Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz
, New Acoustic
, Song Of the week
Chris 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.
So 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.
# # #
‘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.
Chris 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.
# # #
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.
If ‘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.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
Brad Mehldau SoTWs
Chris Thile SoTWs
Bob Dylan SoTWs
Joni Mitchell SoTWs
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.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’
087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
162: The Everly Brothers, ‘Crying in the Rain’
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
Posted by jeff on Oct 23, 2016 in Personal
, Song Of the week
You Ain’t Going Nowhere
Too Much of Nothing
Quinn, the Eskimo
Nothing Was Delivered
Well, Bobby, you done it. Pulled another rabbit out of your illusionist’s top hat. The master of sleight of word has once again danced the dance of the seven veils and come out fully clothed, masked and smirking.
Folks are all a-buzz, and that’s great. The more people buzz about Bob, the better the world. A bunch of SoTW readers have said they expect me to weigh in, so here goes my 2¢.
I’m going to step on some toes here. (Howie/Shmuel, I love you, but I’m gonna be speaking my mind here, not The World’s.)
I’m going to talk about my relationship with Bob.
Wheel’s on Fire
Let me clarify that. Most people who write or talk about Dylan passionately want to explain him to you. I once saw a TV show in which a bunch of local artists each presented “My Dylan”. I was sick in bed for two weeks. My Dylan? What is he, a catcher’s mitt? An aquarium?
They don’t own him, any more than you own your child, any more than you own the wind. He owns himself. I have no My Dylan. He baffles me. He befuddles me. He eludes me, deludes me, precludes me, secludes me, fastfoods me…
I don’t own Dylan, I don’t possess him. Hell, I don’t even grasp him.
The most I can do is to try to describe how I perceive him, shade it with some biographical or socio-historical hues, season it with a bit of humor. But if you’re looking for the key, that’s not me. You can find it in the Nobel-worthy John Wesley Harding liner notes: ‘The key is Frank.’
I offer you as a foil My James Taylor.
James began sharing his most intimate thoughts and feelings with me when we were 20, and they have been a balm for me ever since. I embrace him in my mind, in my heart.
Not so Mr Dylan. He has informed me, stirred me, enlarged me, served me as a model for emulation. But I wouldn’t go up to him and hug him. The one time I did meet him, in his dressing room backstage at The Johnny Cash Show, May 1, 1969, I had the opportunity. I didn’t hug him. I stuttered. “Hi. I’d like to talk to you.” “About what?” “About music.” “I don’t know much about music.”
The fleeting moment of Dylan intersecting with my real world.
My Perception of Dylan
I’m guessing that 98% of the people voicing their thoughts about Dylan receiving the prize will talk about him still growing strong at 75. I’m in the 2%. I just listened to 20 seconds of him at Desert Trip, 10 of McCartney and 5 of The Stones. That’s way more than too much for me.
Dylan earned my vote for what he did 50 years ago. I choose to ignore these old farts’ pathetic attempts to stay relevant (and rich). My respect is for them in their prime, not in their dotage.
What I talk about when I talk about Dylan
His great works:
- Freewheeling (1963)
- The Times They Are A-Changing (1964)
- Another Side Of (1964)
- Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
- Blonde on Blonde (1966)
- The Basement Tapes (1967)
- John Wesley Harding (1967)
- New Morning (1970)
- Blood on the Tracks (NY sessions, 1975)
- Desire (1976)
- A couple of handsful of assorted songs.
I’m not including his admirable-but-less-than-great works, because they obfuscate matters: Nashville Skyline (1970), Planet Waves (1974), Oh Mercy (1989), Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006).
I’m also not including a whole gaggle of stuff I have great admiration for, which reflect Dylan at his finest, but are outside the scope of his primary achievement, his songs: various liner notes (especially Bringing It All Back Home and John Wesley Harding), Chronicles, his satellite-radio show Theme Time Radio Hour.
Is Dylan eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature?
