Jet Pilot 5: The mixed up, muddled up, shook up world

by Jochen Markhorst

 

V          The mixed up, muddled up, shook up world

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

“Down Town” is still in the air, when Dylan shakes his verse with the downtown boys out of his sleeve. In the third week of 1965, Petula Clark is number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first in a long line of American hits for Petula. On the day Dylan records “Jet Pilot”, 5 October, “Round Every Corner” has just entered at no. 85, after she has scored a Top 3 hit with “I Know A Place” (and the next no. 1 hit, “My Love”, follows). A good year, then, for Petula, but Dylan cannot complain either; in this same week chart (3-9 October 1965), three Dylan songs are making money: “Like A Rolling Stone” on 33, “Positively 4th Street” on 34 and The Turtles’ Top 10 hit “It Ain’t Me Babe” is also still there, on 29.

But downtown boys is of course not the punchline, or the earcatcher of the rejected miniature “Jet Pilot”.

Transgender protagonists, and themes such as transsexuality and gender confusion, have been bon ton in pop music since the 1990s. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, Blur’s “Boys And Girls”, “A Girl Called Johnny”, Green Day’s “She”… with Christina Aguilera’s “Reflection”, the theme has even entered the mainstream and Disney films in a watered-down form.

The way was paved twenty years earlier by superstars like David Bowie and Lou Reed, who not only thematised gender confusion in world hits (“Walk On The Wild Side” and “Rebel Rebel”, for example), but also made it part of their image. T. Rex’s Marc Bolan is the pioneer in 1971, but the success of Reed and Bowie breaks the dam. Glam rock becomes a new sub-current – the long-haired, eye-shadowed, rouged, lip-sticked and androgynously dressed men of bands like The Sweet, Mott The Hoople and Queen.

As a punchline of a pop song, it is of course a bit older than Marc Bolan. “Lola” has the scoop on that. After all, it is only in the last verse that it becomes clear that Lola is a man;

She said, "Little boy, gonna make you a man"
Well I'm not the world's most masculine man
But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man
And so is Lola
Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo-Lola

In the same borderland, Pink Floyd had already done pioneering work three years earlier, when the genius crackpot Syd Barrett still has some sense and is able to write brilliant gems like “See Emily Play” and “Lucifer Sam”. The first single “Arnold Layne” (March ’67) sings about a cross-dresser, with, intentional or not, a small Dylan reference;

Arnold Layne had a strange hobby
Collecting clothes moonshine washing line
They suit him fine
On the wall hung a tall mirror
Distorted view, see through baby blue
He dug it

 

Incidentally, based on facts, according to Roger Water: “Both my mother and Syd’s mother had students as lodgers because there was a girls’ college up the road so there were constantly great lines of bras and knickers on our washing lines and ‘Arnold’ or whoever he was, had bits off our washing lines.” The Arnold in the song does not end well. They gave him time, doors bang, chain gang he hates it.

But even the unbridled taboo-breaking free-thinker Syd Barrett is not the first to visit these caverns. In that October week in 1965, when Dylan runs his finger through the Billboard Hot 100 to see how his new and his old single are doing, he undoubtedly lingers at number 55.

Radio broadcaster Dylan announces the band with some sympathy, in November 2007 (Theme Time Radio Hour, episode 57 “Head To Toe”):

“There’s a lot of groups that people think are one-hit-wonders. One band that always ends up in that list, is the Barbarians. Their drummer was named Victor Moulton, but everyone knew him as “Moulty”. At age 14, a home-made pipe bomb exploded and he lost his hand. He got a metal hook, much like Captain Hook. He was still a great drummer, and I think, that hook brought a certain punk credibility to the band.”

That’s what Dylan tells us in introduction to a sort of autobiographical song by drummer Victor Moulton, to “Moulty”, a catchy “Hang On Sloopy” rip-off from 1966. But that’s not the hit he refers to when the DJ calls The Barbarians a one-hit-wonder – that would be the modest hit “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl”.

The song achieves a certain status because it is often selected for compilation albums, notably on the 1998 re-issue of the legendary Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. Actually, though, like the band itself and the rest of their output, it’s rather trite. Their only, quite forgettable, LP from 1966, is otherwise filled with two songs of their own and poor covers of modern classics like “Susie Q” and “Memphis, Tennessee”. Especially The Barbarians’ adaptations of “House Of The Rising Sun” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” are deplorable, despite their “punk credibility”.

Still, the pop premiere for a song thematising gender confusion is in their name, with that song reaching its top position in Billboard on the same day when Dylan half-improvises: you’ve got to watch her closely ’cause she ain’t no woman, she’s a man.

 

 

Dylan, however, does give it a “Lola” charge. The Barbarians articulate, ironically, conservative wailing from a disapproving old nag;

Are you a boy, or are you a girl?
With your long blond hair you look like a girl
Yeah, you look like a girl
You may be a boy (Hey) you look like a girl

… and continue with a somewhat obvious, yet charming nod to The Beatles and to Dylan:

You're either a girl or you come from Liverpool
(Yeah, Liverpool)
You can dog like a female monkey, but you swim like a stone
(Yeah, a rolling stone)
You may be a boy (Hey) you look like a girl

The reassurance that it is ironic can be distilled from the appearance of the band; although no wildly waving blonde manes, no freak flags flying, they are indeed – by the standards of 1965 – long-haired themselves.

It’s a pity, though, that Dylan leaves it at this one unfinished sketch, rejecting “Jet Pilot” on the same day again, 5 October. After all, it could have been the blueprint for “Lola”, for “Walk On The Wild Side”, for “Rebel Rebel”, for all those little masterpieces that thematise female he’s and male she’s. Fortunately, they achieved immortality on their own, without “Jet Pilot”, making the world a little more beautiful in doing so. Although never on the astronomical level of the stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, obviously. Where men who play women have to dress up as men to avoid being seen as women. It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.

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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