By Tony Attwood
This article is part of the Untold Dylan series which looks at the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan, not just song by song, but as part of a sequence of writing.
After finishing 1966 by writing a whole series of songs that would become part of his classic repetoire of the era, such as Absolutely Sweet Marie, Just like a woman, Pledging my time, Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine, Temporary Like Achilles, Rainy Day Women Obviously Five Believers and I want you Dylan shifted gear (for reasons that have oft been discussed) and wrote a whole load of quite different songs.
These are the songs we now know as being from the Basement Tapes, and were, according to Heylin, offered en masse by his publisher to anyone who wanted to record them.
There were real gems in that collection, including This Wheel’s on Fire, and I shall be released, and lots of artists rushed in to pick up a Dylan song that Dylan would not be recording on a mainstream album.
Except not Tiny Montgomery, which wasn’t sought after at all, and not recorded at the time (or indeed since, as far as I know). It is a two chord (E and D alternating) song half sung half talked, rather like a slow lilting version of I shall be free Number 10.
Since then Tiny Montgomery has become a New York-based record label which describes itself as “unfastened from any particular genre, scene or trend... a uniquely boundless embracement of diverse music and art.” There is also a band with the same name, but I know nothing about them.
As for the lyrics, it is as if all the weird characters from all the previous songs, plus all the people who were about to turn up at the Million Dollar Bash in a couple of weeks time, have all been outdone by this, the ultimate gathering of the weird freaks of the endless music party world.
This is “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” taken to the next level of impossibility but without the need to go back home. In this case no one has ever had enough.
This is “Hell Hound on My Trail” but without the worry. This is the world gone mad, but actually it’s find come and join the party.
In other words it is a surreal form of surrealism which is so frightening it is not frightening any more.
Skinny Moo and
They’re gonna both be gettin’
Outa the tank
One bird book
And a buzzard and a crow
Tell ’em all
That Tiny’s gonna say hello
None of it makes sense, but all the freaks in all the world are turning up. Every bad dream coincides, there is no sequence of events, but above all it doesn’t matter.
Scratch your dad
Do that bird
Suck that pig
And bring it on home
Pick that drip
And bake that dough
Tell ’em all
That Tiny says hello
Goodness knows who they are, and what it means. We have a C.I.O before (at least I think was before) anyone had a job called “Chief Information Officer” (largely because we didn’t have digital technology in the home). What’s a CIO in the 1960s? (quite possibly something in the US, so if it was, do tell me).
Now he’s king of the drunks
An’ he squeezes, too
Watch out, Lester
Take it, Lou
Join the monks
Tell ’em all
That Tiny Montgomery says hello
And like all constant insanity it gets more insane on top of it all.
Now grease that pig
And sing praise
Go on out
And gas that dog
Trick on in
Honk that stink
Take it on down
And watch it grow
Play it low
And pick it up
Take it on in
In a plucking cup
And a hot-lipped hoe
Tell ’em all
Montgomery says hello
I wonder if Dylan wasn’t just taking everything out as far as he could, falling off the edge and then trying to find a way to jump back on, but was also reflecting on the fact that every culture had its own edge – except in the 1960s those edges were disappearing so people were making them up for themselves.
Throughout history mankind has lived in a world in which there were monsters or at least strangeness living around the corner. In Shakespeare’s time the edge was nighttime and the forest where the dead walked. We had the edge of the world too, beyond which there was nothing – until Columbus.
Then in America there was a whole continent to discover and conquer while the British Empire moved on to Africa and strange and frightening customs and practice.
By the 1960s even space was in our grasp. But perhaps at the same time societies create their own edges, with their own strange people – people who 99.999% of us would never meet but who it seemed were out there. People who lived lives totally different from ourselves, without responsibility or direction.
There are of course many other possible explanations – that Dylan is full of sexual innuendo on this and other tracks for example – and of course we won’t know, because he rarely tells. But it does seem to me that there is a case to be made for the fact that Dylan had invented character after character, and made them stranger and stranger and stranger and now was getting ready to bid them all farewell, having taken the genre as far as he could.
By 1967 he was ready to round them all up, and this is what he did in this sequence of songs…
First we had Tiny Montgomery, then the great party where they all got together, the Million Dollar Bash, and finally it is all wrapped up in This Wheel’s on Fire
No man alive will come to you
With another tale to tell
But you know that we shall meet again
If your mem’ry serves you well
That is was now all over is clearly shown in Too Much of Nothing
Too much of nothing
Can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most
But he wouldn’t know a thing
We’ve had the party, we’ve turned the world upside down, it is time to get up and move on. Time for one more bit of fun though, just before we go, because the whole world is about to explode (or maybe be destroyed in the great flood).
Ev’rybody’s building the big ships and the boats
Some are building monuments
Others, jotting down notes
Ev’rybody’s in despair
All we can do is wait for the saviour, who suddenly turns out to be Quinn the Eskimo.
And that was it. Booooom – it was all over and done, for if you look at Dylan’s compositions in chronological order you can see what happened next, once Quinn had been done and dusted.
- The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- Drifter’s Escape
- I dreamed I Saw St Augustine
- All along the watch tower
- John Wesley Harding
- As I Went out one Morning
- I am a lonesome hobo
- I pity the poor Immigrant
- The Wicked Messenger
- Dear Landlord
There’s no run down, no gradual changing gear after the Mighty Quinn, everything changes – just as Dylan says it would in that song. These John Wesley Harding songs are different in every regard from all that has gone before. Those final songs of the wild excitement and fun were the songs of the greatest, wildest, insanest parties of all time. So there was nowhere to go after that, except back to simpler times.
It was indeed all over. Goodbye Tiny Montgomery and all your crazy associates. Hello Frankie Lee. The new world still doesn’t make any sense, as it turns out, but the whole feeling of the world and those who inhabit it, are quite, quite, different.