by Jochen Markhorst
The Alabama woman who is introduced in “Slow Train”, has a motherly, stern message:
Boy, without a doubt
Have to quit your mess and straighten out
You could go down here, be just another accident statistic
Stop fooling around and behave, otherwise you’ll get hurt. Wise words for which the two-year-old Tony McCrary, who is bouncing around in the studio during the recording sessions for Slow Train Coming in Alabama, is still too young. Tony is the son of Regina McCrary, one of the three background singers during Dylan’s evangelical period, from the beginning to the end. On the advice of her childhood friend Carolyn Dennis, the later Mrs. Dylan, she auditions at the end of ’78, she impresses and then accompanies Dylan on Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love, as well as at the 150 concerts he performs until July 1981.
Dylan seems to appreciate the company of ladies of colour in those years, according to various sources. In the black community he does not have such a mythical status as outside, so the ladies are butt-naked honest; easily snap at him, treat him with a pleasant disrespect and do not suffer from that often embarrassing, paralyzing awe that intimidates the average interlocutor. To that awe, the master reacts with detachment, remembers the co-owner of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Jim Johnson, in the Alabama Entertainment (August 2017):
That thrill turned to awkwardness though upon meeting Dylan. “He was a very strange and interesting person,” Johnson says. “Matter of fact when we first met him he wouldn’t even speak to us and then we started treating him that way and then he flipped back and started getting nice. I don’t think we ever met anybody quite like him during all the years. But in the end it turned out our friendship was pretty good.”
Recording engineer Gregg Hamm shares similar experiences: “When you’re not familiar with somebody and they’re the status that he was, you’re walking on eggshells for a little bit until you figure things out.”
And drummer Pick Whithers adds that they (he and fellow Dire Strait Mark Knopfler) never spoke with Dylan, except during the work in the studio, at the coalface, in the trenches.
Johnson brings in a single nuance though, concerning the ladies:
“That’s not to say Dylan completely eschewed “Slow Train Coming” musicians’ company during the sessions. Johnson laughs while recalling Dylan had all the album’s female backing singers staying with him at the Wilson Lake house he was crashing at.”
In those days the guesthouse at 1998 Lake Drive, Sheffield, is still owned by the studio, a beautiful, spacious house on the waterfront. Since July 2014, it has been rented out to individuals via AirBNB (from €95 per night) and of course Clay, the current owner, is advertising on the site with the historical fact that Dylan has lived here (Take a load off in the Bob Dylan room. Bob slept here…). Of course he retails that the house was once owned by Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and he reminds that Stephen Stills slept here. “The house has a great vibe and if you are a musician, this may be just the place where you compose your next number one song.”
Neither Stills nor Dylan are appealing examples for guests with hit-parade ambitions (Stills has never even had a Top 10-hit), but the ad text has a sympathetic, cozy charm – and distinctive is this house on the Lake Drive sure enough.
So in this house Dylan lives for a few weeks with his three background singers and kids: the toddler Tony foremost. We owe this little chap the salvage of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, the lighthearted tension breaker on Slow Train Coming. To Dylan himself, it is initially no more than a minor triviality, a Spielerei on the terrace of the Wilson Lake House, on the waterfront. But Tony crows with pleasure when he hears it, and Dylan notices how the little one is cracking up at “Ooh I think I’ll call it a cow” and “Ooh I think I’ll call it a pig”. The bard is persuaded.
“Dylan looked over, saw my son was laughing, and he said, I’m going to put that on the record,” Regina tells Scott Marshall in April 2000 (On The Tracks # 18). Presumably he recognizes at that moment the distinctive appeal, the breath pause quality of this song between those devoted, serious and strict songs on Side B of his first Christian album.
Uncontroversial the song is not. In the noteworthy poll Worst Bob Dylan songs by Rolling Stone (July 2013) “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” makes fourth place (“Wiggle Wiggle” is one, but the option none actually gets the most votes, two times as much as the ‘winning’ song). Dylanologists think it is goofy, foolish or even ‘horrible’, and Dylan fans are often ashamed of it.
