by Jochen Markhorst
I People try and read so much into songs
Reader Phil A. Roddy works at a fitness club in those days. He gets a call one Tuesday from his boss. If Phil could come and open the club the next day after closing time for an unnamed big shot who wants to do his workout in peace. This does occur, every once in a while, so Phil is not too surprised. He is when, much to his excitement, he lets Bob Dylan in the next night.
He keeps his cool, well, up to a point anyway, and quietly observes how the then 45-year-old, muscular Dylan diligently and smoothly works hard for forty minutes on the various fitness machines. Afterwards, Dylan swims a few laps in the pool. When he then switches to the jacuzzi to relax, Phil gathers his courage, and, with tacit permission from the huge bodyguard, approaches Dylan. He confesses to being a fan and asks if he could do an interview for that fanzine Look Back. Dylan is relaxed, and allows it – on condition that Roddy doesn’t record anything, and he has to join him in the jacuzzi. Phil happens – lucky coincidence no. 2 – to have mastered shorthand, quickly grabs a few sheets and a clipboard, takes off his clothes and slips in.
It is a charming but otherwise unexciting interview. “How often do you work out?” and whether he has ever had weight problems, that level. But the latter question does lead the conversation into a remarkable song analysis. Dylan explains that he ate almost nothing in the ’65-’66s because of chronic toothache. But “when I had that motorbike accident, they did some root canal work for the next year and that took me out of pain I’d been in for two fucking years.” Which is a not too well-known, rather startling biographical fact, but Phil seems to miss it. At least, his follow-up question is rather silly; “So, at that time you began to exercise?” Fortunately, Dylan is apparently in a talkative mood, and, unlike Phil, he does stay on track:
“Not really, other than walking. I did one thing though. Man, did I eat. You name it. People try and read so much into songs. You know that song, Country Pie? That’s what it was about. Pie. In fact, for the first time in six years, I began to have a bit of a weight problem.”
Maybe Phil should have checked the calendar. Today is 1 April. And Dylan has a reputation, still in the 80s anyway, for having a penchant for talking complete nonsense with a perfectly straight face, April 1 or not. Still, it is quite surprising that this forgotten song in particular should bubble up in Dylan’s mind. It is almost twenty years ago that he recorded the track in two takes on a Friday night in Nashville, and after that he never looked back at it – and after this ad hoc interview in 1987 it will be another thirteen years before “Country Pie” appears on his set list (10 March 2000 in Anaheim, and then the song’s here to stay for a while: that year Dylan will perform “Country Pie” more than a hundred times).
More surprising though, is Dylan’s song analysis (“it’s about pie”). The introduction is undeniably true: “People try and read so much into songs.” True, plenty of pompous bullshit has been written about this song, yes. Back when the album was released, it took Hubert Saal only five days to crack the code in Newsweek (14 April 1969). The chorus, with all those different pies, is “a kind of declaration of independence,” Hubert explains. And:
“When Dylan talks of eating pies, all kinds, he means writing songs, all kinds. And when he goes on in the song to say “Ain’t runnin’ any race” he seems to be rejecting the musical direction his many admirers have chosen for him in the past or would choose for him in the future.”
Ridiculous enough, but at least kinder than Dylanologists like Mike Marqusee, Clinton Heylin (“embarrassing, un-Dylanesque drivel”) or John Hughes (“almost provocative vapidity”), who qualify the song as a throwaway. Fans, meanwhile, overwhelmingly lean towards Dylan’s own 1987 analysis, defending on the various forums opinions like “Bob Dylan basically just likes pie. I think we all do”. Though among them are some who prefer to milk the double entendre pie = vagina, and even, believe it or not, analysts who can explain that the song is about shooting heroin.
Two camps, then, at two extremes of the spectrum; on the one hand, the lazy interpreters who deny the song any depth or ambiguity, on the other, the overenthusiastic cryptanalysts who even cite Shakespeare to prove the supposed scatological content of the lyrics. Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2 then, of course. The scene where Hamlet wants to put his head between Ophelia’s legs. And assaults poor, dismayed Ophelia with doublespeak;
No, my lord!
I mean, my head upon your lap.
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?
… with “country” being pronounced emphatically as cunt-ry, and “nothing” being a common euphemism in Elizabethan times for the female pubic region (“no-thing”, nudge nudge wink wink). And “pie” is established in twentieth-century America as a metaphor for vagina, so there you go, with your “country pie”.
It does seem a bit laborious, but alright, yes indeed: once you are in that tunnel of sexual innuendo, the rest of the lyrics are a treasure trove of ambiguities and obscenities. A second argument for entering that tunnel is the song lyric’s sky-high Basement couleur. One would be tempted to think that Dylan, leafing back through his notebook, has come across an old, unused lyric from the summer of 1967, a leftover pie as it were, a playful scribble from that summer in Woodstock with the guys from The Band in the basement of the Big Pink, carefree playing songs from the Good Old Days, shaking nonsensical songs out of his trouser leg, improvising little masterpieces out of thin air, and merrily shuffling and mixing folk, country and blues classics.
For that’s exactly what we hear already in the opening couplet of “Country Pie”…
To be continued. Next up Country Pie part 2: Slap that drummer with a pie that smells
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
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic