Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ is a modern classic, a song recorded or performed by more than 450 artists – so why did he give it away?
The clue to this mystery lies in the sessions for ‘Time Out Of Mind’, his fabled 1997 full length recently explored in-depth as part of the maestro’s ongoing Bootleg Sessions. A simple piano ballad, alternative cuts are available on the new box set, and they illustrate his defined, and how exact Dylan’s treatment of the song was.
Curiously, it wasn’t given its first release by Dylan himself – instead, another songwriter stepped in to introduce ‘Make You Feel My Love’ to the public.
Billy Joel was piecing together a Greatest Hits package with his label, when an A&R suggested that a brand new recording would help sell the release. Dylan’s camp was open to communication, and sent across ‘Make You Feel My Love’.
Don Ienner – then-President of Columbia Records – was left “riveted” by the song, later telling Rolling Stone he listened to it more than a dozen times in a row. “I just knew that was one of Bob’s great love songs,” he said.
Billy Joel turned ‘Make You Feel My Love’ into an adult contemporary hit, performing the song live on the Late Show with David Letterman. He told the host “my hair stood up on my arms” after first hearing the track.
Bob Dylan’s own stark take on the song arrived a few months after this, with ‘Time Out Of Mind’ going on to earn Grammy award-winning success. Still the covers kept coming – something about ‘Make You Feel Me Love’ entranced vocalists.
Recording her debut album ’19’, Adele was introduced to the song via her manager, Jonathan Dickins. “I heard that song and I read the lyrics and they’re the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever read or heard or sung,” Adele said at the time. “And they kind of summed up everything I’m trying to write in my songs about how I felt. It’s such a beautiful song.”
Indeed, the lyrics form the main crux of the song’s attraction – words of absolute devotion, their near-religious certainty have prompted some to suggest that they’re written from Jesus Christ’s perspective:
“I’d go hungry / I’d go black and blue / And I’d go crawling down the avenue / No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do / To make you feel my love.”
Adele’s explosive rendering remains one of the song’s definitive recordings, and plays a key role in her live set. Ed Sheeran began introducing the song into his set, with further successful versions coming rom Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, and many more. In all, more than 450 versions have been recorded.
So, why did Bob Dylan give it away? The songwriter has previous on this – many songs from The Basement Tapes era became hits through out voices (‘The Mighty Quinn’ for example) and this form of revenue from publishing became a lucrative form of income. Indeed, it could be argued that by slipping Billy Joel a demo of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ Dylan embarked on one of his shrewdest career moves.
The Bard himself is keeping tight-lipped on his favourite rendition of the song. In an interview on his website, he said simply: “Yeah, one after the other, they all did…”
‘The Bootleg Series Vol. 17: Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions 1996–1997’ is out now.