by Jochen Markhorst
X Don’t you step on my pink pedal pushers
Pink pedal pushers and red blue jeans All the pretty maids and all the old queens All the old queens from all my past lives I carry four pistols and two large knives I’m a man of contradictions and a man of many moods . . . I contain multitudes
Tom Waits is a lot more principled than Dylan on that front. “Things Have Changed” for Chrysler, “Love Sick” for Victoria’s Secret, IBM, Google, Apple, “I Want You” in a yoghurt commercial, Pepsi (“Forever Young”), Cadillac… and those are just a few of the US takers. Worldwide, the use of Dylan’s songs in commercials is – of course – a multiple of these eight examples, and since 2020, since Dylan sold his copyrights to Universal, it is only increasing. Tom Waits, on the other hand, fiercely opposes any commercial use of his work. One company after another is taken to court whenever a song of his pops up in a commercial, and if an advertiser tries to take a shortcut by using a soundalike (like Salsa Rio Doritos in 1988), Waits lashes out just as fiercely. He always wins. Even against Really Big Guns like Volkswagen-Audi in 2000. And as in the 1990s against Levi’s for using Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ cover of “Heartattack And Vine” – fairly classy actually – in a jeans advert.
The commercial aired in Europe with great regularity in 17 countries during the first six months of 1993, both on television and in cinema. And is, like all Levi’s commercials in the 1990s, popular. In countries like the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, there is a successful spin-off; compilation CDs featuring the music used in the commercials (The Clash, Muddy Waters, Steve Miller Band) hit the charts. And, even more positively, unknown bands like Stiltskin, Babylon Zoo and Smoke City suddenly storm the top of the charts thanks to a Levi’s commercial (Stiltskin’s “Inside” even reaches No 1 – mainly on the strength of the song, of course, but the commercial, Creek, is quite brilliant too).
None of it softens Tom Waits though. Not at all, in fact. It is of course fine if a great like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins covers one of his songs, but not if his song is then used for advertising purposes. He goes to court again, in September 1994, and is once again vindicated. The $20,000 in damages he is awarded is not very much, compared to similar lawsuits in the US, awarding him from $500,000 up to 1 million dollars (in Europe, compensation for damages is usually less hysterical, which probably doesn’t bother him at all). And perhaps Waits’ outrage is finally tempered for good by the utterly elegant apology that Levi’s publishes full-page on page 8 of Billboard Magazine 23 December 1995, so almost three years after the fact:
“Tom Waits is opposed to his music, voice, name or picture being used in commercials. We at Levi Strauss & Co. have long admired Mr. Waits’ work and respect his artistic integrity including his heartfelt views on the use of his music in commercials. From January to June 1993 Levi Strauss Europe authorized broadcasting in 17 countries a commercial for Levi’s 501 jeans called “Procession”. This commercial featured Tom Waits’ song “Heart Attack and Vine” performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. We obtained the rights in good faith and were unaware of Mr. Waits’ objections to such usage of his composition. We meant no offense to Mr. Waits and regret that “Heart Attack and Vine” was used against his wishes and that the commercial caused him embarrassment.”
The “damage” has, of course, long since been done by then. Millions of people in Europe have been touched by the extraordinary beauty of the song “Heartattack And Vine” and, as a side benefit, learned what “pedal pushers” are;
See that little Jersey girl in the see-through top With the pedal pushers, sucking on a soda pop Well, I bet she's still a virgin, but it's only twenty-five till nine You can see a million of 'em on Heartattack and Vine
… not something like shoes or perhaps boots stepping on a gas pedal, as had been a general assumption until then, but trousers. Calf trousers, or capris, to be precise. Popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, especially among teenage girls, and called “pedal pushers” because cyclists rolled up the trouser legs to prevent the trouser leg from getting caught in the bicycle chain.
Whether Dylan knows this trivial fact is unclear. But it seems as if he also thinks they are shoes. Of course, he has known the term “pedal pushers” for much longer; after all, in this first line of the fifth verse, he winks at one of his great heroes, Carl Perkins, who recorded “Pink Pedal Pushers” in 1958. Released on single as well, not very successful (No 91 in Billboard Hot 100, No 17 in the C&W charts). Still, in this song it is not too obvious either that we are talking about trousers;
She goes drivin' down the street in her brand new car The cats started gazin' from near and far She don't cause commotion till she steps outside The cats get hip and holler, ooh-ooh man alive She's wearin' pink pedal pushers, pink pedal pushers Pink pedal pushers has made her the queen of them all
She drives a car, gets out of the car, and only then we are able to see her pedal pushers… Plus, this is a song by the man who shortly before had his world hit with “Blue Suede Shoes”, and the hit single hereafter is called “Pointed Toe Shoes”; Perkins does seem to cultivate an innocent form of shoe fetishism. It is at the very least conceivable that Dylan, whom we have never been able to catch at fashion savviness, thinks he is actually describing an ensemble – an ensemble of pink shoes + red trousers, worn by some female passer-by, when opening this verse with the line Pink pedal pushers and red blue jeans.
Which ultimately, like the Ballylee, Ballinalee or Bally-Na-Lee question, also should be categorised in the Department of Big Deals, section “Who Cares?” After all, the word combination pink pedal pushers has long since dissociated itself from its actual meaning – Dylan, like the listener, is touched by the music-historical connotations, and the euphony of the simple p-p-p alliteration plus the irresistible ingrained rhythm. He loves, as we all know, to rollick and to frolic.
But don’t you step on my pink pedal pushers.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 11: She’s the queen of all the teens
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
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece