's been at the surface of the music, kind of like Leonard Cohen, he's been at the surface of his art. So the consistency, the depth of his catalogue. I've seen him a few times, last time was at the ACC, a friend of mine bought me tickets for my birthday, I was so impressed how he could play something recent, and from 30 years ago, and it can still sound fresh. Part of that is the way he performs them, he's never been reluctant to change the way he plays something. Doesn't matter if it's a folk song, he'll rock it up. Or turn a rock song into a sweet ballad. He didn't seem bothered by making things apparently Ugly. The Rolling Thunder tour, he uglified all his music! but they survived. It's really an amazing catalogue. Just watching him play songs and pulling them from a different decade. The first time I ever saw him was at the Forum in Montreal. Just before the Live at Budakan album came out. I remember him singing Tangled up In Blue It was him and a bass flute. and there was this blue spotlight. It was a such a contrast from the rolling thunder, it was a tenderly wrought experience.

And the Arrangements on that album are amazing, such a tight band.

Yeah, and he changes them up. I saw him at the Moslon Amphitheatre. He was playing all his own guitar solos. And every-time he stated one, it was so outside! It felt like Thelonious Monk was playing the solos. It never seemed that he'd know how to get himself back, but he did. It was flawless. His musical vision is so different from the conventional or the expected. So my feelings about him, I wasn't in love with him, I'm not in love with him now, when I discovered him. Just as a consistent artist, and someone worth watching and someone with a new trick. And the way his voice is changing, it's an authoritative deep growl. It's apparent how close he lives to what he writes about. The way things have changed. It's just tremendously beautiful.
I remember picking up a copy, there were two albums release about 12 years ago, "Good As I Been To You" and another one ["World Gone Wrong"- ED], they were all cover tunes, folk tunes. "Good As I Been To You" is one I really liked, but what really struck me is how good of a guitar player he is. I question the criticism, he's a great musician, he clearly doesn't show everything he does, he's a good piano player, guitar player. And the rhythm playing on that record was so solid, and he never played something cause it was easier to play, he was always following the phrasing of the song. He's always full of surprises.

Is there a particular period that stands out for you? Or is it the whole cannon?

The whole body of work, is the most impressive thing about it. Like a lot of people, the Trilogy from the mid sixties is powerful, because it's quite pioneering. It marked the territory, and broke new ground, and offered that as an option to songwriters after him. In a way, it's the most impressive. Out of all the records, I listen to "Blonde on Blonde" the most. And what's the record with Jokerman on it?

Oh, "Infidels"

yeah, That is one of the ones i listen to a lot. It's a very musical record.

Yeah, and not a very obvious choice, not a lot of people talk about it

Well there a lot of great songs, Jokerman is a great song.

It's a very pessimistic album

And why not? he lives in the same world we do. I mean, I guess "Blonde on Blonde", "Bringing it all back home", playing with the idea of being creative lyrically and breaking new musical grounds. Did you see the interview with him and Mike Wallace on 60 minutes?


I think it was the first interview he'd given in a long time. But in a way it was his first very candid interview, where in a way all of the masks were off. Wether they really were... I cannot say.
He's always been very wise about how he presents himself. But it seems sincere. A friend of mine taped it for me, I watched about 5 minutes of it, and had to turn it off. It was so striking that a man who part of his reputation was giving cryptic answers and being evasive, and not really excepting the notion that poetry needs to be explained with prose... he was just really really straight. He was asked something about those 3 records, and as soon as he answered the question, I shut if off. He said "I can't write like that anymore" He actually looks at these songs on these records, and he doesn't know how it happened. He says, "I can't do that anymore, I can do other things, but not that". He's a songwriter, he knows how to write songs...

But he'll never be in that head-space again.

No. You can imagine the energy he was working with, constantly. I think thats part of the reason why those albums mean a lot to me. I love New York. I just got back from New York. I met Les Paul, Rambling Jack Eliot. I was this close to you as to Kris Kristopherson, Joan Beaz, Richie Havens, and Taj Mahal as he exited madison Sq gardens. So all this shit is happening. Those records are all New York. and you can imagine him walking up West 4th street. you can imagine him walking up and down in the village. I feel it, and imagine him crashing in some-ones apartment, writing songs all night. I played at a festival last year, Twisted Pines, and they had a Dylan night, and screened I'm Not Here. But you can imagine him on a typewriter writing these lyrics. So the energy in the place and at the time, it was all funneling through him. I get some of that from those records.

Yeah, the first time I was in New York I took a day walking through that side of town, seeing his old apartment, Cafe Wha and all those places, I had to drink it in.

It's changing.

Yeah, it's all NYU property now.
So how many of these Dylan nights have you done?

5 or 6

Ryan (Ayukawa, booker) has been involved from the beginning, right?

Yeah, as far as I remember. That was the first of the tributes, and then he started doing other ones, Dylan was probably the first one, and he did a few Leonard Cohen ones, than Neil Young, and some other ones.

He's developed quite a relationship with musicians, and has a real love of music

Yeah, well he'd been there at the free times cafe for quite a while, if your there and your sitting in the booth every week., you gotta find something to do.

Do you know what you're going to play yet?

I'm gonna try, um, I don't know yet, there are a couple songs that I have in my regular repertoire, I'll do those. I've got a couple songbooks, I'm going to poke through there. There's actually a song that I heard it's about a clothes line. It's fairly obscure, it's been on some bootlegs, and I think I heard a recorded version by the Roaches. And it's an astounding song, it's all about a clothesline that he sees from the back... and you'd think that wouldn't make for a great song, but somehow he transformed it into this profoundly moving little scene. So I'm going to poke around his lyrics and see if there is something that catches my attention. I've played Tom Thumb's Blues, I've recorded that a couple times, so I'll do that one. One Too Many Mornings, that actually, if we're talking about early songs, that might have been one of the first ones I ever played. there was a guy named Bruce Murdoch who use to perform in Montreal. I used to love watching him, and he used to play One Too many Mornings, and I incorporated it from him into my repertoire.

I recorded a version a version of that for the C'est What website

Oh yeah, that was you?

Yeah, is it up now?

It says it's been uploaded, but that just means they have it in their data base.
It's cool, I used to have a relationship with C'est What, I still do, but I used to play there quite a lot, but I use to play with this band called Polarity Bears we would do shows, probably twice a week, and because I was part of that, I used to get solo shows. I'd be there 3 or 4 times a month, and I released my second record, the first one I did here, and it's in rotation in their in house radio. I walked in with a friend once and thought hey I recognize those rhythms!

Oh that's cool. Yeah it's a really good bar. I particularly like the beer selection in that place. so how do approach covering a song? and not just Bob Dylan, but is there a particular approach you take?

Um..... probably. I've never been one to copy. So if it's a song I like, I find a way to play it. I do a version of Whipping Post, and I got it in my head that I wanted to learn it, so I just found my way around the band thing, and just slow it down and find the important parts and play them. And if it's a song that moves me... There's actually been a few songs that I've tried, but when I actually looked at the lyrics, couldn't do it. I like the vibe and music of Time After Time, the Cindy Lauper thing. But I got the lyrics, and thought... I wouldn't be able to sing them with conviction. With Tom Thumbs I imagined how Richie Havens would have played it.

Did you get a chance to see Richie Havens last year?

I saw him the year before. I think it was maybe 2 or 3 years ago.

Does he still have that energy and presence to him?

Oh yeah, he has these heavy heavy hands, with lots of rings and shit you can see the weight of the strumming. And he's a great showman. He's got great energy. I didn't see him at Madison Square Gardens, but I was reading an article in the New York Times afterwards, and at the end of the show he did these rock and roll splits, kick thing. He's probably in his late 60's if not older. It's quite impressive.

He's back again in June or July

You've never seen him live?

No, not yet

You've gotta go.

Noah is performing this Sunday May 24th at C'est What with Dave Borrins, Amy Campbell, Sarah Loucks, hosted by Shawn Clarke...me. Event Info here!

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