by Jochen Markhorst
The work is published posthumously (1987) and is a collection of transcribed (telephone) conversations. Warhol does not feel like keeping a diary but does feel a cultural-historical responsibility. Friend and esteemed writer Pat Hackett is given the honour: from November 1976 to February 1987, so until just before Warhol’s death, she telephones with the artist almost daily and then works out the conversation in writing.
The transcriptions confirm the image of the moneygrubbing, meek and, above all, strangely unworldly artist. The anecdotes concerning Dylan, with whom Andrew Warhola has an uncomfortable, awkward relationship, also bear witness to the latter. In October ’77 Warhol visits a football (soccer) match of the New York Cosmos (Pelé’s farewell match) in New York and meets not only Robert Redford and Muhammed Ali but also Dylan’s old manager Albert Grossman. “He told me again that he has my silver Elvis, but I don’t understand that, because I gave it to Dylan, so how would Grossman get it?”
It does bother Warhol a bit. In May 1978, Robbie Robertson, Dylan’s old companion of The Band, talks to him at a party. When Warhol learns the Dylan connection, he immediately asks if Robertson knows anything about the Silver Elvis. Robbie knows: “Dylan traded it to Grossman for a couch! (laughs). He felt he needed a little sofa and he gave him the Elvis for it. It must have been in his drug days. So that was an expensive couch.”
A month later, Warhol meets Dylan himself again, in London, after his sixth and final concert at Earl’s Court.
“Nona told him he should buy a painting of mine and he came right out and said he’d already had one – the Silver Elvis I gave him – and that he’d traded it for a sofa. So what Robbie Robertson told me a few weeks ago was true. And then Dylan said that if I ever gave him another one, he’d never do it again.”
Dylan’s regret probably is financial remorse rather than artistic repentance; Warhol’s screen prints have now reached the million-dollar milestone.
The first acquaintance with Warhol takes place in the mid-60s, during the heyday of The Factory, and the love is not really mutual. The eccentric pop art artist is quite charmed, as evidenced by his fascinating Popism (1980) and he does his best to win over the “slightly flashy”, cool poet-rock star. “I gave him one of my Silver Elvis paintings when he first came by.”
Later, Warhol hears rumours that Dylan is using the painting as a dartboard and how he dislikes Andy, blaming him for Edie Sedgwick’s downfall. The flamboyant Edie Sedgwick (1943-71) belongs to the Warhol clique, is said to have had a brief affair with Dylan, introduces Dylan to Warhol and takes the Road To Nowhere, resulting in an early death in 1971. The entourage also tells Warhol that Dylan does mean him by “the diplomat on the chrome horse” in “Like A Rolling Stone”.
Resentment is not unlike Dylan, that much is true. But his aversion to Warhol’s Factory is probably not related to Edie’s fate. The angry young man Dylan from 1965 stumbles over intimate, private annoyances, but even more so over herd behaviour, posturing, simulants and bullshitters. And thereof he finds more than enough in Warhol’s Factory, where it is teeming with parasites, poseurs and windbags. Revolting perhaps, but inspiring as well – after all, Dylan has just promised, in the liner notes of Bringing It All Back Home: “I am about t sketch you a picture of what goes on around here sometimes, tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening”.
In “Queen Jane Approximately” then, fragments of this world around the naive, cunning, wondrous Andy Warhol seem to be used. Dylan undoubtedly registered with some amazement the “artworkers”, the clowns employed by Warhol to reproduce art in the name of the master – a sickening repetition, indeed, of an oeuvre that in itself already has repetition as a stylistic feature. Flower ladies hang around in clusters, the pop art artist starts his “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” show, he lives with his protective, invitation-screening mother, and like this, there are more whole and half references to this bohemian gang, here on 33 Union Street West. However, as in most of his Really Great Works these mercury days, Dylan guards against overly unequivocal finger-pointing; the timeless power of his best lyrics is due to his ability to give the private a universal twist, to leave the mystery intact while expressing clear, tactile impressions.
A put-down it most certainly is. Queen Jane is a sister of Miss Lonely and Mr. Jones, the archetypes who have been following the superficiality of a trend by pretending. The storyteller sees through the acting, the fake ways and the meaningless rituals, although he words it less sharply here than in a “She’s Your Lover Now” and a “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” for example. Milder he is, this time – from the chorus speaks something like compassion, the last verses even offer a warm shoulder: if you want somebody you don’t have to speak to, feel free to come along.
