Open the door Homer: there’s a Thunderclap outside.

by Jochen Markhorst

Director Sam Peckinpah is said to have had never heard of Bob Dylan and that he actually had Roger Miller (“King Of The Road”) in mind for the soundtrack of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid.

Lead actor Kris Kristofferson, who at the time of the Blonde On Blonde recordings is still a caretaker at Columbia’s Nashville Studio, tries to plug Dylan with Peckinpah. The director is moved by Dylan’s audition with “Billy”, hires him and even grants Dylan his first real film role.

It seems quite inconceivable that an educated man like “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah has never heard of Dylan in 1973, but every now and then similar testimonies pop up. The composer John Corigliano, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winner, also claims something like this, on the occasion of his Grammy-winning cycle Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2000) and we’re not quite sure if Muhammed Ali is joking when he says he’d never heard of Bob Dylan during the benefit evening Night Of The Hurricane (December 1975). After the Nobel Prize awarding in 2016, the stories about ignorant contemporaries may tumble over each other, but there the unfamiliarity with Dylan seems to be mainly due to the generation gap.

Those ignorant could by chance be touched by Dylan’s radio show Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-2009), could listen to over a hundred episodes and still be in the dark. Radio maker Dylan never plays anything of his own oeuvre and very rarely hints that he is a musician himself.

The broadcast of 30 January 2008 contains such a rare revelation, for the attentive and understanding person, that is. The theme of the broadcast is Lock & Key. Halfway through, right after “Somebody Changed The Lock On My Door” by Wynonie Harris is played, the studio is called by a listener. One Tim Ziegler from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois points out to the radio host an error regarding the assignment to a record label; Wynonie Harris doesn’t appear on King Records, as Dylan said, but on Apollo Records. Dylan stutters a bit, but gradually loses himself in a witty, quasi-grumpy tirade against the caller.

It’s important to remember: this isn’t a classroom here. This is music we’re playing, This is music of the field, of the pool-hall, the back-alley crap game, the bar room and the bed room. We’re not gonna make it dusty and academic. It’s full of sweat and blood, it’s like life itself. If every once in a while we get a name wrong, or we tell you it’s on the wrong label, it’s not gonna kill anybody, Tim. Just listen to the music.”

And with one last sneer at Tim, Dylan proceeds to order. “Open The Door, Richard” is waiting. The disk-jockey does seem to have a thing for this particular song; he plays (parts of) three versions of this humorous song from 1946. It is a comical monologue by a homecoming night owl who has lost his house key. Richard is inside, but is asleep, or doesn’t feel like letting the muttering boozer in. In any case he doesn’t open the door. Accompanied by a simple riff, the farcical drumming, shouting and grumbling is interrupted by an equally simple, contagious chorus: Open the door, Richard, and let me in.

The song gets incredibly popular. In the primeval version of Jack McVea it already reaches sixth place in the charts, the version of Count Basie takes the place of McVea’s in February ’47 and reaches first place, after which bizarrely three other versions (by Louis Jordan, the Three Flames and Dusty Fletcher), still in February and March ’47, will reach the top 10 of Billboard. Theme Time plays McVea’s and Dusty Fletcher’s, and reveals that at least 22 covers of the song have been recorded.

Not only were there country, polka, pop and jiddish versions, almost twenty years later it was inspiring ska musicians. Listen to a tiny bit of this, by Clive and Naomi from 1965.

You see, that song can be done any kind of way. About time for it to come back again. Maybe I’ll even do it.”

And there we have it: one of those very rare vistas revealing to an ignorant, attentive listener that Dylan himself is a musician. The connoisseur probably smiles, though: Dylan already has an “Open The Door” to his name – the song on The Basement Tapes is called “Open The Door, Homer”, but he does sing “Open The Door, Richard” there. Well, every once in a while a name wrong… it won’t kill you, Tim.

This one line is the only similarity with the 1946 novelty song. In the second take, which can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (2014), Dylan does give the primal form a shot (half-spoken verse, sung chorus), but he drops that within a minute.

The name change to Homer in the title could be an associative nod to the deadly crashed Richard Fariña. Fariña forms a quartet of friends with Dylan, Mimi and Joan Baez, and shortly after the publication of his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me was killed in a motorcycle accident, April ’66. The protagonist of that picaresque novel is a modern Ulysses, plot lines are loosely based on Homer’s oeuvre, so there you have it: Homer.

Or alternatively to Homer Simpson, one of the protagonists of Nathanael West’s The Day Of The Locust (1939), a book from which impressions do twirl down in Dylan’s oeuvre. In this case perhaps a piece of dialogue from the beginning of the work:

“She doesn’t answer,” Homer said hurriedly.
“Did you knock hard enough? That slut is in there.” Before Homer could reply, she pounded on the door. “Open up!” she shouted.

…which also echoes the word combination Homer the slut from Dylan’s Tarantula.

The song itself has nothing to do with that. It has music historical value for the Dylanologists, because “Open The Door. Homer” is a bit of an intermediate, a bastard son of The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. Just like almost all the John Wesley Harding songs, the song has the three-couplet structure, but unlike almost all the songs on that record, it does have a chorus. The same goes for the content; it’s a crossbreed of the carefree, nonsensical language pleasure of Basement songs like “Quinn The Eskimo” and “Lo And Behold!” on the one hand, and the symbol-loaded, biblical parable quality of JWH on the other.

“To live off the fat of the land”, for example, comes from the Bible (and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land, Gen. 45:18), but the connection with the limiting condition, that you must “swim in a certain way,” if you want to eat the fat of this land, draws that stately Bible paraphrase back to the nonsense. Even more nonsensical is the rhyming pleasure of the second verse, which the poet dashes off to make blushes rhyme with flushes.

The third verse, on the other hand, does suggest depth. “Take care of all your memories, for you cannot relive them” has an aphoristic quality which is perfectly at home on John Wesley Harding. The subsequent Bible paraphrase remains completely devoid of a profane or alienating clause, repeating pure and unstained what Jesus does in Matthew 9: first, the sins of the crippled are forgiven (Matthew 9:2), only then he is healed (Matthew 9:6) – just as in almost every song on JWH Bible quotations are processed.

Cover versions are sparsely sown. Even among the renowned, loyal Dylan fans, such as Jimmy LaFave, Joan Baez, Barb Jungr, this is a song that is left on the pile. Only the devout disciple Robyn Hitchcock has Homer on his repertoire – an unusually well-groomed, dressed up version, with band, violin, second voice and all. And a funny, fitting she loves you, yeah yeah yeah coda. Fairport Convention picks up the song early, but rejects it for the masterpiece Liege & Lief (1969). Live recordings from the BBC at the time show that Richard Thompson and his band know how to turn it into a beautiful country folk miniature. A second run-up, on Red & Gold (1996), is overproduced and lacks the charm of a quarter of a century earlier.

Equally charming and about the same age are the other covers that are worth listening to. Jake & The Family Jewels, an obscure band from New York, record a very nice, cheerful jumpy version with dominant country-fiddle on their beautiful debut album from 1970.

Even more obscure is the British progrock group Titus Groan, 1970 again, whose only LP nowadays is a high priced (around € 750,-) collector’s item. Their version of “Open The Door, Homer” is on a separate single and has an attractive, propulsive drive, Roxy Music-like saxophone honking and an antiquarian charm at all.

The best Basement covers are usually on the underestimated jewel Lo And Behold! by Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint (1972), and indeed: this song the frizzy gentlemen perform perfectly as well. But in the end that version is still flat, compared to the most famous interpretation, the one by the one-hit wonder Thunderclap Newman on their only, classic album Hollywood Dream from 1970. The band, under the wings of their compassionate patron Pete Townshend, achieves immortality with the world hit “Something In The Air”, but deserves just as much appreciation for that one LP. Their “Open The Door, Homer” has a wonderful, melancholic colouring – just like that rough, beautiful original from the Big Pink.

Could have moved Bloody Sam.


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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