Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1969) part 7: A Spider’s Life On Mars

by Jochen Markhorst

VII        A Spider’s Life On Mars

I should have left this town this morning                I could have left this town by noon
But it was more than I could do                                 By tonight I’d been to someplace new
Oh, your love comes on so strong                              But I was feeling a little bit scattered
And I’ve waited all day long                                        And your love was all that mattered
For tonight when I’ll be staying here with you        So tonight I’ll be staying here with you

More drastic than any textual change, of course, is the musical turnaround. On Nashville Skyline, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is a melodic mid-tempo country ballad, Dylan using his new crooner voice and singing with the brakes on.

Colour is added by long steel guitar strokes, the piano suggests some debauchery and the only – modest – fireworks come from the electric guitar (Norman Blake, by the sound of it).

But at the Rolling Thunder Revue, six years later, we have Mick Ronson on stage.

 

Mick Ronson is probably the most famous Hullensian, although a remarkable number of notable people come from the relatively small city of Hull, or rather: Kingston upon Hull (about 260,000 inhabitants). Who then also usually show a kind of regional pride. Songwriter Phillip Goodhand-Tait writes “Lincoln County”, the popular 80s band The Housemartins give their successful debut album the witty title London 0 Hull 4 and Ronson calls his third, posthumously released album Heaven And Hull (1994). On which, by the way, one of the few tolerable covers of “Like A Rolling Stone” can be found, sung by David Bowie.

A cynic might think that Heaven And Hull is not too complimentary, but Ronson means well. And so it is understood; after his death (29 April 1993, liver cancer), the city honours him with a Memorial Stage in Queen’s Gardens, a guitar sculpture in East Park and a wonderful memorial rock show, Turn And Face The Strange, performed 22 times in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to sold-out audiences each time.

It is fitting that Ronson’s musical life should end with Bowie – after all, the Spider From Mars also emerged in the shadow of Ziggy Stardust in the early 1970s.

Before Ziggy Stardust, on Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Ronson really shines for the first time. As a child, he learned to play the recorder, piano, harmonium and violin, and that diverse upbringing now pays off. And his talent, of course – a brilliant string arrangement like in “Life On Mars?” requires more than just skill.

The exceptional beauty of “Life On Mars?” is in any case largely due to Ronno. The rough demo recording, with only Bowie on piano, already reveals that it’s a beautiful song, but it only becomes a hors category song because of Ronson’s recorder (second verse), both guitar solos and above all the strings – remarkably his very first string arrangement, which he nervously had written out note for note with sweaty hands for the arrogant studio musicians of the BBC. Especially admirable given the complex chord progression and the widely varying melody lines – it’s not a ten-a-penny song that Ronson arranges so masterfully, so sumptuously.

Van Morrison, Mott The Hoople, Elton John, Morrissey… Ronson’s name as a go-to guy is established. Even more so after he turns out to be able to surpass the high school art of his masterpiece Hunky Dory on Ziggy Stardust (on “Five Years”, piano, autoharp, electric guitar, backing vocals and string arrangement are all his, for instance), and then on Lou Reed’s bestseller Transformer (1973) – yep, that’s Ronno’s piano, recorder and string arrangements again, in again outer category pop songs, in “Perfect Day” and “Satellite Of Love”.

Wonderful, moving arrangements by a classically trained prodigy – but at heart Ronson has always remained a rock ‘n’ roller. We hear that in both the nippy lead guitar parts of Reed’s “Vicious”, in the straightforward sweaty rock of Bowie’s “Hang On To Yourself” and “Suffragette City”, in the neurotic solo on Elton John’s “Madman Across The Water” – and with Dylan, on the stage of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

On a social, personal level, there seems to be no special connection with Dylan, although according to Sam Shepard’s wonderful Rolling Thunder Logbook, Ronson is the “chief instigator of the make-up craze which swept through Rolling Thunder like a brush fire”. But musically, there is all the more of a click – and the reanimated “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is one of the best examples thereof.

“Ronson,” Shepard notes in the same Logbook about the Night Of The Hurricane concert, “really gets off on this monster crowd. Slashing his guitar with huge full-arm uppercuts. Platinum-blond hair spraying in all directions. Then stalking across the stage, stiff-legged, Frankenstein macho strutting, shaking the neck of his guitar with his vicious chord hand as though throttling his weaker brother. All the time, never losing a lick. Through every motion playing genius, inspirational lead lines.”

genius, inspirational lead lines of his characteristic Gibson Les Paul with that characteristic full-bodied, slightly floating sound. And that inspiring fire also seems to ignite Dylan’s vocals; the difference between Dylan the elderly crooner from Nashville and Dylan the syllable-spitting, splattering rocker from the Rolling Thunder Revue is immense. Debatable, sure, but a significant faction of fans considers Dylan’s singing on this tour a highlight in his long concert history – and there is something to be said for that. Dylan sings “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” with the passion of a smitten, fierce rock god – and that seems to help influence the otherwise insignificant changes in content. Like in this second verse; “I could” sounds more energetic, louder, than the original “I should”, like “leaving by noon” fits a creature of the night more than “leaving by morning”, like “scattered” is a great word to hurl enthusiastically through a wall of guitar violence into the concert hall. Better than “Oh, your love comes on so strong”, anyway.

After the Rolling Thunder tour, Ronson gives his guitar to one of his biggest fans, Mick Rossi from punk rock band Slaughter And The Dogs. An anonymous collector from Manchester gets his hands on it, but thankfully lends it to the temporary exhibition and performance Turn And Face The Strange in Hull.

Mick’s Rolling Thunder Les Paul,” says the exhibition sign. She is a shining centrepiece.

To be continued. Next up: Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 8: On The 309

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

 

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1 Response to Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1969) part 7: A Spider’s Life On Mars

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Still Dylan does his minion work well by backing up the guitar player with the newly written vocals …..
    he ends up selling his own guitar to the baker’s son for a few crumbs and a place to hide.

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