251: The Maysles Brothers, “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit”

Posted by jeff on Dec 2, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

“The Beatles: The Making of the First U.S. Visit” Maysles Brothers Documentary (Part 1/4)

“We got a call one day from Granada television in England. They said The Beatles were arriving in two hours in New York at Idlewild Airport. Would we like to make a film of them? I put my hand over the phone and asked my brother ‘Who are The Beatles? Are they any good?'”

Albert (1926-2015) and David (1931-1987) Maysles had been making documentary films for four years when they got that call. They had eschewed their conventional careers in psychology and Hollywood studio work to work in the new American style of “direct cinema” – a shoulder-held camera built by Albert, natural lighting, recording the natural unfolding of real events, akin to the French  cinéma vérité.

Enid, Eva Gonzalez and Little Sister

Enid, Eva Gonzalez and Little Sister

The Maysles made the 81-minute film, “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A,” accompanying the lads from their disembarkment from the plane, through their entire first visit to the US, including the Ed Sullivan Show, travelling by train to Washington, D.C.  for a live show, and then by train again to Miami Beach for another Sullivan gig. Much of the film takes place in The Beatles’ hotel rooms, cars and trains.

I probably know more about The Beatles than either of my next-door neighbors. I first saw “Hard Day’s Night” only a month after its release (and then at a 10 AM weekday showing), because I wasn’t willing to subject myself to all those screaming girls in the theater. I wanted to hear the lads under pristine conditions. I’ve seen Richard Lester’s film dozens of times over the last half century, and still think it’s really groovy. The Fab Four with all the concomitant excitement and hysteria.

FILE - In this July 1969 file photo, documentary filmmakers David, left, and Albert Maysles work on the streets of New York for "Salesman." Albert Maysles, who along with his brother David made works of “cinema verite” in the 1960s and ‘70s, including the Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter,” died Thursday, March 5, 2015 in New York. He was 88. His brother David Maysles died in 1987. (AP Photo, File)

I don’t know why I wasn’t aware back then of the Maysles film. I was even aware of the Maysles when I was studying film in the late 60s, having seen their documentary of the Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert, “Gimme Shelter,” including live footage (in color) of Hell’s Angels murdering a fan directly in front of the stage. (The Angel was acquitted on grounds of self-defence, the Maysles’ film showing that the attackee was brandishing a pistol.)

But somehow the Maysles’ Beatles film never received the attention it deserved. Until very recently, I was unaware of it in any of its incarnations. Nor, as it turned out, were any of my aging hippie Beatles friends, fans, freaks and fanatics.

albert-mayslesThe film was an unnoticed revolution and a revelation – an intimate, candid, relaxed, jolly, amazing portrait of Beatlemania and its authors.

As far as I’m able to piece things together, the Maysles released the 88-minute 16mm version of “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A” in 1964.  It’s virtually unavailable today, reportedly shown on occasion at festivals.

In 1991, Albert (David died in 1987) re-edited a 91-minute version, called “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit”. It added 22 minutes of their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, but excluded 20 much more interesting minutes of the original version. Some of that is available on-line, such as this 6-minute clip of the lads fooling around in their hotel room and joking with astounded passengers on the train.

ee-11To make matters more complicated, there’s an hour-long “The Beatles: The Making of the First U.S. Visit – Maysles Brothers Documentary” which I of course found even more riveting than the film itself (the 1991 version).

And to make matters even more complicateder, there’s an 80-minute version of the material with Albert Maysles’ voice-over commentary.

My recommendation? If you’re a casual fan, find the 1991 movie fast. If you’re one of us, watch the Making Of.

If you think American media circa 1964 was creaky, the BBC was the barely living incarnation of stodginess.  The Beatles had been coached by Brian Epstein to behave like well-trained monkeys for the press. The Maysles film shows one such an embarrassing photo shoot in the park.

maysles03But for JohnPaulGeorgeRingo, the Maysles weren’t Them – they were these two cool young underground filmmakers. In 1964, John Lennon was 24 years old, David Maysles was 33. The film shows the boys thoroughly enjoying hanging out with the film crew, absolutely comfortable and candid with them, as Beatlemania rages everywhere outside their room.

You see everything. The lads joking with each other, joking with the Maysles. Them against the world. Brian and the crew trying to manage the unimaginable unmanageable. The horrific, embarrassing Murray the K foisting himself upon the Beatles. Murray, in a phone interview with them live on the air: “We got one more week of this, then I’m gonna become the fifth Beatle, okay baby?”

ee-7Paul (to the lads, covering the mouthpiece of the phone): “Does anybody understand him?”

And you see the boys taking a keen interest in the film-making process. Think about it – they’re crazy talented, successful 24-year olds. Of course they’re interested in learning how a film is made. They’d soon be doing it themselves (albeit with limited success).

Maysles tells how no one knew if there would be five or 5000 people at the airport, that the Granada reps on the plane wanted standard archaic Auntie Beeb-style interviews. “We’d rather get information that is spontaneous, people experiencing something.”

ee-12You see the amazement on The Beatles’ faces as they step off the plane. I mean, this is America.

You see them at their charming, most insouciant best fielding imbecilic questions from the American press:

Q: ‘Are you going to get a haircut while you’re here’
A: ‘No’.

Q: ‘Can you really sing?’
A(John): ‘No, we need money first.’

And then Paul carefully reading the transcript of the press conference in the paper, commenting in retrospect on each of the questions and answers. But he doesn’t come across as calculating or manipulative. He’s overwhelmed. He’s as surprised by it all as we are.

You see all the lads with the Pepsi Cola transistor radios glued to their ears, listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. Paul, “Oh, I like this America.”

maysles_4You see Ringo climbing onto the dance floor at the Peppermint Lounge – from the dance floor itself, the camera bumping and grinding and hitchhiking and frugging and whatever, girls throwing themselves at him.

You see John in the hotel room playing a series descending chords on a melodica – which would three years later become the chord sequence and sound of “Living is easy with eyes closed”. If you’re me, that penetrates to a very deep spot.

You see girls stalking their room in the hallways and boys dressed up as a adults trying to crash into the hotel. You see the boys get a phone call from Col. Tom Parker. You see George doing an imitation of Dylan singing a talking blues. You see Ringo, in total earnest, saying “I hope we’ll be coming back to America”.

Pride and Joy

Pride and Joy

The Maysles are brilliant filmmakers. In one early scene, Murray the creepy, sleazy K is talking to the lads on the phone while Marvin Gaye’s ‘Pride and Joy’ is playing in the background. But the Maysles keep the camera on this very, very sexy black chick hanging out in the waiting room on the far side of the glass partition. You see a 30 second shot(!) of Murray out of focus in the foreground, with her moving (in focus) to Marvin Gaye in the background, with the implicit message of ‘There’s a giant pile of hype here driven by Murray’s ego; but there’s also tremendous, real, palpable excitement’.  Then they cut to an extreme close-up of a gaggle 14-year old girls shouting “We want The Beatles, we want The Beatles, , we want The Beatles”. Exactly what they mean by that I’ll leave implicit, a gesture to the more gentile among our readers.

ee-4I’m tempted to say that The Beatles brought sex to the 1960s.

The pièce de résistance of the Maysles’ footage stars Enid and Eva Gonzalez.

You see the Maysles accompanying The Beatles to the CBS studios that Sunday night for their first American appearance. But they’ve been told that only union technicians are allowed on-stage. You see Paul try to get them in the stage door, to no avail.

Maysles: “Murray the K told us, ‘If you just walk down the street, go into the first tenement building, somewhere along the corridor there’d be a family watching The Beatles on television.’ So when we heard through one of the doors The Beatles’ music, we knocked, the mother came to answer it. We explained to her that we were making a film of The Beatles, could we film her family watching them, she said ‘Come on in.’”

ee-1American, 1964, two and a half months after the Kennedy assassination. The Family watching The TV. The Father in his tie. The Boyfriend sulking in the background. The Little Sister’s eyes following her older sisters as intently as a baby python or a tiger cub or a Bird of Paradise chick watches its mother to see just how to stalk the prey, how to dance the dance. You see the light flicker on in that 5-year old head, and you see the girl smile that “what only-women-know” smile.

But most of all you see Enid and Eva transfixed – undulating and squirming and squealing, far more intimate and sexually revealing than any home video by Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.

The Maysles are brilliant filmmakers, flies on the wall at a fascinating, memorable moment. I’m sorry I missed their film back then and all along. So I’d just like to now grant them a much-belated Meshel Prize for their eloquent, revealing storytelling of a story most near and dear to my heart.

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250: Mose Allison, ‘Young Man’s Blues’

Posted by jeff on Nov 18, 2016 in Other, Personal, Song Of the week

Mose Allison — ‘Young Man Blues’

The Who – ‘Young Man Blues’

Mose Allison — ‘Parchman Farm’

Mose Allison Photo by Mike Wilson

Mose Allison
Photo by Mike Wilson

“Hey, Jeff, did you hear who just died? You gonna write about him?”

