“Big Pink in Quake City: Respite for the Restless”
SAN FRANCISCO — Darling Dolly Dane, a rachitic teenie waif from the wilds of Petaluma (“Egg Basket of the West”), was rattling off her semi-pro panhandler’s hype at the intersection of Post and Steiner, while up the block at Winterland, the reclusive band from Big Pink was making ready to strike up some sweet country funk, and rock mojo-domo Bill Graham, after his own emotionally hemophiliac fashion, was sidling up to the mound to strike o-u-t OUT.
“Don’t be a tacky cunt, hon,” Darling Dolly coaxed a sailor in the stream of ticket-holders pressing toward the entrance. “Do me some good with your spare change.”
Dear, darling Darlin Doll she wasn’t alone — the tribal rock hounds and stone guerrilla hippies of the Bay Area had turned out in force for the occasion. Flapping along the sidewalks, preening and shrilling, they soared into the cavernous recesses of the old ice-skating rink-turned-rock ballroom like flocks of bright, demented birds.
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The mood of expectancy ran high; “This will be a stoning thing,” a mustachioed kid from Berkeley promised his chick in sepulchral tones.
Promises, promises. From the outset, The Event that had been broadsided for weeks in advance as sure to hang heavy, heavy over our collective long-haired heads turned out to be — with a brief respite to be noted — merely onerous.
The spooky vibes began in the lobby. Poker-faced security guards — a lot of them, all looking like Tac Squad reservists — swarmed through the foyer and along the hall’s aisles, barking at people to move along, seemingly at whim. After being shooed away a couple of times, I managed to buy a coke at the refreshment stand and started working my way through the crush toward the stage, where the house sound system reared up out of the darkness like a massive and sinister radar installation. The Ace of Cups, a local all-femme group who occasionally generate an ambience of pure physical fun because they’re such fetching chicks to look at, played listlessly. The acoustical reference in the room was muddier than Vic and Sade on an Atwater-Kent table model.
I ran into one of the Family Dog people, an acquaintance from Texas, and we watched silently as the Sons of Champlin, another local group, set up onstage. They would play an overlong and uncharacteristically lackwit set. After the first couple of numbers, the crowd stirred restlessly; the smell of burning weed was stronger than a ten-minute egg.
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A kid in a smudgy, buttonless tunic, his face pocked with scabies pimples, wandered through the crowd, obviously stoned. He kept running his fingers through the flame of a lighted candle and mumbling what must have started out as a chant. A half-hour later, when I caught sight of him a second time, his hands were black and literally smoking.
My friend groaned; “Jesus, that dude must’ve been shooting up the Chronicle Sporting Green for days. He’s gonna wake up in the morning — some morning — and feel everything but good.”
After the Sons had bowed off to polite but disinterested applause, there was a lengthy delay of a type that telegraphed to the audience: Something Has Gone Stone Wrong. Then Bill Graham popped up at the mike, earnest, thin-skinned, a-stammer, attempting to apologize for the apology he was about to tender —
“Fuck you!” someone yelled distinctly from the balcony.
Graham winced as if he’d been slapped, but, gathering his aplomb about him with the equanimity of a wino wrapping up for the night in a bundle of Moral Rearmament pamphlets, he bore grimly on to relate that Robbie Robertson, the band’s lead guitarist, had been ill with the flu for two days, and was having a little trouble getting together, but if the audience would only be patient, the whole band’d be there, Graham guaranteed it —
“A 15 minute delay at the latest,” he promised, and scuttled off the stage into the shadows.
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Promises, promises. We waited — 30 minutes, an hour, ultimately an hour and a half. A few in the crowd waited merely for the chance to red-ass Graham when he worked up the nerve to reappear; others were determined to dig the young musical gunfighters from Woodstock at any cost, even if they had to invade Robertson’s hotel room and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Finally, straggling onstage one by one, the members of the band assembled, Robertson assisted to his place by a man named Ralph Gleason later identified as the guitarists’s personal hypnotist. At last they were on.
The respite mentioned earlier lasted 35 minutes. The band from Dylan Country played only seven songs, only two of these new, but it’s not inconceivable to me that during that brief session, a few hearts and heads and lives might have been turned around for the better. The band’s sound and stance were flawless. From the strength of their personal decency and dedication, the musicians summoned up an oceanic passion, a commitment to the true experience of their materials that short-circuited the hair on the back of one’s neck. For a little better than a half-hour, the band didn’t redeem the morbid vibes that had been going down all evening, but simply transcended them.
Then, in a wink, the players were gone, and the howl for an encore went up. “Come back to the raft a’gin, Huck honey!” a male voice boomed from the floor. A volley of boos greeted Graham as he worked his way back to the mike. He stood visibly shaken in the rain of catcalls and curses until the yelling and stomping gradually subsided.
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“Well,” he drawled pouty, “there must be a lot of tourists here tonight, because San Francisco people just don’t act that way —”
The crowd groaned in unison, a long-drawn-out wail of derision and contempt that must have chilled Graham’s deep soul, for he stepped back from the mike, his mouth working silently. “TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, GRAHAM!” somebody cried from the press of bodies at the edge of the bandstand.
In small eddies and surges, the audience began to disperse. “The band got it together,” I heard a college girl saying philosophically, “but Bill Graham kind of bombed, didn’t he.” Outside Darling Dolly Dane collared my friend and me at the corner. “Don’t be a tacky cunt,” she began, but he put a quarter in her palm and gently closed her palm and gently closed her bony little fingers around it in a ball. “Take a load off, Fanny,” he told her gravely, and we strolled on, somewhat armed against the night’s chill. ■
On the frontier of every art form guerilla bands of prophets and crackpots are nourishing the orthodoxies and fashions of tomorrow.
A decade ago the frontier outlaws were men like Miles Davis, Paul Goodman, and Norman Mailer. Bereft of followers, holed up in private Sierra Maestras, they scrounged for economic survival. Today every branch of culture has its own tribe of far-out revolutionaries, pushing imagination to new limits of possibility. There are William Burroughs, Jack Gelber, Lenny Bruce, LeRoi Jones, John Coltrane, and Jonas Mekas. And they are no longer struggling merely for survival: they represent the organized revolt of one generation against the limitations of the preceding one.
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Folk music is one of the battlegrounds where the hegemony of the established canons and values is being challenged by a creative cadre of insurgents, all city intellectuals and almost all in their early or mid 20s, who write and sing topical songs characterized by radicalism, wit, immediacy, and poetry.
Their leader up to until now has been the mumbling, ragamuffin genius Bob Dylan, as much the symbol of this generation as James Dean was of his. Dean was a rebel without a cause, but Dylan has been the rebel of a dozen causes.
Then there’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, who writes of her fellow Indians and their brutalization; or Phil Ochs, one of whose songs was inspired by a Louis Aragon poem; Gil Turner, the ideologue of the topical movement; Tom Paxton, who wrote his most famous song between sets in that cavernous crucible, the Gaslight; Len Chandler, who has a M.A. from Columbia but who is broke because, instead of staying in the coffee house circuit, he spent last summer working free for SNCC; Billy Edd Wheeler, chronicler in song of the stricken coal country; and at least a dozen more who carry the seed of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
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The songs they write are not just traditional protests against war, poverty, and injustice, though even on those themes they are less mawkish and more corrosive than many of the songs of the ’30’s. Some of the songs are intensely personal statements like Buffy Sainte-Marie’s hypnotic warning against codeine addiction. Others glow with sardonic wit like Paxton’s “Daily News.” Others muse on the meaning of tragedy like Och’s “The Thresher” or Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Still others take a try at levels of meaning and Brechtian overtone, like Chandler’s “Roll, Turn, Spin.” Others come out of the jails and churches of the South, given shape by both white and Negro song writers, like “Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around” and “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” And finally, there are songs like Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” a surrealist, post-Bomb view of the world, with such images as “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” and “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.”
Most afficionados mark the birth of the topical song movement with the publication in February, 1962 in New York of the magazine Broadside (though the seeds of the movement go far back into the ’50s), put together by Pete Seeger, the selfless patron of the movement, Sis Cunningham, its chronicler, and Gil Turner, its talent scout. The first issue contained five songs, including “Talking John Birch Blues” by a 20-year-old named Bob Dylan. Fifty-five issues and 500 songs later, Broadside is the mimeographed bible of the topical song apostles and their disciples, stretching from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.
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And after those three years the new-wave song writers are on the verge of dominating folk music. While threadbare tunes like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” are now the property of the most commercial folk-singers and the most imaginative rock ‘n’ rollers, the repertoire of the most popular folk-singers — Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, or Peter, Paul, and Mary — is based on topical songs that a decade ago would have been blacklisted by every record company and radio station in the land. Even nightclub performers like Lena Horne and Bobby Darin have begun to incorporate topical songs into their acts.
In spite or their growing popularity and influence, though, the topical writers haven’t escaped some criticism along the line. Much of it comes from within their ranks, from established folk-singers who feel that all of them write too fast and lack the willingness to polish their songs. Here and there around the folk circuit there are also occasional mumblings that some topical writers are opportunist‚ that they only hopped on the political song bandwagon because they saw it was heading for success. Whatever private opinion might be, though, the songwriters are getting unprecedented attention. Says New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton, “There have always been periods of stepped-up activity in topical song writing during periods of American crisis. In this case it’s so pronounced you can’t really understand what college-age Americans are thinking today without paying a good deal of attention to it. It’s the cultural-philosophical expression from a whole new generation — an expression that should be studied and respected alongside the writings in literary quarterlies or beside slogans on picket signs.”
Next to Bob Dylan, whose work more and more is turning toward the mystical and symbolist, the most gifted of these writers — or certainly the most prolific — seems to be 23-year-old Phil Ochs, who fled journalism school at Ohio State in 1961 when he realized few papers would print his views undiluted.
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Today Ochs’ “agnostic Marxism,” sweetened by simple, often lyric melodies, is reaching more people than all the bloodless prose of all his classmates who stayed to master the inverted pyramid, a skill designed to dry up all creative juices.
Ochs is now in the position of a ballplayer who hit .285 his rookie year, or a dramatist who has written an impressive one-act play: everyone is predicting he is on he verge of a major breakthrough, that his meager $3000 earnings of 1963 will be 10 times that in 1965.
Lunch with a mutual friend and an hour interview illuminated only Ochs’ most obvious characteristics: his clear headed-ness, his candor, his wit, his left-wing politics. His pilgrimage to his current plateau parallels that of most of his contemporaries: at first, a wall of rejection from the established folk-singers upon his arrival in the Village in the autumn of 1961; then meeting Dylan and Turner and the coalescing of a faction around Broadside; “passing the basket” in the Third Side Cafe for six months; the first put-downs by major record companies; dates at the Gaslight Cafe and concerts; finally, cutting an album for Elektra Records and now editing the tapes for his second one to be released in February — “a militant, no bull shit record.”
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“I’m not a conventional folk-singer,” says Ochs when asked to define his talent. “I just use folk music to comment on the issues. My stuff is more an editorial than a song. I learned to play the guitar after I wrote a few songs.
“What we’re trying to do,” he explained, “is to give life to something that has been static for 20 years. We have had to overcome the bad reputation of those silly pop ditties of the ’50s. The major record companies are afraid of our material because it is so strong. They can’t believe a topical song can have any pertinence two weeks after it’s written.”
Then Ochs, the old journalism student, smiled and said: “Yes, pertinence, that’s the key word about us — put it in the article.”
