“What good am I?” “Hi, I’m Bob Dylan.”


by Jochen Markhorst

Brian Wilson is traumatized and mentally unstable, plagued by fairly serious psychological disorders, is deaf to an ear and one of the greatest pop composers of the twentieth century. I Am Brian Wilson (2016), the autobiography, by necessity sketches an imperfect, incomplete picture – Wilson recognizes that entire periods of his life have disappeared in a fog of drugs, depression and medication. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the book is a moving portrait of a man who looks back on his life with grateful modesty, self-mockery and sometimes even irony.

The modesty is identical to the humble, admiring tone Dylan can adopt in Chronicles, the awe he demonstrates for artists of whom the reader thinks: but Mr. Dylan, you yourself are miles above them.

Brian Wilson tells how he is having lunch in New York in 2006 with two friends. He has already seen Carole King at another table, but of course he does not dare to address her. Then Brian has to go to the bathroom.

“I went to the men’s room, opened the door, and the first person I saw was Barry Mann. Now I thought I was dreaming, maybe. Pass the Brill Building, walk to lunch, imagine you see Carole King, and then see Barry Mann? He co-wrote so many great songs with his wife, Cynthia Weil. “Uptown” and “We Gotta Get out of This Place” and “I’m Gonna Be Strong”. I said ‘hi’ to Barry and took him to the table to meet the guys. I asked him if he wanted to sit with us.

“I’d love to,” he said, “but I’m sitting over there with Carole.” There was a silence at the table, which I guess he thought meant he had to explain. “Carole King,” he said. “And Cynthia.”

“Cynthia Weil?” I said. I was still thinking of all the songs they wrote  together. I don’t know which one was in my head by that point. Maybe “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” or “Walking in the Rain”. Barry laughed. “Walk over there with me.”

To his unspeakable joy Brian is greeted warmly and embraced by Carole King and Cynthia Weill. On cloud nine he floats back to his table, overjoyed.

“Can you believe running into Barry Mann in a goddamned men’s room in New York?” I said. “I’ll be goddamned. We’re in the room with three of the greatest songwriters ever.”

Just like with Dylan in similar passages, it is not an act. Every pop music-loving reader will put Brian Wilson in the pantheon of the songwriters quite a few floors higher than Mann, Weill and King, but Wilson does not claim he has the right to stand even in the shadow of those names.

Great is his respect for Dylan too, who is mentioned a few times in these memoirs. The son he gets with his second wife, Melinda, he calls Dylan and when he holds him for the first time, Brian sings softly “Mr. Tambourine Man” to him. “The name felt good.” Before that he already quoted, awfully modest but still very proud, what kind words Dylan once said about him:

I don’t go around collecting things that people say about me, but there is one I like. It’s from Bob Dylan, and it’s one of the nicest compliments, and one of the funniest.

“That ear – I mean, Jesus,” he said, “he’s got to will that to the Smithsonian.” I might.

A remarkable anecdote concerns a gathering at Wilson’s home in Los Angeles, prior to that wondrous contribution from Dylan to Wilson’s song “The Spirit Of Rock And Roll” (1987). The meeting is just as unlikely coincidental as that meeting with Barry Mann:

Once I was in Malibu emergency room getting a weigh-in and this guy walked up to me. He had curly hair and was on the short side. “Are you Brian Wilson?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Bob Dylan.” He was there because he had broken his thumb. We talked a little bit about nothing. I was a big fan of his lyrics, of course. “Like a Rolling Stone” was one of the best songs, you know? And “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and so many more. What a songwriter! I invited him over to my house for lunch the next day. That was a longer conversation. We just talked and talked about music. We talked about old songs we remembered, songs before rock and roll. We talked about ideas we had. Nice guy. He added vocals to a song I was working on around that time called “The Spirit of Rock and Roll”.

But that was a rare bright spot. Most of the time that house in Latigo Shore was bad.

That broken thumb is a little documented injury, but Dylan himself also mentions something like that, in Chronicles, opening chapter 4, the chapter Oh Mercy. ‘It was 1987 and my hand, which had been ungodly injured in a freak accident, was in the state of regeneration. It had been ripped and mangled to the bone and was still in the acute stage — it didn’t even feel like it was mine.’ In the same chapter, Dylan reflects on most songs from the album Oh Mercy, including the dark pearl “What Good Am I?”

The lyrics he wrote, as he recalls, somewhere in the beginning of ’87, at night, at home in Malibu. Dylan summons observations from the previous days, but can not really put his finger on a source of inspiration for these particular words. ‘Maybe seeing the homeless guy, the dog, the cops, the dreary play and maybe even the antics of Guitar Shorty might have had something to do with it. Who knows?

With the reader of I Am Brian Wilson, however, a completely different source of inspiration emerges: the narrator from “What Good Am I?” looks quite a lot like the I-person in that autobiography.

The most obvious give-away is the deaf ear, which the narrator turns to the ‘thundering sky’, an image that the poet uses only once in his entire oeuvre – in the same song he writes a few weeks after his encounter with the single-sided deaf Wilson.

The other Aha-moments go a bit deeper than that superficial, physical similarity. We get to know Wilson as a man who is tormented on all fronts by (among other things) fear of failure, by the question of whether he is good enough. He himself describes such an anxiety attack with the words frozen in place, just like the I from the song self-analyzes: ‘and I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try.’ Remarkably comparable are both main characters in the shortcomings they see in themselves. Wilson regrets how he has hurt relatives by ignoring them, how he has consciously shut himself off from someone else’s grief, uses similar words (“When I hear those voices, I try to shut them out”) and has turned away from his terrible father and not even attended the funeral (‘I just turn my back while you silently die’).

Personal matters the poet Dylan knows or does not know about, but it is very likely that the observing, sensitive Dylan carries with him impressions of that strange, moving Beach Boy, that spring 1987.

The song is beautiful anyway, and one of the much-vaunted highlights on Oh Mercy. The music, Dylan tells, only arises in the studio, about two years after he wrote the lyrics and stored them in a drawer.  “We really had to hunt for a melody,” he recalls, and actually seems unhappy with the end result. “I liked the words, but the melody wasn’t quite special enough — didn’t have any emotional impact.” Dylan then agrees to settle with the positive opinion of producer Daniel Lanois.

Lanois is right, as he often is. The song is, indeed, not very melodic, but very effective and gruesomely beautiful. No lack of ‘emotional impact’, in any case.

Other greats agree. To Tom Jones, the song even means an unexpected turning point and a major upgrade of his career. The Welshman records “What Good Am I?” 2010 for his acclaimed album Praise & Blame. It is a beautiful, sultry cover and it yields the ultimate compliment: it pleases the master himself. Jones is one of twelve artists who are selected by Dylan to come over and sing a Dylan song at the MusiCares event in 2015.

In his autobiography Over The Top And Back (2015) Tom Jones remembers that honour with still bewildered gratitude, in the chapter that he also names What Good Am I. When, after the performances, he sits at a table and listens to that overwhelming speech by Dylan (‘the most remarkable piece of oratory I’ve ever heard from a musician’), he sits there ‘enthralled – enthralled and also amazed to have played a humble part in that evening.

The somewhat too dramatic version of Dylan veteran Barb Jungr is less successful (Every Grain Of Sand, 2007), but the monument Solomon Burke, who in 2002, at the age of 62, has had just such a startling career relaunch as Tom Jones achieved, is pleasantly soulful and passionate (on Make Do With What You Got, 2005).

The Swedish greatness Louise Hoffsten is especially brave. At the presentation of the Polar Prize 2000 she visibly nervously delivers, under the eye of a critically observing Dylan in the front row, a fairly safe, but nevertheless very attractive, acoustic reading. And she plays the harmonica.

The most likeable, and perhaps the most beautiful cover, comes from Dylan’s natve region, from The Pines in Minneapolis and can be found on the very nice tribute album A Nod To Bob 2 (2011). It is a sparkling live version from a band which seems to have Dylan in the blood.

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  1. What a great yarn … Brian Wilson is a premier composer ….always was and will be again and again I’m hoping.

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