by Jochen Markhorst
III Let’s Go Get Stoned
Let a deck of cards be my tombstone I got the dyin' crapshooter's blues
Blues, country, R&B, folk… the tombstone is a popular piece of scenery in every genre and in every period. In 1965, the young Dylan undoubtedly can sing along with Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”, Merle Haggard’s “Nine Pound Hammer”, Johnny Cash’s “The Ballad Of Boot Hill” and the Kingston Trio’s “Jug Of Punch” (“Tura lura lu, tura lura lu”). And with a hundred other songs, presumably. But closest under his skin is Blind Willie McTell’s “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”. Dylan’s later masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell” not only sings this blues hero, but also uses the same template as McTell’s “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”: the evergreen “St. James’ Infirmary”. Or maybe Dylan uses McTell’s song as a template, who knows.
In any case, the protagonist who sings:
Mama’s in the fact’ry She ain’t got no shoes Daddy’s in the alley He’s lookin’ for the fuse I’m in the streets With the tombstone blues
…seems like an archetypal lamenting blues protagonist. Plus, the octaves all refer directly or indirectly to dying or death;
– a reincarnation in the first octave;
– the shady doctor who says you will not die;
– death to all in the third octave;
– tombstones and graves in the king of the Philistines couplet;
– and Cecil B. DeMille could die happily after
… so the listener who chooses to deny the images a metaphorical charge can indeed agree with the title: this is truly a tombstone blues.
However, this is the young beat poet in his mercury period. “Maggie’s Farm” is not about an agricultural production company owned by one Margaret, “From A Buick 6” has nothing to do with a dated automobile and in “Rainy Day Women” no rained ladies are sung. As for the latter song: the jumpy mind of the young poet might have made a similar associative leap as for this “Tombstone Blues”.
The authority Robert Shelton, in his No Direction Home (2011), presents an attractive genesis regarding “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35”:
“Phil Spector was with Dylan in a Los Angeles hang-out, the Fred C Dobbs Coffee Shop, when they heard the Ray Charles Stoned on a jukebox. Both of them, Spector told me later, “were surprised to hear a song that free, that explicit.” A few months later, Dylan recorded Rainy Day Women.”
He is referring to Ray Charles’ hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, so that can’t be right; this single was not released until April ’66, a month after Dylan had recorded his song. But in essence it may be true; although the version of The Coasters hasn’t been a hit, it was the B-side of “Money Honey” and that one was released in May 1965 – two months before Dylan recorded “Tombstone Blues”, ten months before everybody must get stoned, before Rainy Day Women.
The Coasters’ repertoire leaves traces in Dylan’s oeuvre as it is. As a radio broadcaster Dylan plays four songs by the legendary Leiber/Stoller-vehicle (“There’s a whole lot of songs in their repertoire that are worth listening to”, announcing “Three Cool Cats”, 28 January 2009) and in the Basement Dylan quotes “Along Came Jones” (in “Million Dollar Bash”)… the thin Mr. Jones who in hindsight also seems to be the protagonist for “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, as novelty songs seem to inspire anyway, in these years. And still in 2020 – with some tolerance – both the protagonist’s character and the cover image of “False Prophet” seem to wink at The Coasters’ “The Shadow Knows” (1959).
So that remarkable “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, presumably admired by Dylan together with Phil Spector, probably also is The Coasters version. Remarkable the song, especially in 1965, certainly is:
Let's go get stoned, let's go get stoned When you work so hard all the day long And every thing you do seems to go wrong Just drop by my place on your way home Let's go get stoned
Curious, mainly because of the drug connotation, obviously. However, it is not at all intended that way, as writer Valerie Simpson (yes, of Ashford & Simpson) one more time explains in an interview with the Chicago Tribune (17 November 2011):
“It was a bit embarrassing, because some folks thought it meant doing drugs. It was originally about drinking. It was a hard song to totally defend. It was a hit, but you couldn’t take a full bow (laughs).”
The first verse indeed is quite clear thereon:
Let's go get stoned, let's go get stoned When your baby won't let you in Got a few pennies, a bottle of gin Just call your buddy on the telephone Let's go get stoned
Thus: getting stoned of gin, not drugs – as “stoned”, as a matter of fact, indeed is a synonym for “drunk” until the mid-1960s (Cole Porters “Well, Did You Evah”, for example, and John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”).
Still, Dylan’s alleged excitement at that jukebox in a Los Angeles café is of course due to its association with drugs, similar to the entertaining story telling how Dylan is so utterly enthusiastic about The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” because he misunderstands I can’t hide (instead impressed singing along I get high).
Meanwhile, Dylan solemnly states that he does not write about drugs, as in a press conference in May 1966: “I have and never will write a drug song” – a similar choice of words and tone to President Clinton’s solemn lie, “I never had sexual relations with that woman,” by the way. But in the Rolling Stone interview in 2012, he acknowledges: “It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way”. One of those “some people” is, of course, Dylan himself; in ’65 Dylan is an intelligent young man from the big city, both feet on the ground, who reads beat poetry, admires the junkie king William Burroughs and who, as is now well known, introduces The Beatles to marijuana.
So he is not naive when he sings Everybody must get stoned. He also knows that “rain” is a euphemism for pot as he gives Louise a handful of rain (“Visions Of Johanna”), of course he already knows how lost in the rain in Juarez will be understood (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) or what is meant by the “cures” handed out by the “rainman” (“Stuck Inside Of Mobile”). The abundant use of ambiguous carriers of meaning such as stoned, rain, medicine and fog makes the idea that having the tombstone blues is a poetic, concealing metaphor for being stoned, suddenly not so far-fetched anymore.
Which does not turn “Tombstone Blues” into something as banal as a drug song, of course. The kaleidoscopic lyrics seem to bubble out of a stream of consciousness, are mainly playful and associative. Somewhere in the electric mind of the poetic song composer The Coasters – for example – bounce around. In this hour, while conceiving this song, apparently their oeuvre provides rhyming words, décor and idiom. “Riot In Cell Block Number Nine” is one of the very rare songs with the word “fuse” (next to Elvis’ “G.I. Blues”, Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential” and… The Coasters’ “Along Came Jones”);
Scarface Jones said, "It's too late to quit And pass the dynamite, 'cause the fuse is lit" There's a riot goin' on There's a riot goin' on There's a riot goin' on Up in cell block number nine
… which gives Dylan a second rhyme for blues. The first rhyme, shoes, is not too remarkable, but The Coasters also happen to use it in the song in which, just like in Dylan’s song, a father and a mother appear one after the other, in “(When She Wants Good Lovin’) My Baby Comes To Me”:
She go to see her father when she wants some new shoes She go to see her mother when she down and got the blues But when she wants good loving my baby she comes to me
The Shadow’s victim in “The Shadow Knows” is in the alley, and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” is definitely one of those songs in their repertoire that are worth listening to and perhaps makes the playful, associative and jumpy mind bounce to tombstone.
Possible. But just as possible we owe “Tombstone Blues” to the fertile influence of Brother Bill, to William Burroughs.
To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part IV
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (German)
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