When I used to teach Film Studies at the University of Calgary, my favourite class to teach was the one I did three times on The Coen Brothers. It’s really the only class that I feel like I ever mastered, and it always went incredibly well. After a while I developed an off-shoot of the class, and I taught a course on The Big Lebowski. We watched that film thirteen times during the semester (we also watched things that it is playing off like The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Good-bye). My students were initially wary but I consider it one of my great triumphs that, a week after the class ended, The Plaza Theatre here in Calgary had a screening of the film as a fundraiser for the local food bank (not sure of the connection, to be honest) and every one of my students showed up to see it a fourteenth time, most with their friends in tow. They had all become obsessed with this film.
If you watch The Big Lebowski every week for three months, you cannot hear “The Man in Me” as anything other than the soundtrack to a bowling montage. T Bone Burnett, credited as the “musical archivist” on this film, picks a relatively obscure Dylan song as a near perfect encapsulation of the film’s themes.
I’m not sure that I would like this song as much as I do if I didn’t love this film, but as I say, I cannot hear it any other way. I listen to the CD in my car and I can actually see in my mind’s eye the celebrating bowlers as the chords change. It has been absolutely repurposed for me.
“Went to See the Gypsy” is the best song on New Morning, and, I have decided in the last couple of days, one of the best songs Dylan ever wrote. I can’t get enough of this one – it’s utterly fantastic. Nonetheless, here’s my problem with it:
Am I required to believe Bob Dylan?
I haven’t spent a lot of time on this project thinking about who specifically Dylan was writing about on any of his songs. You tell me that “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” is about Edie Sedgwick? Ok, fine. “She Belongs to Me” is about Joan Baez? Sure, if you say so. I don’t want to know who Mr. Jones is. These aren’t the questions that keep me up at night.
The one thing that I know in my heart of hearts, however, is that “Went to See the Gypsy” is about Bob Dylan meeting Elvis Presley. Clinton Heylin mentions this fact in his notes in The Complete Album Collection. Actually, he uses the word “allegedly inspired by” but he also gives the date of the meeting as having occurred in January (1970). I mean, it has to be about Elvis, right? Here’s the first verse – substitute “Elvis” for “The Gypsy” and read it:
Went to see the gypsy
Staying in a big hotel
He smiled when he saw me coming
And he said, “Well, well, well”
His room was dark and crowded
Lights were low and dim
“How are you” he said to me
I said it back to him.
How else do you think that the meeting of America’s most important singer from the 1950s meeting America’s most important singer for the 1960s is going to go? Have you been to Graceland? Elvis liked dark and crowded, lights that were low and dim!
The second verse makes it even more clear:
I went down to the lobby
To make a small call out
A pretty dancing girl was there
And she began to shout
“Go on back to see the gypsy
He can move you from the rear
Drive you from your fear
Bring you through the mirror
He did it in Las Vegas
And he can do it here”.
“He did it in Las Vegas!” Elvis’s legendary run at the International Hotel in Vegas began in July 1969, shattering all Vegas records, and then it resumed in 1970. And it had dancing girls!
Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With the music in my ears.
“The music in my ears” confirms it.
I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone
And that pretty dancing girl
She could not be found
So I watched that sun come rising
From that little Minnesota town.
And that’s what makes this among the best Dylan songs ever – the way that he sings “that little Minnesota town”, his first direct invocation of life in Hibbing, where he grew up listening to Elvis, who was rising like a sun over America. It’s a song of lament – of missing out on his idol – but also of self-assessment. It’s a great, great song.
“I never met Elvis, because I didn’t want to meet Elvis… I know The Beatles went to see him, and he just played with their heads.”
What the fuck?!
“Elvis was truly some sort of American king. Two or three times we were up in Hollywood, and he had sent some of the Memphis Mafia down to where we were to bring us up to see Elvis. But none of us went… I don’t know if I would have wanted to see Elvis like that. I wanted to see the powerful mystical Elvis that had crash-landed from a burning star onto American soil.”
Again: WHAT THE FUCK?! Are you kidding me? Dylan never met Elvis? How is that even theoretically possible? I mean, he WROTE A SONG ABOUT IT!
I can’t unhear Elvis in this song – I really can’t. That is what this song is about. Period. End of discussion. And if that means I have to assume Bob Dylan is lying to me (and to Rolling Stone), well, it wouldn’t be the first time, now would it?
Al Kooper played on the original and also covered it. He’s never lied to me, so here’s his version: