Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Thursday, July 15, 2004

In "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" Jorge Luis Borges created an author who set out to re-write "Don Quixote" as a contemporary work and ends up creating a verbatim transcript of the original. The story's narrator, a critic who is reviewing the "new" Quixote, argues that Menard's work is characterized by an ironic subtlety, and is, therefore, a distinct artistic achievement.

My copy of Mary Lee Kortes' "Blood On The Tracks" arrived yesterday. A few years back New York bar called Arlene's Grocery had a promotion called Classic Album Night: performers were invited to do a set consisting of song for song renditions of iconic sides. Ms. Kortes volunteered to do "Blood On The Tracks" as the finale on an evening when other artists had done "After The Gold Rush" and The Band's second album
. The document that resulted is a useful way to re-listen to a work that can sometimes elude its original emotional impact due to over-familiarity. There is no better album about heartbreak-- "Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely" and "In the Wee Small Hours" are its only peers-- but because of its immediacy, and because it has been so frequently applied as a balm its power can occasionally be blunted. Ms. Kortes knows its power, and approaches each song with a freshness that signals her enthusiasm and deep love for the material. She understands "Blood On The Tracks", and feels it the way that all of us who love the album have felt it.

"You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above"-- it must have felt wonderful to have snarled those words in front of a tight playing band, halfway through the set, knowing that she'd found the heart of this music and that this risky adventure was coming together. Ron Rosenbaum's theories notwithstanding, I believe that the key to "Blood On The Tracks" is "You're A Big Girl Now", which is Dylan's singing at its most plaintive. She nails it. She even gets the humor, calling up an audience member to sing the first couple of verses of "Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts". The liner notes say that the guest vocalist told her later that he'd almost lost his job at the law firm where he worked because of his undignified performance, but it is hilarious, a little tour of Dylan's vocal quirks. It's too bad, in a way, because I love the song and would like another serious version, but in the context of the album it really works. Too bad she sticks to the verses on the album: there is at least one-- Joan Baez sings it-- that he skips, so she skips it too. ("Lilly" is one of those Dylan songs that sounds like he must have a trunk full of, even though it really is unique. A symbolic Western-- could anything be more Dylanesque? There are plenty of Dylan shaggy dog stories, but nothin' like the Jack of Hearts.)

The whole thing is an audacious experiment that works, and I'm glad I found it. I think I'll check out her original work: she has an appealing voice and a good band.

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