Please Mrs. Henry: A prime example of how Dylan can be transformed

by By Jochen Markhorst

Emeritus professor Ira Martin Gessel (1951) is a respected mathematician, specialized in combinatorics and computer sciences and one of the founders of the pioneering and incomprehensible quasi-symmetrical functions.

However, the first time Gessel makes the newspapers has nothing to do with mathematics. In 1970, the then nineteen-year-old Ira starts ceptia, the Committee to End Pay Toilets In America. He does not shy away from the big words: “When a man’s or woman’s natural body functions are restricted because he or she doesn’t have a piece of change, there is no true freedom.

It is a particularly successful grassroots movement, in those years a flourishing form of activist citizens’ initiatives. Often these initiatives are playful and short-lived, but ceptia strikes a chord. The committee collects 1800 paying members (membership costs 25 cents), regularly releases the Free Toilet Paper newsletter and sponsors the Thomas Crapper Memorial Award which is presented to ‘the person who has made a special contribution to the ceptia case and free toilets’.

Three years after the founding, the first big bastion is conquered when the Chicago city council promulgates a ban on pay-toilets. New York, California and Ohio follow, and in June 1976, when twelve states have instituted a ban, the Committee finds that its goal has been achieved and that it has made itself redundant. Definitely: by the end of the decade the more than fifty thousand pay toilets have virtually disappeared from the United States.

But when you are outdoors in 1967, nature’s call can still only be answered in a decent way if you’re lucky enough to have a dime in your pocket, which brings us to the distress of the narrator in “Please Mrs. Henry”:

Now, I’m startin’ to drain
My stool’s gonna squeak
If I walk too much farther
My crane’s gonna leak
Look, Missus Henry
There’s only so much I can do
Why don’t you look my way
An’ pump me a few?
Please, Missus Henry, Missus Henry, please!
Please, Missus Henry, Missus Henry, please!
I’m down on my knees
An’ I ain’t got a dime

Yes, toilet humour. Honourable scientists and decent researchers would catalogue it under: scatological or, even more distinguished: coprological, and even the biggest artists are unable to withstand the temptation.

Mozart is notorious. Some of his letters are so full of uncontrolled vulgarities and burly obscenities, that embarrassed and dignified fans despairingly diagnosed the Austrian wunderkind posthumously with the Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. Intolerable is the notion that an admired genius might knowingly reduce himself to such foulness.

Margaret Thatcher, for example, cannot stand being confronted with this infantile side of Mozart, when she attends Peter Shaffers Amadeus. Director Peter Hall is severely reprimanded after the play by the Iron Lady, who is not amused at all and briefly rules that Mozart did not say that.

It leads to an Amadeus-worthy scene. Hall tries to say that everything is historically correct, based among other things on quotations from Mozart’s letters, to which Thatcher does have a resourceful reply: “I don’t think you heard what I said. He could not have been like that.”

The director has a copy of Mozart’s Collected Letters delivered to 10 Downing Street the next day, and is graciously thanked by the private secretary, “but it was useless; the Prime Minister said I was wrong, so wrong I was.”

It is conceivable that at that point Peter Hall did feel the strong urge to have Mozart KV 231 performed on the sidewalk of 10 Downing Street:

Leck mich im Arsch g’schwindi, g’schwindi!
Leck im Arsch mich g’schwindi.
Leck mich, leck mich,
g’schwindi

(lick me in the ass, quickly, quickly)

Thatcher’s discomfort is similar to that of some Dylanologists and the more prudent exegetes.

Blogger Tony Ling thinks it’s a hilarious drinking song of a drunk who wants ‘God knows what’ from his landlady, our disgruntled Tony Attwood hears ‘quite a bit we don’t need to know’ and dismisses the song with some disdain.

Even Greil Marcus, in his beatification of the Basement Tapes, in Invisible Republic (1997), prefers not to pay attention to the song and refers to the title only indirectly, as an example of the ‘random, often obscene humor’ which Dylan and The Band also committed, down there in that basement. Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner makes himself ridiculous once again by assuming autobiographical depth (‘It is indicative of where Dylan was headed because it is about a man who has hit some hard times and needs a little help‘).