There’s been quite some speculation about the name, about Dylan’s target. The inevitable Joan Baez, of course, and after Dylan’s confession “Queen Jane is a man” (in the very unserious interview with Nora Ephron, 1966), Andy Warhol is a favourite candidate.
Strangely enough, the obvious Jane Holzer, the Warhol superstar of the moment, is never mentioned. Surely lines can be laid; “Baby” Jane Holzer is the prototype of the bored, superficial socialite, the born prom queen.
Thanks to her very attractive appearance, exuberant party character and enormous assets (she’s a daughter of real estate magnate Carl Bruckenfeld, who owns half of Manhattan, and she marries another real estate magnate), Jane is a popular guest in and generous hostess to the New York in-crowd.
Dylan is regularly invited, knows her through The Factory and indirectly has something to do with Holzer’s not-so-relevant musical career: her debut single “Rapunzel” is arranged by Dylan’s keyboardist Barry Goldberg, who also plays along.
But more likely is that Dylan picks up a name which just happens to be in the air. “The Death Of Queen Jane” is an ancient Child Ballad (#170) that’s on the repertoire of every folky in Greenwich Village, and has just become topical again because Baez has it on her bestseller Joan Baez 5. Right after Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, by the way.
The addition Approximately has no further relationship with the song. In these years Dylan experiments like a Dadaist with song titles, and this fits in the list of arbitrarily added adverbs, the random modifiers in song titles like “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, “Definitely Van Gogh”, “Temporary Like Achilles”, “Most Likely You Go Your Way”, “Obviously 5 Believers” and “Positively 4th Street”.
Opaque remains Dylan’s own appreciation of Queen Jane. After the beautiful, but rather nonchalant studio recording (the guitars are not very well tuned) the song disappears in a drawer. Dylan does not perform it. It’s not forgotten, as witnessed for instance by the incomprehensible name-check in an interview with Robert Hilburn (Los Angeles Times, November 23rd, 1980), in which Hilburn is curious to what extent Dylan’s conversion influences the setlist:
RH: Any of your songs that you couldn’t sing today? Any song that you couldn’t relate to?
BD: I don’t think so. I could probably sing them all, even Queen Jane Approximately.
“Even”? Weird. But he really says so. “Even Queen Jane”. He still doesn’t perform it, though. It takes the persuasion of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, the foremen of Grateful Dead, who admire the song immensely.
July 1987 sees the live debut of “Queen Jane Approximately”, twenty-two years after the recording, and a few months after the death of Andy Warhol. It’s one of the rare highlights of the not very successful, rather musty live album Dylan & The Dead (1989) and the spell seems to have broken. In the following years the maestro plays the song quite regularly, in very beautiful performances often (November ’93, Supper Club, is a hit), but after one more time, in 2013, Queen Jane seems a thing of the past definitely.
In the AARP interview, March 2015, the song doesn’t stand comparison with a classic like “I’m A Fool To Want You” on Shadows In The Night, at least, according to Dylan,
“It’s easier for me to sing that song than it is to sing Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane. At one time that wouldn’t have been so. But now it is. Because “Queen Jane” might be a little bit outdated. It can’t be outrun.”
Yeah, well, Bob Dylan and his take on his own songs…
Elsewhere, the small masterpiece is more appreciated. The aforementioned Grateful Dead has it more than a hundred times on the setlist – Queen Jane belongs, along with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, to The Dead’s three most frequently played Dylan covers. The interpretations are mostly very enjoyable; not too spun out (usually under eight minutes), strolling, driving beat provided by the two drummers and Garcia’s thin, second voice in the refrain work brilliantly.
Somewhat hilarious is the approach by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. For obscure reasons, Valli suddenly starts screaming, larding the screams with a presumably sneeringly meant laugh and ending parlando (terrible again). They’re quick, though: it’s on side 2, the Dylan side of The 4 Seasons Sing Big Hits By Burt Bacharach… Hal David… Bob Dylan, which is released in November 1965.
More charming are the contemporaries of The Daily Flash, who produce a nice, rattling garage version in ’66.
Most beauty, however, can be found in country rock circles, where the song remains popular to this day. Mojave 3, Montana Wildaxe, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch… the list is long, the interpretations are always appealing.
The one cover standing out above all others comes in 2015 from seasoned Dylan fan Jimmy LaFave, who rarely misses out. The spirit of Gene Clark did live on in the regrettably passed away Texan, as the rest of the enchanting album The Night Tribe shows as well. In 2015 he is accompanied live by the exceptional guitar talent Anthony da Costa, truly turning the song into a Silver Elvis.
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