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As the topical song writers grew from a fraction to a movement, their fans, many of them teenagers, began to invest them with a halo of heroism that bothers Ochs.
“There’s nothing noble about what I’m doing. I’m writing to make money. I write about Cuba and Mississippi out of an inner need for expression, not to change the world. The roots of my songs are psychological, not political.”
But because of his material, his life style, his friends, and his politics, Ochs has become an integral part of the Village Left, appearing at its parties, rallies, and in its magazines. Nevertheless, he sees his political role as unromantically as he sees everything else, and subservient to his song writing.
One of the 130 songs he has written is called “A Knock on the Door,” a comment on the universality of totalitarianism. One of the verses recalls the Stalinist knock on the door.
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“Sure, some of my friends got upset at that verse and at a lot of others I’ve written. But they got over it. I know the dangers of letting politics dominate art, and I keep the two apart as much as I can … For example, I’m always getting asked to sing at this rally or that rally. I know I’m being used in the most callous way. But most of the time I go anyway, partly because it is good for my career, and partly because I see part of my job as a fund-raiser for SNCC.
”Another example is the newest song I wrote, last week, about Mississippi letting those 19 men go free. It’s a hate song. It says Mississippi should get the hell out or the union. My friends in the Movement say I shouldn’t write a song like that but it represents the hate I feel for Mississippi so I am going to add it to my new record, even though the tapes are already edited.”
Ochs’ rational view even extends to his own talent. “I can tell I’m just beginning to write decent stuff,” he says. “I can feel the images and symbols coming more easily. And as I reach new levels, I can begin to fathom what Dylan’s songs are all about. What he does naturally, I still have to work at. But I’m getting there. I’m beginning to read poets like Brecht.”
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I asked him if he had read the Popularist poet Vachel Lindsay. He replied he had not, but asked me to write his name down and promised to buy some of his verse.
It is perhaps Ochs’ honesty and maverick spirit that are his biggest assets. The sense of outrage that fuels his pen is unencumbered by dogma. He knows how a party line can poison the wellsprings of creativity. So he goes on writing about the labor movement’s stains of racism, America’s folly in Vietnam, and songs like “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” and “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” the title of his new album. But he can also write a love song to America called “The Power and the Glory,” that concludes:
”Here is a land full of power and glory/ Beauty that words cannot recall/ Oh, her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom/ Her glory shall rest on us all/
“Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor/ Only as free as a padlocked prison door/ Only as strong as our love for this land/ Only as tall as we stand.” ■
Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. He is honored equally by long-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the city of Memphis (they finally found something to name after him: a highway), and even a president. (Nixon had Elvis over to the White House once, and made him an honorary narcotics officer.) The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues. Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heartthrob, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.
Twenty-one years ago Elvis made his first records with Sam Phillips, on the little Sun label in Memphis, a pact was signed with Col. Tom Parker, shrewd country hustler; Elvis took off for RCA Victor, New York, and Hollywood. America has not been the same since. Elvis disappeared into an oblivion of respectability and security in the ’60s, lost in interchangeable movies and dull music; he staged a remarkable comeback as that decade ended, and now performs as the transcendental Sun King that Ralph Waldo Emerson only dreamed about — and as a giant contradiction.
Elvis gives us a massive road show musical of opulent American mastery; his version of the winner-take-all fantasies that have kept the world lined up outside of the theatres that show American movies ever since the movies began. And of course we respond: a self-made man is rather boring, but a self-made king is something else. Dressed in blue, red, white, ultimately gold, with a Superman cape and covered with jewels no one can be sure are fake, Elvis might epitomize the worst of our culture — he is bragging, selfish, narcissistic, condescending, materialistic to the point of insanity. But there is no need to take that seriously, no need to take anything seriously. “Aw, shucks,” says the country boy; it is all a joke to him, his distance is in his humor, and he can exit from this America unmarked, unimpressed, and uninteresting.
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You can hear that distance, that refusal to really commit himself, in his worst music and in his best; if the throwaway is the source of most of what is pointless about Elvis, it is also at the heart of much of what is exciting and charismatic. It may be that he never took any of it seriously, just did his job and did it well, trying to enjoy himself and stay sane — save for those first Tennessee records, and that night, late in 1968, when his comeback was uncertain and he put a searing, desperate kind of life into a few songs that cannot be found in any of his other music.
It was a staggering moment. A Christmas TV special had been decided on; a final dispute between Col. Parker (he wanted 20 Christmas songs and a tuxedo) and producer Steve Binder (he wanted a rough, fast, sexy show) had been settled; with Elvis’s help, Binder won. So there Elvis was, standing in a studio facing TV cameras and a live audience for the first time in nearly a decade, finally stepping out from behind the wall of retainers and sycophants he had paid to hide him. And everyone was watching.
Sitting on the stage in black leather, surrounded by friends and a rough little combo, the crowd buzzing, he sang and talked and joked, and all the resentments he had hidden over the years began to pour out. He had always said yes, but this time he was saying no — not without humor, but almost with a wry bit of guilt, as if he had betrayed his talent and himself. He told the audience about a time back in ’55, when cops in Florida forced him to sing without moving; the story was hilarious, but there was something in his voice that made very clear how much it had hurt. He jibed at the Beatles, denying that the heroes who had replaced him had produced anything he could not match, and then he proved it.
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Slow and steady, Elvis rocks into “One Night.” In Smiley Lewis’s original, it was about an orgy, called “One Night of Sin.” Elvis cleaned it up into a love story in 1958. But he is singing Lewis’s version, as he must have always wanted to. He falls in and out of the two songs, and suddenly the band rams hard at the music and Elvis lunges and eats it alive. No one has ever heard him sing like this. Shouting, crying, growling, lusting. Elvis takes his stand and the crowd takes theirs with him, cheering for what they had only hoped for. Elvis has gone beyond all their expectations, and his, and they don’t believe it. Every line is a thunderbolt. AW, YEAH! screams a pal — he has waited years for this moment, and as the song ends, Elvis floats like the master he is back into “One night, with you,” even allowing himself a little “Hot dog!” singing softly to himself.
It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it.
“One Night” catches a world of risk, will, passion, and natural nobility: something worth searching out within the America of mastery and easy splendor that may well be Elvis’s last word.
They called Elvis the Hillbilly Cat in the beginning: he came out of a stepchild culture that for all it shared with the rest of America had its own shape and integrity. It was, as southern chambers of commerce have never tired of saying, A Land of Contrasts. The fundamental contrast, of course, could not have been more obvious: black and white. Always at the root of southern fantasy, southern music, and southern politics, the black man was poised in the early ’50s for an overdue invasion of American life, in fantasy, music, and politics. As the north scurried to deal with him, the south would be pushed farther and farther into the weirdness and madness its best artists had been trying to exorcise from the time of Poe on down. Its politics would dissolve into nightriding and hysteria: its fantasies would be dull for all their gaudy paranoia. Only the music would get away clean.
The north, powered by the Protestant ethic, had set men free by making them strangers: the poorman’s south Elvis knew took strength from community. This community was based on a marginal economy that demanded cooperation, loyalty, and obedience for the achievement of anything resembling a good life; it was organized by religion, morals, and music. Music helped hold the community together, and carried the traditions and shared values that dramatized a sense of place. Music gave pleasure, wisdom, and shelter.
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Music was also an escape from the community, and music revealed its underside. There were always people who could not join the community, no matter how they might want to: tramps, whores, rounders, idiots, criminals. The most vital were singers; they bridged the gap between the community’s sentimentalized idea of itself, and the outside world and the forbidden; they were artists who could take the community beyond itself because they had the talent and the nerve to transcend it.
Jimmie Rodgers was one. He was every boy who ever ran away from home, hanging out in the railroad yards, bumming around with black minstrels, pushing out the limits of his life. He celebrated long tall mamas that rubbed his back and licked his neck just to cure the cough that killed him; he bragged about gun play on Beale Street; he sang real blues, played jazz with Louis Armstrong. There’s so much room in this country, he seemed to be saving, so many things to do — how could an honest man be satisfied to live within the frontiers he was born to?
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By the late ’40s and early ’50s, Hank Williams had inherited Jimmie Rodgers’s role as the central figure in country music, but he added an enormous reservation: that margin of loneliness in Rodgers’s America had grown into a world of utter tragedy. Williams sang for a community to which he could not belong; he sang to a God in whom he could not quite believe; even his many songs of good times and good lovin’ seemed unreal. He was a poet of limits, fear, and failure; he went as deeply into one dimension of the country world as anyone could, gave it beauty, gave it dignity. What was missing was that part of the hillbilly soul Rodgers had celebrated, something Williams’s music obscured — the feeling, summed up in a sentence by W. J. Cash from “The Mind of the South,” that “even the southern physical world was a kind of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance”; that even if Elvis’s south was filled with puritans, it was also filled with natural-born hedonists, and the same people were both.
Growing up in Hank Williams’s time, Elvis was attuned to the complexity of his inheritance; he was a dreamer, and he looked for ways to set himself apart. Always, Elvis felt he was different from, if not better than, those around him. He grew his sideburns long, acting out that sense of differentness, and was treated differently: in this case, he got himself kicked off the football team. High school classmates remember his determination to break through as a country singer; with a little luck, they figured, he might even make it.
But you don’t make it in America waiting for someone to come along and sign you up. What links the greatest rock ‘n’ roll careers is a volcanic ambition, a lust for more than anyone has a right to expect; in some cases, a refusal to know when to quit or even rest. It is that bit of Ahab burning beneath the Huck Finn rags of “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, the arrogance 0f a country boy like Elvis sailing into Hollywood, ready for whatever kind of success America has to offer.
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Rock ‘n’ roll caught the defiantly unrealistic spirit of such ambition on records and gave it a form. Instead of a possibility within a music, it became the essence; it became, of all things, a tradition. And when that form itself had to deal with reality — which is to say, when its young audience began to grow up — the fantasy had become part of the reality that had to be dealt with; the rules of the game had changed a bit, and it was a better game. “Blue Suede Shoes” had grown directly into something as serious and complex, and yet still offhand, as the Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which asks the musical question, “Why are you stepping on my blue suede shoes?”
Echoing through all of rock ‘n’ roll is the simple demand for peace of mind and a good time. While the demand is easy to make, nothing is more complex than to try to make it real and live it out. It all sounds simple, obvious; but that one young man like Elvis could break through a world as hard as Hank Williams’s, and invent a new one to replace it, seems obvious only because we have inherited Elvis’s world, and live in it.
There are four of them in the little studio: Bill Black, the bass player; Scotty Moore, the guitarist; in the back, Sam Phillips, the producer; and the sexy young kid thumping his guitar as he sings, Elvis Presley, just 19. 1954.
The kid with the guitar is … unusual, but they’ve been trying to put something on the tape Sam keeps running back — a ballad, a hillbilly song, anything — and so far, well, it just doesn’t get it. The four men cool it for a moment, frustrated, talk music, blues, Crudup, ever hear that, who you kiddin’ man, dig this. The kid pulls his guitar up clowns a bit. He throws himself at a song. That’s all right, mama, that’s all right … eat shit. He doesn’t say that, naturally, but that’s what he’s found in the tone; his voice slides over the lines as the two musicians come in behind him, Scotty picking up the melody and the bassman slapping away at his axe with a drumstick. Phillips hears it, likes it, and makes up his mind.
They cut the song fast, put down their instruments, vaguely embarrassed at how far they went into the music. Sam plays back the tape. Man, they’ll run us outta town when they hear it, Scotty says; Elvis sings along with himself, joshing his performance. They all wonder, but not too much.
Get on home, now, Sam says. I gotta figure what to do with this. White jocks won’t touch it ’cause it’s nigger music and colored will pass ’cause it’s hillbilly. It sounds good, it sounds sweet, but maybe it’s just … too weird?
Sam Phillips released the record; what followed was the heyday of Sun Records and rockabilly music, a moment when boys were men and men were boys, when full-blown legends emerged that still walk the land.
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It was an explosion, and standing over it all was Elvis. In the single year he recorded for Sam Phillips, 10 sides were released; about half derived from country songs, the rest took off from blues. The blues especially have not dated at all. Not a note is false. Nothing is stylized. The music is clean, straight, open, and free. Rockabilly was a fast, aggressive music: simple, snappy drumming, sharp guitar licks, wild country boogie piano, the music of kids who come from all over the south to make records for Sam Phillips and his imitators. Rockabilly came and it went; there was never that much of it, and even including Elvis’s first Sun singles — all the rockabilly hits put together sold less than Fats Domino. But rockabilly fixed the image of rock and roll: the sexy, half-crazed fool standing on stage singing his guts out. It was the only style of rock and roll that proved white boys could do it all — that they could be as strange, as exciting, as scary, and as free as the black men who were suddenly walking America’s airwaves as if they owned them.
Elvis’s rockabilly (the blues of “That’s All Right” and “Mystery Train,” the country of “You’re A Heartbreaker,” and the others — the music he left behind when he moved to RCA) deserves close attention not simply because it represents all that Elvis and those he has sung for have lost — youthful exuberance, innocence, haven’t we tired of that story? — but because this is unquestionably great music. It is emotionally complex music that can return something new each time you listen to it. What I hear, most of the time, is the affection and respect Elvis felt for the limits and conventions of his family life, of his community, and ultimately of American life, captured in his country sides; and his refusal of those limits, of any limits, played out in his blues. This is a rhythm of acceptance and rebellion, lust and quietude, triviality and distinction. It can dramatize the rhythm of our own lives well enough.
Too much has been made of Elvis as “a white man who sang black music credibly,” as a singer who made black music acceptable to whites; this and too many whites trying to do the same thing have corrupted any sense of what Elvis did do, of what was at stake in his personal culture. Most white blues singing is singing at the blues; what comes out is either entirely fake, or has behind it the white impulse to become black: to ask for too much without offering anything in return.
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Real white blues singers make something new out of the blues, as Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Elvis, and Bob Dylan have; or, they sing out of a deep feeling for the blues, but in a musical style that is not blues — not formally, anyway. For Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out, as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.
Singing in the ’50s, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records topped the rhythm-and-blues charts; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in American music are just not that simple. Elvis drew power from black culture, but he was not really imitating blacks; when he told Sam Phillips he didn’t sing like nobody, he told the truth. No white man had so deeply absorbed black music, and transformed it, since Jimmie Rodgers; instead of following Rodger’s musical style, as so many good white singers had, until it simply wore out, Elvis followed Rodgers’s musical strategy, and began the story all over again. His blues were a set of sexual adventures, and as a blues-singing swashbuckler, his style owed as much to Errol Flynn as to Arthur Crudup. It made sense to make movies out of it.
There is a deep need to see Elvis (or any part of American culture one cares about) starting out in a context of purity, outside of and in opposition to American life as most of us know it and live it. Even RCA first presented Elvis as “a folksinger,” and it is virtually a critical canon that Elvis’s folk purity, and therefore his talent was ruined by (a) his transmogrification from naive country boy into corrupt pop star (he sold his soul to Colonel Tom, or Parker just stole it) (b) Hollywood (c) the army (d) money and soft living (e) all of the above. But when Elvis left Memphis to confront a national audience as mysterious to him as he was to it, he had to define himself fully, and he did it by presenting his authentic multiplicity in music. I am, he announced, a house-rocker, a boy steeped in mother-love, a true son of the church, a matinee idol who’s only kidding, a man with too many rough edges for anyone ever to smooth away.
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Inevitably, his multiplicity opened up the possibility that he could be all things to all people, but his eagerness to prove it, with records like “Something for Everybody,” destroyed his ability to focus his talent. He wound up without a commitment to any musical style; his music lost that dramatic shape Sam Phillips helped give it. And his ambition, the source of so much of the intensity and emotion he put into his early music, plainly outstripped itself. Two years after making his first record he had won more than anyone knew was there; he had achieved a status that trivialized struggle and made will obsolescent. His success turned his life upside down; from this point on, he would have what he set out to get, but he’d have to reach for the energy and desire that made his triumph possible.
These days, Elvis is always singing. In his stage show documentary “Elvis On Tour,” we see him singing to himself, in limousines, backstage, running, walking, standing still, as his servant fits his cape to his shoulders, as he waits for his cue. He sings gospel music, mostly; in his private musical world, there is no distance at all from his deepest roots. Just as that personal culture of the Sun Records was long ago blown into something too big for Elvis to keep as his own, so the shared culture of country religion is now his private space within the greater America of which he has become a part.
And on stage? Well, there are those moments when Elvis Presley breaks through the public world he has made for himself, and only a fool or a liar would deny their power. Something entirely his, driven by two decades of history and myth, all-live-in-person, is transformed into an energy that is ecstatic — that is, to use the word in its old sense, illuminating. The overstated grandeur is suddenly authentic, and Elvis brings a thrill far beyond anything else in our culture.
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At his best Elvis not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place; a delight in sex that is sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always open; a love of roots and a respect for the past; a rejection of the past and a demand for novelty; the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness; a burning desire to get rich, and to have fun, a natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols, and on their own terms. He has long since become one of those symbols himself.
Elvis takes his strength from the liberating arrogance, pride, and the claim to be unique that grow out of a rich and commonplace understanding of what “democracy” and “equality” are all about: No man is better than I am. He takes his strength as well from the humility, the piety, and the open, self-effacing good humor that spring from the same source: I am better than no man. Elvis Presley’s career defines success in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture: No limits, success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him; he is, these moments show, far greater than that.
All in all, there is only one remaining moment I want to see; one epiphany that would somehow bring his story home. Elvis would take the stage, as he always has; the roar of the audience would surround him, as it always will. After a time, he would begin a song by Bob Dylan. Singing slowly, Elvis would give it everything he has. “I must have been mad,” he would cry, “I didn’t know what I had — until I threw it all away.”
And then, with love in his heart, he would laugh. ♦
Marty Scorsese is laid back. Literally. It is 5 o’clock of a Sunday afternoon and Marty is leaning all the way back into a Hotel Pierre couch. The television is soundlessly beaming Lonely Are the Brave into the suite’s living room, while one of the various sound-producing machines that travel when and where Scorsese does is playing Italian popular music — preparation, perhaps, for Mama Scorsese’s birthday celebration later that night. As the rest of the city is coming out of lazy Sunday, Marty is having his wake-up cup of coffee. “I hope the caffeine works,” he says.
One expects everything of Marty Scorsese: He is that peculiarly American phenomenon, the mass-cult figure. Scorsese occupies a unique niche in the Hollywood hierarchy: He is revered by both the industry and the critics, as an extremely personal, highly idiosyncratic director who is still somehow in touch with the street. Scorsese is always mentioned as part of the New Hollywood litany, but he is also, almost inexplicably, apart: Despite a filmography that jumps over genres and styles with deliberate eclecticism, his movies always read autobiography. If New York, New York failed dismally at the American box office, it is not because the picture overwhelmed Scorsese: It is because a particularly abrasive part of Scorsese overwhelmed the movie. Musical fans simply could not go in and have a good time.
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What one didn’t expect is The Last Waltz. The Last Waltz is a rock-concert film, a cinematographic record of the Band’s final stand at San Francisco’s Winterland in the fall of 1976. Before it only hacks were supposed to do rock-concert films. The last time Marty touched the stuff was back in his NYU days, when he edited first Woodstock and then Medicine Ball Caravan. He may talk about how important these two projects were for his artistic development, but the line on opening day was that The Last Waltz just wasn’t the sort of thing a Great American Director should do. It’s not Important enough. It could only have been done as a lark.
“I shot the whole thing incognito,” Marty says. “I was supposed to be resting, taking time off between shooting and editing New York. It was all very secret. Irwin Winkler [New York, New York’s producer] didn’t know I’d done it until it was over, and then, when he found out, he was furious. But all during the concert, it was like a rumor — he’s here shooting, he isn’t here shooting. I’d shot 22 weeks on New York, New York, prepared this film in three weeks, shot one day, and then I sat down. I just sat, for four hours, downstairs at the Miyako Hotel. I couldn’t get up. It was perfect.
“We went in thinking, we’ll document the Band’s last concert and maybe we’ll get something, maybe we won’t. Then when the footage came back and we looked at it on the KEM, I just said, ‘Wow. This is fantastic. We’ve got a movie.’ ”
Things do not always work out as planned. Between Thanksgiving of 1976, when the Band played at Winterland, and the release of The Last Waltz this April, just about nothing Scorsese planned on did. New York, New York failed in the States. (Recent indications are that the film is doing quite well abroad, and will probably recoup its investment.) The Act, Liza Minelli’s stage vehicle that Marty attempted to direct as a sequel to his dark, ferocious musical, floundered on the road, and Scorsese was replaced by an uncredited (but highly publicized) Gower Champion. Worst of all, his marriage to writer Julia Cameron broke up shortly after the birth of their daughter.
“The movie was therapy,” Marty says. “It was the only thing that held me together.”
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The Last Waltz was not just work; it was a special kind of anchor. Scorsese’s love affair with rock and roll, his commitment to music as a form, is at least as deep and abiding as his love and commitment to film. He has always used music in his films, knowing just what the kid would listen to in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, manipulating the track of Taxi Driver with disc-jockey ease. The cultural conflict in Mean Streets is most directly expressed as a war between two styles of music, Italian and rock. Indeed, until Jay Cocks read him the Raymond Chandler quote from which he drew the final title, Mean Streets was called Season of the Witch.
“The music was just always there,” Marty says, and when he says it, he means just about all the music there is. His traveling tape collection includes Don Giovanni, his radio is tuned to rock and roll.
The Last Waltz was conceived as “an opera.” Scorsese borrowed the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco Opera, and he and head cinematographer, Michael Chapman, sat down with a set of lyrics to each of the songs, scripting line by line color changes intended to emphasize the content of each musical moment. If Scorsese’s fiction films have musical structure, then The Last Waltz, with its meticulous script and preplanned camera angles, was constructed in the same manner as his narratives.
Unlike most rock-concert pictures, The Last Waltz is an extremely formal film. Coming off New York, New York, Marty shot the movie with the same dark, totally interior look. This is a movie in which daylight is never seen, in which the world is totally artificial, limited to stages and studios. Scorsese managed to put crab dollies on the Winterland stage in places that would not obscure the audience’s view. With Bill Graham’s permission, he dug through Winterland’s floor to anchor a tower that could hold Vilmos Zsigmund’s position at the back of the hall, providing wide-angle long shots Scorsese was afraid he would otherwise not be able to get. Each of the cameramen on stage had specific instructions, including tracking directions, although little more than six inches of tracking space were available. Only David Myers, who can be seen periodically floating around the stage, had hand-held mobility. Scorsese gave Myers a single, simple instruction: Nothing Myers shot could look hand-held.