A former secretary of the Nobel Committee told me that the judges adhere meticulously to the letter and spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. But I checked, and Al’s will doesn’t specify what constitutes ‘literature’. “…One part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Al invented dynamite, and was sharp enough to appoint experts to choose the laureates. ‘The prize shall be awarded by the Academy in Stockholm.’
Last year’s laureate was Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist whose written corpus consists of interviews. No one made a peep, not even in Belarusian. Winston Churchill was an orator.
Haruki Murakami was considered a leading candidate. I’ve read a number of his books, and I’d put money on him saying something like ‘Dylan’s a million times more worthy than I of the prize’. Haruki is a fine writer, and he sounds like a guy I’d want to hang out with over a couple of beers. We’d probably talk about Dylan. In my most Dylanesque dreams, I couldn’t envision myself schmoozing with Bob over a brew, talking about Murakami.
Leonard Cohen’s reaction: “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
In other words, the prize is nice, it’s cute, but it’s not validating. Dylan doesn’t need anyone’s validation.
Does Dylan write poetry?
The fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains
He writes lyrics to songs that he sings.
But he publishes his lyrics as written words!
So did Harold Pinter. You can buy the script of a Bergman movie.
Dylan’s defining mode of expression is singing songs. The lyrics and the music and the arrangement and the performance are all part of his artistic gestalt.
I’m no expert on the subject, although I do have a couple of academic degrees in the subject, and I’ve been following Dylan closely for about 52 years, so I guess I ought to be able to say something coherent on the subject.
Unfortunately, I can’t. The question of whether Dylan’s lyrics stand as ‘poetry’ is one I’ve never really been interested in addressing. It’s speculation, it’s moot, it’s irrelevant.
It’s no more reasonable to judge his lyrics as poetry than it is to set Shakespeare’s sonnets to music and to judge them as lyrics.
Old Willie Yeats hit it on the head: O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Is Dylan worthy of The Nobel?
For Halloween give her a trumpet, and for Christmas buy her a drum
Dylan made his initial mark as a protest singer. I’m not even going to put that in quotation marks. It was his first persona, singing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ and ‘With God on Our Side’ with Joan Baez and marching with Martin Luther King (August, 1963). But by January 1964 (liner notes to “The Times They Are A-Changing”) he was singing a different tune:
Woody Guthrie was my last idol/he was the last idol/because he was the first idol/I’d ever met/face t’ face/that men are men/shatterin’ even himself/as an idol/an’ that men have reasons/for what they do/an’ what they say/an’ every action can be questioned/leavin’ no command/untouched an’ took for granted/obeyed an’ bowed down to/forgettin’ your own natural instincts/(for there’re a million reasons/in the world/an’ a million instincts/runnin’ wild/an’ it’s none too many times/the two shall meet)/the unseen idols create the fear/an’ trample hope when busted/Woody never made me fear/and he didn’t trample any hopes/for he just carried a book of Man/an’ gave it t’ me t’ read awhile/an’ from it I learned my greatest lesson/ /you ask “how does it feel t’ be an idol?”/it’d be silly of me t’ answer, wouldn’t it . . .?
And by August, 1964, we were listening to another side of Bob Dylan: Good and bad, I define these terms/Quite clear, no doubt, somehow./Ah, but I was so much older then,/I’m younger than that now.
That was the first life lesson I learned via Dylan. Not from him, but through him. I was only 16 when he recorded and I heard ‘My Back Pages’. I had my pantheon of heroes—John & Paul, and John Keats, I guess. Preceded by Mickey Mantle and The Lone Ranger. Succeeded by Hitchcock and Primo Levi and Oliver Sacks and Rav Soloveitchik and JS Bach. In 1964, at 16, Dylan was my idol. And he’s telling me that there ain’t no idols. So that was a bit confusing. But most everything is confusing for a 16-year old, and Dylan is so often confusing. Like in 1974, when he finally released a live album with The Band, and it was so bad, his shouting a parody of a drunken, tone-deaf fraternity boy shouting out the lyrics. Or 1980, when he espoused a belief in Christianity. Dylan, the brightest of all, was spouting patent poppycock.
