Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)
by Jochen Markhorst
At most concerts in 1978 Dylan has a hardly enlightening introduction talk to the Tales Of Yankee Power. A chat which, as the year progresses, fans out wilder and wilder. Initially, Dylan only reveals that he wrote it in the train on his way to Mexico. Later evenings he changes it into a train from Monterrey to San Diego, then again he reveals it was written in Chihuahua and gradually the story gets more savage. In November he tells that he recently was on the train to Mexico at night. At a stop in Monterrey an old Mexican gets in.
“He was just wearing a blanket, and he must have been 150 years old. I took another look at him an I could see that both his eyes were burning out. They was on fire. And there was smoke coming out of his nostrils. Ah, well this is a man that I want to talk to.”
And then Dylan starts to sing. Well.
His commentary in the booklet to the 1985 box set Biograph is easier to follow. This tells he has a kind of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” part 2 in mind. The song is one of them border type things, he says. “Nuevo Laredo, Rio Bravo, Brownsville, Juarez, I don’t know – ya know, sort of like lost yankee on gloomy Sunday-carnival-embassy-type of thing,” and more images we already know from Tom Thumb and its inspiration, Lowry’s Under The Volcano. We do not have to search for much more, Dylan consoles.
“In some kind of way I see this as the aftermath of when two people who were leaning on each other because neither one of them had the guts to stand up alone, all of a sudden they break apart… I think I felt that way when I wrote it.”
Might be true – Dylan writes the lyrics in the autumn of 1977, shortly after the divorce of Sara (July ’77).
More reliable, however, seems to be a rare outpouring of candor in July 1978:
“This song is inspired by a man named Harry Dean Stanton. Some of you may know him.”
That is what Dylan says to announce the upcoming song “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” at the Blackbush Aerodrome concert in Camberley, UK, July 15, 1978, and some supporting facts to this unveiling are known. At the previous performance, three days earlier in Gothenburg, Dylan reveals, again at the announcement of this song, that he wrote this song about six months ago during a tour, in which he seems to make an innocent slip:
“This is a new song written about six months ago on a trip through the southern part of the … northern part of the States. Anyway it’s entitled Tales Of Yankee Power.”
With actor Harry Dean Stanton, with whom he became friends on the set of Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Dylan has indeed undertaken a road trip, three-days holiday by car from Guadalajara to Kansas City, so actually through the southern part of the … northern part of the United States, to visit Leon Russel. Almost 1600 miles, so you have to sit on each other’s lip for a while.
The Señor inspiration is palpable. Although Stanton comes from Kentucky, he has a southern, slow, desert-like aura. He plays in blockbusters like The Godfather II, Alien, Repo Man and Pretty In Pink, but ineffaceable is his leading role in Paris, Texas, poetic his portrait of plodding bootlegger in the Dylan clip for Dreamin’ Of You and immortal is Harry Dean in his last role, in Lucky (2017). Three motion pictures in which Stanton has a hat (or cap) and roams through a desert environment, in Texas, New Mexico or Arizona, silent and aimless, with a strong can you tell me where we’re heading-aura, with a mesmerizing ‘you know, kind of a lost yankee on a gloomy Sunday afternoon-carnival-embassy-like something’-allure. And in all three the actor is natural, he actually does not have to act and is therefore completely credible.
Inspired by this Harry Dean Stanton, the poet Dylan chooses a dry, exotic, but familiar decor and poetic imagery to express that displaced feeling, the words rhyme nicely and verses like Lincoln County Road or Armageddon are powerful and suggestive without telling all too much.
Lincoln County inspires clarifiers to find references to Dylan’s film experiences with Peckinpah, because Billy The Kid established his name in the so-called Lincoln County War of 1881. The geographical fact that the notorious UFO site of Area 51 in Lincoln County is located, places for others the inscrutable magnetic field in a meaningful context and even more superficial is the interpretation that Lincoln is a metaphor for ‘something good’ (compared to Armageddon as ‘something bad’). Incidentally, in the original version it is Portobello Road, which sort of relativises the overstrained mythical connotations.
In any case, the song is a highlight on Street Legal, the album that has been giving trouble since its publication. Authoritative critic Marcus Greil chops it into pieces. Dead air he calls it, the singing fake, fey and smug, the songs bad. Most American reviewers agree and the album sells moderately.
