Dear Landlord: the pearl that shines beyond John Wesley Harding


by Jochen Markhorst

When John Kiernan returns home from shopping, he sees two strangers standing in front of his house. He is not particularily alarmed. “Neil Young fan alert,” he says to his wife Patti Regan. Kiernan and Patti live in Winnipeg, as it so happens to be in the house where Neil Young grew up, and they are used to fans watching their home. While Patti puts the groceries in, John goes to chat with both men. They were a bit older than your typical Young fan, Kiernan remembers later. And while chatting, he notices that guy with the big cap is wearing really beautiful cowboy boots and cool leather pants. He studies his face closer and “it suddenly occurred to me that I was talking to Bob Dylan.”

The landlord asks if Bob wants to see inside the house, and Dylan is eager. Patti takes the men upstairs, to the former boys room of Neil, now a pink painted girl’s room of their sixteen-year-old daughter.

“So this is the room where he was listening to his music,” Dylan muses, “and this was his view.”

The bard hangs around for some twenty minutes, they talk about Neil Young, about the places in Winnipeg where he probably performed with his school band, the weather and life in the North. Then Dylan and his companion get back in the taxi that has been waiting in front of the house all this time, and leave.

“You were pretty cool talking to a huge celebrity,” John compliments his wife.

“What celebrity?” Patti asks.

“Bob Dylan.”

“That’s why he looked so familiar to me!” Patti screams and runs wildly waving and yelling to the neighbours who are raking leaves in the front yard. “There in that cab! Bob Dylan is in the cab!”

This takes place November 2, 2008, and John Kiernan cherishes the memory of the day he could do Bob Dylan a favour.

The in itself futile event touches a chord. The Winnipeg Free Press writes an article on it and in the course of the next weeks, media around the world deem it worthy a report. Understandable, actually; it is moving somehow, the world’s greatest songwriter, who, like an adoring fan is contemplating his idol in some girl’s bedroom.

Dylan’s respect and friendly feelings for Neil Young are well known. The sympathetic name-check in “Highlands” (1997, ‘I’m listening to Neil Young / I gotta turn up the sound’) does not come out of the blue – since the early seventies Dylan says nice, admiring things about the Canadian, occasionally joins him on stage and in his autobiography (Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, 2012) Young confirms that Dylan sometimes comes over for dinner, that they call every now and then and that Dylan occasionally sends over gifts.

One time, however, in 1985, Dylan’s grapes are sour:

“The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ‘72 and the big song at the time was Heart Of Gold. I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to Heart Of Gold. I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’ There I was, stuck on the desert someplace, having to cool out for a while. New York was a heavy place. Woodstock was worse, people living in trees outside my house, fans trying to batter down my door, cars following me up dark mountain roads. I needed to lay back for a while, forget about things, myself included, and I’d get so far away and turn on the radio and there I am, but it’s not me. It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it, you know, and I never got over it.”

This is during Dylan’s dry period, in the years that he hardly makes music. In this particular period he might be more petty, more sensitive in this area, but he does have a point: that thin harmonica, Kenny Buttrey on drums, Nashville, the austere production … yes, it could have been a John Wesley Harding song. Somewhere between “Dear Landlord”, the song in which Dylan sounds like Neil Young, and the last two songs, “Down Along The Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, which are so alienating, abruptly leaping to pure country, being the only songs accompanied by a steel guitar, like “Heart Of Gold”.

“Dear Landlord” is a pearl that shines even more outside the context of John Wesley Harding. On the album itself, between all those beautiful songs with similar structure, instrumentation and atmosphere, the song tends to drown a bit. Dylan selects it in 1985 for Biograph and here, between “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” the song comes more into its own.

Dylan’s own comment in the accompanying booklet is just as skimpy as the arrangement: “Dear Landlord was really just the first line. I woke up one morning with the words on my mind. Then I just figured, wat else can I put to it?”

