It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes Chris Smither to make me cry

by Jochen Markhorst

The bootlegger who is responsible for the beautiful CD “Memphis Blues Again” by Steely Dan (1995), a live recording from 1974, has historical awareness. The first record of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s band owes its title to a Dylan song: Can’t Buy A Thrill is the second line of Dylan’s own blues classic “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”. There are more Dylan references and influences in the work of Steely Dan (the dylanesque put-down “Reelin’ In The Years”, for example) and Donald Fagen repeatedly assures that the bard is the source of inspiration for their poetic and impenetrable texts. “No one in the pop medium had ever used that breadth of subject matter or surrealistic and dream language,” he says in the Wall Street Journal (“Rock’s Reluctant Front Man”, July 8, 2011).

He therefore immediately jumps up when the Rolling Stone publishes an interview (July 2013) in which Fagen says nasty things about his hero, at least: about the qualities of his concerts in the 21st century and the blues content of recent albums.

“I’ve been to Bob Dylan shows where I essentially walked out in the middle. I just didn’t like it. Usually there’s a good reason why those songs shouldn’t be done. (…) He has about a dozen minor-key drone tunes with three chords. I find that very tedious. (…) It’s songs with 512 verses and no melody. It’s more than I can bear, really.”

When it is published, Fagen chokes on his coffee. Without delay he produces a sharp, long, written reply in which he once again asserts that he is a fan, how much Dylan does mean to him and how he manages to surprise us over and over again for so long.

“Greene brought up Bob Dylan. Because I could tell that Greene loved Dylan as much as I did, I let down my guard, and we started in with the classic fan talk, picking apart his recent work and mourning the fact that his erstwhile astonishing voice has now been reduced to a croak. (…)

“For a moment, forgetting I was talking to a reporter, I started joking about the recent albums that always seem to have several, long blues-based tunes in minor keys. The lyrics are always great, but the tunes have limited musical interest, perhaps because Dylan needs to accommodate his damaged voice. Because Bob has meant so much to us for so long, because he’s astonished us for so long, maybe we feel we can kid him as if he were family.
Big mistake.”

He does not mention the fact that he, as a devout fan, has bought Dylan’s old home in Woodstock. Even better is the story that writer Jenell Kesler digs up, the story that Fagen applied as a keyboard player for Dylan’s backing band in 1981. After Fagen has responded “to a small ad in a Los Angeles newspaper,” an enthusiastic Rob Stoner, Dylan’s bass player and musical leader, calls him up and promises to present him to Dylan, but never calls back again.

Great story, but Kesler has probably been fooled; in 1981, Stoner had long since said goodbye to Dylan and his band.

Elsewhere, the Steely Dan foreman tells that the love has begun with Bringing It All Back Home, and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” is apparently such a knockout that the song is honoured in the title of the first album. The duo, which calls their band after a dildo from William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, is charmed by the mistiness wrapped in crystal clear words, but especially from the sexual ambiguities in Dylan’s song. With some susceptibility to Freudian symbolism, the listener here hears the lamentation of a failing lover, tormented by the premature petite morte; he “dies” when he has just climbed the hill, the beloved “comes after him”, the train being a metaphor for the act, certainly in the blues idiom, just as popular as juicy citrus fruits and open back doors.

Part of the attraction of the lyrics is the elusiveness, the “surrealistic dream language,” as Fagen calls it. Dylan interlaces the blues clichés with Shakespearian text fragments and private associations. “Now the wintertime is coming” recalls Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), the “Double E” refers to the EE line, the Broadway Local, which in the 60s stops a block and a half from Dylan’s West 4th apartment (just like the “D” train from “Visions Of Johanna”, by the way).

The golden oldie “Rocks And Gravel”, which is on his playlist in 1962, plays through Dylan’s mind as he writes these words; there he sings about that Mobil and K.C. line, there the singer sighs don’t the clouds look lonesome shining across the sea and the lines Don’t my gal look good / When she’s coming after me are almost literally maintained. They are not his own words; although “Rocks And Gravel” is – quite questionably – in Dylan’s name, the song itself is a rip-off from Leroy Carr’s “Alabama Woman Blues” (1930).

