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262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

Posted by jeff on May 12, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Dylan1970‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“New Morning”)

‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘This Evening So Soon’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Pretty Saro’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

From 1963 to 1967, Bob Dylan released the seven consecutive great albums (eight if you count the then-unreleased Basement Tapes. No one else, not even The Beatles, has made seven consecutive records that are at the absolute top of their game. It can legitimately be argued that no one else has made a single album that can stand with these eight, but that’s a different question.

Then came the motorcycle crash, two years of silence, and “Nashville Skyline” (1969), a clichéd, crooning bewilderment to his fans. I remember its reception well. There were those who said it was great, beyond our grasp; there were those who said it was regrettable schlock; the majority of us are still scratching our heads.

71wTIJj+1ZL._SL1280_Then came “Self-Portrait” (1970), a hodgepodge double album of covers of contemporaries (‘The Boxer’), traditional standards (‘Copper Kettle’), and sub-standard live cuts (‘She Belongs to Me’). Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of the album opened “What is this shit?” It was Dylan’s first commercial and universally critical failure.

Four months later, he released “New Morning”, a laid-back paean to family life. In my opinion, it stands in line with his great works. Not everyone agrees.

In the late 60s, some anonymous hippie entrepreneurs began printing up “bootleg” recordings of Dylan, featuring cuts from the Basement tapes. I was a proud owner of ‘The Masked Marauder’ and ‘The Great White Wonder’, the first and most famous bootlegs. In 1975, Columbia convinced Dylan to capitalize on the great public interest in these recordings, and released a double LP.

Another Self Portrait_1In 1991 Columbia began releasing official “Bootleg Series” CDs, of uneven quality and interest. To the utter amazement of many, there were indisputable gems among the dross, such as the brilliant ‘Blind Willie McTell’, inexplicably excluded from release on the mediocre+ 1983 “Infidels”.

In 2013, they laid on us “Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10”– mostly outtakes from “Self-Portrait”, with a few uninteresting alternate takes from “Nashville Skyline” and a few abysmal ones from “New Morning”with horrifying orchestration by the once deified Al Kooper. Outtakes from “Self-Portrait”? C’mon Bob – wasn’t the original bad enough?

But Dylan is Dylan, and there’s a reason he won the Nobel Prize. “Another Self Portrait” contains a number of unqualified, indisputable wonders that somehow justify the original disaster. As Rolling Stone put it, “a great record lurked inside all along.” I’m gonna chew the fat about a few of my favorites here.

  • The Road

    The Road

    Pretty Saro’is an English ballad that originated in the early 18th century, disappeared for a hundred years, resurfaced (via oral tradition in the Appalachians) in the mid-20th century, as recorded by Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bert Jansch and Mr Z himself.
    Dylan’s version is more direct, heartfelt, compassionate, and downright pretty than you’d believe. It’s just a heartbreaker of a song.

  • ‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ was written and recorded by Tom Paxton in 1970.
  • ‘This Evening So Soon’ is Dylan’s version of Bob Gibson’s “Tell Ol’ Bill”, here performed by Dave Van Ronk (yes, the subject of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’), an old cohort of Dylan’s from the Village days.
  • The words of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ were written as “A Border Affair” in 1907 by the Poet Laureate of South Dakota, Charles Badger Clark and set to music in 1925 by Billy Simon (a real cowboy!). It was originally recorded by Tex Fletcher (1936), but the best we could come up with is Texas Jim Robertson’s 1941 version. Sue me. Bob’s version is—oh, Bob! That piano! That voice! Oh, Bob!
  • Well, Well, Well -- Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    Well, Well, Well — Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    And our SoTW, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, which we’ve known and loved since it appeared on “New Morning”. The song has often been parsed as Dylan’s depiction of a meeting with Elvis in a Las Vegas-ish hotel – which never took place. They never met, in reality. But this fictitious non-meeting is memorable, both the released version (Dylan on piano, Kooper on organ, the whole band keeping the tempo moving forward) and the bootleg (Dylan on acoustic, probably David Bromberg on acoustic lead).