It is a beautiful, dark and foreboding first line. ‘Dear landlord’ is enough to evoke a naturalistic drama, or a bitter Woody Guthrie ballad, proletarians misery and crisis years atmosphere. And the word landlord has a double entendre to it, opens even more vistas – the road is paved towards religious associations or ironic portraits. Subsequently, most of the interpreters are moving exactly in that direction.

The pathetic A.J. Weberman, the stalking fool who even goes through Dylan’s garbage, thinks he can prove that the lyrics are settling accounts with manager Albert Grossman, who actually, literally, is Dylan’s landlord (from Dylan’s house in Woodstock).

Interpretations of the years after Dylan’s Christian phase, that is after 1981, are mainly leaning towards a religious interpretation. Well, at least there are more tangible handles supporting those perceptions: just like in nine songs surrounding this one, in “Dear Landlord” Bible quotations do echo. In majority from the New Testament, by the way, but not only from the four Gospels; Dylan keeps on browsing, through Romans and Corinthians in particular. 1Cor. 7:7, for example: ‘every man hath his proper gift’.

Conclusive none of them are, those dozens of readings. That is not surprising either, if one is to trust Dylan’s own words, taking into account verse 4: my dreams are beyond control. The poet has, after the night has given him the two words dear landlord, unlocked the gates to his subconscious and lets the stream of consciousness flow. It yields these three fascinating couplets, full of Kafkaesque guiltless guilt, clear and lucid, but impenetrable. In addition, Bible fragments, a phrase from an old song by Roy Acuff (when that steamboat whistle blows almost literally derives from “Steamboat Whistle Blues”, 1936) and archaic, Biblical clichés like my burden is heavy and heed these words.

The overall picture is a triptych, depicting three times a pitiful debtor who begs a higher authority to spare him. What that debt consists of and who the landlord is remains open, just like in Kafka’s stories. But granted, a thoroughly Christian setting, a triptych such as The Last Judgment by Lucas van Leyden (1527) fits well.

In 1969, Janis Joplin turns the song into a steamy, soulful blues rock exercise and completely misfires, of course – but it still has the surreptitious attraction of a guilty pleasure. That is less true for the comparable, but slightly safer Joe Cocker (also ’69). The song hangs in the air that year; Fairport Convention also picks it up for the masterpiece Unhalfbricking, but ultimately does not select it. Defensible – Sandy Denny sings great, but the accompaniment of Richard Thompson and his men is a bit lukewarm.

In the twenty-first century the Joan Baez rip-off from Wales Debbie Clarke attracts attention. Far too sterile, but the fact that she dares to choose “Dear Landlord” speaks for her, of course (Manhattanhenge, 2012, produced by the man-behind-Bowie Tony Visconti).

Closer to the source, because much rawer and frayed, is Mirah and the Black Cat Orchestra from Seattle (To All We Stretch The Open Arm, 2004).

For the time being, however, Thea Gilmore’s version, on her dazzling tribute album John Wesley Harding (2002), with beautiful dobro guitar, continues to lead the women’s and men’s competition.

For the time being, because Neil Young has yet to do his thing. Dylan is now over it, over that “Heart Of Gold”. Has even played Young’s “Old Man” on the stage a few times. The way is clear. The steamboat whistle blows.

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  1. in dear landlord Dylan really is the singing and composing painter. Apart from the supposed meaning the song offers a situation : it is coast-like without using the word “sea”or “harbour”. This song is about landscape above anything else. Remembers me of the village in Under Milkwood. How big is the bill that has to be paid ? Aaah : the steamboat whistle !! The suffering is like a painters pallet. Nothing has changed after the song is finished : this is it and this is what it will always be. Maybe a foghorn now and then, a churchbell or the shouting of a fish-selling lady. Landscape with steamboat.

  2. Dylan is strange in these house visitations – he was picked up by the cops outside Bruce Springsteen’s house, where he wrote Born to Run, and I think he visited John Lennon’s house in Liverpool.

    Great essay – Dear Landlord is a powerhouse of a song, considering how understated it is…

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