by Jochen Markhorst
II That boy’s good
“I wrote To Be Alone With You – that’s on Nashville Skyline – I wrote it for Jerry Lee Lewis. [Laughter] He was down there when we were listening to the playbacks, and he came in. He was recording an album next door. He listened to it… I think we sent him a dub. Peggy Day – I kind of had the Mills Brothers in mind when I did that one. [Laughter]”
Wenner adds “laughter” twice, apparently to indicate that both Dylan and his interviewer find the idea of Dylan writing something for Jerry Lee Lewis or something for the Mills Bothers a rather funny joke. Implying, of course, how absurd that would be. However, increased insight suggests that Wenner is either embellishing the written account of the interview with invented atmospheric descriptions after the fact, or that Wenner completely misjudges Dylan’s sincerity. The latter is more likely. It is more likely that Wenner is laughing in order to signal that he is sharp enough to recognise that Dylan is throwing a sarcastic side-swipe at Jerry Lee Lewis, and that Dylan is laughing along out of discomfort.
It seems to have escaped Wenner’s attention which corner Jerry Lee Lewis is in now, in 1969. The Killer has long since left Sun Records, has taken a different turn and in Nashville is fully immersing himself in pure, hardcore country. The album he records “next door” is the beautiful She Still Comes Around, an album filled with honky-tonk and tears-in-your-beer ballads like Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, like “Louisiana Man” and the title track with the brilliant full title “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me)”, which reaches the second spot on the country singles chart. And will later be played by fan Keith Richards, by the way, on a curious 1977 bootleg on which Keef accompanies himself surprisingly skilfully on piano;
The Killer’s love of country is as deep and intrinsic as Dylan’s. Before this record, Jerry Lee had already scored with his comeback album Another Place, Another Time, which earned him two Top 5 singles and even won the heart of country god George Jones. And after She Still Comes Around, the one he records while Dylan is recording Nashville Skyline next door, Jerry Lee stays in Nashville, for the time being. Still in this same year of 1969, he will release Sings the Country Music Hall of Fame Hits, Vol. 1 and Sings the Country Music Hall of Fame Hits, Vol. 2, albums that totally live up to their titles. “Oh, Lonesome Me”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”, “Jackson”, “Cold, Cold Heart”, “He’ll Have To Go”… they’re all on there, the landmarks of country, the songs that, one way or another, have all trickled into Dylan’s oeuvre.
In short, it is not at all absurd or laughable to go along with Dylan’s idea that “To Be Alone With You” would fit perfectly on the album The Killer is recording next door. But alas, apparently Lewis is not impressed. Or, more likely, he thinks the song’s content doesn’t fit in among all those tearjerkers on She Still Comes Around – after all, Dylan’s lyrics are rather cute and cloudless. Incidentally, Dylan’s anecdote seems to be contradicted by the stories surrounding “Rita May”, the first Dylan song Jerry Lee will record.
Ten years later, in 1979, The Killer enthusiastically returns to his rockabilly roots for another comeback album (Jerry Lee Lewis, with the hit “Rockin’ My Life Away”). Producer Bones Howe has Dylan under his skin. Apart from being from Minnesota too, Howe’s impressive career (Elvis, Mamas & Papas, Tom Waits) started with Dylan; his breakthrough as a producer is the 1965 hit he produced for The Turtles, Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”. So, obviously, Bones has warm feelings for Bob Dylan. For Jerry Lee’s comeback, he proposes a bare-bones band (including Elvis’ guitarist James Burton), and takes care of a strong tracklist. Charlie Rich’s “Who Will The Next Fool Be”, for example, and Arthur Alexander’s “Every Day I Have To Cry”. And he nominates Dylan’s throwaway “Rita May” already at the first recording session, “a simple fifties rock thing” according to co-author Jacques Levy.
The song is a product of Dylan’s collaboration with Levy, the experiment that would lead to the world successes “Hurricane” and Desire (1976). Lewis slams “Rita May” on the tape with gusto and full commitment, and it’s only when he’s listening back that he remembers to ask producer Howe: “Say, who wrote this?” “Bob Dylan,” Howe replies, grinning, for he is sure that Lewis will be mighty surprised. But The Killer doesn’t seem to recognise the name at all. “That boy’s good,” Jerry Lee Lewis says, “I’ll do anything by him.”
This is January 1979, a little less than ten years after Jerry Lee, according to Dylan, has been listening to playbacks of “To Be Alone With You” with him, in the control room of Columbia Studio in Nashville. It doesn’t seem very likely that Dylan would make this up, in the interview with Wenner conducted eight months after that alleged meeting. More likely, The Killer has already forgotten that February 1969 interlude ten years later. Or, even more likely, that the name “Dylan” meant as little to him then as it does today, in January 1979. Anyway, Lewis’ highly quotable “I’ll do anything by him” is therefore pertinently incorrect – he was handed “To Be Alone With You” on a silver platter at the time, but he left the song uncommented on the studio floor.
Much later again, 35 years after that first Dylan cover to be precise, yet another skilful producer with Dylan roots takes care of yet another Jerry Lee Lewis comeback album. In 2014, Daniel Lanois produces Rock & Roll Time, a kind of return to the 1950s, to Sun Records. Like his predecessor Bones Howe, Lanois cleans out the studio and restricts himself to a basic rock ‘n’ roll band to accompany Jerry Lee (featuring Dylan drummer Jim Keltner), and like his predecessor Bones Howe, Lanois also nominates a Dylan throwaway from the 70s, which – history repeats itself – is picked up enthusiastically and wholeheartedly: Jerry Lewis Lee’s cover of Dylan’s “Stepchild” is exciting, heavy and swampy. And underlines once again that The Killer should have accepted Dylan’s “To Be Alone With You”. That boy is really good.
To be continued. Next up: To Be Alone With You part 3: Shadow Kingdom
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