So it goes like this:

  1. I went to see the gypsy. I met him, but nothing happened.
  2. I snuck out on the pretext of making a phone call.
  3. A go-go girl caught me and said, “Try again, he’s a real guru.”
  4. I watched the lights on the river.
  5. I went back upstairs to his suite, but he was gone.
    (I went back downstairs to look for her, but) the dancing girl was gone as well.
  6. I thought about my childhood.
Meeting of Titans--Dylan (l), Presley (r)

Meeting of Titans–Dylan (l), Presley (r)

One other point that’s always intrigued me about the song. We’re at the height of drama, the meeting of titans, on the edge of our chairs, and what happens? “I went down to the lobby to make a small call out” (in both versions). A ‘small’ call, nothing that couldn’t have waited.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. If I were being paid to teach sophomore English, I could make up some sort of scenario that encompasses all that, but it would leave a bad taste in my mouth, and make the kids hate college even more than they already do.

Rescue Team

Rescue Team

There are differences in lyrics; nothing in the league of the “Blood on the Tracks” material, but telling nonetheless:

Bootleg: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he wished me well.”
Official: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he said ‘Well, well, well!’”
Giant win for O.

Bootleg: “How are you?” he asked of me/And I asked the same of him.”
Official: “How are you?” he said to me/I said it back to him.”
Giant win for O.

Official: “Outside the lights were shining on the river of tears/I watched them from the distance with the music in my ears”.
Bootleg: “Oh, the lights were on the river shining from outside/I contemplated every move, or at least I tried”.
A tie. Both are strained, underwhelming.

Kitchenette

Kitchenette

But the way he picks that up for the knockout ending? He couldn’t find the pretty dancing girl, “So I watched the sun come rising on/in that little Minnesota town.” Yow. Where did that come from?

But it fits so well with the dreamlike, non-sequiturial goings-on. In tone, and even in sense – with a mind-tingling stretch of the imagination. ‘What am I doing here, I’m just a boy from Hibbing?’

But what the heck? This isn’t James Taylor talking about Carolina or Joni Mitchell talking about Canada. Dylan doesn’t go back to Minnesota. He’s deleted it from his memory map. He changed his name, invented a new biography. So where did this suadade come from all of a sudden in 1970? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bob Dylan. Then wait 20 seconds and you get to meet another one.

dylan24n-5-web

Tracks

Official: “From that little Minnesota town” is repeated, with a resolution in major on the second phrase.
Bootleg: He says it only once, leaves it hanging in an unresolved minor chord, with a lovely, long instrumental outro.
Big win for B.

Both versions are convincing renditions of an enigmatic, intriguing song.  If I had to choose a favorite between the two, I’d choose both. But if you’re trying to make sense of all this, you’re barking up the wrong Gypsy. Welcome to Dylanland.

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2

259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

#             #             #

11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

#             #             #

joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

#             #             #

You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

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6

176: Chuck Berry, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’)

Posted by jeff on Mar 17, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Chuck Berry – ‘Too Much Monkey Business’

Bob Dylan – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

 

© Mark Seliger

I don’t know bubkes about hip-hop, and I can’t say I feel any pervasive sense of inadequacy or overwhelming need to learn. The sum total of my ignorance is from good-old Wikipedia: “Hip Hop” usually refers to Hip-Hop music, aka MCing, aka rapping. But Hip-Hop culcha is also marked by DJing/scratching, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. There’s some conceptual dissonance in the parallelism of that list, but I guess that’s the point.

I’ve seen enough of it at the gym to know that ‘rapping’ is chants rhymed verse to a strong 4/4 beat, and that the attitude is distinctly anti-establishment. There’s Gangsta Rap, there’s West Coast rap, but there’s apparently no Republican rap – unless I missed something by Pat Boone.

The origins of rap have been attributed to everything from Pigmeat Markam’s ‘Here Come the Judge’ (1968, Chess Records) to the opening scene of “Music Man” (1962) to Glenn Miller’s ‘The Lady’s in Love with You’ (1939), not to mention Woody Guthrie’s talking blues, Gilbert & Sullivan and the Beat Poets.

Who yo’ daddy?

Even Rolling Stone Magazine has asked “Is Bob Dylan Hip-Hop’s Godfather?” Sure, there’s the obvious heavy, in-your-face, chunky, chutzpadik rhyming, performed by a sullen, gum-chewing, too-inured-to-touch punk. Oh, the world’s such a mess but I’m so cool.

Of course, the quintessential expression of that particular Dylan persona is ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, the opening track on “Bringing It All Back Home” (March, 1965). This was a few months before the infamous Newport Folk Festival Fiasco. The album was the public’s first exposure to Electric Bob, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ the first-punch KO.

It’s eight minutes of frenetic, seditious lyrics packed into 2:22, immortalized by the famous visual gag in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Don’t Look Back”, in which Poker-Faced Bob peels off key words in a series of cardboard signs in an alley with Allen Ginsberg (in a tallis?) chatting in the background.

