Toronto Singer/Songwriter Jack Marks discusses Bob Dylan

Mike Sauve:   Your act usually contains several Bob Dylan songs.  At your most engaged you deliver lyrics with a hostile immediacy that may seem familiar to some Dylan fans.  You have a song called Good As I’ve Been To You which is also the title of a 1992 Dylan album of traditional songs.  You have another original song that sounds a lot like Leopard-Skin-Pillbox Hat.  It seems like Dylan is, if not front-and-centre, then at least prominent in what you’re putting across, discuss:

Jack Marks:   Let me start by saying certainly I am a Dylan fan but by no means would I consider myself a Dylan scholar. I remember hearing Masters of War when I was like 15 and thinking how great it was someone could get that much feeling across with just a guitar and some singing – which was all I really had at the time. It also struck me that the character of ones voice could be as or more important than the quality. Not that I consider Dylan’s voice to be of poor quality but there are those who do and who did. What struck me with Dylan was that his poetry was at the forefront of the song where as in many other forms of popular music the rhythm and the melody were at the forefront. As a kid who was interested in writing and that didn’t think too much of his own voice, Dylan seemed like a perfect place to start.

I wouldn’t say that my act contains a bunch of Dylan songs for any particular reason other than that I enjoy playing them and I can remember the words. Any band that is starting out needs material and so when I first was forming a band I would just play the songs I knew the words to. Often songs I had learned for the purpose of busking or otherwise – because I liked the chord structure or the melody or the words. If I play a Dylan song or a Roger Miller song or a John Prine song or a Leonard Cohen song it is usually just because it is one that stuck with me along the way. In saying that, it makes sense to assume that many of the covers I do have influenced my own writing in some way. I’m sure there are many things that I have borrowed that I may not even be conscious of having done so just because all the songs I’ve ever heard are swimming around in my subconscious somewhere. I became aware of that a long time ago.

One of the roadblocks all artist’s face I guess is the feeling that what they are producing isn’t original enough. One of the things that really got me about Dylan particularly was the fact that he was taking a lot of existing chord structures and melodies and re-working them to create new songs. In the same way that Dylan borrowed melodies from an old slave ballad like No More Auction Block for Blowin’ in the Wind and a traditional song like Lord Randall for A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall I began to consider borrowing from Dylan, or anyone else for that matter, as simply carrying on a tradition that they had already started.

One of the first Dylan songs I learned was Song to Woody. I loved the song immediately for the way it celebrated being a travelling musician and how it, in essence, was Dylan’s way of thanking Woody for inspiring him to carry on the tradition Woody had already started. When I soon after discovered that Dylan had borrowed the line “come with the dust and are gone with the wind” from Guthrie – for the song he had written for him – and that he’d borrowed the melody from Guthrie’s own 1913 Massacre I was blown away. It changed the way I thought about songwriting entirely. I became less focused on the idea of creating something that was unequivocally original and began to see song writing as a craft that like any other skill had rules and structures to learn. Rules are often broken in the pursuit of art but it is always helpful to know what the rules are before you set about tearing them down.

Dylan, of course did a lot of groundbreaking in terms of what a song could be, how long a song could be and the content of the lyrics etc. but he also wrote in standard structures. I usually think of this structure – verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus – as the most common structure in popular music (I’m sure others may argue differently, but that is at least my perception). As a form, it isn’t a bad place to start if you have an idea for a song and just want to see if it will go somewhere. Say that doesn’t work, though. Maybe it just doesn’t feel right – it feels stale and used up. You could try a structure that doesn’t have a conventional chorus or verse or bridge at all. Dylan uses forms like this all the time. Instead of having a chorus these songs often have a tag line attached to the end of the verse that creates the poetic refrain eliminating the need for a chorus at all. See Shelter from the Storm and Tangled up in Blue. I always loved Ballad of a Thin Man because it is essentially a song written in this structure and then out of nowhere comes a bridge to keep you hooked for the back half of the song. Visions of Johanna is beautiful in the way the tag line is modified each time revealing the visions’ varied effects. When you hear songs structured like that nowadays I imagine most people associate it with Dylan because he was such a master at it. Of course it was a structure that he’d learned from traditional songs – but try writing a song like that and see if people won’t compare you to Dylan these days.