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As important as the highly polished shooting style was the decision, made early on, to refrain from cutting back to the concert audience. Indeed, the audience is almost absent — we hear them applauding, and every once in a very long while one of Zsigmond’s long shots includes silhouettes of the front rows. This is no Woodstock: The point of The Last Waltz is the music, not the listeners.
“I had the feeling,” Marty says, “that the movie audience could become more involved with the concert if we concentrated on the stage. Besides, after Woodstock, who wants to see the audience anymore?”
The result is a movie that is about music and musicians, about living the life of rock and roll. In addition to the concert footage, Marty interspersed three studio-shot numbers, which gave him a chance to practice his pyrotechnics, as well as his own interviews with members of the Band, which give the film its rough balance. Although he never met any of the Band before agreeing to shoot the concert, he and Robbie Robertson almost immediately became close friends. Robertson actually moved into Scorsese’s Los Angeles house.
Scorsese denies that his friendship with Robertson greatly influenced the film, but The Last Waltz does make clear that Robbie Robertson was the leader of the Band. For one thing, he’s an articulate musician. For another, he has a ton of stage presence, which translates perfectly onto the screen. And, of course, he does play lead guitar.
True. But it is also true that Marty, who may be right when calls himself “the world’s worst interviewer,” functions best as a documentarian when dealing with subjects he knows intimately.
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It is not just that Scorsese knew where his cameras could go but he was not embarrassed to let unkind moments intrude upon the general celebration. (Compare, for example, the treatment of Ronnie Hawkins in Last Waltz with his treatment in Renaldo and Clara: In Scorsese’s film, Hawkins is clearly a man far out of his depth when trying to front the Band he formed. There is no question, watching him, that he doesn’t belong in this company. In Dylan’s disaster, Hawkins is taken at false face value. At the same time, while this is ostensibly a film about the band, Scorsese’s editing makes no bones about how much a Dylan event it becomes the moment the singer walks on stage. Everything else disappears behind his presence, and Scorsese, despite his friendships and commitments, does nothing to hide or minimize this effect. It is not merely the best rock-concert movie ever made; it is as intensely personal as anything Scorsese has done.
Late in the film’s editing, at editor Jan Roblee’s suggestion, Scorsese placed the footage of the Band’s last song — Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Don’t Do It” — at the beginning of the film. The concert thus becomes a flashback, while the interviews and studio shots are a meditation on the half-life of collective efforts and the weariness 16 years of road life can bring. Marty says the entire movie is about “Stage Fright,” but a more appropriate metaphor is suggested when the Band, obviously stoned, attempts “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” The improvised version is at once completely a Band song in its modalities, harmonics, and instrumental breaks, and a lethargic failure, falling apart before anyone can finish. “It’s not like it used to be,” someone says, and that seems to be the point of the film. Having become the Band, the members are, at the point of breaking apart, undefined by their success. They are no longer able to produce the work that sustained them.
“I’m slowing down,” Marty says. “I mean, I have projects, but none of them are ready yet. They’ll have to wait until I am ready or else they won’t get done. I want to get away from big budgets. I don’t know what I’m going to do next. But I can’t keep up the kind of thing I’ve been doing the past two years. I mean, I’ve even read in The Village Voice how I left New York. I never left. I’ve just been out there working, and then on the road with The Act, and then editing this one. I’ve got to find a place here, now. I mean, I can’t keep living in hotels…”
Marty Scorsese is no longer laid back. He is standing up now and serious. “I really have to think very carefully about what to do next. Because I’m convinced I have very little time left — physically. I just believe it. And I’ve got to do what’s important — whether it’s a rock-concert film… or a 16mm documentary… or nothing.”
He turns and looks at the television.
“In L.A., when we were editing, we watched too much daytime television. We’d get up so late, so wiped-out, that’s all we could do. I’m not going to watch daytime television in New York.
“I don’t know what there is to write about me anymore. Just where I am, now, I guess. It’s like the Band — just because the Band broke up doesn’t mean the music’s over. It’s just a hiatus, a stopping, before something different, more complex, the next step.”
Martin Scorsese looks out the window. He is waiting for the night.
He Speaks Good English and He Invites You Up into His Room
Gone with the Idiot Wind
By Karen Durbin
A few years ago, a friend of mine found himself, to his shy delight, having a drink with Bob Dylan. Dylan allowed as how he’d like to get around more but felt hampered by his superstardom and didn’t know what to do about it.
“Make yourself more accessible,” said my friend. “Perform more, be more public. Mystery and elusiveness feed the adulation. Being available will defuse it.” Dylan has pursued that advice with a vengeance. First he started touring again, and that was great. Then, last year, he treated us to a nasty divorce case, and that was not so great (although headlines like BOB DYLAN’S WIFE SAYS HE BEAT HER do tend to take the edge off the old hero-worship). Now, he’s delivered the coup de grace in his de-adulation campaign, Renaldo & Clara.
For a hard-core fan, the first couple of hours of Renaldo & Clara are mild fun. The last couple are excruciating. It isn’t just that the movie is bad, or even that it’s long. The problem lies elsewhere, pointed up by a late scene in which Dylan and Allen Ginsberg ask a group of children about God. “Does he have teeth?” asks Ginsberg. “Yes!” shout the children. “Does he play a guitar?” asks Dylan. “No!” they yell.
You’re glad someone finally told him. I don’t know how many moments there are in Renaldo & Clara that invite the viewer, with no humor at all, to associate Bob Dylan with Jesus Christ, but one would have been more than enough. It’s what you might call a theme. There’s also a scene where Joan Baez and Sara Dylan wrangle at great length over Dylan’s affections. Finally, he looks at each woman and asks, with the ponderous innocence of a dull-witted child, “Do you mean do I love her like I love you?” Dylan never answers the question; there’s no need to. What with the Jesus images piling up, and the women looking anxiously on, and the long, slow shot toward the end when the camera lingers for what feels like five minutes but is doubtless only two or three on the weary figure of the artist resting after a performance — it has become smotheringly obvious that Dylan could love no one like he loves himself.
Renaldo & Clara is not, as it first seems, an artsy-fartsy muddle about Truth, God, and Identity. It’s a monster movie starring Dylan’s ego. A great pulsating mass of self-love comes welling up off the screen like The Blob, rolling and swelling across the rug, pushing against the walls, engulfing the rows in front of you. By the last 20 minutes, it’s up to your neck and it’s still growing. Help, you think, this has got to stop, the movie will end, Dylan will make a joke, he can’t possibly be serious about thismrriphbllghspfffttt… ■
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Caveats and Cavities
By Richard Goldstein
Renaldo & Clara is by no means a successful film, but it contains enough that is arresting to justify about three of its four hours. Though Dylan the auteur has gone to embarrassing lengths to avoid producing a “musical,” it is unquestionably the onstage moments, close-up and through richly filtered light, which carry you through the poorly mounted and clumsily improvised “fictional” interludes.
Much of what is good about this film has to do with the attitude of its photographers toward the landscapes (and stagescapes) through which the performers and their audiences move. We have passed the age of Leacock-Pennebaker, in which the camera focuses sharply and often sentimentally upon audience reactions which were especially extreme. In Renaldo & Clara, the audience is sometimes bored, most often delighted, but always well within the bounds of moderation. There is no lighting of matches in any balcony, and one might assume that if there were, Dylan the director would have excised it from the final cut as surely as Pennebaker clipped the yawns. For the aim here is to suggest a populistic framework for the rock experience — much as the decision to use only simple rhythms and chords, for many punk musicians, stems from a desire to create music anyone can play. It’s been Dylan’s contention (since Nashville Skyline) that rock is American pop music which ought to be accessible to great numbers and varieties of American people. With this film, he suggests that the contradictions between image and reality which have plagued him throughout much of his work can be reconciled by the audience through its reinforcement of an artist’s style. The mask and make-up he wears through much of the film struck me as an attempt to tell the audience: don’t look for me, I’m yours.
But there is another aspect of Renaldo & Clara that I found quite powerful, even though its execution stupified me. The people in this movie, who made such gripping music in the ’60s, no longer exist as a cultural force. They are phantoms who continue to live and work, and therefore must face the painful process of separating their craft from its erstwhile public aspirations. That the hipster-folkie milieu which merged with Anglo-blues to create what was later called “progressive rock” no longer feeds the mainstream of popular music means that its practitioners are free to recover their identities. And their identities are every bit as quirky as Dylan presumes them to be. They are vulnerable, insufferable, deceitful, indulgent, and terribly regional — more so now that their hold on the American dreamlife is so tenuous. These are troubadors in a frayed America, and they make music in a tradition as arcane as delta blues.
Go see Renaldo & Clara because the people in it really are like that. Talk or neck through its indulgences. There are moments in Altman which are almost as insufferable, and moments in this film which are as moving as anything you’re likely to experience in a rock-concert film. If nothing else, you come away with a profound sense of how agile Dylan’s phrasing is, how powerfully he connects with his material, and how bad his teeth are. Any tycoon with caveats and cavities — there’s hope for him. ■
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Tangled Up In Gray
By Mark Jacobson
I wish Bob Dylan died. Then Channel 5 would piece together an instant documentary on his life and times, the way they did Hubert, Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler. Just the immutable facts. Seeing all those immutable facts about Elvis made his dying worthwhile. What a sum-up. You don’t get much gray, but like the reporter in Citizen Kane found out, gray doesn’t necessarily amount to shit.
Of course, you couldn’t expect facts from Dylan, and who wanted them? After the intermission of Renaldo & Clara, I was cruising along. The first half of the film ended with a nifty allusion to the beautifully incomprehensible Belle de Jour, a nice touch. Renaldo & Clara hadn’t amounted to shit, just a collage of charmingly old-fashioned Mailer-Rip Torn-type incantations of ’60s obsessions. Still I defended it in the lobby, happy to be satisfied that nothing was revealed.
Unfortunately, Renaldo & Clara goes on for three or four more weeks, and although it doesn’t get any more specific, the following are painfully revealed: all Indians and Hadassah ladies are fat, Allen Ginsberg is completely insipid, Bob Dylan is the skinniest Jew living, Rubin Carter was a bore and probably killed those people, Dylan had a perfectly good reason to beat Sara (she being as whiny a hippie as any Gibran quoter), Dylan is totally bored of all his songs or else he wouldn’t up-tempo “black is the color, none is the number,” Dylan’s concept of matched cuts would get him a B at NYU film school, and after 20 years I still hate Joan Baez.
As for anything new or revealing about Bob Dylan, it didn’t come clear. Halfway through Renaldo & Clara, I was screaming for Westbrook Van Pegler. Or Jack Webb. I am sick and tired of vagueness in Bob Dylan. What is he afriad of? Four hours is a long time for nothing to be revealed. Just a succession of mystic-cryptic elusive ladies in the night and somber young men.
Maybe there is nothing to reveal. Where does this Malibu-dwelling record-industry macher get off making a film three times as long as Citizen Kane and then bleating in the production notes about Americans being too spoiled to sit still for art? A guy who only made one good record in eight years can’t expect everything to be taken on faith forever. Goddamn, the only audible line Dylan speaks in the film is “Volkswagen bus.”