Johnny’s in the basement/Mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement/Thinking about the government/The man in the trench coat/Badge out, laid off/Says he’s got a bad cough/Wants to get it paid off.
Look out kid/It’s somethin’ you did/God knows when/But you’re doin’ it again/You better duck down the alley way/Lookin’ for a new friend/The man in the coon-skin cap/By the big pen/Wants eleven dollar bills/You only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot/Face full of black soot/Talkin’ that the heat put/Plants in the bed but/The phone’s tapped anyway/Maggie says that many say/They must bust in early May/Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid/Don’t matter what you did/Walk on your tiptoes/Don’t try “No-Doz”/Better stay away from those/That carry around a fire hose/Keep a clean nose/Watch the plain clothes/You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well/Hang around a ink well/Ring bell, hard to tell/If anything is goin’ to sell/Try hard, get barred/Get back, write braille/Get jailed, jump bail/Join the army, if you fail.
Look out kid/You’re gonna get hit/But users, cheaters/Six-time losers/Hang around the theaters/Girl by the whirlpool/Lookin’ for a new fool/Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parkin’ meters.

Ah get born, keep warm/Short pants, romance, learn to dance/Get dressed, get blessed/Try to be a success/Please her, please him, buy gifts/Don’t steal, don’t lift/Twenty years of schoolin’/And they put you on the day shift.
Look out kid/They keep it all hid/Better jump down a manhole/Light yourself a candle/Don’t wear sandals/Try to avoid the scandals/Don’t wanna be a bum/You better chew gum/The pump don’t work/’Cause the vandals took the handles.

The song’s impact was ubiquitous. John Lennon was so overwhelmed when he first heard it, he was quoted as saying he didn’t know how he would ever compete. The 1960s radical communist group the Weathermen took their name from the song’s famous line, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” (The Weathermen went on to bomb several political targets in the late sixties.) A 2007 study of legal opinions and briefs found that that was the song line most often cited by judges and lawyers. For many of us, ‘Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift’ expressed the essence of the baby boomers’ abrupt collision with economic reality. (My first job after graduating with a BA in English Lit in 1969 was actually the night shift in a Pepsi Cola bottling factory.)

But the line my friends and I loved most was ‘The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.’ Fifty years on, it still loiters around my consciousness.

So if ‘SHB’ is the daddy of rap, who’s its forefather? Dylan: “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the Forties.”

If you had to pick one person to credit as the father of rock and roll, it would probably be Charles Edward Anderson Berry (b. 1926).  Brian Wilson says Chuck wrote “all of the great songs and came up with all the rock & roll beats.” And Brian should know. John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” We’re not going to try to discuss the totality of Chuck’s songwriting, guitarism, lyric sophistication, showmanship, or musical impact here. His oeuvre and artistry won’t share the stage with anyone. Today we just want to credit him as

The Grandaddy of Rap

When Chuck received the PEN award from the JFK Library, Dylan wrote him: “To Chuck, the Shakespeare of rock and roll, congratulations on your PEN award, that’s what too much monkey business will get ya… Say hello to Mr. Leonard [Cohen, another recipient], Kafka of the blues, and Lord Byron Keith (Richards) if he shows up. In all seriousness, Chuck, congratulations on this prestigious honor. You have indeed written the book with a capital B, and congratulations to Leonard, who’s still writing it – Bob Dylan”

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ was released as the B Side of ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (a 1956 euphemism for ‘brown-skinned’). The insistent beat, rapid rhymes, monotonous reliance on a single chord, the disaffected litany of kvetching – people who know a lot more than I do about rap have credited it as a seminal progenitor. (Listening to the guitar solo, I can’t help but remember a take on it that I saw in a Mothers of Invention concert in 1966 – Frank Zappa playing the guitar break on ‘Louie, Louie’, a single note that must have gone on for three minutes.)

Here’s Chuck performing it with acolyte Keith Richards in 1987. He may be past his prime, but check out his dance at 1:20 in the clip. Here’s Hippie Chuck performing it in 1969. And just to remember what he looked like in his hey-day (1959), here he is performing ‘Little Queenie’.

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ isn’t even one of Chuck’s dozen greatest songs, but it is one of his most influential. It’s been covered by no less than Elvis (a knock-out treatment, well worth listening to), The Beatles (an unreleased BBC recording), and other British Invaders such as The Hollies (that’s Graham Nash with the white guitar), The Kinks, and Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds (1964).

So, hey, all you hotshot gangstas out there – who da meanest mothafucker you on da block? Y’all listen up to yo’ grandaddy:

Running to and fro/Hard working at the mill/Never fails, in the mail/There comes a rotten bill–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business/For me to be involved with.

Salesman talking to me,/Tryin’ to run me up a creek,/Says you can buy it, go on try it,/You can pay me next week–Ahh–/Too much monkey business…

Pay phone, something’s wrong,/Dime gone, will mail,/Oughta sue the operator/For telling me a tale./Too much monkey business, …

Blonde hair, good-lookin’,/Trying to get me hooked,/Wants me to marry, get a home,/Settle down, write a book./Too much monkey business, …

Been to Yokohama, been/fighting in the war,/Army bunk, army chow,/Army clothes, army car./Too much monkey business, …

Same thing every day,/Getting up, goin’ to school./No need for me complaining,/My objection’s overruled–Ahh–/too much monkey business, …

Working in the filling station,/Too many tasks,/Wipe the windows, check the oil,/Check the tires, dollar gas–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/I don’t want your vib-o-rations, get away/and leave me alone.

 

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087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
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13

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’

Posted by jeff on Nov 10, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

I’ve had Panama hats on my mind recently (if not on my head), for reasons we won’t go into now. I don’t know what association pops into your Panama-hat-holder, but for me it’s Bob Dylan’s neglected masterpiece, ‘Black Diamond Bay’ from the last of his great albums, ‘Desire’ (1976).

It’s a cinematic tour de force, a dreamed narrative from a movie that you’ve never quite seen, hovering just beyond the horizon of your consciousness. You know every cliché, even the ones you’re aware Dylan is inventing as you watch.

“Art is the perpetual motion of illusion,” Dylan said. Well, this here song is a rolling series of wry and memorable images set against the backdrop of thunder in the distance.

Dylan had been honing his ‘gallery of rogues’ technique since the glory days of “Highway 61 Revisited” (‘Desolation Row’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’), and he was no stranger to riotous, surrealistic narratives (‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’, even ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’). But it seems to me that this mini-genre hits its peak here and in the sterling ‘Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (a cowboy movie gone awry, with our masked hero, his band of robbers, the hanging judge, two heroines, and Big Jim, who ‘owned the town’s only diamond mine’). The two songs have a great deal in common – the dreamlike, half-logical narrative; the objective, cinematic descriptions; the brilliant use of hackneyed images; but especially the humor. On the one hand, every line is hilarious. On the other hand, it’s all deadly serious. And on the third, in the final accounting it’s only a dream, so it dissipates anyway.

But what a ride.

What do we have here? A hotel on a tropical island. Guests and employees: Our Lady of Panama Hat, the suicidal Greek, the desk clerk, a soldier finding manly love with a tiny hustler, a loser in the casino and his French-speaking dealer. And in the last stanza, our narrator watching the events on Cronkite.

We have the foibles of human Desire (compulsive gambling, suicide, street-corner bargains, back-room illicit sex), juxtaposed against the apocalypse – the volcano is exploding, the island is sinking, and the very stars are falling from the sky.

But, oh, how that doesn’t do the song justice! The embarrassment of the Greek needing to ask for a pen that works – so that he can write his suicide note – while the ground is literally caving in beneath his feet. Or check out the oblique humor in the vocal phrasing, the melody and the lyric of the penultimate line of each stanza: the Greek is about to hang himself, has put a sign on his door “Do Not Disturb” – “She knocked upon it anyway.” Chaos, chaos everywhere.

Jacques Levy (1935-2004), an American theater director (Sam Shepard, “Oh! Calcutta!”, the musical version of “Marat/Sade”), English professor (Colgate) and clinical psychologist, ostensibly co-wrote the song. But it’s 100% Dylan, so I don’t know how much room there was for collaboration.

The song is from “Desire”, the last of Dylan’s great albums. It comes after his masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks” (if you don’t know it, dig up the NY Sessions version, and go lock yourself in a room without any sharp items) and before the embarrassing “Hard Rain”. As uneven as “Desire” is, Dylan would never again scale these heights.

The album was made in notoriously disorganized circumstances. I’m not a historian of the Rolling Thunder Revue, but the album to my ears has a uniform sound, notwithstanding the jagged collection of songs. Notable in the sound are prominent drums (Howie Wyeth), violin (Scarlet Rivera), and the then-unknown backing vocalist Emmylou Harris.