Remarkably, the text is initially, in the version still called “Phantom Engineer” and recorded a month and a half before the album version on Highway 61 Revisited, more original, in terms of choice of words more in line with, for example, a “Desolation Row” or a “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. Especially the third verse:

Well I just been to the baggage room
where the engineer he’s been tossed
Oh, I stamped on 40 compasses,
God knows what they cost

Musically, the song also undergoes a transformation in the weeks following that recording, but that transformation is more successful than the text revisions. When an enthusiastic producer Tom Wilson hears the first attempts, it is still a fast, sharp and, above all, much more common Chicago blues. The like of which John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in London (with a young Clapton, on unfortunately lost recordings) can handle just as effortlessly as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival. Only when Dylan switches to a slow, acoustic approach at the end of July ’65 does the extraordinary beauty come to the surface and, with its mildly sad mood, is it a welcome outsider on Highway 61.

This also applies to the remarkable title. Just like most titles on Highway 61 Revisited, it has no direct relationship with the lyrics, but a transcending, added value. Here even stronger than with “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” or “From A Buick 6”; It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry is a non-existent proverb that can stand on its own, has an aphoristic power like the times they are a-changin’ or the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Dylan probably dashes off the one-liner thoughtlessly. His superior sense of language and instinct for rhyme & reason rarely abandons him, as it does not this time – the “proverb” suggests a somewhat old-fashioned, but nevertheless cast-iron, universal wisdom. Perhaps inspired by the Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran:

“It takes a minute to have a crush on someone, an hour to like someone, and a day to love someone… but it takes a lifetime to forget someone.”

Dylan has undoubtedly browsed through Gibrans bestseller The Prophet (1923) and acknowledges his love for his poetry in the interview with Bob Cohen (1968):

“Gibran, the words are all mighty but the strength is turned into that of a contrary direction. There used to be this disk jockey, Rosko…Sometimes…Rosko would be reciting this poetry of Khalil Gibran. It was a radiant feeling, coming across it on the radio.”

It touches Dylan’s aphorism. “It may take a while before you are happy with someone, but one departing train is enough to become unhappy”, something like that – the amorous variant of trust arrives walking and departs riding.

The master himself is also fond of the song. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” remains on his set list for more than forty years and he performs it some two hundred times. It is just as popular with colleagues. When George Harrison manages to pull him off the veranda for the Concert For Bangladesh (1971), he pleads for this song, among other things. The “supergroup” of Al Kooper, Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield has already promoted the song to the American Songbook on the legendary album Super Session (1968) and since then it belongs to the canon; hundreds of artists have it in the repertoire.

Most opt for slower interpretations than the Highway 61 original and seize the opportunity to let a guitar excel. The live versions of Fairport Convention (Cropredy 1997 and 2002), with a great Richard Thompson, are highlights in that category, even better than the exercise by guitar god Eddie Van Halen. The Dutch ladies of Ygdrassil provide a beautiful two-part, muted cover on their album Nice Days Under Darkest Skies (2002). Perhaps the slowest, introduced with melancholy steam whistle, comes from the heart-breaking Higher Animals (2012).

At least as melancholy, but much bluesier, is David Bromberg, who is so appreciated by Dylan, on Try Me One More Time (2007), but the performance of the incomparable Chris Smither, who previously impressed with “Visions Of Johanna”, overshadows everything and everyone. It is an extremely subdued, driving and soulful interpretation, sparingly instrumented, in which the focus remains on the song, not on an ambitious guitar or compelling vocals. To be found on the very beautiful album Time Stands Still (2009).

Donald Fagen, meanwhile, fears that Dylan still blames him for the criticism. In the Showbizz 411 of October 27, 2016, Roger Friedman quotes the front man: “He’s mad at me. He even mentioned us in a speech.”

Fagen refers to the MusiCares speech, in which Dylan indeed does mention Steely Dan. Fairly neutral, by the way. Dylan is disappointed that his idol Billy Lee Riley (“Red Hot”) is not included in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame:

“Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas – I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan – I’ve got nothing against Metal, Soft Rock, Hard Rock, Psychedelic Pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff. But after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Lee Riley is not there. Yet. And it’s taking too long.”

In the “Post-MusiCares Conversation” Bill Flanagan addresses the orator. And sticks up for Steely Dan. They sure could rock, wouldn’t you say? What about songs like “Show Biz Kids” and “My Old School”?

Sure, Dylan says, I don’t want to belittle Steely Dan. But compare their records with Willy Deville’s “In The Heat of the Moment”, “Steady Driving Man” or “Cadillac Walk”. There is a difference.

Incidentally, Donald Fagen, in interviews as a notorious liar and misleader as Dylan is, sometimes produces a totally different title explanation with regard to that first album title. Like in a Rolling Stone interview with Judith Sims, April 23, 1973.

Walter Becker is in California, calls Fagen and tells, one arrogant New Yorker to the other haughty Brooklyner: “You can’t buy a thrill in California.”

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

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