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How Cat Power became a Bob Dylan fan

09 November 2023, 22:00

Interview by Rich Thane

In the ultimate tribute to a musical hero, Cat Power's latest release commits to record her recreation of Bob Dylan's famous - and long-misnamed Royal Albert Hall Concert.

The original concert - actually held at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966 but known as the “Royal Albert Hall Concert” due to a mislabeled bootleg- saw a 25-year-old Dylan switch from acoustic to electric midway through the show, angering the folk purists and creating one of rock-and-roll's most iconic moments.

Chan Marshall's own staging of the show took place last November in London and saw her transpose the anarchic tension of Dylan’s set with a warm and luminous joy.

Marshall kept the first half of her set entirely acoustic - just like Dylan - and switched to electric for the second half with a full band that included guitarist Arsun Sorrenti, bassist Erik Paparozzi and drummer Josh Adams. There's even a nod to the moment from the original concert, where an audience member shouts out “Judas!” before “Like A Rolling Stone”.

“I had and still have such respect for the man who crafted so many songs that helped develop conscious thinking in millions of people, helped shape the way they see the world,” explains Marshall. “So even though my hands were shaking so much I had to keep them in my pockets, I felt real dignity for myself. It felt like a real honor for me to stand there.”

Himself a Dylan superfan - and proud owner of every single official vinyl release by the great man - Best Fit's Rich Thane met up with Marshall to talk about their respective journeys to the church of Bob.

BEST FIT: My lightbulb moment for Bob Dylan is when I was 17. I knew who he was, of course, like every kid would do, but I specifically remember being in the back of my friend's car and there was a mixtape playing. It was the usual sort of 60s stuff but I heard the snap of the snare and the Hammond on "Like A Rolling Stone" and it was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. I had this epiphany moment and I didn't listen to anything else for a year.

CHAN MARSHALL: Yeah, it's kind of a mash up for me because I was so young when I heard everything that I heard. My grandmother raised me until I was five so all the music that I heard was like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Dean Martin, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Bing Crosby…and then I met my mom and dad – they weren't together – and I hung out with them and their friends and their world. And they both had different worlds and were into different music.

My dad was a singer and he had his bands and his songs and his lifestyle and his records and his music and a lot of basketball. And my mom was really into Ziggy Stardust; she changed her name to Ziggy, had a full Ziggy hairdo. And my stepdad was already in the picture, he knew both of them, and he was in this whole Southern rock thing like The Allman Brothers. My dad was adopted, and my stepdad was also adopted and he was more Stones, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Love, Bob Marley. My mom was more funk: she liked The Stones and shit like that too but she was more tripped out. She got a big Afro perm, and had the Black Power pick in her hair. My father figure at the time was the designer Patrick Kelly, he became a really well known fashion designer and he took care of me a lot after kindergarten and after first grade, and my godmother lived in the same apartment complex. Patrick worked from home, he liked to design shit at home across the hall, and he turned me on to Sister Sledge and Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle and Donna Summer…

So you had all these parties in different houses. It was bars at night, or parties, or in the middle of nowhere with bands and Harleys. It was always different things… disco night, a lot of different adults everywhere. There was always music going on. I knew every lyric to almost every song because everybody always played what they loved and they all had different personalities. You got used to hearing the same stuff when you were with different people. And then I’d go back to my grandmother, and she was like “Oh, I love this Elvis song” and she would sing it to me, you know, or sing Jonny Cash or something.

But I remember when Dylan would come on or Jimi Hendrix would play "All Along The Watch Tower"…I always remembered the comments and they were so negative. Everybody loved The Beatles. I remember that. But whenever the adults talkied about Dylan, it was always about how his voice wasn't good. I didn't understand why they would talk shit about him but then I learned that it’s because they're all musicians and a lot of musicians like to talk shit about what's good and what's not good and what new record is shit. That's just what they do. That's what we all do. But you know, everybody knows everything about everything all the time. Especially the biggest fan of course.

Everybody's the biggest Bob Dylan fans but I just love the guy because anytime his songs would come on I didn't notice that his voice sounded bad or whatever. I noticed that his lyrics were fun. When rap started later on, you know, with Sugar Hill Gang, I felt like that reminded me of Dylan and when I started learning about punk, it reminded me about Dylan because of the context of the words.

Can you remember any specific song that would be played a lot?

It was on the radio, it was in the bars. It's on the jukebox. It was at a party, so it’s all mixed. It was the 70s, there was always that music everywhere. Different songs meant different things to me. When Dylan songs would come on, wherever we were, there was a tenderness. I felt like there was a tenderness because of the song I knew that everyone knew called “Mr. Tambourine Man”.

But the first song I think that made me have critical thinking – I was probably nine when I heard it and it clicked – was “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. I didn't understand what the hell he was talking about with Jonny in the basement, mixing up the medicine. And the sound of that circus horn, or whatever that is.

I was a child around adults all the time, and they’re all musicians and they'd always talk about music and different stories and history, and times they met him and this and that. My dad met Jimi but nobody had any stories about Bob. I knew from a young age that Bob was special. I loved Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson… but there was something about how it felt like with Bob. I felt like I was listening to something more intelligent than me as a kid. When I listened to his lyrics, something that at the time I didn't know was triggering me to have critical thinking – like a crossword puzzle.

When I first discovered him in the 90s, I became obsessed with the idea of Bob Dylan in 1966. Like that specific version of Bob – the attitude, the clothes, he basically invented punk rock before it was even a thing. And I remember as a teenager, I used to sort of daydream about being transported back to that. And honestly, seeing the show at the Royal Albert Hall last year, the opening chords of “She Belongs To Me” were kind of ghostly. What was the genesis and the thinking behind doing that specific show?

Well I hadn’t gotten a show in the UK for a while which was weird because I had five singles on BBC 6 Music from the Covers record. I just kept saying, “work on London, work Belfast, work on Glasgow, what the fuck is going on?” And then finally, I got a phone call. I got a text: “Urgent, need you now, phone? “Hello. I need a yes or no. Royal Albert Hall, Bonfire Night. November 5. Guy Fawkes. Can you do it.” I said “Fuck, yeah! But only Dylan, only Dylan.”

We didn't know how that would be received/perceived/projected… I didn't really give a fine fuck because it feels good to do what feels good to do. For an artist, the hardest part is doing something unconventional that doesn't make business land feel comfortable.

A few years earlier, I had just played the 20th anniversary for an album called Moon Pix at the Sydney Opera House, which was beautiful, with Jim White and Mick Turner and a small string section. And it was so amazing and I am so stupid because I didn't have it recorded. So a couple of weeks later I brought up the conversation that I really want to record it for whatever reason, I'd like for it to be documented. And that brought up a lot of conversations, because I’d never had a manager before, and then my son was born and the music industry just turned its back on me when I became a mom, a single mom. And so I kind of had to start my career over pretty much. Thank God I found some cool people that basically housed my record and the follow up and this one, which is awesome to be able to do what you want.

We weren't sure if it was, you know, there's always that feeling of being sacrilegious. You don't want to do anything to off-put Bob. I enjoy a world where we're allowed to push boundaries because it gives a lot more people a lot more space. So I appreciate pushing the boundaries, but without disrespect. We had a conversation with the record label, we had a conversation with a couple of musicians who we felt that I trusted enough. Everyone's amazing and good, you know, they get it.

So anyway, we went out for the rehearsal for two days there were a couple moments where I had to say, “you know, we don't want to have a ham bone, we’re not selling corndogs down on Beale Street in Memphis. We're gonna play the Royal Albert Hall. We're gonna try to give respect to a groundbreaking time in history when shit was super shaky in America as it is now with book burning, fascist stuff… Let's do something real nice, let's do something elegant. Let's do something true to form. No improv. No fucking deconstruction, nothing. Let's do something genuine and elegant and simple!

And I think everyone caught that when they were there as well. There was so much respect for the source material. For me just hearing “Tell Me Mama” because obviously he never recorded it officially. Just before you took to the stage, what was going through your head - because there was such a raw energy in the room?

I was extremely nervous. But I learned to do this, you know, when I was young – if there was any horrendous fear of something, I'd have to objectify my feelings and just get through it. And then get to the emotional part when I had the stability and peace of mind and calm energy around me to deal with that emotion. But I couldn't control what was happening to me physically… my whole leg was uncontrollably shaking and it went up to my butt and then my other leg and then my arms and my jaw. My whole body was vibrating and so I just made a fist and tried to be as calm and cool and collected and just try to focus and it was difficult.

I was listening back to the to the full recording yesterday, and I found it really, really funny that you could tell somebody was going to heckle “Judas” Before “Like A Rolling Stone”

It serves that song well because… someone said, “it's like he's putting a cigarette butt out on someone's forehead.”

You've met him a couple of times. Are you comfortable in talking about those the encounters with him?

What I feel is adequate for the press? Yeah.

When was the first time?

The first time was 2007. I got a call from his office in New York, and he wanted to meet me, wanted me to come to the office in Irving Plaza but I was on tour in Washington, DC so I couldn't make it because he was leaving the next day to go on tour.

