Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the autobiography of Elvis Costello (2015), matches up to Chronicles, the memoirs of Bob Dylan.
The tone is different, of course. Whereas with Dylan the atmosphere is often coloured by sepia tones, Costello paints in glaring neon. In contrast with the dry, casual humour of the American, the Brit sprinkles flashy, pointy one-liners (about the girlfriend of Mink DeVille: “She looked like a bag of old clothes that had been abandoned after The Shangri-Las had left town”).
However, the love for songs is predominant in both writers. Costello is infectious when he conjures up the memory of an obscure B-side from a forgotten Motown artist, shares his emotions over a patch from a George Jones tear-jerker, or catches in words his father’s love for the music of the 1930s – just like, indeed, Dylan. Just like his idol, he happily reveals from which songs he steals a melody line, a riff or the sound. And he also imitates the non-chronological structure of the work.
But that is not why the book is appealing particularly to the Dylan follower. While Costello is a Dylan fan who knows how to communicate that love pleasantly, he talks wittily and candidly about his many encounters with the bard. The first tête-à-tête is already comical:
Bob Dylan walked into the greenroom. I can’t recall what was in his hand. He was wearing dark glasses but I thought he was looking at my shoes, back then they were the red Chelsea boots that I wore instead of carrying a business card.
He said, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
And what was my sparkling reply, worthy of Oscar Wilde?
Why, it was . . .
“I’ve heard a lot about you, too.”
Fortunately, this punctured the ice with laughter rather than seeming utterly dim-witted.
This is taking place June 3, 1978. Costello is with his Attractions and with the band Rockpile on the road in America and has, to his joy, a night off when Dylan performs in the neighborhood: the third concert of the seven so-called Warm-Up Shows for the world tour in the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles.
Tickets are more or less thrown into his lap: fellow traveler Billy Bremner just happened to meet an old mate, Dylan’s guitarist Steven Soles, who will have VIP tickets waiting for Billy at the box office. Bremner does not like Dylan, so he says to Costello: you go in my place. However, when Elvis reports at the check-in that evening, there are no tickets for a Mr. Bremner. Then the narrator is lucky for the third time today – the cashier recognizes him. She consults with her chief, who then whispers conspiringly: “There are actually no tickets in that name, sir, but we’ve just heard that Barbra Streisand cannot attend, so you may have her tickets.”
And so, Costello continues, I am sitting forty minutes later in the tenth row, when Dylan and his choir lit in a terrific new song. “It sounded like something that Aretha Franklin should have recorded.”
He is talking about “Baby, Stop Crying”, the song that Dylan recorded just two weeks before. Costello is not the only one who is touched. It is the third time that Dylan plays the song and it is, like that other new song from Street Legal (“Señor”), warmly welcomed. The master then seems reasonably pleased with the song. It is among the first songs on the playlist (as number three) and it stays there during the European tour – it even shifts occasionally to the second place (Nuremberg and Paris). And it is a big hit on the old continent. Number thirteen in England, in other countries even higher.
But it is different at home, to Dylan’s apparent disappointment. When returning to the States, “Baby, Stop Crying” is stashed to the end of the set, to the 23rd place (Augusta, 15 September ’78), in the subsequent concerts the song is sometimes canceled and from 29 September on, announced or denounced with some cynical, sour even, comments. “There’s lot of people from Columbia Records here tonight, so we’ll play it so they know we’re doin’ our job.” At the twenty-one gigs in October the song is virtually ignored, at the end of the month it gets a bitter joke: “Anyway this is a song that was out as a single, on Columbia Records. I think it was a few weeks ago, months ago. Sold twenty-five copies. I got them all myself.”
But when it is eventually put to sleep, in November, it gets a final caress. “ It was about for about three weeks, and sold twenty-five copies. We still like it and we’re gonna play it anyway.”
The failure of the single in America has everything to do with the scathing critics of Street Legal – unlike in Europe, Dylan’s new record is downplayed, the quality of the songs ridiculed and Dylan’s own performance razed to the ground: “intolerably smug”, “utterly fake”, “dead air”, “uninterested” … where an authoritative critic like Greil Marcus hears all this is puzzling, but he is not the only one.
“Baby, Stop Crying” is no average Dylan song, that much is true, but only in terms of arrangement. The lyrics start with opening lines from the language-loving poet we know and love, with seven alliterating B’s, and afterwards seems to be a mix of blues clichés. Robert Johnson, obviously (“Stop Breaking Down”), but especially the monument Tampa Red (1904-1981) has been an inspiration.
We owe guitarist Hudson ‘Tampa Red’ Woodbridge the immortal classic “It Hurts Me Too” (Dylan’s cover is a highlight on Self Portrait, 1970), and dozens of songs with a motif that Dylan copies here: the unfaithful woman and her regret.
“Crying Won’t Help You”, “Don’t You Lie To Me” and “Dead Cats On The Line”, for example. Browsing through the oeuvre of Tampa Red delivers more aha moments, by the way.
The mysterious expression the sky is folding, which Dylan uses in “Farewell, Angelina” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, originates from “Got To Leave My Woman” (1938),
Tampa’s I like my coffee sweet from “Sugar Mama Blues” echoes in I like my sugar sweet in Dylan’s “Quinn The Eskimo” and I hate myself for falling in love with you, the opening line to “I Hate Myself” (1936) is almost literally the opening of “Dirge”- there are a lot of smaller and bigger influences.
Dylan also honours Tampa Red openly, especially in 1978. His “Love Her With A Feeling” and his “She’s Love Crazy” are on the setlist dozens of times, almost every time as an introduction to “Baby, Stop Crying”.
However, a genuine blues the song is not. Dylan calls it a little ballad, but that does not cover it either. Costello is right when he calls it a song for Aretha Franklin. It is certainly soulful, the melody of the verse is compelling, exciting is the chorus and its last line (’cause it’s tearing up my mind) is an intense, sizzling apotheosis.
“I liked Street Legal a whole lot,” Dylan says in 1985, in the interview with Time correspondent Denise Worrell, still not understanding the slating.
The disregard is incomprehensible. Just like most of the songs from that album, the beautiful “Baby, Stop Crying” is forgotten, covered up in dust, has been kicked into the long grass, dumped into the wells of oblivion, shares the fate of the Norwegian Blue, but we can blame it partly on the troubadour himself: he never plays the song and even does not select it for Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (1994)… although it really is one of his very few, real, actual, hits.
Noteworthy covers there are not. And it is too late now. Aretha Franklin has passed away at 76 on Thursday morning, August 16, 2018, at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit, MI, surrounded by family and loved ones. May she rest in peace.
Irrelevant Footnote from Tony: one of the strangest things I have found in adding links to these commentaries turned up in the search for Baby Stop Crying. If your musical appreciation extends to Beethoven you might care to try it. My father used to play it, and as a trainee classical pianist (never made the grade) I learned it too.
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