Ramona are you betta, are you well?

To Ramona (1964) part I

by Jochen Markhorst

I           Ramona are you betta, are you well?

It is actually a rather innocent, charming scene in Dont Look Back, the ’67 Pennebaker documentary recording Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK. It’s crowded in a dressing room-like chamber. Dylan sits against the wall and plays some incoherent blues figures on his guitar, Alan Price rummages around on a piano. Price starts in Dave Berry’s “Little Things” and laughs. “Have you seen that on television? Dave Berry? He does all this slow actions. He’s like the human sloth,” then imitating with good-natured mockery Berry’s indeed somewhat peculiar stage act, turns to the piano again and plays the song. A girl sings along.

Dylan and manager Grossman are amused. After the first chorus Dylan asks: “Hey, what’s The Animals doing for a piano player now?” He is clearly interested in Price’s answer (“Well, they got one, a good friend of mine”) and wants to know more: “Aren’t you playing with them no more?”

Price answers quickly and a little softer (“No. Finished”), mumbles something like “well that’s how things go,” collects himself and turns to the piano again to play along with Dylan, who in the meantime has started yet another worn-out blues lick on his guitar.

In historiography, the scene is rather pumped up. Dylan is said to have “rudely” interrupted a song by Price and his inquiries about The Animals would have caused an “awkward” moment. On some sites the scene is even catalogued under “Dylan being a dick” or similar qualifications.

None of this is really the case. Dylan is friendly, and even seems to have something of an awe for the man who is co-responsible for – arguably – the very first folk rock song, for The Animals’ version of “House Of The Rising Sun”. In fact, in the band biography Animal Tracks (Sean Egan, 2012) drummer John Steel claims:

“He said he was driving along in his car and the song came on the radio and he pulled the car over and he stopped and listened to it and he jumped out of the car and he banged on the bonnet. That gave him the connection – he could go electric.”

Granted, not too credible, but Dylan saying something friendly about “House Of The Rising Sun” is probably true. Approving recognition may at least have triggered Dylan’s sympathy. After all, guitarist Hilton Valentino, singer Eric Burdon, Steel and Alan Price… at some point every band member reveals that they based their arrangement on Dylan’s version – who in turn stole it from Dave Van Ronk, of course. With some scruples, though.

By the way, the Dave Berry song, “Little Things” is a lovely song, but a fairly faithful copy of Barry Goldsboro’s original, from November 1964. The most beautiful version is Goldsboro’s re-recorded version in stereo:

Barry Goldsboro: https://youtu.be/TWwab_4J9O0    

Alan Price’s spontaneous improvisation in Dylan’s dressing room seems to get a sequel; after giving his Dave Berry imitation, he goes back to playing the song on the piano, and clearly starts enjoying it. The boogie-woogie-like pattern he now plays can be heard a few years later in “Rosetta”, the hit he scores with Georgie Fame (with almost the same notes; “Rosetta” is in D, “Little Things” in D major’s twin sister, in B minor).

The divorce from The Animals in May ’65, in the same days that Dylan makes that “awkward” remark in Don’t Look Back, works out pretty well for Price. His relaunch with The Alan Price Set almost immediately results in three Top 10 hits (“I Put A Spell On You”, “Simon Smith And The Dancing Bear” and “The House That Jack Built”). And Dylan is honoured on his second album, A Price On His Head (1967), with one of the uttermost beautiful covers of “To Ramona”:

 

“To Ramona” is one of those wonderful songs on Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964), a record filled with delightful songs, at least half of which have become timeless classics, thanks in part to covers by big guns like Johnny Cash and The Byrds.

At the time, however, the album was not received with undivided enthusiasm. The first criticisms are already getting loud, about the 23-year-old icon betraying the “cause”. A deliberate attempt to sabotage his unwanted role as spokesman of the protest generation, betrayal of the folk scene, tasteless… there’s no holding back on Big Words. Half a century later, the bellowing is somewhat difficult to follow. It really isn’t all that different. The Times also features songs like “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings”, from The Freewheelin’ a-political songs like “The Girl From The North Country” and “Don’t Think Twice” have become classics. Dylan himself doesn’t fully understand the commotion either, and 50 years later he will still – quite credibly – claim: “Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different.

The album’s title, yes – he hated it, as he declares in 1978. Forced upon him by the marketing boys of Columbia and according to Dylan too corny, too old-fashioned, and perhaps too conflict-seeking as well. Still, songs like “All I Really Want To Do”, “Spanish Harlem Incident” or “To Ramona”… sure, the sour political critics do have a point: no trace of social criticism, nothing more than lyrical reflections on nice ladies.

But corny it is absolutely not. The lyrics are both poetic and sharp – the protagonist does not worship uncritically. Maybe he is in love, but he is not blindly in love. Her weaknesses, such as her conformism, her hollow talk and her naive idealism, the narrator sees very sharply despite his pink glasses. And he is able to express these observations in moving poetic terms;

But it grieves my heart, love
To see you tryin’ to be a part of
A world that just don’t exist
It’s all just a dream, babe
A vacuum, a scheme, babe
That sucks you into feelin’ like this

… for example – just as wonderful as the continuation I can see that your head / Has been twisted and fed / With worthless foam from the mouth. Or the unbridled brio of

From fixtures and forces and friends
Your sorrow does stem
That hype you and type you
Making you feel
That you gotta be exactly like them

The key seekers who are so eager to decode every Dylan song and find encrypted diary entries have field day, this time: Joan Baez, obviously.

Joan Baez herself goes along therewith. Anyway, in her autobiography she reveals that she is at the very least an inspiration. She quotes a letter she writes to her mother in the summer of 1964 from Woodstock, where she then spends some summer days in love with Dylan, accompanied by sister Mimi and Richard Fariña:

I mean like he was still sayin “hey c’mon, c’mon” but then also too now he started reciting poetry. like it was about the time I was scratching an trying t bend his elbow off he started calling me ramona. i swear at first i thought it was some game. he kept sayin things like “no use tryin” an words like “exist” an mummy i swear he even mentioned something about crack country lips.

And in the p.p.s:

mummy, i’m fine.
dont worry about me please
everything passes everything changes

Baez quotes the letter in 1987. When the pangs of the sadness have long passed.

To be continued. Next up: To Ramona part II: Whatever will be

—–

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

Untold Dylan

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