I write off Renaldo & Clara as rich kid’s vanity project. But of course I could be wrong. Missing the gray. So I called up A.J. Weberman to check it out. A.J., as any Dylanologist knows, was the Minister of Information of the Dylan Liberation Front. Reached at his Bleecker Street townhouse, A.J. (now a well-known assassinologist) said, “I can’t talk about D. He just sued my ass for the second time. Folkways Records released the Weberman-Dylan phone tapes. D is suing me. The schmuck. Anyway, I haven’t seen the picture. I couldn’t comment yet. I’ve got to see it 10 times on video cassette. Even then, I might not be able to talk. I’m sure it’s all symbolism. D is the greatest symbolist of the modern age. To understand his movie would take 10 years of serious study.” ■
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By James Wolcott
Somewhere in I, Claudius, our stammering hero tells Caligula, “My happiness comes from c-c-contemplating your h-happiness.” So it must be for the cast of Bob Dylan’s Renaldo & Clara. Bob Neuwirth frisks after Dylan like a spaniel panting for scraps of encouragement. Joan Baez carries an offering of a single red rose when she visits him; Helena Kallianiotes, the rancorous hitchhiker of Five Easy Pieces, leans on his shoulder dreamily, exultantly. Nearly everyone in the movie is vying for the role of sorceror’s apprentice, but since there is no sorcery here — Dylan’s singing is a hoarse scrawl; his acting pouty and dim — all we see is shamelessness, self-deception, and unmasked envy. So many reputations are sunk by Renaldo & Clara that it’s like watching the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Among the shipwrecked victims: Sara Dylan, Rubin Carter, Ronee Blakley. For years, Sara Dylan has been the Dark Lady of the counterculture: exotic, aloof, a sensuous blur. In the shadows is where she should have stayed. Like Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve, Sara D. is a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts; every word, every gesture, is tinny and coarse. When she runs her hand lovingly through Dylan’s celestial curls, you want to look away — it’s like watching a hooker stroke her john.
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The film’s boho colonialism is symbolized by the brawny figure of “Hurricane” Carter. Even though Carter is touted as a Promethean martyr, he’s photographed from the back in unflattering close-ups: His head looms across the screen like an angry black planet. His prison press conference is intercut with Harlem man-on-the-street interviews, which are in tum interrupted by blasts of “Hurricane.” We’re given insultingly little information about Carter’s case so that another message can be telegraphed: That no one knows or cares more about the black man’s plight than Bob Dylan.
For me, the movie’s sorriest casualty is Ronee Blakley. A number of people I know speak scornfully of her, suggesting that she gets what she deserves in Renaldo & Clara. Can’t agree. Even if she was a pain-in-the-ass prima donna on the tour — which isn’t clear, since her only sin here is dawdling at the make-up mirror — Dylan shouldn’t have sabotaged her solo by prefacing it with an ugly improvisational scene involving a foul-mouthed lout. Her performance of “Need a New Sun Rising” is the only sensational moment in the film, and Dylan damn near wrecks it.
The spitefulness of Renaldo & Clara — the revenge of an artist on his groupies — might be tolerable if the film had a hateful energy. But it doesn’t. It’s droopy and disconnected, like a fuckless porno. What’s sobering about this four-hour, purgatorial home movie is that Bob Dylan truly believes he’s sired a work of art. Hieronymo’s mad againe. ■
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Fight the Document
By Tom Allen
With a guitar, he’s a philosopher; with a harmonica, he’s a poet; with film, he’s a Kleenex dispenser. Or is Bob Dylan in 1978 only a tissue-paper shadow of himself in music also? His obscure objects of banality in Renaldo & Clara are begging for a negative reaction. I know that the film transformed this distant admirer into an immediate cynic. The mix of one hour of standard, professionally recorded concert footage and three hours of fey, amateurishly familial posing induces such an acute mental and sensory underload that my system fights to reassert itself. Anyone who just sits there and takes this outrage politely is crazy. The Rocky Horror Show groupies at the Waverly have the right idea. Now they can take along two changes of costumes four hours before the midnight show and outtalk and outact anyone on the screen in Renaldo & Clara. After all, not all of us have the outlet of Jonathan Cott in Rolling Stone to lob metaphysical love pats at Dylan in his guise as benevolent, despotic guru.
There’s more ego showing in Renaldo & Clara than purpose. Bob Dylan as performing star, as Indian savior, and as black messiah are all reverently worshiped in the straight passages; but when you think about the overwhelming warped side, there is very little hint about what Dylan finds erotic, dramatic, cinematic, and, above all humorous. He shot four times the footage of The Battle of Chile to give birth to this parody of the freaked-out, pot-shredded mindlessness of the post-Kerouac survival in which symbols obtain where you find them and in which the backstage amateurs of the Rolling Thunder Revue are pitilessly exposed to the camera without material or direction. The only sane act of self-preservation about Renaldo & Clara is that no film album will be on sale. Now critics can’t advise you to stay home and listen to the record. ■
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Movie from Big Pink By Terry Curtis Fox
Renaldo & Clara is not as cute as the cover painting for Music From Big Pink, but it is a good image to keep in mind. In essence, this is the stuff of five films: a concert film (but one that does not, surprisingly, capture the feel of the Rolling Thunder concert I saw), a backstage documentary, a melodrama by Sam Shepard (mainly scuttled but kind of interesting), a political documentary about Rubin Carter reminiscent The Murder of Fred Hampton (which was made by Howard Alk, cameraman and editor on this film), and a bit of Dylan’s old mask/myth-making, an extension of the poem which used to grow from concert program to concert program in the early days.
Everyone makes Dylan movies in their head: the narrative force, romantic passion (here revealed as woman-as-ephemeral-object, something better heard than seen), and simple life-identification of the songs make it inevitable. So perhaps it was inevitable that Dylan would try for film himself. But when a director truly committed to rock wants to make a rock film (viz. Scorsese), he can slap the real stuff on the soundtrack; Dylan, on the other hand, is in the position of an Alan Rudolph or Agnes Varda, filmmakers who wanted to control their own scores and ended up with bad music. Like Norman Mailer and the Maidstone fiasco, Dylan abandoned the structure of a language he did know for one over which he has merely rudimentary control. ■
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A Solipsist Is Born
By J. Hoberman
As Bob Dylan is an authentic sacred monster and his new film is in large part a self-dramatization, Renaldo & Clara evokes such exercises in superstar behaviorism as Al Jolson’s reenactment of his life in The Jazz Singer, Chaplin casting himself as Hitler or M. Verdoux, Norman Mailer’s Beyond the Law, and Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born. Although the promising notion of using Ronnie Hawkins in the role of “Bob Dylan” gets lost early on in the shuffle, Renaldo & Clara — even more elaborately than his previous Eat the Document — plays with the idea of Dylan’s public self as a fictional character.
The film’s four hours are shot through with masks and religious icons appropriate to the condition of American stardom, but Dylan may be more baffled by his aura than the rest of us. Do we love him for his music or his personality? If, in the film, Dylan’s onstage presence is characterized by intelligence and passion, his offstage persona (Renaldo) exudes a narcissistic passivity which finally turns embarrassing in the lengthy sequence wherein Joan Baez and Sara Dylan compete for his affections; while scenes like the one in which he dotes on the consternation caused by his commissioning some unauthorized filming in the lobby of the CBS building as he is en route to see his producer recalls the aging punkery of Frank Sinatra in Ocean’s 11.
The Rolling Thunder stage performances for which many people will see the film are often wonderful, but their focused energy is, all but missing from the film as a whole. Renaldo & Clara is almost petulant in its demand to be taken seriously as film, and as such a good deal of it is dreadful. Like its star-auteur, seen in his dressing room even as he is heard singing on stage, the film is everywhere at once — juxtaposing Brooklyn cowboys with real Indians, interviewing the Manon 125 Street and filming revivalists by the Stock Exchange, laying flowers on Kerouac’s grave and flashing Ginsberg’s ass — in a frantic bid for significance. It’s as though John Cassavetes had run amok in a half-baked Robbe-Grillet treatment of Nashville. Considering the reported 25 to 1 shooting ratio and the sycophancy which attaches itself to stardom, the film’s lack of perspective is unsurprising.
Perhaps Dylan wishes to confront the world with the confusion that fertilizes his art, but what one comes away with is a sense of his solipsism. It would be easier to praise Renaldo & Clara‘s modest but real achievements — the ethereal mise-en-scene of a New England “sporting house” run by an 80-year-old Italian lady with a green mandolin, the expert scene-stealing Baez carries over from Don’t Look Back, a witty evocation of life at the Cafe Wha? circa 1960 by a pinball-playing ex-folkie, the film’s effective punchline, and its associative editing style (a vast improvement over Eat the Document) — were the whole enterprise not so grossly inflated. ■
It might be said that over the past few weeks Bob Dylan has gone public. He has shown up to see Paul Smith and Muddy Waters and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; he has sat in at the Other End; he has hung out. One night around three in the morning, after Bobby Neuwirth’s club set, Dylan sat and performed new material for over an hour at the Other End bar — a song about Joey Gallo, a song about marrying Isis — and except for Muddy Waters all of the aforementioned musicians were part of an audience that included more than one journalist and several hundred gawkers. Also present was that old Dylan imitator, Ian Hunter, who was having his head blown off — not only had Dylan identified him as a member of Mott the Hoople (which he’s not any more, as if Hunter could care) but he’d known all the tracks on Hunter’s (or was it Mott’s) first album. Unbelievable.
This is news. For almost a decade, Dylan’s need to armor himself against the attentions of his admirers has played a large part in the way we think about him — even though sightings have been common sine early 1968, it has been the alarming 18-month period of complete seclusion just before then that’s stuck in our minds. Of course, all that began to change subtly after his 1974 tour with the Band. If it’s going too far to say that Dylan has been demythified, then at least what remained of his divinity has dissipated, with all his party scenes and benefits and rumors reduced to the goings-on of a Major Rock Star who can almost keep his co-stars’ groups straight. But since for his acolytes from the folk days these hootenanny visitations seem to portend a New Eden, old friends singing songs of innocence and experience together once again, it is well to remind ourselves that the beginnings of the change were quite unelevated — commonplace almost by definition, since they served to reintroduce Dylan to the commonalty.
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The process began with the tour itself, a Major Rock Event of a familiar kind, and was accelerated by reports of breaches in that magical domestic fortress that had long separated Dylan from ordinary mortals. But it has also involved a fact that is arguably as much economic as it is artistic: a sudden profusion of recorded material following three years of near-drought, years that yielded a total of eight new tracks, a movie score, and a corporate rip-off. In contrast, the past 18 months have brought forth five discs (not counting two halves by the Band) — four albums, two of them doubles: Planet Waves, Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, and the newly released Basement Tapes.
The critical front-runner among these albums is clearly Blood on the Tracks. I myself called it Dylan’s best since John Wesley Harding when it came out in January — and then didn’t play it three times before I began to write this piece. Listening now, I am stirred once again by the tact and persistent musicality of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and by the dovetailing delicacy of “Tangled Up in Blue” (lost love recalled) and “Buckets of Rain” (love’s loss foreseen) — stirred, in fact, by the sheer craft of the whole endeavor. Dylan has never been a confessional writer, but this control of aesthetic distance on Blood on the Tracks is a small coup: “Tangled Up in Blue,” which cannot describe the facts of his life, and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which can, are both enlivened by the same seemingly autobiographical intimacy, but both are without question comely objects first and foremost.
That’s the critic in me talking, of course, the same fellow who’s always making deadline judgments before the listener in me has a chance to live with the music. The listener admires Blood on the Tracks, likes it a lot, but he thinks: it’s meaningless to call it Dylan’s best album since John Wesley Harding when he never feels like putting it on. To the listener, Blood on the Tracks sounds suspiciously like product, and when it comes to product he happens to prefer Steely Dan to Dylan just as he prefers Hydrox to Oreos or Lorna Doones.
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Not that Dylan is capable of putting out product in the manner of a Major Rock Professional. He has always resisted that. It has been his practice to just go into the studio and cut, so that a lot of what gets onto the LP you buy in the store is first and second takes. Chuck Berry and the early Beatles were recorded this way, but over the past decade it has become customary (if not compulsory) to put more quality control into the manufacture of rock and roll, and Blood on the Tracks sounds as if it consents to what is best about such standards. It has pace, flow, variety; it tolerates few if any gaffes; it is well made. This is partly because Dylan decided to re-record some of the original Eric Weissberg sessions with other musicians in Minneapolis, which enabled him to combine two different musical moods on the same disc. Much more telling, though, is the way the record shifts vocally, from a mock-callow whine to variants on the rounder and juicier rock and roll voice of New Morning and Greatest Hits Volume II.
Dylan’s alacrity in the studio hardly commits him to spontaneity, especially to spontaneity as it is commonly understood — the free play of the undefended self and so forth. On the contrary, Dylan is always guarded — he knows almost exactly what will happen when he records. Each release is intended to objectify a preordained concept that is both quickened and preserved for posterity by his instant studio technique. Particularly since Blonde on Blonde, the vehicle of each concept has been a voice that in some way exemplifies it, the most extreme example being the high lonesome tenor of Nashville Skyline. This is to say that Dylan has continually and deliberately remodeled his singing voice, with a dual purpose: to project himself into the world and to armor himself against it. For him to relax this control on Blood on the Tracks is yet another kind of going public. But it also relinquishes the obsessiveness that makes eccentric records like Planet Waves and Before the Flood so compelling for me.
Unlike many people I admire, I’ve never played my Dylan records repeatedly or even regularly. Their conceptual strictness has discouraged both easy listening — even Nashville Skyline, for all its calculated pleasantness, never fit smoothly into my days — and full personal identification. And so the listener in me subconsciously vetoes the critic; there are times when I crave a specific Dylan record with a fervor of the will no other artist can arouse in me, and I value him immensely for that, but only rarely can he just be part of a stack. Lacking the totally committed professionalism of meaningful/listenable masterpieces like Layla and Exile on Main Street, Blood on the Tracks fails to achieve what I suspect was intended for it — a place in the stack with just such records, all of which it melts or freezes just because it is so distinctively Dylan. I could make up reasons explaining why it’s as precise conceptually as anything he’s done — the many voices of love, something like that — and there’s no way it won’t rank high in my year-end top 10. But it’s a half-measure.
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The Basement Tapes, on the other hand, is no kind of measure at all, and that is its secret. These are the famous lost songs recorded with the Band at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the 18 Dylan compositions included, 12 have by now been heard in legitimate commercial versions by other artists, and another, “Down in the Flood,” was recut by Dylan himself for Greatest Hits Volume II; one of the remaining five, “Going to Acapulco,” has never ever been bootlegged, and neither have any of the six Band songs, which I would adjudge to be among their very best work. Sound quality has been greatly improved. Greil Marcus, who wrote the notes, tells me he hears instruments that are entirely inaudible on his second-generation tape. All of which begins to sketch in the complicated recording history of work that was never meant to be reproduced at all.
Well, not quite. The Band songs are relatively polished; it is said that the scaricomic “Yazoo Street Scandal” was presented as a demo to Clive Davis, who rejected it. But the Dylan songs are work tapes at best, first stabs at arrangements barely roughed out, preliminary even by Dylan’s abrupt standards. The main reason they were taped was so that they could be transcribed and copyrighted by Albert Grossman’s office. They weren’t ever supposed to go out to other artists, much less be circulated among the faithful as proof that the avatar was alive and creative in Woodstock. So the music is certifiably unpremeditated, a candid shot from a hero who has turned to his friends and coworkers after coming too close to death to enjoy the arrogance of power any longer. The concepts that are to arise from this interaction among equals will eventually take form as the dry, contained John Wesley Harding and the supercharged, eccentric Music From Big Pink; at this juncture, however, artist and group have arrived at a more moderate synthesis, merely simple and quirkish, and couldn’t care less whether they’re only passing through. No organizing principle keeps the music in line.
The basement tapes were the original laid-back rock, early investigations of a mode that would eventually come to pervade the whole music. Not that they suggested any of the complacent slickness now associated with the term — just that they were lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise. In 1967, this was impermissible. Even the Grateful Dead, who were also trying to meld individualistic musicians into a rocking flow while rummaging through the American mythos with an antirealistic aesthetic, were so fixated on the triumph of Sgt. Pepper that they forsook the sweet relaxation of their debut album for Anthem of the Sun, a technologically brilliant failure. An inspired artificiality was the rule. I suspect that both Dylan and the Band were afraid, if not consciously then instinctively, that their concepts had to be strong and pure if they were to survive this heady competition. So instead of nurturing the basement music, they transformed simple into dry and contained and quirkish into supercharged and eccentric. And maybe they did right. Remember that the bootlegs didn’t show up until 1969; I wonder how they would have been received in late 1967.
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But I wonder primarily for purposes of argument. I find this music irresistible, and I can’t believe that any slicking up to which Dylan and his boys might have succumbed would have harmed it. Like a drunk falling out of a first-story window, it’s just too loose to break much. Over the years it’s been the more writerly “serious” songs that people have talked about — not only “I Shall Be Released” (omitted here), but “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “Nothing Was Delivered” — and to this group can now be added “Going to Acapulco,” which I would describe (roughly) as the lament of the singer-songwriter as gigolo, so mournful about “going to have some fun” that he anticipates the watchtower: “Now when someone offers me a joke I just say no thanks/I try to tell it like it is and keep away from pranks.”
Like the others, this is a richly suggestive piece of work, and like the others — especially “Tears of Rage” — it’s all the richer for being surrounded by pranks. The many nonsense songs here are unequalled in Dylan’s work; even Greil Marcus’s comparisons to the likes of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” falls a little short. Could Pecos Bill boast: “I can drink like a fish/I can crawl like a snake/I can bite like a turkey/I can slam like a drake”? Could Carl Perkins tell Sam Phillips: “Gonna save my money and rip it up!”? What are we to make of Turtle, “With his checks all forged/And his cheeks in a chunk”? And why don’t you get that apple off your fly?
These songs are too contemporary to be subject to pop notices of timeliness. Just as “Going to Acapulco” is a dirge about having fun, so “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” is a ditty about separation from self, and when the complementary irony of these two modes combines with the Band’s more conventional (“realistic”) approach to lyrics, the mix that results can be counted on to make as much sense in 1983 as it did in 1967. The power of melody-lyric-performance transcends petty details of sound levels (which vary enough to shock any well-respected studio technician) and shifting vocal styles. We don’t have to bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967, too. The music is so free I bet it can even be stacked, but I’ve been playing it too repeatedly to find out.
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What is most lovable about the album, though, is simply the way it unites public and private, revealing a Dylan armed in the mystery of his songs but divested of the mystique of celebrity with which we has surrounded his recording career for almost a decade. It would be impossible to plan such exposure, and however much the album’s release has to do with generous royalties from CBS or the supposed sagging of the Band, it’s nice to know that he feels secure enough to do it. There he is, folks. When he giggled at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” he was just being coy; the mishap ceased to be a mishap once it was pressed and released. But when he almost breaks out laughing in the middle of “Please, Mrs. Henry,” he’s really there.
The night after Dylan’s impromptu bar concert, I checked out the Other End, not so much for the listener in me as for the critic/journalist, who didn’t expect Dylan to show and would have felt like an asshole to miss him. What all of us got instead was some good music — Jack Elliott and Mick Ronson backing Patti Smith on “Angel Baby” qualifies as a blessed event — and much okay music and Bobby Neuwirth scratching his own back. I found the vibes insular and self-satisfied. But Dylan is reported to be happy to be back on the street again, and if it makes him happy then I’m happy too. Good music happens there.
When I talk about Dylan going public, though, that won’t be what I mean. I’ll be talking about The Basement Tapes, the singer-songwriter exposed in front of hundreds of thousands — I hope millions — of listeners. What a friendly thing to do.
Four years ago a thin, aquiline-faced boy of 19 got off the subway from Hibbing, Minnesota, to come up for air in the Village, bearing with him no more than a battered guitar and an offhand way of singing that reminded some people of Woody Guthrie.
American folk music has never been the same since. Three of his Columbia LP records have made the charts. His songs have made him synonymous with the whole new topical folk-song movement. Kids try to tear his clothes off at Carnegie or Philharmonic concerts. And just recently he romped away with a whole Les Crane show. All of which makes of Bob Dylan, as the folks down home might say, one of your living legends.
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On the eve of Dylan’s fifth LP release, the press finally managed to corner the young singer-poet in an old stone house some miles outside Woodstock, New York. Dylan, hair shooting up like a shock of wheat, boots shined, face as pale as the winter snow outside, had consented to answer all those deep, meaningful, searching questions he’s been bombarded with by reporters and TV interviewers for years. The following is a transcription of what took place between Dylan and the large numbers of newsmen on hand:
Q: Bob, when you first started writing songs, did you write like Woody Guthrie?
A: Like I’m from Minnesota. Did you ever grow up in Minnesota, or hear Woody Guthrie? I didn’t hear him until I was around a college.
Q: Who did you write songs like before that?
A: Ever hear of Gene Vincent? Buddy Holly?
Q: Then you had a rock and roll band in high school.
A: I had a banana band in high school.
Q: So then you heard of Guthrie and he changed your life?
A: I heard of Odetta first…
Q: Then you heard of Guthrie and he changed your life?
A: Then I heard of Josh White…
Q: Then you heard of Guthrie…
A: Then I heard about those riots in San Francisco…
Q: The HUAC riots?
A: An’ I missed out on meeting James Dean so I decided to go meet Woody Guthrie.
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Q: Was he your greatest influence?
A: I don’t know that I’d say that, but for a spell the idea of him affected me quite much.
Q: What about Brecht? Read much of him?
A: No. But I’ve read him.
A: I’ve read his little tiny book, “Evil Flowers.”
Q: You’re thinking of Baudelaire.
A: Yes, I’ve read his tiny little book, too.
Q: How about Hank Williams? Do you consider him an influence?
A: Hey look, I consider Hank Williams, Captain Marvel, Marlon Brando, The Tennessee Stud, Clark Kent, Walter Cronkite, and J. Carrol Nalsh all influences. Now what is it — please — what is it exactly you people want to know?
Q: Tell us about your movie?
A: It’s gonna be in black and white.
Q: Will it be in the Andy Warhol style?
A: Who’s Andy Warhol? Listen, my movie will be — I can say definitely — it will be in the style of the early Puerto Rican films.
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Q: Who’s writing it?
A: Allen Ginsberg. I’m going to rewrite it.
Q: Who will you play in the film?
A: The hero.
Q: Who is that going to be?
A: My mother.
Q: Will it have significance? That is, some hidden philosophical meaning or message? Say, like Albee’s play, “Tiny Alice”?
A: “Tiny Alive”? Is that what you said?
Q: No. ”Tiny Alice.” Let’s drop — Bob, do you have any philosophy about life and death? About death?
A: How do I know, I haven’t died yet. Hey, you’re insulting me all to shit —
Q: Well, Bob, don’t you have any feeling about Albee’s work?
A: What’s he got to do with me? I dig Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Q: What goes on between you and Joan Baez that doesn’t meet the eye?
A: She’s my fortune teller.
Q: Bobby, we know you changed your name. Come on now. What’s your real name?
A: Philip Ochs. I’m gonna change it back again when I see it pays.
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Q: Do you like writers like Jack Gelber, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara?
A: I don’t really read that much. I hate to be motivated. I’d rather read when I’m bored. Then anything will do.
Q: What about your friends the Beatles? Did you see them much when they were here?
A: John Lennon an’ I came down to the Village early one morning. They wouldn’t let us in the Figaro or the Hip Bagel or the Feenjon. This time I’m going to England. This April. I’ll see ’em if they’re there.
Q: Bob, what about the situation of American poets. Kenneth Rexroth has estimated that since 1900 about 30 American poets have committed suicide.
A: Thirty poets! What about American housewives, mailmen, street cleaners, miners? Jesus Christ, what’s so special about 30 people that are called poets? I’ve known some very good people that have committed suicide. One didn’t do nothing but work in a gas station all his life. Nobody referred to him as a poet, but if you’re gonna call people like Robert Frost a poet, then I got to say this gas station boy was a poet too.
Q: Bob, we understand that you’re writing a book.
A: Yeah, it’s a funny book. I think it’ll come out by spring.
Q: What’s it about?
Q: Bob, to sum up — don’t you have any important philosophy for the world?
A: I don’t drink hard liquor, if that’s what you mean.
Q: No. The world in general. You and the world.
A: Are you kidding? The world don’t need me. Christ. I’m only five feet ten. The world could get along fine without me. Don’t cha know, everybody dies. It don’t matter how important you think you are. Look at Shakespeare. Napoleon. Edgar Allen Poe, for that matter. They’re all dead, right?
Q: Well, Bob, in your opinion, then, is there one man who can save the world?
Norman Morrison burned himself to death to protest the Vietnam war, and when reporters visited his spare room they saw quotes from Bob Dylan scrawled on the peeling walls. Students at the University of California have organized a non-credit seminar on Dylan’s poetry. Esquire Magazine quotes Stokely Carmichael singing to himself — not an Otis Redding blues — but Dylan. In a recent peace demonstration a teenybopper marched with a home-made placard that bore the crayoned motto, “The hypnotic splattered mist is slowly lifting,” a line from Dylan’s “The Chimes or Freedom.”
W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, and Norman Podhoretz say they have never heard of Dylan. Critic and poet John Ciardi says Dylan knows nothing about poetry. Even Norman Mailer, existentialist fight manager and white hope of the over-30 generation, says, “If Dylan is a poet, so is Cassius Clay.”
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But 25-year-old Dylan, the Brecht of the juke box, has already won this generation of rebels, just as Kerouac and Camus have won earlier generations. Dylan’s words, values, imagery, even his eccentric life-style, are grooved into more under-30 brains than any other writer’s. And the miracle of it is that almost nobody over 30 in the literary and intellectual establishments even pays attention to his electronic guitar-coated nightmare visions of America as Times Square arcade at 2 a. m., where:
Now at midnight all the agents And the superhuman crew Come out and round up everyone That knows more than they do Then they bring them to the factory. Where the heart attack machine Is strapped across their shoulders And then the kerosene Is brought down from the castles By insurance men who go Check to see that nobody is escaping To Desolation Row.*
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Two cultural traditions have grown up in America, one enshrined in respectability and the other quarantined by its illegitimacy. One is the university and the fashionable periodicals and it runs from T. S. Eliot to Edmund Wilson to Saul Bellow. But for a century now there has been an angry subterranean brook cutting away the bedrock beneath the arid soil of the New Yorker. This bastard tradition goes back to Whitman and Poe, and include Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs, and now Bob Dylan. It’s energy comes from slums, alleys and jails, instead of libraries, classrooms, and editorial office.
At the most obvious level of his impact, Dylan has “exploded” popular music the way critic Leslie Fiedler says William Burroughs has “exploded” the traditional form of the novel with is cut-outs and syntactical innovations. When Dylan landed on the scene in 1961 like some manic sparrow, pop music was rotting under the moon-June hegemony of Dick Clark, and folk music was still living off the legacy of Leadbelly and Guthrie. Then Dylan poured his symbolic alienation into songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall,” and broke the suffocating two minute and 50 second box of top 40 music. “Hard Rain,” recorded in 1962, was almost six minutes. “Desolation Row” is 11 minutes and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is 17 minutes. This exploding of both form and content opened up folk and pop music to new plateaus for poetic, content-conscious songwriters. Dylan, as seminal innovator, has made Lennon and McCartney, Phil Ochs, and the Byrds possible, just as Lenny Bruce made Woody Allen possible. In so mass a media as juke boxes and records, Dylan’s effect is already deeper and more durable than Sinatra’s, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, and Presley’s. Dylan Thomas put song back into poetry, and Bob Dylan has put poetry into song.
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Some artists develop vertically, digging even deeper into the fiber of their own obsession. Hemingway, James Baldwin, and John Osborne fit this category. Other artists, more restless, mature horizontally, changing passions and styles like seasons; Picasso, Norman Mailer, and Dylan among them.
The protean Dylan has written furious polilical protest like “Masters of War” (“when the death count gets higher/you hide in your mansion”). He has written a stunning group of anti-love songs like “It Ain’t Me Babe” (“go melt back into the night Babe/everything inside is made of stone/there’s nothing in here moving/and anyway I’m not alone”).
He has written mean put-down songs like “Positively Fomth Street” (“Yes I wish that for just one time/you could stand inside my shoes/you’d know what a drag it is/to see you”). And he has written lyric love songs like “Visions of Johanna” (“the ghost of electricity/howls in the bones of her face”).
On the wages of sexual repression he writes “Doctor filth he keeps his world/inside of a leather cup/but all his sexless patients/they’re trying to blow it up,” and in the same song, “her sin is her lifelessness.”
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On his recurring theme of anti-intellectualism Dylan writes in the “Tombstone Blues,” “The National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul/to the old folks home and the college.” And in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he mocks journalistic non-participants with:
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand you see somebody naked and you say, who is that man? something is happening here you don’t know what it is do you, Mister Jones?*
On his passion for freedom from all arbitrary authority Dylan writes in his masterwork, “Gates of Eden”:
Relationships of ownership they whisper in the wings to those condemned to act accordingly and wait for succeeding kings and I try to harmonize with songs the lonesome sparrow sings.*
And in his folk-rock hit “Maggie’s Well, Farm,” Dylan wrote:
Well, I try my best to be just like I am but everybody wants you to be just like them. they sing while you slave and I just get bored I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s
Farm no more*
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But beneath all these generational values lies Dylan’s transcendent vision that life is absurd and the only way to endure in this mad and routinized society is to see everything as a meaningless game juggling reality and illusion constantly.
In his current composition “Memphis Blues Again” Dylan reworks T. S. Eliot’s classic lines, “Between the idea/and the reality/between the motion/and the act/falls the shadow.” He writes:
Now the bricks lay on Grand Street where the neon madmen climb they all fall there so perfectly it all seems so well-timed and I sit here so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice Oh, mama can this really be the end To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis Blues again.
Dylan, the clown juggler of fact and fantasy, the bastard child of Chaplin, Celine, and Hart Crane, reaches the zenith of his black absurdity in “Gates of Eden”:
The kingdoms of experience in the precious winds they rot while paupers change possessions each one wishing for what the other has got and the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not …
the foreign sun it squints upon a bed that is never mine as friends and other strangers from their fates try to resign leaving men holy totally free to do anything they wish to do but die and there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden.
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Dylan is 25. His writing is very uneven and undisciplined. He is capable of such silly lines as “walk a rugged mile” and “I’m weary as hell.” Too often his compulsion to rhyme diminishes his imagery and music. He is hardly yet the equal of Lowell, Ginsberg, or John Ashbery.
But he has single-handedly revolutionized pop music and folk music. To a whole generation he has become the nations number one public writer.
And he is a poet. If Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar.
Wandering through the crowd during intermission at The Concert last Wednesday night, one got a sense of why it must have been an agonizing decision for Bob Dylan to go on tour for the first time in eight years, of why “the Big Apple” has been dreaded as much as looked forward to. Old friends of Dylan were there, and so were many who remember him from basket houses on MacDougal Street and Gerde’s Folk City over 10 years ago.
The things Dylan must like about New York City — he has mentioned it in nearly every interview he has given — were here to haunt him as well as help him. He can walk through the Village without being noticed, and if he is recognized, no one makes a big deal out of it. He can jam with John Prine at the Bitter End without being mobbed or driven crazy by autograph-glommers or teenyboppers. Here he can raise a family in the same old tension and peace and quiet and noise of the city which gave him the images and experiences for songs like “Visions of Johanna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
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But the peculiar schizophrenia of stardom has a way of coming back around like a death-dealing boomerang. The city that ignores Bob Dylan on the street is perfectly capable of leaving him equally high and dry on a stage. And though that did not happen on Wednesday night — he had the crowd on its feet, screaming, stomping, and clapping at the end — there were those among his friends and longtime admirers, among those who hold him most dearly, who were, if not disappointed, at least a bit deflated after their first evening in years with Bob Dylan. It was great to see him again, but the years had taken their toll. There was something missing — maybe in us, maybe in Dylan — and no one knew exactly what it was.
Dylan said, “I’m honored to be here,” and sang six classics: “Everybody must get stoned” drew screams and more lighted joints from an already grass-soaked audience. Even the youngest of those present could remember the many weeks “It Ain’t Me Babe,” sung by Cher, was number one on the top 40 charts. And Time and Newsweek have printed that great line. “There’s something happening here/and you don’t know what it is/do you/Mr. Jones?” so many times, it is probably imprinted permanently on the American psyche.
Yet Dylan’s stage fright, as the Band reminded us in its first solo number, was painfully evident. “Lay Lady Lay” which reviews of the Chicago and Philadelphia concerts have described as taking on the old “Dylan Edge,” was simply rushed, hurried through and cast off like the last tune in a long, tedious rehearsal. Dylan was scared. What appeared at first to be new sparkles and flourishes on a laid-back country song was really his nervousness showing through.
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Dylan attacked the mike, his brow furrowed, mouth working madly from side to side, and “It Ain’t Me Babe” was coughed out between gritted teeth. On “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Dylan’s insistent, pounding grand piano work rushed the song to the point of impatience. Garth Hudson’s organ fills disappeared in a bad sound mix. Dylan rose up and banged down, running wildly along the keyboard, driving the Band brilliantly, forcefully, but just too goddam fast.
But it was on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that whatever was bothering Dylan came through most clearly. The song is a beautiful one, ablaze with painful autobiographical images and self-exploration. On record, Dylan’s voice searches its way through the lyrics, finding one color here another there. The emotional content of the song is as much in the way Dylan sang it — in the depths of his voice — as in the depth of the words. And listening to the song as I write this, I am reminded that Dylan’s magic was in large part this: the mix of lyrics and vocal coloration. The galaxy of emotions he could plumb between the boundaries or one song was greater than any rock and roll artist who came before him or has come along since. His voice is truly [one] of the great rock and roll instruments.
