by Jochen Markhorst
“One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere,” Paul Simon says in the interview with Rolling Stone (April 2011). “I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.”
Simon is a bit too modest about the limitations of the colour of his singing voice, but that much is true: the irony, the sneering and the sarcasm that Dylan especially in the mercurial years ’65 -’66 manages to deliver in his singing, fall outside Simon’s range. On the other hand, he is a grandmaster, similar to Randy Newman, in the field of supercooled understatements, dry humor and feigned naivety. “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, “Paranoia Blues”, “Have A Good Time” … Paul Simon’s palette really does have more colours than just sincere.
He does not reveal where he ‘tried to sound ironic’, but Simon refers in his next breath to Dylan, so the link with “A Simple Desultory Phillipic” (1965 and 1966) is soon made. Whether he sounds ironic there, well, that is debatable, but at the very least he does his utmost to sound like Dylan. In any case, it is a Dylan pastiche for which time has been kind. At the time it was somewhat faint, misunderstood (ironically as a despicable attempt to free ride on Dylan’s success) and occasionally appreciated with some kindness, but in the twenty-first century, fan circles and biographers look back with more love. Sometimes a little too himmelhochjauchzend (Shelton calls it a ‘vicious burlesque’, AllMusic’s Matthew Greenwald thinks it is ‘hilarious’, on fan sites fans even praise it as ‘one of the best political songs ever’ and ‘great and hilarious’), but the song certainly is funny.
There are two versions. The first is from Simon’s London period, is acoustic and clearly inspired by Bringing It All Back Home. Simon copies “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” on his guitar and rattles verses over it like:
I was Union Jacked, Kerouac’d
John Birched, stopped and searched
Rolling Stoned and Beatled till I’m blind
I’ve been Ayn Randed, nearly branded
Communist ‘cos I’m lefthanded:
That’s the hand I use, well, never mind!
The recording ends up on the peculiar solo album The Paul Simon Songbook (1965), recorded in London without Art Garfunkel, which quickly had to meet the sudden demand for a folky Paul Simon. It is a rattling, shabby jumble of songs from the flopped Wednesday Morning 3.A.M. (“The Sounds Of Silence”, for example), new songs and songs that will be re-recorded a year later for Simon & Garfunkel’s breakthrough album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme.
The latter category includes “A Simple Desultory Phillipic”. For that second version, Simon reworks the lyrics; he changes a lot of names. The first couplet now starts with:
I been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored
I been John O’Hara’d, McNamara’d
But that is not the most radical change; drastically revived is the musical frame. Dylan has released Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde and that inspires Paul Simon to the original intervention to update the music; he copies the mercury sound and this time chooses as a template for the music: “From A Buick 6”. A challenge, because Simon is of course notorious for his sheer neurotic production perfection, but it has to be said: for once it sounds pretty gritty – by his standards.
On a side note, following Dylan’s success, producer Tom Wilson constructs a ‘folk rock’ remix of the flopped Sounds Of Silence (behind Simon’s back, incredibly). It is a huge world hit, in some reference works even (somewhat disputably) celebrated as ‘the quintessential folk rock release’. The astronomical sales figures lead to the hasty reunification of Simon and Garfunkel and ultimately to the elevation of the duo to pop legends.
“From A Buick 6” is sometimes dismissed as filler, as a nice little in-between on an album full of eternal classics. True, between songs like Rolling Stone, It Takes A Lot and Thin Man, the Buick shines less brilliantly than she would do alone, somewhere on an abandoned parking deck in the moonlight. Disconnectung the song from that overwhelming album side A, however, does more justice to “From A Buick 6”: one of those quicksilver pearls from the heyday of a genius artist, a bittersweet, rude blues rock full of semi-familiar references and freak metaphors.
