Jet Pilot (1965) part I: Greetings from Vermillion

 

By Jochen Markhorst

Well, she's got Jet Pilot eyes from her hips on down.
All the bombardiers are trying to force her out of town.
She's five feet nine and she carries a monkey wrench.
She weighs more by the foot than she does by the inch.
She got all the downtown boys, all at her command
But you've got to watch her closely 'cause she ain't no woman
She's a man.

The success of Biograph, the 1985 compilation box, sets a trend. The 3-CD set collects 53 released and unreleased tracks and goes platinum – which is mainly thanks to the eighteen unreleased tracks.

Record companies are becoming aware of all the gold uselessly glittering in their archives, and so in the following years the market is flooded with similar basement clearances. Many of these are, alas, utterly superfluous, slightly tweaked Greatest Hits collections and, above all, painfully transparent attempts to extract money from the pockets of fans. Lou Reed tries it with the saltless Between Thought And Expression, Aerosmith pleases the fans with Pandora’s Box, Elton John with To Be Continued, Beckology is Jeff Beck’s half-successful attempt, Eric Clapton’s Crossroads… it’s a long list, and the companies succeed in their objectives: the collector’s boxes generally sell very well.

The accompanying booklets are especially appealing to fans; also following in the footsteps of Dylan’s Biograph, most compilers put love and energy into extensive booklets with background information on the songs, commentaries by the artists themselves, recording details and often an essay-like contribution by a musicologist or talented journalist.

For Biograph, that part is taken care of by Cameron Crowe, the versatile author and film director (Hard Times At Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky) who has always remained an editor for the music magazine Rolling Stone in between projects.

His work for the Biograph booklet is thorough and entertaining enough, larded with interesting interview fragments, but for the seasoned Dylan fan, the comments from the master himself are of course the most fascinating. Dylan openly apologises for the viciousness of “Ballad In Plain D”, for example (“It was a mistake to record it and I regret it”), suggests curious candour here and there (“I was thinking of living with somebody for all the wrong reasons,” with “Caribbean Wind”), has intriguing opinions about his own songs (“This is not my type of song, I think I just did it to do it,” on “On A Night Like This”).

There is also an amusing by-catch for the know-it-alls. The well-informed authority Cameron Crowe gets it wrong every now and then and grants the everyday rock fan a few moments of petty glory. The short commentary on “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, for instance, opens with a somewhat embarrassing error by the Rolling Stone editor. “A tip of the hat to the only song recorded by both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones – Lennon and McCartney’s I Want To Be Your Man.”

Apart from the misspelling (the title is “I Wanna Be Your Man”): three-quarters of the participants of any given pub quiz in any sleepy little country town would effortlessly rattle off four, five, six songs that were recorded by both The Beatles and The Stones. “Money”, “Carol”, “Memphis, Tennessee”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Little Queenie”, and if the pub quiz compiler likes trick questions, you can continue for a while with songs the Fab Four and the Glimmer Twins recorded together: “Dandelion”, “We Love You”, “All You Need Is Love”).

 

Comparably poorly documented, and equally unimportant, is Dylan’s quoted comment on “I Don’t Believe You”: “I wrote this in Greece, Athens, or maybe Vermillion, a town up to the coast.” The spelling of the village’s name causes more authors problems. With some biographers, the story pops up that Dylan spent a few weeks with German chanteuse Nico, pre-Velvet Underground, travelling from Paris to a town near Athens, to the coastal village of “Vernilya” (according to Clinton Heylin) or “Vermilya” (according to Robert Shelton).

The place does not exist in either of the three spellings. More reliable is the bequeathed testimony of Dylan’s handyman Victor Maimudes, who tells he drove Dylan for a short sunny holiday to Vouliagmeni, a coastal town that is indeed 23 kilometers south of Athens.

A third slip by Cameron Crowe finds more followers and is found in the short commentary to a song, to “Jet Pilot”:

“This un-issued track from 1965 offers a humorous glimpse at the historic sessions for Highway 61. ‘The songs changed all the time,’ recalled Al Kooper. ‘We would try different tempos, he would try other words. Most of the songs had different titles.’ […] This song, complete with a surprise ending, was the original version of Tombstone Blues.

It is, without a second thought, taken up in articles, on websites and in reviews. “The unfinished songs like Jet Pilot, which later became Tombstone Blues,” writes the Australian Rolling Stone (January ’86). “The original version of the very different Tombstone Blues,” writes Graham Reid on his entertaining website Elsewhere, and comme ça, Crowe’s mistake slowly becomes a music history fact.

It is, however, demonstrably false, both Crowe’s attribution of the song to the Highway 61 sessions, and the claim that it is a primal version of “Tombstone Blues”.

“Jet Pilot” was recorded on 5 October 1965, when Highway 61 Revisited had been in the shops for five weeks, with “Tombstone Blues” also on it, and so, if you want to catalogue it under an album title at all, it should be classified under “The first Blonde On Blonde recording session”. In fact, though, the recordings on that Tuesday in October fall a bit between two stools. The day begins with “Medicine Sunday”, the primal version of “Temporary Like Achilles”, followed by “Jet Pilot” (one take only, of 1’27” – on Biograph the same take is shortened to 49 seconds), two half-takes of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and the day ends with very attractive improvisations by The Band (“Instrumental Number One”, a kind of mercurial mash-up of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and “She’s Your Lover Now”). The only recording that could have actually been released on Blonde On Blonde is one of the six complete takes of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” – but is ultimately passed over.

In short, none of the 5 October recordings, nor any of the song titles at all, end up on Blonde On Blonde. The next recording session is eight weeks later, on 30 November 1965, the day with the first takes of “Visions Of Johanna” – it is in any case purer, factually more correct, to qualify this November day as “The first Blonde On Blonde session day”. So let’s consider 5 October 1965 as a washed-out island between two mighty continents, as a Medicine Sunday between Desolation Row and the Lowlands.

Crowe’s mistake is, of course, not at all incomprehensible. “Jet Pilot” has the same drive as “Tombstone Blues”, Robbie Robertson plays a copy of Bloomfield’s lick, it’s in the same key (E) and The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course has the same rhythm, the same number of syllables and is recited with the same snarl as She’s got Jet Pilot eyes from her hips on down.

Ain’t got no shoes either, probably.

To be continued. Next up: Jet Pilot part II: I threw it all away

———–

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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