But the song also has supporters, and not the least: the legendary Townes Van Zandt, the songwriter who is so admired by Dylan too, covers it for his tribute album Roadsongs (1994), the record with live recordings of songs of which ‘I wish I’d written every one. No such luck.’
Johnny Cash recorded a terribly corny demo in 1981 and an unlikely Johnny Borrell (from the dynamic indie rock band Razorlight) produces a very dry, partly a capella version (The Atlantic Culture, 2016). The most famous cover is the one by Jason Mraz, a bonus track on his breakthrough album We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things (2008), and that may well be the best one. Tim O’Brien’s version (Red On Blonde, 1996) is not too unattractive, but contains the same blunder as Johnny Cash’s: he screws up the pointe.
In itself the text is not too earth-shattering, of course. It is just a nursery rhyme, a children’s song, to the annoyance of many critics. Five couplets with a high Dr. Seuss quality:
He saw an animal up on a hill
Chewing up so much grass until she was filled
He saw milk comin’ out but he didn’t know how
“Ah, think I’ll call it a cow”
But the sixth verse Dylan intentionally does not finish:
He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake
And then that last line remains empty. At performances the background ladies sometimes fill that emptiness with ominous hissing, but the punch-line is evident: here comes He Who Can Not Be Named, the Satan who comes in serpent form.
A nice find, that white line, and that inspiration elevates the whole at the last minute to just above the level of a nursery rhyme. Tim O’Brien and Johnny Cash, however, succumb to the horror vacui, to the fear of emptiness, and spoil Dylan’s find by singing “Ah, I think I’ll call it a snake” all the same. Pretty dull, actually.
Not that there is anything wrong with children’s songs. Dylan is prone to them and every now and then gives in to the attraction of a nursery rhyme. “Quinn The Eskimo”, “Minstrel Boy”, “Mozambique”, almost every song from under the red sky … and they always inspire booing. But following too: colourful children’s books are made of “If Dogs Run Free”, “Forever Young” and “If Not For You”, and “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” is transformed into a floridly decorated, fairly popular picture book by illustrator Jim Arnosky (in the Top 2000 of best-selling children’s books on amazon).
Criticism does not bother Dylan anyway. He plays it for three years at each concert and then occasionally once again. Sometimes he plays with the verses, deliberately breaks the rhyme scheme or improvises a new verse, like in Hamburg:
He saw an animal upon a lake.
He was afraid that his heart would break
He was tryin’ to drive a truck
I think I’ll call it a duck.
And when, to his surprise, he hears that “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” has been a number one hit in Belgium and France, he is quite willing to put it on the setlist in those countries (in 1987):
“I never think about whether a song is a hit. I don’t even know what has been a hit some places. We went to France and they asked why I didn’t do ‘Man Gave Names to All the Animals’, because they said it was No. 1 there. No 1. And I didn’t even know it was released there.”
(interview with Robert Hilburn, Los Angeles Times, 1987)
Regina McCrary, the attractive, talkative backing vocalist, is thanked for her services after Shot Of Love and falls into a black hole. A pretty deep black hole, too; she finds no work, gets depressed and seeks escape in drugs. A crack addiction plus a personal tragedy almost drive her to suicide, but a Christian aid helps her back on top of it, in the beginning of the twenty-first century. She picks up singing again, for example on the beautiful, successful tribute album Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan from 2003; Regina sings the solo part in “Pressing On”, she preaches and she works as a drug counsellor; she helps drug addicts.
More tragic is the fate of the savior of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, her son Tony. Tony McCrary is murdered in 2000 under obscure, drug-related circumstances.
He could not quit his mess, straightening out did not work, he did go down and would only have been just another accident statistic if he had not laughed so contagiously over “Ah, I think I’ll call it a cow” – at least in Dylanology his name will continue to live on.
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