In Europe people are much more positive, the record gets cheering reviews even, and reaches the top of the charts. However, everyone agrees on one thing: the sound quality is lousy. Dull, messy, unfinished. The master himself is not too proud either, and apologizises with time and stress.
Apart from that, he does not seem too content with the songs: with one exception, he never considers playing any of them after 1978. Only “Señor” survives the twentieth century – until now Dylan has played this song 271 times. Quite rightly (it is a beautiful song), but ignoring the other eight is remarkable. “Is Your Love In Vain? “, “Changing Of The Guards” and “Where Are You Tonight?” all have the unusual qualities of a regular Dylan classic and the other songs are not that wrong either. In 1999 a polished, remastered reissue of Street Legal is released, and that one takes away some of the worst deficiencies – yes, a veil is lifted.
Musically, “Señor“ differs slightly from the other songs on Street Legal. Dylan works for the first time with a big band and stuffs the songs with wind instruments, backing vocals, percussion and keys. He holds back in “Señor“. True, here the ladies, the bongos, the bells and even a mandolin also play along, but there is still some air, still space between the notes.
Opinions about the lyrics are as divided as they are about the entire album. One sees a bad imitation of a quasi-profound Dylan text, others see that Dylan is only one step away from his conversion to Christianity. The Señor being the Lord, hence. True, in favour of that interpretation some hints can be found – there are enough biblical references in the text (Jesus overturning the tables, Armageddon, the cross around her neck) and Mary Alice Artes, the lady who introduced him to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, is thanked on the cover (with the mysterious function indication ‘Queen Bee’).
But then again, Biblical references Dylan’s songs have throughout the decades and the lyrics are not that exceptional. Wonderful, but also run-of-the-mill Dylanesque.
Film references, for example, are a constant in Dylan’s catalog. Here we see a nod to Paint Your Wagon, that weird musical-western from ’69 with Clint Eastwood, and the tail of the dragon is that legendary, curvy road (Route 129 between Tennessee and North Carolina) from both Thunder Road (1958) and the weird cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop from 1971 (with James Taylor in his only film role). Even traces of Kafka lecture can be found again (just like on John Wesley Harding): the execution scene from Der Prozeß (‘The Trial’) seems to be the inspiration for ‘the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled’ (Josef K. also has to undress and go down on his knees), like the sobering ‘Son, this is not a dream no more, it’s the real thing’ characterizes Kafka’s entire oeuvre in one single line of verse.
In short: Bible, film, literature … ‘ordinary’ Dylan lyrics. Off-label is at most magnetic field; an outlandish term like for instance fiberglass in “Dirge”; terms that somehow, instinctively, do not seem to fit in Dylan lyrics.
The late Jerry Garcia has always been a devout fan, has made many successful Dylan covers, also and especially with his Grateful Dead, with whom he was also so lucky to accompany Dylan on a tour (1987). Garcia’s version of “Señor” on the soundtrack of Masked And Anonymous (2003) is fine.
Another direct hit can be found on another soundtrack: Willie Nelson & Calexico on I’m Not There (2007). Although the border-feeling with Calexico, Willie Nelson and Jerry Garcia, obviously, should be stronger, in 2011 a beautiful cover is produced in Slovenia, or all places. Ex-Walkabouts frontman Chris Eckman with The Frictions scamper dangerously close to power-pop, but score many points with ragged guitars and hollow, ghostly background vocals. Eckman’s piece de resistance is a Beatles cover, though – an eerie, unreal reading of “Yellow Submarine”.
A distinctive, and perhaps the most loving cover, is made by Joan Baez protégé Richard Shindell; a bit ominous orchestrated, a great singer he is not, but the dry, sparse mood suits the song perfectly (on South Of Delia, 2007).
No known cover by Harry Dean Stanton, although the song is almost literally tailor-made for him. As a musician he is not without merit, plays guitar and harmonica, makes music in several films (including in Twin Peaks: The Return and in Lucky) and legendary is his story about a recording with Bob Dylan, which he tells a few times, like here in an interview with the British The Observer:
“Dylan and I got to be very close. We recorded together one time. It was a Mexican song. He offered me a copy of the tape and I said no. Shot myself in the foot. It’s never seen the light of day. I’d sure love to hear it.”
We probably will never hear it. Harry Dean Stanton dies on September 15, 2017, two weeks before the premiere of Lucky.
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