Million Miles (1997) part 9 – Shall we roll it Jimmy?

Million Miles (1997) part 9 – final

by Jochen Markhorst

IX         Shall we roll it Jimmy?

It has an irresistible, voyeuristic appeal, the gimmick that Dylan and his producers have used many times over the years. Before the song actually begins, the listener hears shuffling, clinking glasses, studio chatter, a single stray guitar chord, a false start perhaps. Before “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” begins, we hear an acoustic, broken-off start and laughter, and in 1969 Dylan asks producer Bob Johnston “Is it rolling, Bob?”, to name just two examples.

The best-known messy intro of all time is probably The Beatles’ “Get Back”. By now, there must be billions of people who can playback along with McCartney’s enigmatic “Rosetta…” and Lennon’s warm-up exercise “Sweet Loretta thought she was a cleaner…”, can hit an imaginary piano key in sync as Billy Preston and George Harrison are still tuning up, and know every single swirling note of that first twenty-one seconds by heart.

Roxy Music’s first album (1972) opens with babbling and buzz and glass clinking – it sounds like there’s a vernissage going on, and it takes twenty-five seconds for Bryan Ferry’s piano “Remake/Remodel” to pop over it – an opening that is copied over thirty years later on Razorlight’s debut album in the song “Which Way Is Out”, with the same exhilarating effect.

Led Zeppelin’s “Black Country Woman” is introduced with Robert Plant’s question “Shall we roll it Jimmy?”, we hear a plane fly over disturbingly, Jimmy Page wants to wait a little longer, Plant laughs and says “Nah, leave it, yeah.” And Slade’s Noddy Holder insists to this day that his shouted “Baby baby baby” was not part of the song at all, but that he was just testing whether the microphone was on. In vain; the iconic scream has long since been integrated, and is also sung again when Oasis cover “Cum On Feel The Noize” in 1996. Without irony, by the way; the Gallagher brothers are devout Slade fans, as the documentary It’s Slade (1999) also shows, in which Noel solemnly declares:

“People just think when they listen to Slade, they think of Cum On Feel The Noize and Mama Weer All Crazee Now, but: How Does It Feel is easily one of the best songs ever written. Ever. Such a brilliant song. Go on buy it if you’re watching this. It’s on the Greatest Hits. Track 13.”

Lanois and Dylan are evidently aware of the particular charm of a messy intro; Time Out Of Mind opens with six seconds of unstructured studio sounds before Augie Meyer’s staccato organ strikes start “Love Sick”; the first two seconds of guitar rumble on the following “Dirt Road Blues” may remain; Lanois is still looking for a riff and someone (Tony Mangurian, probably) takes his place behind the drums at the start of “Highlands”; and the record is set by “Cold Irons Bound”: fourteen seconds of rudderless guitar and piano notes before bassist Tony Garnier gives the starting signal.

That’s already four of the eleven Time Out Of Mind songs with such a chaotic beginning – and the fifth is “Million Miles”.  Eight seconds of fumbling and haggling, you can almost hear Tony Garnier giving the nod, and then it starts. Again, a deliberate choice; after all, it’s no trouble at all to cut the unstructured studio seconds from “Love Sick”, from “Cold Irons Bound”, from each of the five songs. In the case of “Highlands” and “Million Miles”, one might even suspect that the opening seconds were artificially added to suggest some kind of studio spontaneity. At least, that’s what Lanois’ account in Uncut implies:

“Tony and I played along to those records, and then I built some loops of what Tony and I did, and then abandoned these sources; which is a hip-hop technique. And then I brought those loops to Bob at the teatro. And we built a lot of demos around them, and he loved the fact that there was a good vibe on those. Some of the ultimate productions ended up having those loops in them. Songs like “Million Miles” and, uh, is it “Heartland”? [he means “Highlands”] – those long blues numbers have those preparations in their spine.”

Lanois is referring to the homework Dylan had given, those “dusty old rock’n’roll records” from artists like Charley Patton, Little Walter, Slim Harpo and “guys like that”, as technician Mark Howard says. So, for the studio recording of “Million Miles”, Dylan and the band play along with a loop already recorded by Lanois and Tony Mangurian; pressing the start button should be the natural starting signal of the song – and not the nod of the bandleader on duty.

Meanwhile, the source, that loop, is intriguing. All the guitar parts are too casual, too loose, to trace back to an old recording of Charley Patton or Lightnin’ Hopkins. Not as obvious, anyway, as for instance the lick from Little Walter’s “I Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” that we hear back in 2020’s “Crossing The Rubicon”;

“Million Miles” may have a similar structure and stomp as, say, Little Walter’s “Sad Hours”, but the searching, seemingly improvised guitar parts, the swirling licks and the near stumbling sooner lead to the coolness of Lightnin’ Hopkins, to records like Texas Blues Man (1968), to records that Hopkins so casually fills all on his own, without a band.

Still, “Million Miles” doesn’t have much status. It’s generally dismissed as one of the lesser songs (by the same fans and critics who condemn “Make You Feel My Love”, typically), although often enough with the comment that on an album full of Great Songs there are of course Very Great Songs and Less Very Great Songs.

Dylan himself seems to share the sentiment. After all, all through 1997 he ignores the song, and even after the stage debut in January ’98, it does not receive much love either: 25 performances in a whole year of 111 concerts is a bit disappointing. Especially compared to other Time Out Of Mind songs like “Cold Irons Bound” (82 times), “Can’t Wait” (64) and “Love Sick” (104 performances).

Noteworthy then is Susan Tedeschi’s report, following her invitation to the MusiCare event in 2015, when Dylan accepts the MusiCares Person of the Year 2015 Award and surprises everyone with a long, fascinating speech. Tedeschi, along with husband Derek Trucks, is one of the artists invited to grace the festive evening with a Dylan cover:

When Susan Tedeschi found out that Bob Dylan had personally requested that she perform his song “Million Miles” with her husband Derek Trucks, her reaction was short and sweet: “Holy crap! I don’t care if it’s Super Bowl weekend, we’re there.”
(Ryan Cormier, The News Journal, 13 februari 2015)

Charming, but of course, the most remarkable thing is not so much that Dylan personally requested Tedeschi, but that he specifically requested “Million Miles” – the song to which he himself never gave too much love and which he has already more or less dropped from his setlist. The last performance, well, kind of performance anyway, was in July 2014 in Greece, where he played only the first verse, and then let the song flow into “Cry A While”.

Tedeschi and Trucks’ rendition does not lead to a reappraisal. After the well-known cover by Bonnie Raitt and the somewhat lesser-known one by Alvin Youngblood Hart (for the successful Dylan tribute album All Blues’d Up from 2002), there are hardly any artists who put the song on the repertoire anymore. Wynonna Judd does it once – and beautifully – in 2016, at the Dylan Fest Nashville, celebrating Bob Dylan’s 75th Birthday, but the best one is again from Bonnie Raitt, when she performs the song together with Keb’ Mo’ in 2019, at the fifth edition of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival…

… bringing it all back home; Raitt plays country blues licks like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Keb’ Mo’ contributes vocals like Elmore James and plays a B.B. King-like solo – and it takes 28 messy seconds before the song starts.

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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