Million Dollar Bash: from a broken party to an English country garden

by Jochen Markhorst

The most notorious Million Dollar Bash in recent decades is the party that was cancelled: the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, on the island paradise of Great Exuma. The failure is spectacular. In the run-up to the luxurious, decadent, multi-day “Festival Of The Century”, social media influencers such as Kendall Jenner are paid (and not insignificantly, as the court case reveals: $275,000) to promote the party and that pays off: tickets for thousands of dollars are easily sold. 28 April 2017, the Furious Fiesta is gonna break loose, but a debacle it shall be.

The terrain is not ready, the spacious, expensive accommodations are shabby tents, there is insufficient food and water, the top artists are not contracted and the rushed cancellation, on Day One, leads to an apocalyptic, Lord Of The Flies-like chaos on and around the airport: to make matters worse, the organisation cannot get everyone back home.

The aftermath is just as sensational. Millions of dollars claims, lawsuits, imprisonment… in January 2019 two documentaries about this fiasco, produced separately, are broadcasted (Fyre Fraud and on Netflix Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened), both struggling to turn the multitude of tumult into a manageable reconstruction.

On the preceding evening, when quite a few guests have already arrived, a “spontaneous beach party” is organized, in which hastily mobilised members of a local band have to take care of the music. They are forced to continue playing for hours and are ultimately the only act of the festival. The set list is unknown. But “Million Dollar Bash” would have been the obvious choice. Even with prophetic value, already in the opening lines:

Well, that big dumb blonde
With her wheel in the gorge
And Turtle, that friend of theirs
With his checks all forged 

No shortage of big dumb blondes, there on Great Exuma, the wheel in the gorge serving as an original metaphor for the derailment of the event and Turtle forging checks is organizer McFarland who in October 2018 is sentenced to six years in prison for his Million Dollar Fraud.

Fortunately, the million-dollar party of Dylan and the guys from The Band, in that basement of the Big Pink in West Saugerties, is a lot less pumped up, much more colourful and much more successful anyway. And funnier too.

At least, Dylan and The Band apparently think it’s a novelty song, a cabaret-like song that is based on humour. In his autobiography (Testimony, 2016) Robbie Robertson tells how while he was away for a couple of errands, the others quickly recorded “Yea Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” and “Million Dollar Bash”.

“We smoked a J and laughed ourselves to pieces at these recordings. Bob said, “Okay, who would be good to do those songs?” We suggested everybody from Brook Benton to Marty Robbins. “No…Little Jimmy Dickens, don’t you think?” I offered.  Garth made some toots and whistles come out of his organ.”

The link with Marty Robbins and with Brook Benton (because of “Boll Weevil” perhaps?) is not entirely traceable, but Little Jimmy Dickens, the small country celebrity who makes a name for himself with humorous songs such as “May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” and “Truck Load Of Starvin’ Kangaroos” is indeed a candidate for a novelty song. But still – are these really novelty songs? Both songs have neither head nor tail, lack a pointe, and indeed lack any other kind of smasher, like a dialogue with goofy voices (“What’s The Use Of Getting Sober”) or stuttering (“K-K-K-Katy”) or silly sound effects (“Beep Beep”) – Little Jimmy probably would have kindly declined.

Robertson’s association is probably triggered by the two references in “Million Dollar Bash”, the references to “Yakety Yak” and to “Along Came Jones”, two well-known novelty hits from The Coasters, both written by the grandmasters Leiber and Stoller, by the way.

However, those references do not justify the stamp “novelty”. Like Yea Heavy, the lyrics of “Million Dollar Bash” are an unrelated accumulation of meaningless, nonsense observations, loosely held together by a refrain line and a chorus. The poet Dylan does, however, succeed in suggesting epic; the song seems to be a report of a party that gradually gets out of hand. “Everyone will be there,” the first verse promises, in between the poet points to guests like Turtle and Silly Nelly in a tone as if everyone knows who they are and he mentions, just like in “Clothes Line Saga” banalities (“Jones emptied the trash”, “I looked at my wrist”) which, by mere mentioning it, suggest symbolism or depth – which is not there, of course.

Just like with Yea Heavy, the creative process does still fascinate: where do those half-known sentences, names, images originate?

Partly from the language itself, apparently. The associative mind of the language virtuoso Dylan automatically jumps from alliteration to rhyme to alliteration in such a shuffling, strolling verse: checks – cheese – chunk – cash – bash, for example, just as every sixth line is dictated only by the restriction that a rhyme on bash must be done. Thus leading to emptied the trash or then push and then crash.

Harder to trace are striking content data, like those names. Silly Nelly? “Nelly” is an almost extinct name in the United States; according to the Social Security Administration, the name has not been in the Top 1000 of most popular names since 1900. Literally the name does not seem to inspire either. Few Nellies. The storyteller in Wuthering Heights (1847), housekeeper Nelly, is called silly one time (by main character Cathy; you’re silly, Nelly), but it’s unlikely that Dylan has struggled through that novel, let alone that it would have a lasting influence on his creative vein.

