“To Be Alone With You”

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In his Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner in November 1969, Dylan said about “To Be Alone With You”, from Nashville Skyline: “I wrote it for Jerry Lee Lewis. The one on “Nashville Skyline.” (Laughter.) He was down there when we were listening to the playbacks, and he came in. He was recording an album next door. He listened to it… I think we sent him a dub.”

I have absolutely no idea if Dylan is telling the truth here – the interview is chock full of obvious mistruths – but it at least sounds plausible.

This is a very slight swinging song of the kind that Lewis made famous more than a decade earlier, full of little piano fills and simple, lively lyrics: “They say the night time is the right time to be with the one you love”. It doesn’t get any more sophisticated than that, and neither did Lewis.

The only unusual bit in this brief little nothing is the voice of the producer coming across at the beginning, asking “Is it rolling, Bob?”, an, at the time, unusual remnant of the human process of the recording process that gives the song a tossed-off feeling.

The Rolling Stone Interview

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I don’t think that interviewing Bob Dylan in 1969 was any more fun that it was when he was tormenting his interviewers in 1965. Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone, scored the coveted “major interview with the reclusive Bob Dylan” as the cover feature of the second anniversary issue of his magazine in November 1969, and it is just a horrible read.

The best part of the interview comes near the end:

WENNER: That’s the awkwardness of this interview.

DYLAN: Well, I don’t find anything awkward about it. I think it’s going real great.

Does he? Does he really think that it’s going great?

At this point Dylan’s relationship with his manager, Albert Grossman, was disintegrating, and he was contemplating leaving Columbia Records (which he would do), although he doesn’t really want to talk to Wenner about either of those things. Wenner asks him about touring and he suggests that he’ll go on the road shortly, but it would be another four years before Dylan would tour again (he did play Isle of Wight between the time this interview was recorded and when it was published). So he lies about the one topic, and just dissembles about the others. This is going great?

One of the most interesting things is that Wenner, who comes across as the nerdiest of nerds here, wants to talk about the specifics of Dylan’s work and Dylan sometimes can’t even remember what songs are on what albums. Either he just didn’t care about this interview (likely) or he has a very unusual relationship to his creativity (possible).

One of the best answers for why he was taking so many drugs while touring in 1965 and 1966:

“My songs were long, long songs. But that’s why I had to start dealing with a lot of different methods of keeping myself awake, alert… because I had to remember all the words to those songs.” If you consider how short most of the songs on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline are, I’m sort of tempted to believe that this might actually be a genuine answer.

The interview does have Dylan explaining that the change in his voice, which is at its most notable on Nashville Skyline, was a result of his decision to stop smoking. This could also be true (apparently Dylan still smokes to this day, and when he tours he often has to stay in low end hotels because they allow smoking). His comment, “I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes … and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso.” is probably the high point of the interview.

A lot of the rest of it is Wenner asking Dylan his opinion on other bands of the period, which was probably of interest to the editor of a music magazine (and maybe the readers) but not so much to me. It is interesting when Dylan notes that he doesn’t really know the music of The Grateful Dead, given that they will later tour and record together. This interview does paint a picture of a man who is pretty cut off from the scene he helped generate though.

My take away from all this was that in 1969 Wenner seemed to know a lot more about Dylan than Dylan knew about Dylan, or at least about the public part of his life. Clearly, people spend more time thinking about Dylan than Dylan does. I guess that now includes me.

“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”

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The third, and final, single from Nashville Skyline was “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”. This is another Dylan in full crooner mode, but it’s also a great polished love song. The last song on the album, the band is tight and sharp and I’m at the point that I like any Dylan song that has a steel guitar in it.

This is a very different love song for Dylan. It’s not a rambling man in search of his one true love song, rather it’s a song of devotion and settling down, which was probably appropriate for a young married man who was focused on raising his young children at the time.

This is a song I really love from some of the live performances from the mid-1970s, and I can hear Dylan belting out “I can hear that whistle blowing”. The train motif is a common one for Dylan, and this is all about a man missing that train.

It’s a simple song, but I think it’s the best one on Nashville Skyline.

Did you know that Tina Turner did a cover of it? Me neither! Here you go:

Dylan Waifs Revisited

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People send me things about Bob Dylan now, and that’s awesome. Lots of them are only semi-interesting, but this one is great, and I wished I’d had it three weeks ago when we were doing 1966.

Metro in the UK tracked down eight of the ten children who appeared in this iconic photo of Dylan form Liverpool in 1966. Great job, Metro!

“Lay Lady Lay”

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Bob Dylan wrote “Lay Lady Lay” too slowly for it to be included in the film for which it had been solicited: Midnight Cowboy. That was good news for Fred Neil, whose song “Everybody’s Talking At Me” is played about a half dozen times on the soundtrack, and which went on to become a significant hit for Harry Nilsson, and won a Grammy.

