By Tony Attwood
“Million Dollar Bash” was recorded in 1967 as part of the Basement Tapes. One could say it is the song of the biggest party in the world with a coming together of all the strange people that Dylan has populated his songs with from 115th Dream through to Tombstone Blues, Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Stuck inside of Mobile. Except we don’t get any of the interesting ones in attendance. Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost are not in attendance.
Asking exactly who these people are is a bit like trying to ask the meaning of each manifestation in a painting by Dali or Hieronymus Bosch – they just are, and if you turn them into something else, or indeed anything at all, fair enough. They are just symbols, part of the world Dylan is describing.
So what we have is another song of Dylan the observer – exactly as he was criticised for being in Watching the River Flow (but exactly as he was through the songs mentioned above, and so many more from this era. Dylan has always been a great observer.)
Here then, he is watching just another party where people from another world do their stuff.
The song reminds me, today, of poorly written adverts that tell you everyone is doing it, this is the place to be (mind you that is probably because I run an advertising agency, so we are always critical of other people’s work).
Or to give another example, if we go back to an earlier vocabulary, this is the place, the place where it is happening, where the in crowd is.
Now you may well have missed the song, “The In Crowd” (written by Billy Page), but if you have nothing better to do, do go and find a copy. Bryan Ferry, Dobie Gray, Ramsey Lewis Trio – they all had hits with it, so you can find it on the Internet quite readily.
The point is, it sets out the same self-centred pre-occupation that Dylan’s characters have at the Bash. All these people take themselves seriously, it is just that in Million Dollar Bash, Dylan is outside looking in. Here’s The In Crowd.
I’m in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows
Anytime of the year, don’t you hear?
Dressing fine, making time
We breeze up and down the street
We get respect from the people we meet
They make way day or night
They know the in crowd is out of sight
I’m in with the in crowd
I know every latest dance
When you’re in with the in crowd
It’s so easy to find romance
Any time of the year, don’t you hear?
If it’s square, we ain’t there
It is this vision that we know, we are “in”, and the old folks (of whom I now of course am one) haven’t got a clue (which is certainly true for me about technology, but I am moderately up to date with music).
It is as if by dressing up and being weird they feel they have made themselves different and thus special – which is in fact the story of Bohemian artists, and the arrival of the notion “if you have to ask, you’ll never know”.
And it strikes me, coming back to Million Dollar Bash after all these years, that AA Gill’s comment on Bohemians works really well in the context of Dylan’s people: “useless, self-indulgent, almost always talentless.”
Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde were astounding Bohemian talents – especially Wilde in my view – but most of the people who indulge in the lifestyle are just prancers, and I think Dylan gets this perfectly as he describes the, “Useless, self-indulgent, almost always talentless,” attendees of the Bash.
Five years earlier they were young teenagers desperately asking their parents if they could go out to a party, and when the parents shrank back in horror and said no, the whine comes back, “but everyone is going to be there”. Now they are old enough to do what they like, but somewhere in the background is mummy and daddy (ma and pa) are now paying off the kids debts and convincing themselves that the kids will grow out of it in the end and get a job. But the kids think they are art. And they are utterly wrong.
So for the kids at the bash, for the in crowd, it is all part of being with the group, not being isolated alone, as they perhaps perceive families and the elderly have become in many societies. The isolated family who has spent all its money on just surviving, paying for the house, feeding the kids, now alone, not going out, just getting by, watching TV. How utterly useless.
Except of course it was never as simple as that. There is a phrase that I coined some years back in a piece I wrote, which one or two others have since used (which is always a nice tribute), “Saturday Night Syndrome” representing a mode of thought that says, “Everyone else is out having a great party and I am sitting here at home alone.” But of course, most people are sitting at home alone. Those who are at the parties get drunk, argue, fight… the issue isn’t the party, it is whether you can be happy with yourself – and the people at the bash are too busy trying to be something else, ever to be that.
I have seen it argued that Million Dollar Bash is actually a song about simply letting fate take over, being blown by the wind, not taking decisions, just going with the flow – the eternal excuse for dropping out of responsibility, life and everything else. But to me this is just an element of the philosophy of the hippy Bohemians, not the essence of what they are, which is utterly stupid, pathetic, useless and pointless. Indeed at this point it isn’t the knowledge that is useless and pointless as Tombstone Blues suggests – that is just a by-product. It is the people who are useless and pointless. All of them.
Just look at them.
Well, that big dumb blonde
With her wheel in the gorge
And Turtle, that friend of theirs
With his checks all forged
And his cheeks in a chunk
With his cheese in the cash
They’re all gonna be there.
And this is why the chorus is so yuk…
At that million dollar bash
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
It’s that million dollar bash
This is the opposite of Yakkity Yak, that wonderful Coasters song which we actually meet a little further along in Dylan’s Bash. The Coasters, taking the mum and dad role sang…
Just put on your coat and hat
And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doin’ that
Bring in the dog and put out the cat
(Don’t talk back)
By the time of the Bash the kids have either left home, or the parents have given up the fight.
Well, I took my counselor
Out to the barn
Silly Nelly was there
She told him a yarn
Then along came Jones
Emptied the trash
“Along came Jones,” one of the great Coasters songs quoted just before the “trash” line, tells us exactly where Dylan is. While Yakkity Yak tells us about the parents talking at their children, Along came Jones is the absolute parody song making fun of 1950s pap TV. Sam attempts to kill Sue by cutting her in half in the sawmill, Sam tries to blow Sue up, Sam tries to throw Sue in front a train, while the storyteller changes channels, gets a sandwich… and when he looks again each time Jones sorts it all out. Just like the parents pay for their kids debts.
“Along came Jones” portrays a life that is as crazy as the lives of the people at the Bash, but “Along came Jones” is a lot funnier. The Bash is just washed out and washed up, because unlike Along Came Jones there ain’t no talent, there’s nothing to distinguish these people, they are utterly, totally, useless and pointless and lost.
Well, I looked at my watch
I looked at my wrist
Punched myself in the face
With my fist
I took my potatoes
Down to be mashed
Then I made it over
To that million dollar bash
As for the music it is straightforward, three chord stuff – for nothing complex would do here. It is as simple as these people deserve. C, F and G. The chorus gives us a little musical break, the “ooh baby” taking us to A minor, but that’s it. Dead simple, for dead simple almost dead people.
Time and again in these little reviews I find myself using Visions of Johanna as my yardstick, because in that song we get people who are lost, but lost in an interesting way that haunts the listener for ever. These people on the other hand are lost, but lost in their own pointlessness.