Mississippi, Desolation Row, Crossing The Rubicon, Where Are You Tonight, Tombstone Blues… Some songs are so rich and multicoloured that they deserve their own book . I fear that almost every song on Rough And Rowdy Ways is going to claim that right.
by Jochen Markhorst
XI She’s the queen of all the teens
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
Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What from 2011 is well received and scores high on the charts; widely regarded as his best record since Graceland (1986) – a status that will be maintained at least until Seven Psalms (2023). Ten beautiful songs, with the fragile “Love And Hard Times”, the Graceland-like “Getting Ready For Christmas Day” and the dreamy “Amulet” perhaps standing out.
As does track 2, the witty, swinging “The Afterlife”. A first-person narrator opens the song with After I died and the make up had dried, I went back to my place, and soberly and dryly recounts what happens to him afterwards. Long queues at the counters of a bureaucratic institution, waiting for the form he has to fill out before he can see God, for Whom there is another long queue.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line. The waiting is not too tedious, fortunately. There are nice girls to flirt with, he sees Moses, he sees Buddha… Days or maybe weeks later, when he finally has received the form, has filled out the form, has waited in a next line again, he stands before God’s throne. And he has one last verse left to tell us about this profound experience:
After you climb up the ladder of time The Lord God is near Face-to-face in the vastness of space Your words disappear And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love And the current is strong But all that remains when you try to explain Is a fragment of song Lord, is it Be-Bop-A-Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo? Lord, Be-Bop-A-Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo? Be-Bop-A-Lula
With which Simon suggests a wonderfully surprising and witty climax: Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” is God. But he doesn’t actually mean that, as Paul Simon explains to Huffington Post interviewer Mike Ragogna a little later, in March 2011:
“My thought was, if and when you’re confronted with the enormity of God, infinity, or the great mystery–however you want to describe it–all the questions that we prepare in our feeble human brains don’t really have much meaning. So, you can’t say, “Was I right to do that?” There is nothing to say at that point because it’s just beyond words and it’s too big. That was my point with the song.”
Admittedly poetic as well, and still surprising in form, but “speechlessness in the face of the enormity of God” is still a somewhat less original denouement than the Be-Bop-A-Lula = God variant.
It wouldn’t even be a very bold denouement. Be-Bop-A-Lula’s monumental, seemingly divine status is undisputed. In his autobiography Fortunate Son (2015) John Fogerty hails the song and Gene Vincent as the Big Bang, as the signpost for Creedence;
“I thought Gene Vincent was great. His records were like instrumentals to me. “Lotta Lovin’”, “Woman Love”, and of course “Be-Bop-a-Lula”. I’d sit and play him on my record player, and in my mind I’d block out the vocal. Because there was all this great stuff going on back there. Man! That was an education to me: Without the singing, it’s like an instrumental. And as you’ll soon see, that’s how I presented the songs and the arrangements to my guys in Creedence.”
On Graham Nash, the song has a similar impact and identical status. Man, it just killed me, he writes in his Wild Tales : A Rock & Roll Life (2013) about his awakening thanks to the song. It sows the seeds for The Hollies; with schoolmate Allan Clarke, he rehearses the song for a talent show at the local club and “Well, Allan and I won it four weeks in a row, doing “Be- Bop-a-Lula” like the Everly Brothers did.” The song remains something like a Holy Grail for the rest of his life. When he falls out with Columbia Records in 1980, Capitol Records is eager to take him in. Nash is willing, but has a condition:
“I told Greg, “I’ll sign with Capitol if they let me listen to Gene Vincent’s original two-track of Be-Bop-a-Lula.” Now, as a record maker, I would be furious if anyone passed our master tapes over a playback head, because every time you do so, you lose clarity. It may not be evident until the twentieth time, but it breaks down. Take my word for it. In retrospect, I should not have asked Capitol to accommodate me, and they probably should have refused. But there it was, “Be-Bop-a-Lula” in the 1950s tape box, right at my fingertips. I listened to it at the Capitol Towers, in their beautiful studio, with giant speakers turned up fucking loud. I wanted to hear that song. And it sounded – fantastic! One of the greatest records ever made. Two-track, live. Are you kidding me! Brilliant stuff. So I signed with Capitol.”
John Lennon, Elvis Costello, Little Richard, Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, Everly Brothers, Robbie Robertson, Paul McCartney… every rock artist from the Pantheon acknowledges his indebtedness to Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. And Dylan doesn’t stay behind either.
For Dylan the song is, at the very least, one of the components of the Big Bang. The first record he records, as a teenager in 1958 with his a-capella group The Jokers, is one of those vanity pressed 78-rpm records: “Be-Bop-A-Lula” (with “Earth Angel” on the B-side). Gene Vincent’s “Baby Blue” provides the name for Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, in the 80s he records “Important Words” for Down In The Groove (but eventually rejects the recording), and in 2020 he comes full circle, returning to “Be-Bop-A-Lula” again:
Well she's the girl in the red blue jeans She's the queen of all the teens She's the one woman that I know She's the woman that loves me so Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby Be-bop-a-lula, I don't mean maybe Be-bop-a-lula
… the red blue jeans, which, incidentally, Gene Vincent himself apparently also saw as a standard-bearer for the song, as evidenced by his own rip-off “Red Blue Jeans And A Ponytail” from a year later (1957). Distinctive enough, in any case, to be mentioned in the same breath with Carl Perkins’ “Pink Pedal Pushers”, with the other divine entity that together form one of the many multitudes of Dylan’s persona from “I Contain Multitudes”.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 12: They’re not metaphors
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
- I contain Multitudes: Bob Dylan’s Account of the Long Strange Trip