Sid Griffin does not know where to start with the lyrics, as evidenced by the miserable 125 words he puts into an ‘interpretation’, in which he uses the word ‘perhaps’ three times and ‘might’ once, and intelligent publicists like Oliver Trager (Keys To The Rain, 2004), Nigel Williamson (The Rough Guide, 2004) and Andy Gill (Don’t Think Twice, 1998) do not go much further than the observation that it is a rather nonsensical drinking song, and that Mrs. Henry probably is the barmaid.

Nonsensical’ is true. Whole passages are nothing more than exuberant linguistic pleasure, such as these similes:

I can drink like a fish
I can crawl like a snake
I can bite like a turkey
I can slam like a drake

Not to mention the psychedelic humbug of text fragments like ‘I’m a generous bomb’ and ‘I’ve been sniffin’ too many eggs’. An echo of those sniffed eggs seems to descend into Lennon’s classic “I Am The Walrus”. The lines between Dylan and The Beatles no longer are that short, this summer of ’67 (the first version of “I Am The Walrus” was recorded in September), but we do know that The Beatles possess copies of the Basement Tapes at an early stage and we hear George Harrison play, “Please Mrs. Henry” during the Let It Be sessions. In the 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon looks back on “I Am The Walrus” quite extensively and Dylan’s influence is mentioned:

I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words “Element’ry penguin” meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol. In those days I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan.”

And in his last interview (with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone), three days before his death, Lennon brings up ‘Walrus’ again, again in combination with Ginsberg.

Equally unimportant, but evidently intriguing, is the question: who is Mrs. Henry? The landlady or a bardame, are the most popular explanations. Well, okay, but in that case the starting point would be that Dylan has a real plot in mind, that the lyrics have an epic, telling quality.

This possibility does not seem too likely; the nonsensical, Lewis Carrollesque component is too dominant. More likely is that the name Mrs. Henry pops up in Dylan’s playful, associative mind because he is married to a Mrs. Henry; when Dylan meets Sara she is still married to Hans Lownds, whose official name is Henry Louis Lownds. At the Civil Registry she is therefore registered as Mrs. Henry Louis Lownds. A malicious spirit like Dylan would not miss the chance to needle his beloved Sara at inappropriate moments with that name. “Mrs. Henry! Where are my socks!”

Underexposed in all interpretations is the music to the song, but its power does not escape the colleagues. In 1970 the first serious studio recording is made in England by Chris Spedding, one of the most demanded session guitarists of the 70s. His solo albums, like this Backwood Progression, have never been very successful, but his “Please Mrs. Henry” is a swaying pub rocker, pleasantly chaotic and slightly anarchistic – as it should be.  (However it does not appear to be on line, not even on Spotify).

About the same time, Trials & Tribulations, a somewhat obscure The Band rip-off, plays a tighter but certainly attractive cover for their debut album, which also features another Basement Tape, a very nice “Open The Door, Homer”.

At the end of the 70s, the song is a regular on the setlist of Cheap Trick, whose dorky, masterful lead guitarist Rick Nielsen turns it into a ten-minute rock ‘n’ roll smasher in which he can go off like a rolling thunder. That version is the template for the savage Crust Brothers, the hobby band of Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus. Their trashy “Please Mrs. Henry” is one of the seven Basementcovers on the band’s only album, the 1997 Marquee Mark live album.

But in the end it is good old Manfred Mann again, who manages to make the two most attractive covers of the song. In the founding phase of his Earth Band, Mann is already struggling with the song. A dazzling, languid, nonchalant swinging approach can be heard on their official historical document, the 2005 Odds & Sods (Mis-Takes & Out-Takes).  

The version that ultimately ends up on Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s first album is sharper and more aroused, and at least equally attractive – one of the highlights of that undervalued record Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (1972) and a taste of the granite monument that Manfred manages to construct from that other Basementsong, his own sixties-hit “The Mighty Quinn”. Alcohol-obscured corniness has completely evaporated out of this version, and the I-person does not seem to suffer from lethargy, nor from any natural pressure, but the energetic, compelling tone suits this narrator perfectly.

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