On Wednesday night, the song was rushed through, along with the others, so much chaff to be brushed aside in search of solitude. Dylan struck a pose — tough, defiant, almost mean in its intensity — and sang without searching. His emphasis — or was it reliance — on highs permeated the song. He would raise a verse to a fever pitch, drop it, then raise another, screaming into the mike, he gazed above the heads or the crowd intent and serious, then he’d back off. It was automatic, studied. Dylan wouldn’t let the song carry him as much as he carried the song. He refused to search back through the lyrics for the experiences and feelings which gave it birth, allowing him to bring it back to life again.
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Dylan was afraid, that was for sure. But “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” showed he wasn’t afraid of us, the audience. It was himself he feared — the process or going back over those songs which bore the pain of becoming Bob Dylan, the highs, the lows, all of that life, which was living on the edge. He seemed unwilling to go through it all again in song, dredging up that which was better off left behind. The funny thing was, one could hardly blame him.
The Band played alone to a warm reception, and then Dylan returned to sing “All Along the Watchtower,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” He wore a black tuxedo and a silver and black ruffled cowboy shirt. The trousers of the tux hung loosely — almost baggy — giving him the appearance of a young Charlie Chaplin, legs spread wide, elegant in his awkwardness.
After intermission, Dylan returned alone to sing five acoustic numbers. “The Times They Are A-Changin” ran fast, and brilliantly embellished harmonica breaks drew extended applause. “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” and then “Gates of Eden.” Like “Tom Thumb…” the latter was sung with an intensity which bordered on anxiousness: My notes made toward the end of the song read: “What made song great on record — he was calling on something w/in him, bringing it out… in performance he leans on drama… teeth gritted, lips contorting 2-3 times on one vowel, bitten off… overdramatized.”
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“Just Like a Woman” followed, and it was sung slower, more confidently. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was done with lovely, hypnotic speed, sung up and out and proud and sane. It seemed that Dylan had hit a stride, that he had found his voice, a way to cope with standing naked before 20,000 pairs of eyes. “It’s Alright Ma” was markedly different from the original, but for the first time all night I had the sense that the song had grown, not shrunk. Dylan’s comfort came through nobly, he dropped his tough front, and even in the clippedy clip way he ran down the words one could feel him feeling his way, wringing the song, and himself, almost dry. He must have felt good, because he swaggered a bit when he took his bows, lifting his hands in a triumphant wave.
The Band came on again for several numbers. They took no chances with the crowd. Every song sounded just like the record, and they sustained the tension of each song right up until the last chord. The tone of Richard Manuel’s voice, I have in my notes, was “precise and coarse, as opposed to Dylan — changing, unpredictable, solitary, weird.”
Dylan returned and ran through a slow version of “Forever Young,” from his new album, as well as “Something There Is About You.” Then he and the Band broke into “Like a Rolling Stone,” the lights came up, and all hell broke loose, kids in the aisles, all the magic and madness of one of the all-time great rock and roll songs. They didn’t rush the song, but didn’t loaf either. It came off perfectly, a real New York song bringing back everything the crowd had come to hear: all about innocence and discovery, self-imposed hardship and coping, a romantic vision or a romantic period in the lives of many in the crowd. Jesus, it was great.
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Dylan’s appeal was always, and still is, to the white middle class. The concert crowd came dressed shabbily, elegantly, all the ways that people who can afford the choice turn themselves out. They lit up $40 an ounce grass, snorted coke, flashed gold rings and fancy boots, wore pre-faded jeans and expensive Indian jewelry, snapped pictures with the most expensive photographic equipment money can buy. Any Dylan fan who griped about the $9.50 high ticket, or who called on millionaire Bob for a “free” concert is guilty of not having listened to the songs they were screaming for all night. For the songs of Bob Dylan are thick with all the contradictions, all the weirdness and schizophrenia of growing up middle-class, of looking for romance in poverty, on the highway, or bumming around and returning to from whence he (and they) came.
Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine, “Now it’s the me again.” If there is one thing true about Bob Dylan over the years, it’s that he is in never ending state of flux. There is no new Dylan or old Dylan or country Dylan or Edge Dylan. There is simply Dylan, and listening to him live gives one some idea of the dimensions of his brilliance, fallibility, strength, weakness, pain, and triumphs. He has been constantly growing and expanding, just as he grew in concert from a faulty, uncertain start to an incredible, fiery end. If he at times disappoints his critics, he never has ceased to amaze them.
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And finally, watching and listening to Dylan the other night — and on records since then — has made me realize how desperately we want our heroes to be self-destructive, as if only by living recklessly can they show us their essential humanity, their impermanence and mortality. I remember when “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait” were released, how the critics and the fans seized on them to prove that Dylan’s long absence from the scene, his retreat to Woodstock, had mellowed him out, left him without the old edge he showed in “Blonde on Blonde” or “Highway 61 Revisited.” God, how they moaned and groaned, as if Dylan had somehow deserted, never to return. Here was Dylan singing country — which had roots in racism and bigotry, the critics chanted. And here was Dylan on “Self Portrait” rhyming “moon” with “June.” All of it was inexcusable, without redeeming value. Where was the old Dylan, with his moral lefts and protest rights, his haunting images and incisive social criticism?
It’s an old story. We read about Zelda and Fitzgerald now, and shake our heads and say, Christ, what a shame, but what a life they led! And we read about Jackson Pollock, and shake our heads and say, gee, too bad about his drinking and his craziness, but look at all the fantastic art he produced! Now the same sort of head-shaking and tongue-clucking appreciation is being shown for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. One figures everyone would be more happy with Dylan’s extensive, if uneven, body or work if he, too, were dead. Then we couldn’t lean back, turn up the volume, and talk among ourselves about all the speed and acid he must have done, back in the days when he wrote the songs we remember him best for.
Well, life sometimes doesn’t work out that way. Despite the morbidity of hero worship, our expectation is that the great should live up to our worst fantasies and best lies. Bob Dylan has simply settled down with a wife and kids. He eats vegetables. He drinks wine. By all counts, he dotes on the goodness and wholeness of family life. In his most recent songs, he appears to thank his wife for saving his life.
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One can hardly blame Dylan for having opted for life, for having quit his life out there on the Edge — all the late night craziness and running around, the terrible manic existence he is said to have before his motorcycle accident. On Wednesday night, he seemed skittish, of the past which stares him in the face every time he runs back through the stark chronicle of his life in song. And so some of those songs were performed, not sung.
“But who can blame him?” said one old friend of his. “At least he took his chances, pushing things, letting it go. The Band just did their records. Dylan wouldn’t settle for that.”
So as usual, Bob Dylan is growing in his own way, at his own speed. The songs on his new album, the laid-back celebrations of being a father, life at home, and his ongoing love ballad to his wife, they all seem so calm, so content and full. The craziness, the pain, the weirdness — all are missing. Perhaps someday we’ll catch up. And maybe then, we too will stop acting forever young, and have it within us to wish it on someone else.
Now that Bonnie Raitt has got hers, the most thoroughly accomplished-but-denied veteran pop musician in America is John Prine (no arguments please). An insider’s favorite who dates from the initial early-’70s batch of singer-songwriters, Prine is far less eroded as a performer now than his more canonized peers. After 10 albums, first on Atlantic, then Asylum, and finally his own label (which has absorbed the Asylum catalogue), Prine offers still more evidence that being admired by peers guarantees nothing for your career: at various times Prine has been boosted by Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, and the Eagles, while a passel of performers including the Everly Brothers, Bette Midler, and Tammy Wynette have sung his tunes. No doubt he’s held down by the vague but common impression he’s a sap. Prine always had a soft spot in his head for maudlin lost loves and wasted moments of innocence, but as he’s aged he’s learned the point is to risk sentimentality without quite touching it. There’s scarcely a choked-back sob in Prine’s new The Missing Years (Oh Boy), his richest record in a decade.
Prine has invited along a raft of singers (Phil Everly, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, others), though it’s more of a show of solidarity than a duet hoedown since most guests act as voice extenders, harmonizing from the shadows of the mix. An exception is “Take a Look at My Heart,” sung by Prine and Springsteen, written by Prine and John Mellencamp, and delivered with a Midwestern-plains dolor that makes it a potent bruised-rugged-guy testament. More prominent and abiding help on The Missing Years comes from the likes of David Lindley and Albert Lee on stringed instruments and John Jorgenson on reeds; linked with Prine’s twang, which has developed some pleasant leather coating, these players shape a record that can travel from the naked bulb in the flophouse hall to the lights of the midway at the county fair.
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The personnel work as a dense ensemble, with many defined dabs of color only when Prine wants a wide-screen production with special effects galore like “Picture Show.” He surely knows, however, that bombastic, flashy presentations of trite love songs are just about ruining the form right now. Even when half a dozen musicians back him up on the thankful praises of “Unlonely,” Howie Epstein’s production keeps Prine as huddle close as he is with just his guitar on “Everybody Wants to Feel Like You.” The jaunty tone of that song and the popping, single-string commentary behind “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” disguise the fact that Prine has become drier and darker than ever before. The narrators of these two tunes, while not as discomforting as Randy Newman would have made them, are guys alienated from themselves, trapped in romances and binges that are spinning out of control faster than they know. One of Prine’s triumphs here is the flat, conversational vocal on “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin,” with its leering little swells and dips, so precisely the sound of a bad-time Charlie swinging between vivacity and malice.
Somebody can drop off the end of their rope or start to climb back up it at any place, and that moment that wavers between final despair and the rebirth of confidence is one of Prine’s favorites. It’s a regular source of the off-center states of mind and corresponding imagery in his work. He can be simply whimsical (“It’s a Big Old Goofy World”) or tartly hermetic (“The Sins of Mephisto”), but the songs that outstrip those of his old pal Steve Goodman and pull Prine into the realm of Big Daddy Dylan are those like “Everything Is Cool” and “Jesus the Missing Years” — unclassifiable kinds of modernist religious meditations.
Prine never gets caught shouting and banging on the high keys about this. His sense of the supernatural derives more from the everyday wonderment that causes people to invent phrases such as “I felt like I’d been pulled through a knothole backwards” rather than the literature of surrealism or Biblical frescoes. Still, the man has been haunted by Christianity since his debut album 20 years ago: “Pretty Good” sent up all religions; God got mentioned frequently; Jesus died for nothing at the core of “Sam Stone,” disapproved of killing on “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and had to be found on your own in “Spanish Pipedream.” Counterculturists and the Nazarene were regular associates in those years, but to this day, when the celestial mood grips Prine the sky is thick with black angels, Jesus covers the waterfront, and God’s not in his heaven — he’s on the phone and won’t let well enough alone.
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People are a little ill at ease with artists who have a persistent, unconventional relationship with the divine, especially when they insist on using conventional names and symbols — it implies that standard theology is correct but that everybody else got it wrong. Long before he got bitten by T-Bone Burnett, the young Dylan did rambles where the Son of God had a walk-on as an ordinary soul passing through absurd misadventures and Prine goes one further here with “Jesus the Missing Years.” During that notorious gap in the Bible biography, Christ shatters time and space to get tangled up with James Dean and get on stage with George Jones and generally act out the fantasies of, as Prine puts it in another song, “A young man from a small town/With a very large imagination.” The singer’s identification with the Redeemer is plain, but again he’s not puffed up about it. The proposition seems to be that Prine, Dean, Mark Twain, you, me, and anybody at all could be Jesus.
A performer with the gumption to stick with that hoary hippie notion just might have the endurance to make it through the current harsh cultural climate in which he’s just one more low-sales loser. Forget the punk era — the next two or three years will test as never before who’s still got the guts to be a pop independent. After The Missing Years, I’m going to double my bet on Prine.