As luck would have it, Midnight Cowboy was one of the in-flight options on my Air Canada flight to Hong Kong (along with The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver – someone was having a dark day at the programming office), so I watched it for the first time in at least two decades. It’s a hard film to imagine without “Everybody’s Talking”, which fits the opening and closing bus ride scenes so nicely, though it is possible to imagine it in the middle. When Jack plays Scribbage with Brenda Vaccaro and he can’t think of a word that begins or ends with a Y, since he is illiterate, one of the words that she suggests is “Lay”, and I imagine that perhaps the song was meant for that scene.

As a song it has always been one of my least favourite. The crooning Bob Dylan doesn’t really work for me, and here he is at his crooning-est. The song has always had a creepy late-1960s, early-1970s vibe to me (perfect for Midnight Cowboy!), particularly the way he intones “big brass bed”, hitting those three Bs so forcefully.

I read somewhere once that at this time Dylan had a dog named “Lady”. I don’t know if that is true, but I hope that it isn’t, because that would just make the song all the more creepy.

I might be a minority opinion on this one – “Lay Lady Lay” was the successful single off of Nashville Skyline (hitting #7 on the US charts), but for me it’s far from the best song. That’s probably fitting though – Midnight Cowboy isn’t that great as a movie either. It’s only the second best movie of the decade that ends with a dead-eyed Dustin Hoffman on the back of a bus.

The Basement Tapes

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So, okay, The Basement Tapes.

This is the legendary bootleg – a dip into the creative processes of Bob Dylan so epic that it created an entire sub-industry. I’ve been listening to this music for two weeks now, grappling with it, struggling with it at times. Greil Marcus was so moved by it that he wrote an entire book, Invisible Republic, about it. That’s Dylanological, I thought, only the hardest of the hardcore could do that.

I suppose that I should be up front. I first heard The Basement Tapes material on the double-album that Columbia released in 1975, where the songs have been cleaned up in post-production, with new instrumentation added by The Band. I never liked that album. Songs like “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Million Dollar Bash” reminded me of how much I hate “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” – the jokiness was just irritating to me. “I took my potatoes down to be mashed,” Dylan sang, and I just thought “This is the worst thing ever.” I was literally embarrassed for him. So how to get into not just a double album, but the five hours of music that exists on A Tree With Roots?

Well let’s start with Greil Marcus. I read the book on a plane from Vancouver from Hong Kong, which strikes me as just about the least likely place to read a book about “the old, weird America”. This is the second book by Marcus on Dylan that I’ve read this year (he also wrote one about “Like A Rolling Stone”) and I’m slowly going through his collection of essays about Dylan as they become appropriate. I’d read Marcus in the past, but not recently, and not with much memory of his earlier work. Sometimes I think he’s a genius, and other times his digressions wear on me. There’s more digressing than genius in Invisible Republic, but here it seems more appropriate, since there is so little thrust to the recordings that we’re listening to and thinking about.

The first thing that I liked about A Tree With Roots were the covers. They’re the easiest thing to relate to: Dylan segues from “Big River”, one of Johnny Cash’s earliest songs, to “Folsom Prison Blues”, one of his best. They cover Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, and it is genuinely interesting to hear them working through some of these songs. An album of covers isn’t what I’d want from Dylan, but hearing him run through influences is interesting. He revisits songs from a decade earlier, like “Young and Daily Growing”, and it was nice to hear them again. I’ve missed them, lo these several weeks.

The other way in was to focus on those moments where you can hear Dylan piecing a song together – which is no different than listening to something like The Witmark Demos, or hotel recordings for their false starts. On “I’m A Fool For You”, for example, the whole song just stops when Dylan runs into a wall. “I’m playing this in a funny key,” he tells The Band after he calls out a mistaken chord change “Not D, not D. E. I’m sorry. This key” he says as he strums, and then, as if nothing had happened, they’re right back in the midst of the song. “No, F,” and he keeps on going. This kind of jamming and compensating is refreshing, it’s endearing. These moments, like the producer asking “Is it rolling, Bob?” at the start of “To Be Alone With You” on Nashville Skyline are humanizing, intimate, and sometimes fascinating.

Of course, at other times, they’re almost unbearable. Listen to “You Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around”. Dylan starts by explaining the harmony that he wants in the background, and you can hear them bring it in over the guitar. But the whole things breaks down, with The Band chanting “Dog dog dog. Why why why” in deep bass voices like they’re the band from The Muppets. The next track is no less goofy. “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg” begins from a stray line that cracks Dylan up and they riff off it for a while, sort of pointlessly.

This is the material that I was struggling with, but Marcus set me on the proper path. Writing of these same two songs, he calls them “priceless” – meaning without price. They’re free, he writes, they’re for nothing, there is no point to be sought. They exist because they can exist. I was beginning to see the light.

