Wanted Man Part 5: Busted flat in Baton Rouge

by Jochen Markhorst

V          Busted flat in Baton Rouge

Wanted man in Albuquerque, wanted man in Syracuse
Wanted man in Tallahassee, wanted man in Baton Rouge
There’s somebody set to grab me anywhere that I might be
And wherever you might look tonight, you might get a glimpse of me

 Peckinpah’s 1961 film debut, The Deadly Companions, was not a great success and would (rightly) have been long forgotten had “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah not become such a big name, later on. The second claim to fame is more impressive.

Despite the mediocre acting, clumsy editing and hideous soundtrack, Lowell George apparently endured the movie at least an hour: at two-thirds of the film we hear “Turk” (Chill Wills) say, “We’ll be able to burn a fire path through this country from Tucson to Tucumcari.” Lowell grabs his notepad and has a pillar for the song that will become one of his all-time greatest songs;

And I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed
And if you give me; weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I'll be willin', to be movin'

Back then, Lowell George is still a member of The Mothers Of Invention, but when Zappa hears the song, he knows he should say farewell and allow Lowell a career of his own. At least, that’s the romantic version. Other sources report that Lowell was fired for smoking marijuana. And on Little Feat Live at the Auditorium Theatre Rochester NY October 18, 1975, we hear Lowell tell us at the introduction, “I was in a group called The Mothers Of Invention and I got fired because I wrote a song about dope. How about that shit?”

Either way, it’s an out-of-category song, which is also recognised by the master; when DJ Dylan plays it in his Theme Time Radio Hour in 2008 (ep. 84, “Street Maps”), he appreciatively calls “Willin’” a “crowd pleaser that has grown to become a country classic”, and he puts his words where the money is: on stage, where Dylan plays the song ten times.

The pleasure with which Dylan sings the opening line of the chorus demonstrates his sensitivity to its magical euphony: I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah. Place names that Lowell George may also have got from Hollywood, by the way; Tonopah is the setting for several episodes of the 60s series State Trooper, and in the classic The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart says: “Well, if you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then.” A text adaptation that creates a full circle, coincidentally; in the source text, Dashiell Hammett’s book, the archetypal hard-boiled private detective Sam Spade says:

Spade said tenderly: “You angel! Well, if you get a good break you’ll be out of San Quentin in twenty years and you can come back to me then.”

It means nothing, of course. Lowell chooses the four city locations for their euphony – just as Cash and Dylan throw in two towns not on Cash’s tour schedule in the last stanza (all right, second-to-last, but the last is a repeat of the first stanza): Tallahassee and Baton Rouge.

Given its euphoniousness, it is a bit disappointing in how few songs Tallahassee is sung. Presumably, Dylan’s record cabinet still contains Bing Crosby’s “Tallahassee” (along with the Andrews Sisters, 1947), Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town” naturally (I heard it also rained in Tallahassee), the rockabilly gem that by now does have a kind of evergreen status, Freddy Cannon’s “Tallahassee Lassie” from 1959, and Charlie Daniels’ “Cowboy Hat In Dallas”.

Yet another one of those city name-list songs, by the way, just like Tom Waits’ “Had Me A Girl” (And I had me a girl in Tallahassee), and also from the early 70s – list songs with place names are popular apparently, in those years. But “Tallahassee” has been confiscated, forever probably, by Bobbie Gentry, although she doesn’t actually sing it at all, of course; “Today, Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” (“Ode To Billie Joe”, 1967)

“Baton Rouge” is even less fraught, despite similar euphony. Until 1969, when Cash and Dylan topographically fill “Wanted Man”, Louisiana’s picturesque capital was actually only mentioned in Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.”;

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol' St. Lou
Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A.

… and in one of the Songs That Made Him Famous, the song Cash and Dylan play half an hour before “Wanted Man Take 1” at this same Columbia Studio A in Nashville, the song Dylan played with the men of The Band at The Basement two years before, and which will continue to appear on his setlist with some regularity well into the twenty-first century: Cash’s own “Big River” from 1958;

Now, won't you batter down by Baton Rouge, River Queen, roll it on
Take that woman on down to New Orleans, New Orleans
Go on, I've had enough, dump my blues down in the Gulf
She loves you, big river, more than me

It is a wonderful word combination with an irresistible rhythm and magical sheen of its own, batter down by Baton Rouge, and undoubtedly it still lingers in the studio air, when the men venture into the first take of “Wanted Man” half an hour later. After all, “All these songs are connected,” as Dylan says in his MusiCares speech in February 2015.

Kris Kristofferson hangs out there too, by the way, in Nashville, at Cash House and Columbia Studios. And that eloquent Baton Rouge seems to strike a chord with him as well – in these same days, Kristofferson writes his pièce de résistance “Me And Bobby McGee”:

Busted flat in Baton Rouge
Waitin' for the train
Feelin' nearly faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down
Just before it rained
Rode us all the way to New Orleans

… “Back In The U.S.A.”, “Big River”, “Wanted Man”, “Me And Bobby McGee”… Baton Rouge doesn’t unleash the worst, in the best songwriters of the 20th century.


To be continued. Next: Wanted Man part 6 (final): There’s one place I’m not wanted





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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