Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1965) part V The ghosts of our people

By Jochen Markhorst

V          The ghosts of our people

Now all the authorities
They just stand around and boast
How they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms
Into leaving his post
And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost

  For his book Dirty Boulevard – The Life And Times Of Lou Reed (2016), Aidan Levy interviewed childhood friend and bassist of Reed’s first band LA And The Dorados, Richard Mishkin:

“We really loved Bob Dylan,” Mishkin says. “We would sit around in Lou’s apartment and learn the chords and fingerings to every one of his songs.” Not only did Dylan have a nontraditional singing voice and a quirky style and phrasing to match, he didn’t have the typical good looks of a star. He was also a Jew. Despite all this, Dylan became the yardstick that his contemporaries were measured against. He never let the times shape him; he shaped the times. Lou idolized Dylan and aped his rhythm guitar style, but soon jettisoned the harmonica to avoid comparison to the throngs of campus Dylan imitators.

It is, John Cale tells, exactly what initially bothered him. He hears Bob Dylan, when Reed plays him “I’m Waiting For My Man” and “Heroin”. “I missed the point because I hated folk songs, and it wasn’t until he forced me to read the lyrics that I realized these were not Joan Baez songs.” But it is unmistakable, indeed. For the early Velvet Undergrounds song “Guess I’m Falling In Love”, Reed borrows the opening words of “Absolutely Sweet Marie”;

I got fever in my pocket
You know I gotta move
Hey babe, I guess I'm falling in love,

… and even more Dylanesque is the dismissed “Prominent Men” that Lou Reed recorded with John Cale in their little flat on Ludlow Street, just before the Velvet Underground really started, before Maureen Tucker joined the band;

 

The harmonica, the guitar playing, Reed’s nasal way of singing, the Dylanesque opening line Through all of the highways, the byways I’ve travelled and the linguistic pleasure of a socially critical text in a “One Too Many Mornings”-like verse like:

The streets that have life with the cat's underbelly
Aligned with their tracks of a thousand good-byes
A poor woman screams with the heat of disaster
As the prominent men sit and strengthen their ties

… it is quite understandable that John Cale thinks his new friend Lou is a Dylan clone.

But Lou Reed hears it too, throws away his harmonica and his acoustic guitar and – thankfully – takes new paths. He does not dismiss Dylan, however. In interviews he keeps expressing his admiration, he openly acknowledges Dylan as the greatest rock poet and his contribution to Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1992 is an undeniable highlight: a blazing performance of the obscure Infidels outtake “Foot Of Pride”. True love, we understand later, when Reed is asked about his remarkable choice of songs:

“It did that, because I thought it was one of the funniest songs ever written. I was listening to it almost every day because it made me fall down laughing. You know: Did he make it to the top? Well yeah, but then he dropped. Some really, really funny lines in that thing.”

And when, in the twenty-first century, he records Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (for Wim Wenders’ The Soul Of A Man, 2003), he almost automatically shifts into Dylan mode – presumably Lou got to know the song through Dylan’s version on his 1962 debut album. In between those embryonic Dylan copies, the open reverence and the late imitation, Dylan echoes keep recurring in Reed’s work. Like from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in a 1978 Street Hassle outtake, in “Here Comes The Bride”:

Somebody call his Aunt Carrie
And tell her that her nephew Jimmy
Is comin’ in from Vermont via the coast
And somebody call up his old man
Tell him that his son’s arriving
And he’s looking like a ghost

 

The song is released on Reed’s own Biograph-like compilation box, the less than enthusiastically received Between Thought And Expression (1992). The box, like many compilation albums in those years, is released in the wake of the success of Dylan’s Biograph, but like many of those releases, it too makes the mistake of being little more than a slightly pimped up Best Of or Greatest Hits.

Unfortunately, “Here Comes The Bride” is nowhere near the allure of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, “Up To Me” or “Abandoned Love”, one of the many highlights of Dylan’s box set of original material. Lou Reed’s “Here Comes The Bride” suffers from exactly the same flaw that he blames others for: he doesn’t really try. It’s a song Reed can do in his sleep, a lazy mix of “Sweet Jane” and “Walk On The Wild Side”. But: with another Dylan echo, in this case a Jimmy who is arriving from the coast, looking just like a ghost. The beautiful title of the compilation box, by the way, Reed took from the very Dylanesque opening verse of his magnificent, hypnotic Velvet Underground song “Some Kinda Love”;

Some kinds of love
Marguerita told Tom
Between thought and expression lies a lifetime
Situations arise because of the weather
And no kinds of love
Are better than others

Dylan, for his part, still seems to be varying his Kerouac impressions in this sergeant-at-arms couplet. “Angel” is, obviously, one of the most frequently used nouns in Desolation Angels, and an angel-looking-like-ghost is also encountered, in Chapter 55:

“I look at Pat and he looks like somebody else—Not only that but soon as we’re in the kitchen and he’s walking beside me suddenly I get the eerie feeling he’s not there and I take a good look to check—For just an instant this angel had faded away.”

… although images and word choice may have entered Dylan’s associative mind from other angles too, of course. Anyway, the verse breathes the same uncanny atmosphere as the superhuman couplet from “Desolation Row”,

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

… with the threatening, alienating presence of a nameless authority abusing its power. The same oppressive menace as in Kafka’s The Trial – although this particular Tom Thumb couplet pushes the Kafka associations more towards the fascinating, gruesome short story The Penal Colony (1919). The story in which the soldier is cruelly punished, though not for leaving his post, but because he fell asleep at his post. One of the very few stories, by the way, that received kind-of-approval from Kafka himself. Close friend and executor of the will Max Brod found a short note in Kafka’s study, addressed to him:

“Of all my writings the only books that can stand are these: The Judgment, The Stoker, Metamorphosis, Penal Colony, Country Doctor and the short story: Hunger-Artist. . . When I say that those five books and the short story can stand, I do not mean that I wish them to be reprinted and handed down to posterity. On the contrary, should they disappear altogether that would please me best. Only, since they do exist, I do not wish to hinder anyone who may want to, from keeping them.”

When Brod read that, Kafka had already succumbed. Starvation, presumably – the tuberculosis had so damaged his throat that he could no longer eat. On his deathbed he edited his last work, The Hunger Artist. And then he left, looking just like a ghost.

To be continued. Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part VI:

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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