Singer/Songwriter Jerry Leger Discusses Bob Dylan

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Mike Sauve:    One similarity I see between your best songs and some of my favourite Dylan tunes is they’re often centered, for me anyway, around one nearly perfect verse.  In “Idiot Wind” it’s the opening “They say I shot a man named Gray” story.  In “Highlands” it’s the waitress scene, although that’s like 15 verses long.  In your “East Coast Queen” it’s the culmination of the narrator’s search for the girl:

The boys on the island
The men at the docks
Say, “give her my pleas
If she comes back to me
She’ll get anything she wants

If I miss that part I might as well just lift the needle and start the song over.  But then, like those Dylan songs, a couple smaller planets orbit that one beautiful verse–like asking the doctor “I want to live healthy, is there something that I can use?” When writing a song, are you conscious of having one or two great verses that you then work around, or what?

Jerry Leger:  Well, with that song, it started with the first line, “On the East Coast, she’s living like a Queen by a throne…” then everything was written relating to that character in that environment. A lot of them start off that way, with the first line and that allows me to build a story or idea from that.

MS:  Dylan is the ultimate appropriation artist, so I have limited qualms grabbing his lyrics for my own use.  My fiction is littered with phrases that most would never realize are Dylan lyrics like, “I called out for another plate of food” or “The rising sun returned.” More cryptic tribute than self-benefitting theft, is my argument.  In a recent Exclaim! concert review I mentioned how your song “Isabella” contains the line, “I was young when I left home”, which is the title of an early Dylan track.  This is one overt way you’ve borrowed something from Dylan, can you discuss some less obvious examples?

JL:   Ya, I think that’s the big difference, tribute verses theft, or I guess you could also call it building off an idea instead of tribute. I don’t like when artists just steal a whole idea and don’t leave any imprint of themselves. Ya, I thought it was great you picked up on that line! I just always loved the sound of it and I think Dylan even grabbed it from an earlier tune. I just felt it was a fitting way to begin that particular verse and then the rest of it has nothing to do with that song, it doesn’t lift anything else from it. I did something similar in another tune “John Lewis”. A couple lines are very similar to an old Luke the Drifter (Hank Williams) number called “Make up Your Mind”. Tribute is a fitting word for that. I threw it in the middle of an 8 minute tune for the Hank fans to pick up on! Now I’m giving away all my secrets.

MS:  You’ve been listening to Another Self Portrait.  I think the album’s tone is best exemplified on one of the “Little Sadie”s, when Bob says “Let’s just take this one.” You get the feeling you’re hanging in the studio with Bob.  I love “Spanish is the Loving Tongue”, “Only a Hobo”, “Pretty Saro”, “Wallflower”, and about 14 other treasures. Describe some of your favourite songs on the album?  Why is it interesting to hear them unearthed in 2013?

JL:  I’ve been loving it. It does have this feeling of freedom, of trying any tune that popped in his head and seeing if it worked well enough. “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” is beautiful, there’s something sad and relatable about it. I love the version of “Time Passes Slowly”, “Pretty Saro” has haunting vocals and I really dig the version of “Copper Kettle”.

For me, It’s interesting to hear because there’s no tricks, no bells, a lot of these tunes are sparsely arranged, if arranged at all. It’s a very honest way of putting something down on tape. You feel like you’re in the studio with him because there’s no strange wall between you. I mean, he’s almost always been like that, that’s been a big influence on the way I make records.

MS:  The original Self-Portrait was my dad’s favourite Bob Dylan album. During a 1999 trip to Toronto, he was thrilled to order it from Sam the Record Man back when that was the only way for a Sault Ste. Marie man to locate an unpopular album. I remember listening to it and asking, “This is Bob Dylan?” I hadn’t listened to Nashville Skyline at that point, so the whole crooning thing threw me for a loop.  But I never thought it was a bad album.  At one stage of my life I played the cover of Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” about 500 times in a five month period.  The original Self-Portrait had its warts, was thoroughly shat upon, but what did you think of it?

