By Tony Attwood
I should begin by saying that if you are an aficionado of all that is refined in the world of entertainment you might like to sit down before listening to this.
And I must admit that when it was put to me that Bob Dylan liked “Surfin Bird” and more generally the band The Trashmen who recorded it, I had a certain amount of dubious feelings floating around my mind.
But then it starts to make sense. Both Dylan and The Trashmen are from Minnesota and Dylan did indeed spend a year at the University of Minnesota. And both Bob and the Trashmen can be said to be artists who like to subvert the form that they are working in.
Anyway, after leaving university Bob headed for New York and the influence of Woody Guthrie. But, as I was trying to point out in my recent post about “For you baby” and the influence of Ginsberg and the Beat generation on Bob Dylan, although we rightly associate Dylan with Guthrie, there are multiple other influences on his work as well. And this is one of them.
Plus we do have a clear confirmation of Dylan’s interest in the Trashmen, for according to Tony Andreason, “He came out and watched us play in the ’80s. We were doing a benefit in Minnetonka, and Dylan came and was there all night long. He sent a woman over to talk to us and wanted to know if we were available to go out on tour with him for any length of time, and we said we really weren’t. We weren’t interested, regardless of who it was. It wasn’t going to work.” Which I think, is a bit of a shame.
Backing up this story there is an article on the University of Minnesota Press blog, “On Bob Dylan’s early folk years and the flourishing Minnesota music scene in the 1960s” in which they report that “Trashmen rhythm guitarist Dal Winslow recalled that… Dylan was asked by Rolling Stone what he did in his spare time. “He said, ‘Well, I go out and watch The Trashmen perform at Minnetonka, Minnesota.’ And I thought, ‘Well, thank you, Bob. I take back everything I said about you’.”
The article also notes that Dylan has played in the Twin Cities (St Paul and Minneapolis) regularly since the late 70s, which adds further credence to the story.
“The Bird’s the Word” was also a hit for The Rivingtons
and was very similar to their previous hit “Papa Oom Mow Mow” (which I have conveniently placed below so that you can check, just in case you are thinking I am making this all up.)
The group subsequently won a series of battle of the bands competitions and signed a record contract, with the song reaching number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
And the reason for me picking up on this song now, is to emphasise the multiplicity of inputs into his musical consciousness that Dylan has. This is not to say that he would attempt to create music such as this, but rather that he took all these different musical forms and welded them into his own music. If some of Bob’s lyrics don’t make any sense then nor did all the music that he liked. But he also had a liking the folk music that so influenced his early recordings as well.
Indeed it is interesting that “Bird is the word” was released just about the same time as “Freewheelin'” and Bob clearly at that time had not lost touch with his roots or his humour.
After all it was only some 18 months earlier that Bob was writing Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues and Talkin Hava Negeilah blues so with a sense of humour like that we should perhaps not be surprised. Dylan, if anything, absolutely loves to subvert the form.
Many singers and bands covered “Bird is the word” and after it turned up on the TV series “Family Guy” it actually got into the UK singles chart in 2009. It returned in 2010 and this time made the top ten.
As for the Trashmen, they kept going, although with occasional changes of personnel due to the inevitable ravages of time, including extensive tours between 2007 and 2010. The album “Bringing Back the Trash” was released in 2014 and the band retired from public life once more the following year. Here they are just before they called it a day for the last time.
A fairly complete list of other articles in this series appears in the Why Does Dylan Like index