By Jochen Markhorst
II I threw it all away
Well, she's got Jet Pilot eyes from her hips on down. All the bombardiers are trying to force her out of town.
It is a somewhat awkward segment of Dylan’s autobiography, in Chronicles (2004), the part in which in a rather woolly and mystical manner rambles on about a “highly controlled system” working “in a cyclical way”, helping him out of an artistic impasse in the 1980s. The system, the autobiographer reveals, was already explained to him in the 1960s by Lonnie Johnson:
“I didn’t invent this style. It had been shown to me in the early ’60s by Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie was the great jazz and blues artist from the ’30s who was still performing in the ’60s. Robert Johnson had learned a lot from him. Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd-numbered instead of even-number system. He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it. This was just something he knew about, not necessarily something he used because he did so many different kinds of songs. He said, ‘This might help you,’ and I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn’t make sense to me at that time because I needed to strum the guitar in order to get my ideas across.”
Dylan then spends more than 600 words on a kind of explanation of this “system”, which, it seems, is based on varying the 2, the 4 and the 7 of the diatonic scale. Solemnly, he declares that it is “for real” and “most advantageous”. Using, in short, the jargon with which a vague acquaintance of yesteryear tries to persuade you to take part in a pyramid scheme. Dylan concludes, confusion-inducing:
“I’m not a numerologist. I don’t know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is.”
… just when the reader thinks, well, apparently it’s all about the 2 and the 4 and the 7, the not-a-numerologist serves up the bouncer that the 3 is “more metaphysically powerful”.
Anyway, the admiration for Lonnie Johnson is deep and sincere. Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970) is already a legend when Dylan meets him in Greenwich Village. The young Dylan is invited by Victoria Spicey to sing and play harmonica on “Sitting On Top Of The World” on Three Kings And A Queen (1963), the album on which Spicey is accompanied by Big Joe Williams, Roosevelt Sykes and Lonnie Johnson, and already well before Chronicles, in the Biograph booklet (1985) he expresses his admiration and gratitude:
“I was lucky to meet Lonnie Johnson at the same club I was working and I must say he greatly influenced me. You can hear it in that first record, I mean Corrina, Corrina… that’s pretty much Lonnie Johnson. I used to watch him every chance I got and sometimes he’d let me play with him.”
In 1992, for Good As I Been To You, he records Lonnie’s biggest hit (seven weeks at number 1 on the R&B charts), “Tomorrow Night” from 1947, the song Dylan would perform no less than sixty times in the 1990s – almost always in the same way as his example Lonnie Johnson. In Theme Time Radio Hour he plays two Johnson songs, both times introduced with eulogies (“our next performer is truly one of the greats”) and extensive life sketches.
In 1965, when Dylan records “Jet Pilot”, the reverence is more subtle. For the opening line, she’s got Jet Pilot eyes from her hips on down, Dylan quotes from a fairly unknown Lonnie Johnson song, from “Bow Legged Baby” from 1961:
Yes, my baby 's so fine and mella, bow legged from her hips on down. Yes, my baby 's so fine and mella, bow legged from her hips on down. And the way she throws them hips when she walks, she'll make a rabbit hug a hound
Lonnie’s other big hit then provides a shaky bridge to that absurd Jet Pilot eyes. In 1947, Johnson scored not only with “Tomorrow Night” but also with the scabrous “He’s A Jelly-Roll Baker”, the title DJ Dylan also mentions both times when he talks about Lonnie. It’s a catchy blues with exactly the kind of corny ambiguities Dylan has a soft spot for:
I was sentenced for murder in the first degree, The Judge's wife call up and says, "Let that man go free! He's a Jelly Roll Baker, he's got the best jelly roll in town. He's the only man can bake jelly roll, with his damper down."
The words “Jelly-Roll Baker” have an approximate sound and rhythm similar to the words “Jet Pilot eyes”, so who knows – the wordplay part of Dylan’s associative, playful and meandering creativity does make even bolder leaps in these mercurial years, after all. The second part, from her hips on down, popping out of the same Lonnie Johnson drawer, does make sense, in that case. Coincidentally, “He’s A Jelly-Roll Baker” can be found on Blues & Ballads, the album Johnson recorded with Elmer Snowden in 1960 – which also includes the other song radio broadcaster Dylan plays on Theme Time Radio Hour and the performer Dylan has on his repertoire, “Backwater Blues”.
“Jet Pilot” is immediately rejected again, so the alienating expression jet pilot eyes doesn’t get a chance to penetrate the rock vernacular, doesn’t get a shine like jewels and binoculars, or Mr. Jones, or weatherman. It did have the potential, as the charming, understated Dylan reverence “You’re A Big Girl” shows, taken from the most Dylanesque, and most successful album by British band The Charlatans, Tellin’ Stories (2004);
See her through jet pilot eyes Mysterious and thin Like a raven breakin' free From the towers they keep you in
… for one of the many subtle, unobtrusive Dylan references, the Madchesters choose the relatively obscure jet pilot eyes.
Tellin’ Stories is still a great album, by the way – with The Charlatans’ answer song to “Like A Rolling Stone”, the more melancholy “Get On It” (no matter how you’re feeling, you’re never on your own), and with The Charlatans’ upbeat riposte to “Girl Of The North Country”, the bouncing “North Country Boy” (I threw it all away / I don’t know where I put it / But I miss it all the same).
Very nice songs, all of them. Varying on the 2, the 4 and the 7, undoubtedly. Though never as beautiful as their slightly weird, yet irresistible cover of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (2002).
To be continued. Next up: Jet Pilot part III: A whole lotta woman
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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