The title, like most songs on Highway 61, has no direct relationship with the text. The Buick 6 series was produced from 1914 to 1930, so at most that title has a kind of emotional link with the roots of the song’s music. And at home the Zimmermans used to have a Buick; in Chronicles the bard remembers family trips to Duluth with the ‘old Buick Roadmaster’, the car in which Dylan has learned to drive, the brand to which he remains faithful in later years. Thus, the poet might associate a Buick 6 with something like ‘old and familiar’ or ‘of lasting value’.
The song itself is loosely based on “Milk Cow Blues” by Sleepy John Estes from 1930, a song from which Dylan often draws. Killing you by degrees, for example, returns in “Where Are You Tonight?”, Some said disease, some said it was a degree’in echoes in the opening of “Legionnaire’s Disease“, and the first lines of “From A Buick 6” are inspired by Estes’ classic too:
Now asks sweet mama
Lemme be her kid
She says, ‘I might get boogied
Like to keep it hid’
Apart from that, there is also the content similarity: both blues songs thematize adultery. But the poet Dylan chooses – of course – hallucinatory images and more colourful metaphors than Estes.
Dylan’s I-person has a graveyard woman at home, a lifeless homebody, who takes care of the children while he paints the town red with his soulful mama, with a dazzling lady who is brimming with life. Her special quality is her ability to re-energize him when he is down and out. The sadness that can bother the narrator, the poet does not express with the usual blues clichés like ‘down and out’ of ‘feelin’ blue’ or ‘I’m so lonesome’, but with sparkling imagery like lost on the river bridge – a beautiful and completely original image for the lonely and forlorn state of a man who is torn between a life on the right bank, with the mother of his children, or on the left bank, with the woman who makes him happy.
Nevertheless, the song leads a rather obscure existence. Dylan himself hardly ever plays it (twice, both times in ’65), there are not too many covers and the film world also ignores the song. With one exception: the catchy, charming social drama Kisses, a masterful Irish film from 2008. Two young teenagers in love run away and experience a ferocious, frightening and enchanting night in Dublin. The boy is called Dylan and Bob Dylan is (therefore) a thread in the film. “From A Buick 6” is chosen as soundtrack to the scene in which the two, after sharing a half bottle of beer, run rowdy and rioting through the city.
Fortunately, among the few covers there are some very nice ones.
On the remastered version of Johnny Winters’ Still Alive And Well (1973), the song is a bonus track, in a version that one can expect from the albino guitar god: dirty, raw and no-nonsense.
The talented Chuck Prophet writes beautiful songs (for, among others, Solomon Burke, Heart and Kim Carnes), has success in the 80’s with his band Green On Red and as a solo artist does not shy away from experimenting. “From A Buick 6” has been on his setlist for years, always catchy, but is most remarkable when he does it almost entirely alone; carried by a particularly attractive guitar lick, accompanied by a rhythm box and more declamating than singing through a voice distortion. In the background, wife Stephanie Finch pushes the keys of her wonder organ – maybe that should have been shoved a bit further into the background.
Veteran Gary U.S. Bonds is responsible for one of the best covers, though we owe it to Bruce Springsteen, who, together with Steven Van Zandt, directs the resurrection of Gary. The duo writes songs, selects covers, plays along and produces Bonds’ comeback album Dedication (1981), one of the most successful comeback albums in pop history. Bonds, Little Steven and The Boss approach “From A Buick 6” as a venerable, monumental pop classic and that works quite well; Dylan’s in-between snack suddenly has the allure of an “I Heard Through The Grapevine” or a “Twist And Shout”.
The cover can also be found on the very nice collection How Many Roads; Black America Sings Bob Dylan (2010).
But the most loving, affectionate, authentic and moving rendition is produced by the Canadian treasure Ken Hamm, solo on his sheet-metal Dobro on his 1998 album Galvanized! Incidentally, the album contains more aha moments for the Dylan fan. Besides a beautiful “Duncan And Brady” also interpretations of blues classics like “From Four Until Late” and “32-20 Blues”, of songs that descended into Dylan’s oeuvre, into “Going Going Gone” and in “Call Letter Blues”, for example.
Mr. Hamm is really Bringing It All Back Home, though.
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