by Jochen Markhorst
I Thin air
You’d have written that too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all you know. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense. “When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in your socks / Women on Deep Ellum put you on the rocks.” Sing that song for a while and you just might come up with, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too / And your gravity’s down and negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs / When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue / They got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess outta you.” All these songs are connected.
(Dylan, MusiCares speech, 2015)
It is and remains a beautiful speech, the speech that Dylan surprisingly delivers when he receives the MusiCares Person Of The Year 2015 Award. One of the highlights is the passage in which he tries to put his exceptional talent, or at least his craftsmanship, into perspective. “These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” he says by way of introduction, and then lists seven examples of classics that have given him the format. If you’d sung “John Henry” as many times as I have, you’d get to “Blowin’ In The Wind” too, Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway” automatically leads to “Highway 61 Revisisted”, “Sail Away Ladies” to “Boots Of Spanish Leather”.
Charming and modest. And, as is often the case with Dylan, not entirely enlightening. “Sail Away Ladies” starts with It ain’t no use to sit and cry, and thus seems to be an inspiration for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. A connection between “John Henry” and “Tell Me, Momma” is easier to see than a connection with “Blowin’ In The Wind”, and that Key-Highway 61 linkage doesn’t actually go much deeper than that one word “highway”.
Comparably blurred is the alleged bridge from “Deep Ellum Blues” to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. All right, there is a similarity between when you go down to Deep Ellum and when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue, and both songs warn of certain women, but on a literal level “Kansas City” is a better candidate:
They got some crazy little women there And I'm gonna get me one
… versus Dylan’s
They got some hungry women there And they really make a mess outta you
… from Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City”, which gets such an unambiguous tip of the hat in “High Water” (“Twelfth Street and Vine”).
None the less, the thrust of Dylan’s argument remains intact, the argument he builds around the hypothesis that he is just a link in the chain, that he only builds on what others have come up with before him – the Isaac Newton argument, as it were (“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”, from Newton’s letter to Robert Hooke, 1675). Still, it is remarkable that only five years later, in the New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, June 2020, Dylan claims the exact opposite with exactly the same choice of words:
“On the album “Tempest” you perform “Roll on John” as a tribute to John Lennon. Is there another person you’d like to write a ballad for?”
“Those kinds of songs for me just come out of the blue, out of thin air. I never plan to write any of them.”
On that track there are more exceptionally talented songwriters, when they try – out of false modesty, sheer cluelessness or otherwise – to put their exceptional talent into perspective. In the beautiful Bee Gees documentary How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (2020) Barry Gibb puts it in a similar way:
“It’s a sort of… like a radio transmitter. It’s almost as if somebody’s already written the songs in the air and they’re giving them to us.”
Practically identical to Dylan’s words in that Douglas Brinkley interview:
“The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
And Coldplay’s brilliant songwriter Chris Martin says the same thing in the same documentary, but expresses it a little more poetically:
“Like surfers with waves. Surfers don’t make the waves. Fishermen don’t make the fish. Songwriters don’t really write songs. You receive songs.”
Entirely in line, again, with the words of Dylan in 2020, who does try to define it a little more mystically, though (“It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state”), but all still contradicting Dylan’s much more down-to-earth words in 2015, “These songs did not come out of thin air.”
For the sake of convenience, we can assume that in 2020, Dylan means “The subject of a tribute song comes out of thin air”. So: “John Lennon”, or “Jimmy Reed”, or “Lenny Bruce”… I’m not planning to write a song about, say, Lenny Bruce, Dylan apparently means, but somehow that name swirls down into my mind. Still, the words he writes around this swirled down name are traceable, do not come out of thin air – as Dylan so aptly analyses in 2015. That goes for the songs on Tempest, and on Rough And Rowdy Ways, for that matter, and similarly more than half a century before that, for the songs on Highway 61 Revisited. Like for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”.
To be continued. Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part II: The Thoughts Of Mary Jane
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)
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
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