The album includes a surprising number of songs among Dylan’s best-known and most widely popular which yours truly considers to be utterly a waste of wax – ‘Isis’, ‘Joey’, and ‘Sara’, three headache-inspiring, long and dreary and utterly forgettable annoyances. And if someone wants to tell me what a heart-wrenching account of the breakup of his marriage “Sara” is, I refer him to ‘Dirge’ from “Planet Waves”. That’s a song that’s too intense and pained for me to listen to.

And I’m ambivalent about the hit ‘Hurricane’, and ‘Romance in Durango’ is a rather diluted blessing. But there are gems. ‘Mozambique’ is a charmer, and there are a handful of songs that rank with Dylan’s very best, most notably the companion pieces ‘One More Cup of Coffee’, ‘Oh Sister’, two songs that Leonard Cohen would have given his right angst to have written.

And our song, ‘Black Diamond Bay’, which I’m pleased as punch to present to you. So just put on a Panama hat and a grin, take a long, cool drink out onto the veranda, and be very thankful that the ground beneath your feet is solid.

And you know what, readers? Just because you’re so loyal, I’ll even toss in a couple of covers of songs Dylan wrote for the album which didn’t make the cut, and which he never recorded: ‘Abandoned Love’, here by none other than Don and Phil Everly, and ‘Rita Mae’ (for author Rita Mae Brown) by none other than Jerry Lee Lewis. A Jewish kid from a small town in Minnesota, with The Everly Bros and Jerry Lee scrambling for his scraps. Can you imagine?

Up on the white veranda she wears a necktie and a Panama hat;
Her passport shows a face from another time and place, she looks nothing like that.
And all the remnants of her recent past are scattered in the wild wind.
She walks across the marble floor
Where a voice from the gambling room is calling her to come on in.
She smiles, walks the other way
As the last ship sails and the moon fades away from Black Diamond Bay/

As the morning light breaks open, the Greek comes down and he asks for a rope and a pen that will write.
“Pardon, monsieur,” the desk clerk says, carefully removes his fez, “Am I hearing you right?”
And as the yellow fog is lifting the Greek is quickly heading for the second floor.
She passes him on the spiral staircase thinking he’s the Soviet Ambassador.
She starts to speak, but he walks away
As the storm clouds rise and the palm branches sway on Black Diamond Bay

A soldier sits beneath the fan doing business with a tiny man who sells him a ring.
Lightning strikes, the lights blow out, the desk clerk wakes and begins to shout, “Can you see anything?”
Then the Greek appears on the second floor in his bare feet with a rope around his neck.
While a loser in the gambling room lights up a candle, says, “Open up another deck”
But the dealer says “Attendez-vous, s’il vous plait.”
As the rain beats down and the cranes fly away from Black Diamond Bay.

The desk clerk heard the woman laugh as he looked around in the aftermath, and the soldier got tough.
He tried to grab the woman’s hand, said, “Here’s a ring, it cost a grand.”
She said, “That ain’t enough.”
Then she ran upstairs to pack her bags while a horse-drawn taxi waited at the curb.
She passed the door that the Greek had locked where a handwritten sign read, “Do not disturb.”
She knocked upon it anyway.
As the sun went down and the music did play on Black Diamond Bay.

“I’ve got to talk to someone quick,” but the Greek said, “Go away” and he kicked the chair to the floor.
He hung there from the chandelier, she cried, “Help, there’s danger near
Please open up the door!”
Then the volcano erupted and the lava flowed down from the mountain high above.
The soldier and the tiny man were crouched in the corner thinking of forbidden love.
But the desk clerk said, “It happens every day.”
As the stars fell down and the fields burned away on Black Diamond Bay

As the island slowly sank the loser finally broke the bank in the gambling room.
The dealer said, “It’s too late now, you can take your money, but I don’t know how
you’ll spend it in the tomb.”
The tiny man bit the soldier’s ear as the floor caved in and the boiler in the basement blew.
While she’s out on the balcony, where a stranger tells her “My darling, je vous aime beaucoup.”
She sheds a tear and then begins to pray.
As the fire burns on and the smoke drifts away from Black Diamond Bay.

I was sittin’ home alone one night in L.A. watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news.
It seems there was an earthquake that left nothing but a Panama hat and a pair of old Greek shoes.
Didn’t seem like much was happening, so I turned it off and went to grab another beer.
Seems like every time you turn around there’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear,
And there’s really nothing anyone can say.
And I never did plan to go anyway to Black Diamond Bay.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these SoTWs:

008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)
016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as Amazon

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