Publisher’s note: the video of “Ballad of a thin man” cited in this article is not available in all countries, so we’ve put up two sources – hopefully at least one of these will work for you.
by Jochen Markhorst
- I was young when I left home: An absolutely astonishing thing for a boy of 20 to have written
- I was young when I left home part II: Different Doors.
III Old Jim McKay
Richard Hawley has been a respected guest singer and guitarist at the forefront of Britpop since the 1990s, playing with the Arctic Monkeys, Manic Street Preachers, Longpigs, Elbow and Pulp, and collaborating with the likes of Paul Weller and Duane Eddy – no small feat. But on his solo records, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hawley has increasingly developed into a kind of English Roy Orbison, wandering around in the 1950s, wallowing in Sheffield and South Yorkshire nostalgia, rockabilly, dancehall and easy-listening.
Dylan has been under his skin all this time. This is most audible on his wonderful contribution to the soundtrack of Peaky Blinders, season 5 finale, on his masterful cover of “Ballad Of A Thin Man”. Played on the Fender Telecaster that is close to his heart:
“I bought this from Martin Carthy, a beautiful human being and a friend. I tried it and it took me about nine seconds to fall in love with it completely. He told me Bob Dylan used to play it whenever he came over. That’s a thing. I’ve got no photographic evidence for that. It’s just an anecdote of Martin.”
(interview with Guitar.com, August 2019)
… and most clearly expressed is the Dylan love when explaining his choice of his Eight Favourite Albums for The Quietus, February 2016. At number one is Blonde On Blonde. Hawley introduces his choice with a Nick Hornby-like disclaimer: “I’m not a massive Dylan head, as such, but I just like listening to his words.” And subsequently loses himself in an eloquent declaration of love, not unworthy of a massive Dylan head:
“The thing with Dylan is it’s not his guitar playing, it’s not his harmonica playing, it’s not his voice and it isn’t his band – the thing that’s always turned me on is hearing his mind. You do drift off and go to random points in the universe within a verse and it’s a record where all the receptors are open. It’s not psychedelia in the widely understood, comic sense – I loathe that – but the reason I got into Dylan was because I could hear stuff I’d heard as I grew up; people like the Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams.”
And by the time he zooms in on Blonde On Blonde, the brakes are off:
“It felt like I was being bombarded with asteroids or something. My favourite track on Blonde On Blonde is ‘Visions Of Johanna’, by a mile, but I don’t know why. It’s like a beautiful, spinning, jewelled Christmas present that comes out of its box and I don’t want to know which switch to press to make it do that. You just put the needle to the record and that’s it.”
… but a massive Dylan head, no.
A highlight of Hawley’s solo output is 2005’s successful Coles Corner, but on its equally attractive follow-up Lady’s Bridge (2007) we find more explicit Dylan traces. In the beautiful “Dark Road” for instance, which has a strong “Love And Theft” vibe anyway. Not only in its opening line (“It’s a long dark road that I call my home / It’s a long dark road that I’m cursed to roam”), but also in the “Shelter From The Storm” echoes in verse fragments like “One day from the darkness I’ll come rapping at your door”. And on the album, we also find that first “I Was Young When I Left Home” offshoot, in the gently mournful “Lady Solitude”:
I hear a whistle blowing Morning low, guess I'll ride that train Well you never wrote a letter You hurt your man again
Debatable, of course, whether this could be traced back to Dylan – the words themselves are far too generic to be marked as borrowings. But still, the combination of I hear a whistle blowing, train and never wrote a letter, sung by a massive Dylan head, is a bit too coincidental accumulation of literal correspondences.
Less debatable is the reuse of the only stand-out verse of “I Was Young When I Left Home”, the sixth verse;
I’m playing on a track Ma would come and whoop me back On them trestles down by old Jim McKay’s
The name “McKay” does not (yet) have the status in the canon of, for example, “Mr. Jones”, “Suzie Q” or “Mrs. Brown”, but it is slowly starting to catch on. Remarkably often in combination with “longing for home” or with a “dead and gone mother”, by the way. Like in Jon McLaughlin’s forgettable ELO rip-off “You Can Never Go Back” (“Are you still at the corner restaurant / Meeting Jamie McKay when you get off”). Or with the criminally underrated troubadour Shawn Mullins; on the same album Soul’s Core that contains his brilliant “Lullaby”, we can find the beautiful “Ballad of Billy Jo McKay”;
My name's Billy Jo McKay I just turned 16 yesterday I'm gonna get the nerve one day to get outta here My ma passed on 3 years ago, they said it was cancer and it took her slow
(An album full of heartbreaking, sad songs, and also with an exquisite cover of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”).
Unmistakably a different door to “I Was Young When I Left Home” comes from Boston, and is crafted by the young, independent talent Vaughan Supple, who, with the help of ProTools, electronic drums, guitar and keyboard, is diligently building a multi-coloured oeuvre. Echoes can be heard of Buddy Holly, Radiohead and Vampire Weekend, but in this particular song, Vaughan sounds like Eels indulging in a Dylan song. My mother is dead and gone, I can never go home, and
I'm taking the train, By old Jim McKay's I will find a place Where no one knows my name
From the 2020 EP Treehouse. Vaughan Williams is 18. The same age Dylan is when he sings “I Was Young When I Left Home”, in 1961.
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:
- 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
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978