The best chapter in Marcus’s book deals with Harry Smith’s six-album collection, Anthology of American Folk Music, the single document that more than any other inspired the folk revival of the 1950s that Dylan would forcefully squash with the Butterfield Blues Band on a Newport stage. This was the Bible of the folk movement – recordings of hillbillies and the delta blues from the 1920s and 1930s that every folk singer memorized and played, including the Dylan who first played the Greenwich Clubs. Before he discovered Woody Guthrie almost all of Dylan’s repertoire was from this collection.

Marcus points to the central importance of gathering those songs, and I’m completely with him. But he moves a step further, arguing that The Basement Tapes was a 1969 equivalent. This is the argument: Having trashed the folk movement and revolutionized rock, Dylan and his friends retreated to Woodstock, New York in order to excavate the collective American musical unconscious. There was no difference between an Elvis cover and a song that was hundreds of years old (“900 Miles”, say, or “Roisin the Bow” or “Po Lazarus”, all of which get a workout here). Dylan had denounced folk based on what he saw as efforts by others to define what folk was and could be. He wanted to move in another direction, and on these tapes he does. Dylan levels folk and pop, recreating them as American music. Dylan and the Band stumbling through Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” to no conclusion (“It lingers there“, Dylan says at the end, as The Band brings the song, erroneously, back around to the four chord), is not a great version of the song – but it’s a version of the song, in the same way that “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” was a version of that song on the Anthology of American Folk Music 

Here’s where Greil Marcus earns his money: He notes the huge gulf that exists between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Not in terms of talent (I’m not having that fight today), but the vast gulf that seems to separate the only eight years that differentiate them in age. Dylan is eight years older than Springsteen, but he seems at least a full generation older. Why? Because Dylan played with Dock Boggs at Newport. Dylan met the people who were recorded on Smith’s albums – he played with them. He has a direct, first-hand connection to the pre-War folk scene, if only as it passed on to another generation. Springsteen has no such connection. When I listen to Springsteen’s Pete Seeger tribute album, for example, I am always struck by how much I don’t like it – by how much it doesn’t sound like the Pete Seeger that I like. Marcus has allowed me to realize how distant it is from Seeger. No matter how well-intentioned, and I do think it was that, there is a gap there. The gap that Dylan occupies.

And that’s Marcus’s argument in a nutshell. The Basement Tapes is the 1960s version of Harry Smith’s recordings, of Dock Boggs (whom he writes a chapter about). New songs, old songs, polished songs, drunken songs – it’s an archaeology of American songwriting, a retreat into the weird history of America. From that standpoint, I can find some love for A Tree With Roots. Listening to it with Marcus’s ears for the strains of Dock Boggs, I can find a path through the basement. I won’t listen to the first cut of “The Spanish Song” ever again, or to Rick Danko’s abominable out-of-tune fiddling on “900 Miles”, but to the rest of it, yes.

Finally, there’s the key to the whole thing: “I’m Not There”. I’m certain that I had never heard this song before I saw the film which borrows its name, and even then I can’t say that I paid great attention to it (Sonic Youth covers it on the closing credits). It’s incredible. Dylan apparently sang this song once in his entire life. All five of its verses were improvised as they were playing, and he never performed it live. It has never appeared on  one of his albums (his version does appear on the film soundtrack). It is incredible. Imposing. A ridiculous tossed-off masterpiece, as if drawn from the ether. A song like that is worth digging through any amount of rubbish from the boxes in the basement.

 

“Girl From the North Country” (reprise)

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One of the odder things about Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s 1969 studio album, is that it opens with what was the second song on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his breakthrough 1963 album: “Girl From the North Country”.

Nashville Skyline is not that dissimilar from Freewheelin’. If John Wesley Harding was a hard reboot after the pinnacle that was Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde (and the ensuing meltdown with the public), Nashville Skyline is the refinement of that countrified approach, in the same way that Freewheelin’ was an advance on Bob Dylan’s folk stylings.

The duet with Johnny Cash on this version of “Girl” is one that only partially works. Cash has been an interesting figure in the Dylan project, showing up at Newport with kind words about Dylan in 1964, and then again in Eat the Document. It is clear that they were good friends, and that their sensibilities meshed in a way that their singing never did. If Joan Baez’s duets made Dylan a hero to the folk scenesters, Cash wasn’t able to do the same for Dylan and country.

This version, with alternating verses, opens well enough, but it just sort of breaks down at the end. Both are such idiosyncratic stylists that they can’t quite get on the same page, they sing over each other, and the ending just sort of devolves altogether as if each man were thinking “how do we actually get out of this?”.

This is a song that I think everyone wishes were better than it is. It should be legendary, but it’s just sort of fine. Two of the all time greats should never work together to produce fine.

Here’s Bob on Johnny’s tv show: