by Jochen Markhorst
T Bone Burnett is a fan. A great find is “Just Dropped In” in the performance of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition under the psychedelic trip scene in The Big Lebowski. When the popular ‘multimedia platform’ Garden & Gun asks for a ‘Smoking Southern Playlist’ in 2018, Burnett selects ten songs, with Mickey Newbury’s “Nights When I Am Sane” gracing the list among classics like “Wade In The Water” from The Staple Singers and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy River”. And in January 2019 T Bone comes full circle when he chooses “Just Dropped In” for the ambitious, masterful hit series True Detective, this time in a newer version by Mickey Newbury himself (over the credits of season 3, episode 1).
Mickey Newbury is a great artist, though first and foremost a musician’s musician, a highly acclaimed songwriter who makes beautiful records and beautiful songs, but his money is mainly earned thanks to the royalties of the covers. Keith Richards, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Etta James, Roy Orbison … not small fry either, the artists who cover his songs. And towering above everything and everyone, of course, is Elvis, who elevates Newbury’s “An American Trilogy” to the canon.
Dylan met him at least once, on that memorable evening in the spring of 1969 at Johnny Cash’s home, where after dinner some of the world’s best songwriters gather around the fireplace:
“I was having dinner at Johnny Cash’s house outside of Nashville. There were a lot of songwriters there. Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Harlan Howard, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newberry [sic] and some others. (…) We sat in a circle and each songwriter would play a song and pass the guitar to the next player. (…) I played “Lay, Lady, Lay” and then I passed the guitar to Graham Nash.”
Graham Nash recalls it slightly differently, of course attributing a leading role to himself again. Johnny Cash instructs his guests to play a song.
“Nobody moved. Bob was sitting on the stairs with Sara, and both of them looked uncomfortable. Mickey Newbury, a famous songwriter from Nashville, was there; so was Kris Kristofferson, and of course Joni and me. Everyone stared at those guitars as if they were radioactive.”
But Graham feels ‘ridiculously’ confident and thinks: Fuck it – I’ll get up.
“So I grabbed a guitar, sat on the stool, and whipped off a version of “Marrakesh Express”. All abooooard … I hit the last chord, knew I’d killed it, put the guitar back on the stand … and walked right into a standing lamp that went crashing to the floor.”
(Wild Tales, A Rock & Roll Life)
That breaks the ice, everyone laughs, Dylan now overcomes his reticence and plays “Lay Lady Lay” and “Don’t Think Twice”. Kristofferson plays “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Joni Mitchell “Both Sides Now”. What Mickey Newbury plays Nash does not disclose, but he has to be given credit for spelling his name correctly, unlike Dylan.
Newbury’s masterpiece Looks Like Rain is to be released half a year later, and it is an obvious guess he performs the highlight of that album, the magical folk song “San Francisco Mabel Joy”.
The record contains only beautiful songs (“She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye”, “The Thirty-Third Of August”, to name but two of the most covered ones), but the Dylan fan especially jumps up at “T. Total Tommy”. Although the title suggests an ode to the country and bluegrass legend Tom T. Hall, the first verse already makes clear that Newbury targets Dylan:
To the sad-eyed misinterpreted
Hung-up child of clay
So the drunken poet’s pretty words
Didn’t help you find your way
… and the chorus gives away which style figure from the intimate living room concert resonates with Mickey:
T Total Tommy took a toke of tea
Black cats backin’ up a big oak tree
Tick tocks ticking out a tune on time
Last words looking for a line to rhyme
Saw fish swimming in the sea-saw-sea
But me, well, I’m only looking
(In the recording above the song per se starts on 57 seconds).
A frantically alliterating chorus, concluded with a nod to “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (the next chorus ends with I’m only crying), and in between some more Dylan references and paraphrases.
Newbury has heard Dylan singing Lay lady lay across my big brass bed a couple of times and apparently thinks this intrusive initial rhyming is typically enough to copy into his Dylan pastiche. Understandable, but not quite a direct hit; Alliteration has been a popular figure of style for centuries and every songwriter sooner or later succumbs to it.
This same evening, Mickey also hears how Graham Nash’s Colored cottons hang in air / Charming cobras in the square, that Joni Mitchell sings And ice cream castles in the air / and feather canyons everywhere, not to mention the Actual Apostle of Alliteration, Kris Kristofferson:
Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head, that didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad
Other, just as little reliable sources, say Kristofferson is playing “Me And Bobby McGee” that evening. Makes no difference – that song also has an initial rhyme in almost every line of verse.
Anyway: Newbury associates letter rhyming with Dylan.
Dylan himself attributes the opening words to creative poverty, as he reveals in the Biograph booklet. “The song came out of those first four chords. I filled it up with the lyrics then, the la la la type thing, well that turned into Lay Lady Lay, it’s the same thing with the tongue, that’s all it was really.”
The continuation, lay across my big brass bed, can just as little be attributed to a fresh, original flash:
I take it to my room and lay it ‘cross my big brass bed
I take it to my room and lay it ‘cross my big brass bed
I guess I’ll be my own singer, neighbours turn cherry red
… from “Rough Alley Blues” (1931), from the man who could the sing the blues like nobody can, Blind Willie McTell.
Nor can the rest of the lyrics be accused of Nobel worthy new poetic expressions, or any other literary shine, for that matter. Dylan himself is not too content with it either, according to the same Biograph commentary. Columbia Records president Clive Davis wants to release the song as a single. “I begged and pleaded with him not to. I never felt too close to the song, or thought it was representative of anything I do.”
In interviews he makes similar remarks (“There may be better singles in the fresh material,” Melody Maker, August 1969), and also more precise ones:
“I rewrote “Lay, Lady, Lay”, too.. (…) A lot of words to that song have changed. I recorded it originally surrounded by a bunch of other songs on the Nashville Skyline album. That was the tone of the session. Once everything was set, that was the way it came out. And it was fine for that time, but I always had a feeling there was more to the song than that.”
(Playboy interview, november 1977)
Whether Dylan has indeed found more in the song is debatable. During the Rolling Thunder Revue and in the Hard Rain version, a few lines have changed, that much is true. A hollow cliché like You can have your cake and eat it too has been replaced by the not much stronger You can love, but you might lose it, for example (but resurfaces on other nights on other places in the song). On Hard Rain a total of 78 (out of 171) words are different, so yes, okay, a lot of words have changed. And: those performances are done with an overwhelming extra shot of love, with energy and a compelling urgency – and that certainly benefits the song.
The alleged missing warmth or representativeness is not that big an issue anymore, evidently; Dylan has played the song more than 400 times, plays it still in the twenty-first century, pushing “Lay Lady Lay” into his personal Top 50.
Enough colleagues who feel warmth for the song, too. “Lay Lady Lay” has fans like Madonna, The Everly Brothers and Duran Duran, apparently touching more artists than just the usual suspects like The Byrds, Richie Havens or Melanie. Many more artists even; the song is probably in a (non-existing) Top 20 of most covered Dylan songs.
Magnet’s fascinating, atmospheric version (with a wonderful guest contribution by Gemma Hayes, for the soundtrack of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 2005) is rightly praised.
The industrial grunge approach by Ministry is distinctive, to say the least (on Filth Pig, 1996) and actually has the Lure of the Forbidden.
But in the end, a laid-back, sultry approach fits the song best. Like Buddy Guy (Bring ‘Em In, 2005) or the one by Cher (for safety reasons changed to “Lay Baby Lay”), on her exquisite, staggeringly disregarded album 3614 Jackson Highway (1969), produced in the well-known Muscle Shoals Studio, Sheffield Alabama, by grandmaster Jerry Wexler.
The ultimate swoon away version should, obviously, have come from Barry White, but The Walrus Of Love breaches his duties. He is excellently replaced by Isaac Hayes though, on the beautiful tribute album Tangled Up In Blues, 1999. Somewhat over the sultriest top, yes, but for once, only this one time, it is allowed.
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