They’re dropping like flies.
Mose Allison, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Kantner, all jamming in that roadhouse honky-tonk in the sky.
Teenagers dying of old age.
Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-g-generation.

For that matter, Dylan’s Nobel prize is also a death. How can you be a revolutionary when the establishment is embracing you? Well, I guess studiously avoiding the ceremony is one way.

And I went to see Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” tour in the summer. There are things worse than death, I guess.

They say “Inside every grown man there’s a teenager screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?’” Actually, it’s not ‘them’ who says it, it’s us. We all know that we were our true selves at 15, and everything that’s happened since then has been a perversion of or deviation from the person we were then.

anger-disorderFor me perhaps more than for some. I believe every person has his inherent age. I sometimes look at an 11-year old and see him as a 40-year old in disguise, or a man of 50 with the demeanor of a 9-year old.

Me, I’ve always been a teenager. You can call it youthful, you can call it creative and energetic. I usually call it arrested development.

I’ve always felt comfortable with people my own age – 17-23. Put me in a social situation with my chronological peers, I’ll most often gravitate to the more interesting among their children. Who wants to hang around with old people?

I was a high-school teacher for many years. During breaks, I’d usually hang out with the best and the brightest of the kids, rather than snore through the teachers’ room. I learned to speak Teenager. Which was perhaps pathetic in one way, but on the other served me in excellent stead for writing plays geared at a young adult audience.

Young Man

Young Man

Then I began to work in hi-tech, where the median age was in the mid to late 20s. I never felt out of place there, at least age-wise. My temperament and metabolism worked well in that environment.

And now I spend my days with the 45-voice rock choir I formed three years ago. “The kids”, as I call the members, are mostly in their 20s. Those I work closely with still tell me I’m a kid at heart. They’ve witnessed up close just how profoundly irresponsible and snarky I am deep inside. But I’m the head of the group, and I try to behave in a dignified manner.

Yes, it is true that Yair and I once dropped frogs through the window into the girls’ shower and listened to them shriek. He was 17, I was 45, the drama teacher accompanying the cast of a play on an overnight.

Old Man

Old Man

But now, with Vocalocity, I try to behave with the dignity becoming a mature and thoughtful leader. It’s a role I have some discomfort playing.

But I – the one screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?’ louder than anyone else louder than any other 68-year old in the tenth grade – am gradually becoming accustomed to the fact that I’m growing old.

I don’t eat Shredded Wheat, I don’t go wandering down the street in my bathrobe, and I don’t wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. But it’s there.

I communicate by phone, rather than by the latest digital platform. I believe in explaining an idea before condensing it into 140 characters. I express my emotions and I try to make personal contact.

In other words, I don’t know how to communicate with Generation Y. They make me feel old. Well, they’re right, I am.

My contemporaries are dying, and in nature’s actuarial terms, it’s no longer ‘a tragedy’. It’s “young by today’s standards”, but come on – 68? As my mother-in-law RIP used to say: “So he lives to eat another sack of potatoes, so what?” We’re done. Extraneous. Over le hill. Bye, Baby.



My granddaughter is a blossoming 16-year old.
I’ve met kids who know the facts of The Beatles’ career better than I do.
Barack Obama is 13 years younger than me.
I’ve fulfilled my biological, sociological and political role.

I’ve begun to reconcile myself to the fact that I probably never will learn to love opera, successfully finish writing an action novel, or date Scarlett Johansson.

Let’s face it, Jeff. You’re old. Your peers are dying. You got a few good years left, but you’re a senior citizen.
I know. But what the fuck happened? I didn’t use to be old.

I was recently in a fine, serious conversation with a bright and chipper 22-year old member of my group. She has the enthusiasm of a puppy. She’s only known me for a couple of years, and (for some reason I’m still struggling to grasp) does not really see me as her contemporary.

16allison-obit-web4-master768“I haven’t been old for that long,” I said to her. “It’s a new condition for me. I was young for a really long time. Up till now I wasn’t old.”
She looked at me with a sincere and utter lack of comprehension. ‘But it’s now,’ her expression said. ‘I live in now, not in then.’
I tell her I saw The Beatles perform, that I was at Woodstock. She’s as impressed as she would be if I were telling the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder, that we all have to see ourselves as if we personally were taken out of Egypt. “That’s so cool,” she says, but in her bones she doesn’t really believe that I was there.

I’ve often thought about the fact that my grandfather was a teenager when he read in the (Yiddish) newspaper about the Wright Brothers; and that he had all his marbles when Neil Armstrong took his jaunt.