First he told me that there are no idols. Then he demonstrated it to me.
I always lagged behind Dylan, for a myriad of reasons. One of them is that he’s seven years older than me. I really encountered Dylan seriously in 1964, with “Another Side Of”. I was in the 10th grade. He was 23. That’s a big difference. I didn’t have 23-year old friends then, obviously. He was writing songs like ‘All I Really Want to Do’, the most disingenuous seduction song I know.
I’m guessing that at 16 I took it at face value, hearing the same theme as The Beatles’ ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance with You’, which was released the very same month. (If you’re wondering why Dylan got the Nobel and not the Beatles, there’s your answer. Sixteen year-old Jeff had no trouble palling around with them.) Or the rich, impassioned love/hate songs ‘I Don’t Believe You’ (I can’t understand, she let go of my hand) and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ (Go ‘way from my window, leave at your own chosen speed.) How could I grasp those songs at 16? I’d barely been kissed.
And so it went, over the decades. So many songs just took me years to digest, to intuit, to get close to. I started to say ‘to wrap my mind around’, but that’s not really true. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ or ‘As I Went Out One Morning’–I fail to comprehend (that’s denotation as ‘wrap your brain around’) as much today as I did at 19, when “John Wesley Harding” was released. I’ve learned to accept their mystery, to love it. That’s where Dylan’s energy is, his electricity. In the synapses between what he says and what I understand.
Big brass bed
What has Bob Dylan been for me? (And again, let me stress how different that question is from ‘Who is Bob Dylan in my eyes?’.)
I’m very uncomfortable with that term. No, he’s a human, directed not by the word of God, but by his own imagination. I’d maintain that there’s a fundamental connection between God and Dylan’s imaginative capacity, but Isaiah and Jeremiah made their reputations on the distinction between themselves and God, not by the overlap.
From the git-go, Dylan has been a man not of answers, but of questions. The answer is blowing in the wind.
I’ve certainly learned through him. But he’s never stood up in front of me and said ‘Open your book to page 61’ or ‘Spit out the gum’ or ‘You have to listen to this’. And I never asked him for permission to go to the john. All three times I saw him, I bought a ticket and he sang some songs.
Myself, what I’m going to do is rent Town Hall and put about thirty Western Union boys on the bill. I mean, then there’ll really be some messages.
I’ve never sneered at a former girlfriend ‘How does it feel to be on your own?’. I’ve never flirted with Christianity. I’ve never been painted in white-face, sported a pencil moustache, or uncovered Sinatra.
Bob Dylan writes songs about what he sees and thinks and feels. I listen to them, form my impression of them, and go my merry way. More often than not, they give me food for thought. They enlighten me, because I learn things about the world through his eyes.
As he said in his later years about Woody Guthrie, “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.” There’s a big difference between that an idolatry. The learning is on the listener.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.
The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.
Music like that that played an instrumental, formative role in my learning how to live – to the extent that I’ve done so.
The Basement Tapes
In July, 1966 (shortly after the release of “Blonde on Blonde”), Dylan had a motorcycle accident and disappeared from the public eye. In December, 1967, he released the somber, enigmatic, cryptic “John Wesley Harding”, full of biblical allusions and newly-coined myth.
I ingested the album immediately – acoustic, soft and gentle in texture, profound and ominous in content. I’m still working on wrapping my mind around it, because that’s what I do. I know I’ll never be any wiser for all the effort, at least not in this lifetime.
We didn’t know it back then, because there were no alternative media resources, no Rolling Stone, no interweb, but Dylan recorded “John Wesley Harding” during a short break from his main occupation of the summer of 1967. He was hanging out with The Band in the basement of Big Pink, making music, old and new. Garth had a tape recorder.
A few pieces leaked out, but we couldn’t put them together: Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (September, 1967); Manfred Mann’s ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ (January, 1968), and most importantly “Music from Big Pink” in June, 1968, containing ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’. In November, 1968, The reconstituted Byrds released the first country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, including ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’.