Then the second time we were in Santa Barbara and he had left a guest pass at the door. But I was taking care of this little girl at the time who's now an amazing artist in New York City. I had to get her to school.

I'm friends with his two sons; Sam Dylan said to me, “I think you should cover 'I Believe In You', and I was like, 'Yeah, you do?'" So I did and I changed like one lyric in that song at the end. And so he started playing it... it wasn't on a setlist for like three, four years or whatever, and he started playing it and my adopted daughter recognised it. I was like, “you got a good ear Honeybun!” but we had to leave because I had to take her to school. Anyway, so we’re rocking to the car in the parking lot, and I can still hear the song, and it was the last verse before we got in the car. I just waited. And he changed that one lyric to my lyric.

That's incredible.

I was so happy, I was just walking on air. I didn't see him after the show but he put the song on and changed the lyric and everything. And I wasn’t there and I feel really bad about that. But people like Jack White, Dave Chappelle, you know. Dave's like, “wow, I got a call from Bob!, Bob called me in the 80s.” Jack’s like: “Yeh Bob called me last week!” Fucking assholes!

Last year Chappelle had a show the same night in London with a mutual friend – his friend from high school is an old friend of mine, her mom’s in the Black Panthers. We partied all night, I had so much fun. Andre 3000 was there on his flute. And Chappelle is like, “Bob called and said he wanted to hang out. So I spent three hours at Bob's house just me and Bob. Amazing. Hilarious.”

When I put that Royal Albert Hall show on sale last year, you know, Bob put out a press release that he's going on tour in the UK. I announced my three shows, then the next day, he announced his plan, the same three cities.

They were quite close together weren’t they - because I definitely remember seeing him at the Palladium in October.


I feel like that's the best show I've ever seen him do. It was perfect, and I’ve seen him probably 30 times. Can you remember your first show?

Yeh I thought it was when I was 15. But I was 16. A friend of mine who I didn't go to high school with but lived in Atlanta at the same time, he refreshed my memory. He said “We're the same age. You were born the same year, and that show was this day, I have the ticket stub.” So I was 16 and it was at Chastain Park in Atlanta and I was screaming my ass off in the back for a third encore. Tickets were like seven or eleven dollars or something. Very cheap, very affordable. I mean, I didn't have any money but I was already working. I had income but I just bought weed and hits of acid.

So I’m screaming “Tangled! Up! In! Blue!” for the third encore and there are a lot of people leaving. I wasn't going anywhere. I did not stop. And then he walks out with a mandolin and plays “Tangled up in Blue.”

The second time he played, I was 26 and living South Carolina with Bill Callahan from Smog. And I didn't know the name of the song but I’m screaming “Then I'd lie in my bed once again” for the encore [“Tomorrow Is a Long Time”] for three minutes and he fucking walks out and fucking sings that song.

That's incredible. It's almost like you have like a telepathic link! Now I want to do some quick fire Dylan questions.


One Dylan record you can only listen to until the end of time?

Blood on the Tracks.

Best use of a Bob Dylan song in a movie.

Masked and Anonymous, the last scene.

It’s a completely underrated film.

It’s amazing. Do you remember when Luke Wilson gives him a guitar?

Yeh! I read somewhere that Dylan fancied writing a comedy for HBO. So that was why they originally pitched it with [Seinfeld director] Larry Charles but Bob lost interest during the pitch and they ended up making Masked and Anonymous instead. What's your favourite Dylan era?

That’s a tough one. Today, let’s say Glasgow, that performance on Halloween night.

You're going to a Halloween party dressed as Bob. What Bob would you dress as?

Last year at Bob's show on Halloween in Glasgow when I saw him the night before at the same hotel on the stairs, me and my guitar player Henry were dressed as Laurel and Hardy with the bowler hat. We didn't do the moustache because it felt too Nazi-looking.

If Bob Dylan came over for dinner, what are you cooking?

Probably a lot of shit, a lot of stuff. I’d probably cook a baked fish you know, in the parchment paper. Nice, fresh poached red snapper or something with a little white wine and tab of butter. And then I’d bake a lot of garlic with some orange peel and with some sort of oysters, probably from Baja, California. Some champagne. Maybe from Jay Z's company. And then my Chinese ginger, maple syrup, garlic, string beans. And my twice baked mash with cayenne, creme fresh, chives and then my jalapeño, fresh corn muffins. And cherry apple pie. Or fried chicken or maybe a black-eyed pea burrito with the coriander chutney and mixed with creme fraiche, fried chicken burrito. Maybe some sushi. Eggs with caviar. On brioche.

Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert is out now via Domio

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