In songs yes, the name does live on in songs. Especially in old songs, by the way. “Nelly Bly” for example, from the Bob Dylan of the nineteenth century, Stephen Foster, the same Nelly who makes a guest appearance in “Frankie And Johnny” (There sat her lover man Johnny / Makin’ love to Nelly Bly). And Dylan can undoubtedly also sing along with Shel Silverstein’s “Hey Nelly Nelly”.

That song he knows via Judy Collins, who sings it on her third album (with the sparkling title Judy Collins # 3). Collins records the album in March 1963 and makes the young Dylan’s ears burn by covering his “Masters Of War” and “Farewell”. The same album opens with “Anathea”, the song that Dylan will transform into the masterful “Seven Curses”, and contains Judy’s versions of “Deportee” and “The Bells Of Rhymney” – songs that will appear on Dylan’s set list too. Judy Collins # 3 and with that “Hey Nelly Nelly”, that much is clear, is under Dylan’s skin.

But Nelly was there earlier, as shown by the Gaslight Tapes, the recordings from Dylan in October ’62 in the Gaslight Café, New York. Dylan plays the age-old “The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird” (also called “The Evening Meeting”, or “The Coo Coo Bird”, or “Going To Georgia”, and some more title variations) which he knows from Clarence Ashley’s rendition. And here the song poet changes, for no apparent reason, the line So I can see Willie / As he goes on by into So I can see Nelly / As she goes on by.

Still – not too popular, Nelly. Neither in Dylan’s oeuvre (one more Nellie, in “Wanted Man”), nor in songs at all. Not comparable with the quantity of Marys (and the variants Marie, Maria, Rosemary and Rose Marie), in any case.

Dylanesque, in conclusion, are the casually infused catachreses, the abusios, the familiar sounding word combinations that are nevertheless completely original, or simply incorrect. The louder they come, the harder they crack is one of those, and I get up in the mornin’ but it’s too early to wake. We know the style figure from the glory years ’65 -’66, as strongholds of poetic explosions like “Farewell Angelina” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, but on a lazy afternoon in the late summer of 1967 the bard shakes them with obvious ease, carelessly improvising, out of his sleeve.

The song is popular. “Million Dollar Bash” is in the Lucky Dip Bag from which the British lucky dogs like Manfred Mann (“Quinn The Eskimo”) and Brian Auger and the Trinity (“This Wheel’s On Fire”) may grab, and Fairport Convention takes off with the party number. Bass player Ashley Hutchings, who by the way will record the most beautiful version of Dylan’s rejected masterpiece “Angelina” in 1988, remembers the first encounter with that selection of Basement Tapes somewhere in a London office, thirty-six years later:

“’Most of the group went in there, sat around, and put these vinyl, white-label copies on,’ recalls bassist Ashley Hutchings. ‘And this strange, kind of mish-mash of styles and drawled lyrics came out of the speakers. It sounded kind of subterranean; there was this strange cloak of weirdness covering them. We loved it all. We would have covered all the songs if we could.”

(The Observer, 20 June 2004)

But they have to choose, and eventually “Million Dollar Bash” becomes one of the highlights of the beautiful album Unhalfbricking. The song is also a keeper on the set list; the 1997 Cropredy version is irresistible.

A little earlier the cover of Stone Country, the first band of country rock pioneer Steve Young, is released, shortly before he writes his immortal “Seven Bridges Road” as a solo artist. In addition to a very nice LP (Stone Country), the forgotten band also releases four singles in 1968, one of which is a “Basement-single”: “This Wheel’s On Fire” (May ’68). The B-side is a very nice, Buffalo Springfield-like version of “Million Dollar Bash” – both songs are in 2007 as bonus tracks on the re-release of that sole album.

An equally charming psychedelic 1960s allure has The Mixed Bag – another B side, on the rightly-forgotten Tim Rice-produced single “Potiphar” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (1969).

Gunga Din, The Beards, Crust Brothers… the song remains popular in the twenty-first century and actually every cover is fun. One of the nicest of this century is on the sympathetic Garth Hudson Presents A Canadian Celebration Of The Band, on the re-release in 2011, the version with Steve Leckie and Thin Buckle. 

My, how such a Canadian Celebration in Garth Hudson’s shed sounds infinitely more festive than a Fyre Festival in the Bahamas.

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  1. Interesting article.

    There’s an actual “Frye Festival” held in Moncton every year, the city in New Brunswick where Northrop Frye, the famous literare critic ( Bible scholar and fan of poet William Blake) went to school.

    You can call me ‘Late For Dinner’, but you don’t have to call me ‘Picky’ …. strictly speaking the line in the Bash is “They all gonna be there” rather than the quoted “Everyone will be there”.

    But at the Magical Mystery Tour, “The Hendersons will all be there”.

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