When I picked up Dylan’s album of traditional arrangements, Good as I Been to You I was staying up north for a few weeks writing a lot of songs. I immediately noticed that the album title was taken from a line in, and not a title of, one of the songs. I thought that the line sounded like a great title for a country song and so I wrote one. The song set up perfectly to be a duet and so I had my friend Stacey Burke come in the studio and perform the female part. It’s because of her that the song is still one of my favorites on my first record.

Mike Sauve:  You do lot of up-tempo Dylan material like Pledging My Time, From a Buick 6 (I’m a big fan of your delivery on “need a steamshovel mama to keep away the dead”) or You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, but as a songwriter who’s written some melancholy numbers like Two of Everything and What Good are Dreams, do you ever think of performing something weepy like Restless Farewell or Girl from the North Country? Or even something from the hospice-toned Time Out of Mind?

Jack Marks:   I never really think about doing many slow Dylan tunes. We are often playing venues where having a few extra upbeat tunes to keep people dancing at the end of the night is handy. There are hundreds of Dylan songs I like and wouldn’t mind covering but these days I am much more concerned with my own words.

Mike Sauve:   Talk of your history.  I’ve seen YouTube clips of you performing in other countries (Germany), so can we get a ruck-sacking, self-mythologizing troubadour story here, or were you on an international accounting scholarship or something?

Jack Marks:   Ha. Actually, it was a German promoter’s idea. He had become a fan of my music after a friend who’d been passing through the year before had given him a copy of my album. He proposed a way for me to come over and play and I jumped at the opportunity. There was also some interest for me to play in Holland after my first album charted briefly on the Euro americana chart so it soon turned into a tour. I met a lot of great folks over there – played some interesting venues – saw a lot of fantastic architecture. I would love to get back there soon and bring a band next time.

Mike Sauve:   Dave Van Ronk’s mentorship of Bob Dylan is something I find quite touching, did any Toronto musicians mentor you in this fashion?

Jack Marks:   I wouldn’t say that anyone mentored me like Van Ronk mentored Dylan, necessarily. When I got to Toronto on a permanent basis I was already in my mid-twenties so I was already somewhat formed in my opinions about music and had already crafted a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do if given the chance. I was lucky enough to meet a great guy and fellow songwriter named David Baxter who saw some potential in me and eventually offered me the opportunity to make an album. Bax was a mentor and a colleague all at the same time. His experience was invaluable in teaching me something about the business and how records got made and people got paid – but at the same time we were both working on our first solo efforts and plotting to have them heard. It was an important time for both of us I think.

Mike Sauve:   Give me a few words on a Toronto mainstay like John Borra?

Jack Marks:   John was one of the first guys I met after starting to play around the Toronto scene. He is a great guy – a hell of a songwriter – a guy who makes his living through music. I always tell him he does the best Hank Williams in the city.

MS:     Upstart Devin Cuddy?

JM:     Devin is the master of ceremonies. I think he sees himself in some sort of Duke Ellington role down the line now that his hockey career is on the shelf. He plays a mean blues piano and knows more about music than just about anyone I know. I think everyone is looking forward to his first record.

MS:     Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands-type Whitney Rose?

JM:     Whitney is a premium blue chip entertainer. Not only does she have a powerful voice and stage presence but she writes great songs too. On top of that I believe she may have a different dress for each day of the year. Again, everyone is looking forward to her first record.

MS:     Back to Dylan: What’s your favourite Dylan album and why?

JM:     That is a tough one. It is hard to pick a favorite. Right now when I reach for Dylan I guess I usually grab Planet Waves or New Morning. I’m not sure why. Nobody likes folks that play favourites, anyway.

MS:     Most underrated Dylan tune?  (or three or four most underrated if you prefer)

JM:     That is kind of an easy question because he didn’t have many hits so I guess most of them are underrated. How about Love is Just a Four-Letter Word. That was one of the ones where I was thinking, “he didn’t write that, did he?” Plus I don’t think he ever recorded it. Baez must have overcooked it for him. That should qualify as underrated.