Each one was an inscrutable, Sphinx-like enigma, although together with “John Wesley Harding”, some sort of picture was beginning to emerge – something home-sy, acoustic, grounded, back to basics. There was sublime humor (‘I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist, I punched myself in the face with my fist’) and profound anguish (‘Any day now, any day now, I shall be released’).
“Nashville Skyline”, released in April, 1969, just made things confusinger.
Jeff the Bootlegger
But sometime in the winter I took a trip up to that town of refuge for bohemians, Yellow Springs, home of Antioch College, and came back with some paradigm-shifting booty: “The Great White Wonder” and “Troubled Troubadour”— unofficial, illegal vinyl recordings of the Basement Tapes and a few other unreleased Dylan oldies–the very first bootleg albums.
Years later I would organize the best of these recordings onto a cassette that I played till it plopped. I called the cassette “Never Felt So Good”, which can be read in two very different ways. The music reflected both.
The Up Side was a series of hilarious verbal tours de force – Yeah, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread; Million Dollar Bash; Tiny Montgomery; Lo and Behold; Please, Mrs Henry.
The Down Side contained several Scary Clown cuts (Nothing Was Delivered, Quinn the Eskimo, Too Much of Nothing), and several songs so serious, so profound, so rich that they continue today to shake and touch me to the very core–Tears of Rage, This Wheel’s on Fire, I Shall Be Released.
There was one cut that was too serious for The Up Side, too funny for The Down Side. Just like life. To even out the cassette, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ went on the shorter side.
Tree with roots
Clouds so swift rain won’t lift, gate won’t close and the railings froze
Get your mind off wintertime, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
(chorus) Whoo-ee! Ride me high, tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come.
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly down in the easy chair!
I don’t care how many letters they sent, morning came and morning went.
Pack up your money and pick up your tent, you ain’t goin’ nowhere
Buy me a flute and a gun that shoots, tailgates and substitutes.
Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Genghis Khan, he could not keep all his kings supplied with sleep.
We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep when we get up to it
That’s Dylan for me. Elusive, slippery. Riveting. Hilarious and harrowing. “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.”
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
But my mind was busy rocking and rolling at that time. I’d mark ‘that time’ from the release of “John Wesley Harding” (December 1968) till May, 1970, 18 months.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
It was the headiest of times. Musically, it was the golden age of our lifetimes. Politically, the war was raging and the draft was a horrifying specter. Personally, I was having the time of my life. Hell, it was Woodstock! It was the apex of “The 60s” – sex, drugs and rock-and-roll dangling from every lovely tree.
Then on May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on protesting students at nearby Kent State, and it all came crashing down.
The university closed down, and every single familiar, friendly face in my life disappeared into the woodwork. My parents had left town half a year before. I was unmoored. Lost, disillusioned, terrified. Freefall.
Suddenly, I was rudderless, depressed and desperate. I did something unconscionably reckless, and paid for it with a 24-hour living nightmare. The next day, my sister was in town to visit her in-laws. I sat in the front seat of my car with her, held her perfect, innocent 10-month old baby in my arms, and wept.
I said, “I don’t like the life I’m leading. That’s not me.”
But what was me? I had no clue. Like always, I turned to the jukebox in my head for an answer. Do you know what came on? “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Within six months I was engaged to a rigorously clear-minded and focused woman, had moved to a fledgling country whose very existence was still precarious, and had committed to a religiously observant life.
Am I thrilled by Dylan’s being awarded The Nobel? As my father used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. But, no, The Nobel is nothing more than a nice-to-have.
Almost 50 years ago, in my heart and soul and mind and life, I bestowed an award on this artist for introducing me to a new direction, a path I chose to adapt and adopt and live by. So today, let’s make it public and formal:
I hereby pronounce you, Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, the recipient of The Meshel, for creating music that has had a profoundly formative impact on my life.