Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part IX: Tom, get your plane right on time

by Jochen Markhorst

IX         Tom, get your plane right on time

Tom, get your plane right on time
I know your part'll go fine
Fly down to Mexico
Doh-n-doh-de-doh-n-doh
And here I am
The only living boy in New York

It is tempting to regard one of Paul Simon’s Very Great Songs as an answer song to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. “Tom”, “Mexico”, “New York” and further down a fitting text fragment like

Half of the time we're gone
But we don't know where
And we don't know where

… a poetic leap from Dylan’s song to “The Only Living Boy In New York” is not that big. Unverifiable reports further state that Dylan was present as an observer at the recording of the song and expressed his admiration. An attractive, but presumably rather romanticised story. Perhaps distilled from a report that can be verified, from Dylan’s interview with USA Today, April ’99, prior to the American tour the two greats undertook together that year:

“I mean, Paul’s written extraordinary songs, hasn’t he? I consider him one of the pre-eminent songwriters of the times. Every song he does has got a vitality you don’t find everywhere. . .  I’ve always liked “Only Living Boy from New York” [sic] and other songs from Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

 

But alas, there is no bridge to Tom Thumb; Simon’s song is a barely disguised salute to Garfunkel. “Tom” was Garfunkel’s stage name in the early years, when the duo still called themselves Tom & Jerry, and Art indeed is in Mexico, shooting his part in Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970).

Still, real covers follow in abundance after the sixties. After big guns such as Gordon Lightfoot, Nina Simone and Judy Collins, the whole premier league picks the song up, in the following decades. The Scottish legend Frankie Miller in 1973, “the only white guy that’s ever brought a tear to my eye,” as Rod Stewart has stated, Linda Ronstadt, Sir Douglas Quintet, and of course the usual suspects – Grateful Dead, Robyn Hitchcock, Jimmy LaFave, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bryan Ferry…

Bryan Ferry’s cover is on the tribute album Dylanesque (2007), which, in keeping with Ferry’s trademark irony, is anything but dylanesque – but his Dylan love is genuine, that’s for sure. The first song on his first solo album (1973) is an unforgettable Ferrynisation of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and is also the first of a long line of reverences. In interviews, Ferry is never less than respectful, in extremis, of course, in the Dylanesque interviews. “There’s a richness in the words which offsets the simplicity of the music sometimes,” and…

“It’s the quality of the writing, really. The vocabulary, the imagery, the poetry of it all. So I think they’re open to interpretation. Especially the early songs because he only played them on (acoustic) guitar.”

For “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, Ferry chooses, as with his 2007 adaptations of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “If Not For You”, a similar guitar chug like Dylan happens to use – remarkably – also for his later renditions of “Desolation Row” (on MTV Unplugged, for instance). In general, the album – outside of Dylan circles, obviously – is well received; it sells well (gold within a few weeks) and most reviews are friendly to downright positive.

The more vicious reviewers blame Ferry for stylish soullessness and treating the song “as if it were just an assemblage of syllables and notes like anything else he could rubber-stamp the “Bryan Ferry” brand onto,” but actually precisely that creates the same, appealing tension as it did in Hard Rain. Less neurotic maybe, this time, and more rock ‘n’ roll… but also with a particularly attractive harmonica, very elegant.

 

The song is almost impossible to spoil anyway. The music has, as Ferry says, a simplicity that also gives the lesser gods a chance to shine – and that same simplicity allows a wide range of interpretation. The irresistible String Cheese Incident turn it into a calypso-flavoured Latin dance, the trashy Blue Birds are pleasantly disrespectful (among more trashy covers on the cheerful tribute collector Outlaw Blues, 2008), the beautiful guitar miniature that Wall Matthews makes of it (with dramatic vocals by Aleta Greene) or the psychedelic soul ballad by Wendy Saddington (with The Copperwine, 1971)… they are actually all beautiful. In the category Weird Yet Charming, Lisa Hannigan scores the highest. Recorded June 2008 accompanied by a cheap glockenspiel, a guitar and a xylophone, in Dick Mack’s pub in Dingle, County Kerry, on the Atlantic coast:

But probably the most beautiful of the twenty-first century is put on the album Fresh Horses by Jim Byrnes in 2004. Brilliantly arranged mash-up of folk, blues and rock full of small, loving, unobtrusive accents under the surface (extra guitars, percussion, organ), and with two pianos, as it should be.

You can find it here.

Actor, blues musician and three-time Juno Award winner Jim Byrnes was born in St. Louis, on Highway 61. – what more do you need to know about somebody?

Paul Simon plays a Dylan song now and then. “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. But he never flies down to visit Tom in Mexico. He gets all the news he needs on the weather report. And it’s always raining in Juarez.

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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2 Responses to Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part IX: Tom, get your plane right on time

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Jochen ….to each his own, but the glockenspeil is way too loud and it’s tic-tocking takes the ear we away Lisa’s wonderful voice

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    *ear away from

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