MS:     I didn’t get seriously into Dylan until my early 20s.  As a kid I had the Greatest Hits V. 1 and 2 and for youthful stupidity didn’t look beyond that.  It was actually Time Out of Mind that first inspired me to dig deeper.  How did it go for you?

JM:     I guess the first thing I heard – or listened to – was Like a Rolling Stone when I was 14 or 15. My Dad used to play Dylan sometimes in the car when we were on road trips when I was young. He wasn’t a big Dylan fan by any stretch and I think he thought of Dylan as somewhat of a novelty but at the same time he was always into exposing us to different things. From there I took a fairly chronological approach starting from his early folk records on up. I wasn’t really into the later Dylan stuff at all when I was young. I was hooked on the Woody Guthrie / Jimmy Rodgers mythos back then and liked the idea of just a folk guitar and singing – something I could do without a band. I used to dress in pretty raggedy clothes and just tote my acoustic around everywhere. I guess I thought there was something noble in it – standing in front of a bank or a liquor store and hitchhiking around and playing songs. By the time I was 16 I was starting to write some songs tailored after Dylan songs – they weren’t any good – but I was trying. A gal I was seeing around then used to play Desire and Nashville Skyline like they were the only two records that ever existed. I didn’t mind one bit. It was like something that we knew about that nobody else had figured out yet.

MS:     I sometimes hear an early-Dylanesque drawl in your singing voice, particularly on the repeated “hards” in your song So Hard, how intentional is this?

JM:     It is completely intentional but at the same time comes somewhat naturally if that makes any sense. I like to think that I come from the school of songwriting that allows for a certain flexibility of character. When you hear Mick Jagger sing Far Away Eyes, do you ask if he is faking a southern accent? No – you just accept that it is in keeping with the character of the song. When you see early Tom Waits stuff you know that he is putting on a character – but yes – that is the point. That is the school of songwriting I like to think that I come from. If I write a funny country song like Greasy Maggie there is a sort of natural drawl that comes out because that is how I envision the character in the song. If I am singing a song from the point of a down and out drunk who fancies himself a poet that misses his woman like in So Hard my voice takes on something different maybe – something more like a blues or jazz singer. At the same time I try not to ever affect my voice so much that you don’t know it’s me. They are all just kind of versions of me. I have lived lots of different places too in my life and they all serve to add something to the way I talk and write. It comes down to being a fiction writer and an entertainer. My songs are written from experience to a certain extant but are not what I would call confessional. Each one is kind of like a monologue with its own character. Some characters are more closely related to me than others.

Nashville Skyline is an interesting example of your question in relation to Dylan – and this is just an opinion – but on Nashville Skyline it almost seems like his voice is probably closest to his “real singing voice” than the voice he uses on most of his records. Some people would disagree but I think it was just such a departure that people described it as affected. In reality it was the “folk voice” that he had developed early on that was the affected voice. By the time he got around to using his real voice people wouldn’t buy it anymore.

MS:     Some Dylan songs you play live might not even be recognized by younger audience members…another good one might be Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.  It has a lot of funny lines I could hear you talking out like, “Don’t know what I could say about Claudette/that wouldn’t come back to haunt me/guess I began to give her up/about the time she began to want me.”  Take that Claudette.  Kind of sounds like something from your acerbic Song for Me.

JM:     Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar is a great song. I was first introduced to it off the Biography collection. I remember sitting in my buddy’s Chevy Nova in the parking lot of our high school smoking a joint listening to it and we just kept rewinding the tape and playing it over an over again. We were mostly blown away by how many words he was fitting into a line. I’ve never heard anyone cover it. It would be a pretty bold undertaking.

[At 25 seconds, it sounds like Bob says, “Facebook”]

MS:     You’ve been in the studio recording a third album called Blues Like These, how will it differ from the first two?

JM:     For one thing, I am using a new band and a new producer (Aaron Comeau) this time. It has been two years since the last time I made a record so a lot has changed and evolved in that time. The first two albums represented a certain amount of purging of a backlog of material I had written that had never been recorded where as the new album will be comprised mostly of songs written in the past few years. Also, I tried to make the recording process this time around a bit more organic going with more of a live off the floor approach. I think it is going to translate the songs really well.

You can check out Jack’s website here.