Me? I remember the Cuban missile crisis, and have lived to see the downfall of the Soviet empire. I fear that if I reach my life expectancy, I may witness the fall of the American empire as well.

I’ve lived through so many decades that I can compare them. For example, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that (at least for those choosing a traditional study>job>wife>kids>mortgage>career life path,) the decade of about 35-45 is the best one. The most optimistic one. You’re finally steady but still hopeful. The steadiness soon becomes a curse, and the hope a memory.

But, hey, you didn’t come here to hear a toothless old geezer rant and ramble about people and things that went before. You’re here for the music, and I’ve got a job to do.

Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Elston Gunnn

Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Elston Gunnn

I’m no expert on Mose Allison (1927-2016), but I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He was born and raised in rural Mississippi, moved to New York in his mid-20s to make a respectable living as a jazz pianist, playing straightforward 1950s jazz with the likes of Stan Getz, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. But left to his own devices, he played and sang a unique blend of cool, sophisticated country blues (‘Your Molecular Structure’, ‘Your Mind is on Vacation’.

Mose had a long, productive, low-key career. He recorded an album every year for a couple of decades, then slowed down. But his career was always kept afloat by the great esteem in which he was held by the cognoscenti. Mose was always Mr Cool. All along, those in the know were covering his wry, sardonic, laid-back blues compositions.

He was Randy Newman before Randy was, and I don’t think anyone would deny his influence on Dylan, The Stones and Tom Waits. He was covered by John Mayall, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and The Who. Van Morrison, together with Georgie Fame, Ben Sidran and Mose himself recorded a #1 jazz album in 1996, “Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison.”

I first encountered Mose through Gnossos Pappadopoulis, the hero of Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”. Gnossos was a fan of Mose (according to the book), as was Dick (according to his college buddy Thomas Pynchon).

Fariña (1937-66) was a harbinger of the folk music movement, duetting with his wife Mimi Baez (Joan’s sister). Together with Joan’s friend Bob Dylan, they comprised a royal foursome in the nascent Village folk scene of the early 60s, as wonderfully documented in David Hajdu’s “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña”.

d29-mose-stud-480Mose and Dick are the two coolest people I’ve never met. They’re inextricably intertwined in my fuzzy memory. One died tragically young, one had a long and respectable career.

Gnossos used to listen to Mose’s ‘Young Man Blues’ back in 1958. Since then it’s been covered by youngsters such as Joe Bonamassa and Foo Fighters, but most famously by The Who, a signature song of the lads at their manic best. You can read the lyrics (Oh, well, a young man/Ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days). But seeing is believing – here from the Isle of Wight, 1970.

You want me to make sense of all this? Ferget it. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’. Some fine old singers are dying, and I listen mostly to music made by people in their 20s, whether now or 30 or 50 or 70 years ago.

Although Chuck Berry just turned 90 and is releasing his first album of new material in 38 years.

There’s probably a profound lesson to be learned from that, but I’m not sure what it is.
Carpe diem?
After my nap.

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093: Leon Russell, ‘A Song for You’

Posted by jeff on Nov 12, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

Los Angeles circa 1970 was rock’s Medici Florence. Seemed like every time you turned around some new whippersnapper was tossing off a classic for the ages.

The truth is, when Leon Russell’s first album came out in February 1970, the only thing we knew about him was that he was the music man behind Joe Cocker’s spasticism; and some of that music, like Cocker’s version of Delta Woman, was pretty darn fine.

We had no idea that Leon (b. 1942) was Phil Spector’s pianist in the classic Wall of Sound era, that he was instrumental in arranging Tina Turner’s River Deep – Mountain High’ (what George Harrison called “a perfect record”), that he had played on The Byrds’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and Gary Lewis’s ‘This Diamond Ring’. To tell the truth, we had forgotten his sterling performances from 1964-5 on Shindig of songs such as ‘High Heel Sneakers‘, ‘Jambalaya‘ (compare this to ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ five years later), or ‘Roll Over, Beethoven’ (wearing tails!).

What we did know when that eponymous first album was released in 1970 was that on the back cover it said he was assisted in the recording by George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Winwood, along with an aristocratic cadre of studio musicians. In 1970, that kind of stuff just didn’t happen. Stars stuck to their own solar systems. This was by far the most impressive assemblage of luminaries on a single album (outstripping even that on Stephen Stills’ first solo LP). Know what? It might still hold that honor today, ‘The Last Waltz’ and ‘We Are the World’ notwithstanding.

A year later, he produced and played on the only original song Dylan recorded in a two year period, ‘Watching the River Flow’. It’s a great cut, with Leon written all over it. Having fun wasn’t usually part of Dylan’s repertoire at that point. During the same period, Leon was also playing with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and in the Bangladesh concert.

He had a hit album in 1972, “Carney”, and a hit single ‘Tight Rope‘. But then his career went spotty, and he spent the 1980s outside the music business. Even after he returned to producing, recording and touring, he remained in the shadows, till Elton John decided to repay a musical debt. In 2010, Elton John asked him to co-write and co-record a double CD called “The Union”, with guests such as Booker T. Jones ‘(Green Onions’), Neil Young (‘I Am a Child’) and Brian Wilson (‘Surfing USA’). Here’s their single ‘If It Wasn’t’ for Bad.’ Earlier this year (2011) Leon was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But for me, Leon is all about that first album. It brought us oh so many hours of listening pleasure, and remains for me one of the most evocative of the era, especially three songs that justify Hall of Famehood, each and every one. I recently discovered videos of two of them from an eye-, ear- and mind-boggling recording session in 1971. It was broadcast on PBS and seems to have been called either “Leon Russell & Friends – ‘Homewood Sessions’,” or “Live at Vine Street Theater, Hollywood, California, USA”, or “Vine Street Theater presents Homewood”. Well I don’t care what you call it, it’s downright marvelous. ‘They’ say it was the first national stereo rock-and-roll TV broadcast. That’s nice, but what makes it memorable is – well, you just look at these clips, and you don’t need me to tell you what’s memorable about them.

You got Leon’s own version of ‘Delta Lady’, complete with a false start, the ugliest shirt every sewn by humankind, an unforgettable puff on a cigarette in slo-mo, and at the end the most bizarre silence you’ll ever not hear.

You got his cover of The Rolling Stones ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, where you hardly see Leon, but you do see an awful lot of Sweet Emily and a very potent rolling pin. I didn’t realize till I saw this that Leon wrote the song in some sense. I won’t tell you whether I prefer this cover or the original. I’ll let you guess.

And you got ‘A Song For You’, Leon’s heart-wrenching ballad that’s been covered by Dusty Springfield, Michael Bublé, Carmen McRae, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Nancy Wilson, Donny Hathaway, Peggy Lee, Elliott Yamin (American Idol), Natalie Cole, Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston, Simply Red, Petula Clark, Donna Summer, Beyonce Knowles, The Temptations, and Neil Diamond.

Elton John sang it as an intro to a medley of his own songs “Blue Eyes” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” on his 1986 tour.

‘A Song for You’ became a signature song for Willie Nelson.

But the best cover of it I know, hands down, is that by Ray Charles. It’s hard to believe the song wasn’t written for him. It also won him a Grammy Award.

As part of Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday tribute, Leon Russell sang the first verse, Willie Nelson sang the second verse, and Ray Charles sang the remainder of the song. It’s visible how moved Willie is.

But omigosh, look at this one I found. A stunning duet between James Taylor and the wonderful Allison Janney! (CJ, from “The West Wing”) from the Matthew Perry sitcom called “Mr.Sunshine”. Check out what Matthew asks James at the end of the clip.

Here are the original album versions of the three pantheon songs from that album— ‘Delta Lady’, the sublime ‘Roll Away the Stone’ (“Roll away the stone, don’t leave me here all alone; resurrect me and protect me, don’t leave me laying here—what will they do in 2000 years?”) and that most beautiful, soul-rending love song, ‘A Song for You’, the original LP version.

What is this song that attracts so many people to it?

I’ll tell you what. It’s a bitch to sing, even worse to play. It hasn’t got a cute little memorable hook or a jingly-sticky rhyme. It’s got honesty, passion, and overwhelming, self-obliterating affection. It’s the perfect love song.

I’ve been so many places in my life and time
I’ve sung a lot of songs, I’ve made some bad rhymes
I’ve acted out my life in stages with ten thousand people watching
But we’re alone now, and I’m singing this song for you.

I know your image of me is what I hope to be
I treated you unkindly, but darling can’t you see
There’s no one more important to me, baby can’t you please see through me?
‘Cause we’re alone now and I’m singing this song for you.

You taught me precious secrets of the truth withholding nothing;
You came out in front when I was hiding. But now I’m so much better
And if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody
Cause my love is in there hiding…

I love you in a place where there’s no space or time
I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine.
And when my life is over, remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you.
We were alone and I was singing this song for you

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

061: The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

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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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