JL:  Our old bass player, Corey, his Dad used to play it all the time! That’s wild it was your Dad’s favourite. I always liked it. I always felt it was a fun record to listen to and full of surprises. I don’t know, I grew up with a lot of country records, some from the 40’s/50’s period and the rest being from the 60’s and early 70’s when strings and female background singers were key. I thought covers like “I forgot more than you’ll ever know” sounded great and suited Dylan’s voice of that period. I love his version of “Early Morning Rain”. I always heard it as a playful record and a scattered one in a good way.

MS:  You saw Dylan at the Molson Ampitheatre in July, and seemed pretty positive about it.  Maybe you’re just generally more positive than I am, but I’m wondering if doubt or disillusionment crept in at any point?  A few years ago I based my whole vacation life around seeing Dylan.  It’s getting harder for me though.  Maybe I listen to too many bootlegs.

JL:  Well, I know his voice continues to weaken but it’s how he uses it. I felt that particular show he was working with the limitations better than the last couple times I’d seen him. There were some great moments where he was very expressive in the same way he is on record. “Soon After Midnight” knocked me out and “Love Sick” was perfect.

MS:  You participated in a Bob Dylan tribute show on Bob Dylan’s birthday at the El Mo Cambo.  What’s it like playing in front of an audience who might not know much about you, but showed for a night of live Bob Dylan music?  Is it a different kind of pressure or perhaps pleasure vs. performing your own songs?

JL:  Ya, it was fun. I wouldn’t normally do something like that but a good friend was putting it on and knew I was a big Dylan fan, so he asked if I would be part of it. There was no pressure because I wanted to just approach the songs the way I would approach my own, just to not over think it. I didn’t really wanna listen to the album versions to make sure we were getting it note for note. I wanted to just go out and play them.

MS:  In an Exclaim! interview with Rachel Sanders you mentioned looking forward to the day when you make a bad album similar to a bad Bob Dylan album.  That seemed kind of strange to me.  Were you being facetious in that if you have the cache to make a bad album you’ve made it?  Or what exactly?

JL:  Well, sometimes it’s nice to do something that nobody understands but you. Any one of us can go in an opposite direction and there’s something rewarding about that. So, I was sort of half joking about it. One day I could decide to make an album of throat singing and you might not understand it but it wouldn’t be artistically dishonest of me if that’s where my mind’s at.

MS:  What do you think the worst Bob Dylan album is?  For me it’s Down in the Groove because there’s almost nothing to redeem that one.

JL:    Ya, I would say that one and Knocked Out Loaded. There’s a couple great things on it, obviously “Brownsville Girl” but it’s a pretty weak album. I think those are the only two that I never really listen to.

MS:  What was the first Bob Dylan song that really blew you away, and when was that?

JL:  Strangely, it was the version of “Oh, Sister” off the live album, Hard Rain. That was also the first Dylan album I heard. My dad used to play it at home and in the car when I was growing up and for some reason that was the tune that always stood out. I still prefer it to the album version. It just seemed real, gritty, full of life, good and bad.

MS:  That doesn’t seem so strange.  Top Five Dylan recordings the casual fan isn’t aware of?

JL:  I don’t know, it’s hard to tell these days what casual listeners would and wouldn’t know but… “Sign on the Window”, “True Love Tends to Forget”, “Red River Shore”, “Going Going Gone”, “Most of the Time”.  That’s a good start. I love “Heart of Mine” off of Shot of Love as well, a real hidden gem.

MS:  Favourite Dylan album?

JL:  Another Side of Bob Dylan, because it was the record that changed the way I thought about songwriting, about how I wanted to write. I remember taping the LP when I was 15 and listening to it on my walkman in the high school library. I would skip classes and go there to sit and study it.

Get Jerry Leger’s latest album here.  Still not convinced?  Check out this review.

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