By Jochen Markhorst
On January 19, 2017, the first episode of the beautiful Urban Myths TV series was broadcast on Sky Arts Channel: “Knockin ‘On Dave’s Door”, a moving, witty and layered staging of a “true-ish”, of a somewhat accurate story. In this case the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Eurythmic Dave Stewart in London.
Dylan rings at the wrong house, a lady who doesn’t recognize him opens the door and can report that “Dave” had to go away, but will be back in a minute. It is, of course, another Dave, who on his return home, to his astonishment, sees Bob Dylan sitting on the couch in the front room with a cup of tea.
Screenwriter Neil Webster runs off with this entertaining, apocryphal story and constructs a comical one-act full of funny references, winks and allusions. Textually, of course, but also in trifles such as Dylan’s body position in the taxi: exactly as we know it from Dont Look Back.
One of those well-documented, witty winks is Billy Lee Riley. Dylan is waiting, cannot find the remote control and then plays a record. “Red Hot”, the rockabilly hit by Riley from 1957, is blazing through the narrow townhouse on 145 Crouch Hill (and not 145 Crouch End Hill, where in fact Dave Stewart’s Church Studio is actually located). With closed eyes, the enchanted Dylan shouts out his admiration to Dave’s wife, Ange:
“This record tears out your backbone and kinda makes you feel grateful that it did all at the same time!”
An enthusiastic paraphrase of the words that Dylan speaks in that wonderful, masterful MusiCares Speech, February 2015:
“And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it.”
… the speech we owe – indirectly – to Billy Lee Riley; the organization has scored its plus points at the bard for the help it has given the sick, elderly youth hero of Dylan.
Ange agrees with Bob’s enthusiasm. “It’s a great album, yes, but I prefer No Name Girl.” Bob looks at Ange for a moment, then turns off “Red Hot”, closes his eyes again and sings “The girl I got ain’t got no name.” Amused, Ange sings along and Dylan sighs in conclusion: “Oh man, he was a real deal.”
Rockabilly is Dylan’s first great love, even before Woody Guthrie and before the old blues heroes. Much earlier than in that MusiCares speech, he already publicly demonstrates his admiration for Billy Lee Riley, when he invites him on stage in 1992, in Little Rock, standing behind him with a broad, beaming smile while Riley sings “Red Hot”. And he also has him support the show a few times.
In ’78 Dylan plays “Repossession Blues”, in ’86 “Rock With Me Baby”, as we also see in his own repertoire throughout the decades the love for rockabilly flashing from time to time. In ’75 for example, with “Rita May” and in the Big Pink, with the hidden gem “Dress It Up, Better Have It All”.
The song is one of the surprises on The Basement Tapes Complete (2014). It does not leak out on the first bootlegs Great White Wonder and Great White Wonder II (’69 and ’70), is not selected for the first official edition The Basement Tapes in 1975 and is not even featured on the comprehensive five-part bootleg Genuine Basement Tapes (1990). The best-informed Dylanologists are ignorant. Clinton Heylin only knows the title, but not the song itself, Sid Griffin only discusses the song in the second edition of his beautiful book Million Dollar Bash (2014) and both Oliver Trager and Greil Marcus have never heard of it.
Why “Dress It Up” has slipped through the cracks is not clear. True, it is an unfinished sketch, largely filled with placeholder lyrics, with empty text, but then again: that applies to more Basement songs. Maybe it was on a tape that turned up late from one of Garth Hudson’s boxes. On the other hand: Tim Dunn’s The Bob Dylan Copyright Files 1962-2007 does mention the song (with the addition: no recording is known to exist), the copyrights are secured in 1988 – so somewhere someone has been on top of the song for some thirty years.
It is a pleasant surprise. On the album the song is a swinging break in between the highlights “Tears Of Rage” and “I’m Not There”, but just before the release, record company Columbia is already so wise to unveil this song – releasing it not only from obscurity but also allowing it, for a brief moment, to shine completely alone in the spotlight.
Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson teaches, that’s what we called rock ‘n roll first, before that whirlwind from Memphis rolled over it;
We took a little country music
Put some pop in and dressed it up in soul
That’s all we did…
And they called us rockabillies
Long before they called it rock ‘n’ roll
From “Rockabilly Fever”, written by Carl Perkins. The same song from which the words dressed it up echo in the rudderless, hardly intelligible lyrics of “Dress It Up, Better Have It All”.
After the release, a handful of brave attempts were made to transcribe the words, but some sense cannot be detected. From the few intelligible fragments it can be deduced that the I-person has something to complain about the behaviour of his beloved – it could be the male answer to Wanda Jackson’s vicious “Hot Dog That Made Him Mad”.
But it is more likely that Dylan here, just like in other Basement songs and just like later in for example “To Fall In Love With You”, invents the words on the spot, shouting away, following his own guideline from the Playboy interview (March ’78) with Ron Rosenbaum:
“It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They… they… punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose.”
And probably in this song some fragments, bits and pieces, odds and ends and half-lines from the rockabilly canon echo through. Mainly unconsciously chosen, although the walking music encyclopedia Dylan will be able to place them.
The unusual holler, for example, Dylan might have picked from Guy Mitchell’s “Rock-A-Billy”:
Since rock-a-billy swang the do-si-do
And the gee-tar man chased the old banjo
Leave the hoe for the crow, holler “Go, oh man, go”
Wiggle like a trout
… from which more text fragments and stylistic remarkabilities (such as that wiggle like a trout) descend into the Basement. But Robert Johnson’s “Milk Cow’s Calf Blues” (which Dylan recorded during the Freewheelin’ sessions) is a candidate too. A better one even:
I ain’t had no milk an butter since my cow been gone
Holler please, please don’t do me wrong, don’t do me wrong
At Carl Perkins, that holler also appears more often, like in “Pink Pedal Pushers”, the song whose lyrics also seem to provide the inspiration for “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”:
She don’t cause commotion till she steps outside
The cats get hip and holler, ooh-ooh man alive
She’s wearin’ pink pedal pushers, pink pedal pushers
Pink pedal pushers has made her the queen of them all
It’s just one word, of course, but the spirit of Carl Perkins floats around. The exhortations that Dylan calls out to Robertson when he starts his solos (let’s shake it up and one time for Bozo and his dog or something) are copies of Perkin’s spontaneous battle cries at such moments. Like in “Blue Suede Shoes” (oh let’s go cat) and in “Honey Don” (when The Beatles play the Perkins song, Ringo shouts rock on George there, one time for me).
The instrumentation is that of the early Sun recordings, with upright bass and piano (Perkins’ piano player is Jerry Lee Lewis, by the way). After the “All Shook Up” opening, the stop-and-go arrangement copies “Blue Suede Shoes”, Dylans jump to falsetto in please please please is the yodel that Perkins sometimes tries (in “Pink Pedal Pushers” and “Matchbox”, for example, and in “Honey Don’t”), though nobody can match Elvis on this particular front, obviously.
And 24-carat rockabilly is every one of those three spectacular guitar solos from the unleashed Robbie Robertson, in which all the licks, runs and lashings of Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins are combined. And, last but not least, those of Billy Lee Riley.
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