’Til I Fell In Love With You (1997) part 3: Ballad Of A Smalltown Boy

by Jochen Markhorst

III         Ballad Of A Smalltown Boy

 Neon Park (1940-1993) was a colourful and versatile illustrator, cartoonist and designer, whose clients included Playboy and DreamWorks, but his lasting fame is mainly due to the beautiful album covers he drew for Little Feat – apart from the 1971 debut album, Park provided every Little Feat album up until his death, i.e. up to and including 1991’s Shake Me Up, with great, often witty covers. Apart from his technical craftsmanship, Neon Park distinguishes himself by his playfulness; the men of Little Feat usually let him do what he wanted, which resulted in covers full of hidden allusions, obvious persiflages, winks and Hieronymus Bosch-like frenzies. Like the cover of Sailin’ Shoes (1972): a pie with women’s legs, swinging on a tree swing, watched by both a giant snail and Mick Jagger dressed as Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy from 1770.

A running gag throughout his career are duckfaces; Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich… he paints them in iconic, recognisable poses, but replaces body and face with enlarged, humanised Donald Ducks. And Little Feat did not escape this either; the last album with Lowell George, Down On The Farm (1979), is decorated with one of Parks’ most perfect covers: a sexy Duck posing as one of Gil Elvrgen’s famous pin-ups from the fifties: “The Finishing Touch”.

It is a brilliantly chosen template to illustrate the title song of Little Feat’s album:

They all asked about you
Down on the farm
The cows asked, the pigs asked
The horses asked, too
All want to know why to the city
You moved, changed your name to Kitty
What's come over you?
It ain't true; it ain't true, Linda Lou
Say it ain't true, Linda Lou

… the classic story of the local beauty who tries to satisfy her lust for wealth and fame in the Big City, and goes down with it. For Neon Park, the exceptional opportunity to place its running gag in a narratively correct context; this one time, the banality of something as mundane as a duck, placed in an alienating, glamorous setting, does actually make sense.

The plot is over-familiar and has been milked in dozens of films, novels and songs. Usually rather kitschy and moralistic. The one-hit wonder John Collins Cunningham scored a hit with “Norma Jean Wants To Be A Movie Star” in 1974 (“She died in L.A. in a lonely room”), Elton John’s brilliant, enchanting ballad “Cage The Songbird”, Bob Seger’s compelling “Hollywood Nights”… kitschy or not, the theme often brings out the best in artists.

For this third verse of “’Til I Fell In Love With You”, Dylan borrows clichés and motifs from all those identical, doomed fame-chaser stories;

Boys in the street beginning to play
Girls like birds flying away
When I’m gone you will remember my name
I’m gonna win my way to wealth and fame
I don’t know what I’m gonna do
I was all right ’til I fell in love with you

… whereby in Dylan’s mind there are probably no Elton John or Bob Seger buzzing around, but one of the pillars of all those lonely-at-the-top songs: Johnny Cash’s corny “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” from 1958, recorded for his first compilation album Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous. Certainly not a highlight of Cash’s discography, this ballad with its hard-to-enjoy penny novelette content and its super sweet happy ending, but it provides a motif and some jargon for a Dylan song – and that’s worth something. And a No. 1 hit in the Country Charts it was as well, nonetheless;

Then one day the teenage star
Sold her house and all her cars
Gave up all her wealth and fame
Left it all and caught a train

Though with Dylan too, as with Cash and unlike Elton and Seger and Cunningham, the motif of the hollow pursuit of wealth and fame does not bring out the best. This central stanza of “’Til I Fell In Love With You” falls a bit out of tune. These four lines are the only lines that don’t emotionally connect with the chorus lines I don’t know what I’m gonna do / I was all right ’til I fell in love with you, they are the only lines in which the narrator’s tone is not defeated and despondent, but rather one of venom and revenge. Childish, that just wait, you’ll be sorry wailing of verses three and four, and not fitting for the state of mind of the main character as we get to know it in the other four stanzas.

Still, apparently, its inclusion was a well-considered decision by the songwriter. After all, the lines come from the preliminary study of “’Til I Fell In Love With You”, from the outtake “Marchin’ To The City #1” that we know from Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8. Thanks to that wonderful Bootleg Series episode, we also know that Dylan himself initially had some reservations about these trite lines: in #2 of “Marchin’ To The City”, the version that also musically resembles the final product “’Til I Fell In Love With You”, these lines have been deleted and replaced by the admittedly very sentimental, but thematically more appropriate “Sorrow and pity through the earth and the skies / I’m not looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes”. However, somewhere between the recording of this version and the final recording of “’Til I Fell In Love With You”, these lines are also deleted and Dylan returns to that just wait, you’ll be sorry wail of “When I’m gone you will remember my name / I’m gonna win my way to wealth and fame”.

A rather incomprehensible intervention. But then again, it is the literary intervention of a small-town boy who left home to pursue wealth and fame and a Nobel Prize for Literature in the Big City, and who, as we all know, has succeeded incomparably –

All want to know why to the city
You moved, changed your name to Dylan
What's come over you?

… is a question no one will ever ask Robert Zimmerman.

 

To be continued. Next up ’Til I Fell In Love With You part 4:

 

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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