Although my dad has been needling me for years to do more Dylan reviews, this time he didn’t have to ask. Bob Dylan was the obvious choice to break my American Boycott, for three important reasons:
- Many Americans believe he is the greatest poet of his generation, especially the Baby Boomers (though Dylan was born a few months before Pearl Harbor and fails to qualify as a Boomer). His status as a poet is still subject to debate, as demonstrated by the rather defensive argument given by Professor Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy when she announced that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature: “He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition.” This implies she had already received some blowback from academics outraged by the selection of someone who had the audacity to put lyrics to music. “Poetry is for reading!” I can hear the old farts blubbering. I attribute that reaction to natural memory loss, since the Greek poets had combined words and song over two millennia ago, in the form of lyric poetry.
- Whether you like his work or not, he has had an undeniably powerful influence on the course of popular music by extending its range to include subject matter beyond romance and novelty. More than any other artist, Bob Dylan made lyrics matter, vastly improving the quality of music in multiple genres.
- Finally, Dylan has repeatedly proven himself to be a true blue American by appearing in commercials for Pepsi, Victoria’s Secret and Chrysler.
The Chrysler commercial really hit a nerve. Super Bowl ads invariably attract the greatest number of viewers, but the Pepsi ad was also a Super Bowl ad and didn’t come close to generating the buzz of the Chrysler spot. Methinks the uproar had more to do with the method of delivery than the message. In his first two appearances as a shill, Dylan simply provided the music (doing a “Forever Young” duet with Will.I.Am. for Pepsi; crooning “Love Sick” to Adriana Lima in the Victoria Secret ad). In the Chrysler spot, he narrated the entire two-minute pitch. Because recorded interviews with Bob Dylan are as rare as coherent thoughts from Donald Trump, millions of people watching the commercial had probably never heard him speak. Given that many of those viewers had elevated Dylan to god-like status years before, the impact must have been similar to the shock of the Japanese populace when Emperor Hirohito’s voice crackled over the fragile airwaves to announce the surrender. DYLAN SPEAKS! THE EMPEROR SPEAKS! SILENCE IN THE HOUSE! HEED THE WORDS OF THE EMPEROR!
After one minute of silence accompanied only by the sound of guacamole and chips making contact with teeth and gums, angry viewers wailed in unison: “DYLAN HAS SOLD OUT!” In the morning they woke up to news rags of all stripes screaming “DYLAN SELLS OUT!” A more reasoned analysis by Ruben Navarette unearthed the layers of hypocrisy in Dylan’s core message of American pride: “Let Germany brew your beer,” he says. “Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” The simple fact that Chrysler had been recently purchased by Fiat pretty much demolished the “Buy American” message. Dylan was certainly guilty of “nostalgic manipulation,” calling up an image of America that died in the 1970s when the bosses of the big automakers ignored the threat of reliable high-mileage cars rolling off the assembly lines in once-defeated and desolate Japan. Dylan defenders could argue that the ad formed a subversive message of support for the guys and gals on the assembly lines screwed by blind management and a dumb trade policy that failed to protect their jobs, but the bottom line is that the cultural icon of the anti-establishment 60s, a man who consistently protested the excesses of capitalism and exposed the system as a massive get-rich-quick scheme open to insiders only, made a nice chunk of change on that fateful Super Bowl Sunday.
So yeah, Dylan is a sellout, but who the fuck in America hasn’t “sold out” at one time or another? Having grown up and lived most of my life in the land of Old Glory, I can personally attest that I cannot recall a single acquaintance who either wasn’t a sellout or who would have gladly sold themselves out if given the opportunity. It’s a matter of degree: some people would sell out their mothers and any shred of decency lingering within their damaged psyches for the big payoff, but the vast majority of us sell out in a more socially-acceptable manner: by giving up our dreams and compromising our values the moment we take a job we don’t really want. Well, shit, you’ve got to pay the rent and put food on the table, right? And once you’ve made that deal with the devil, oh my—look at all the things you can buy now! Have some more credit! Consume, consume, consume! I’ve been there, you’ve been there, we’ve all been there. Americans are wired to try to make a buck—it’s part of the cultural DNA. In taking advantage of a lucrative opportunity, Dylan’s behavior was in perfect alignment with the values and priorities of the vast majority of Americans, giving his status as a true American poet even greater credibility. Dylan spent most of his peak years attacking and satirizing the system, but he also understood that he had to live within that system, and like everyone else, played the angles to the best of his ability. Just because he chose to exploit the opportunities provided by fame doesn’t make his social commentary and observations on the state of the human race any less meaningful.
Sorry, but sellouts have no right to call anyone else a sellout, so give poor Bob a break here. He’s only one guy, and one guy can’t change the world. Much of his early work was geared towards trying to motivate his Baby Boomer listeners to get up off their asses and make the world a better place. And that effort did yield demonstrable progress in many areas (until the Boomers got scared and voted in Reagan and Trump, undoing half the progress they made).
Dylan’s desire to expose the system as an inhuman creation of human beings still runs hot throughout Highway 61 Revisited, and the movement away from protest songs so apparent on Bringing It All Back Home is now complete. In its place are vignettes that dramatize the unfairness and absurdity of it all. Although sometimes his symbolist leanings lead to little more than wordplay, the best songs—er, poems—are marked by powerful imagery pregnant with meaning.
“Like a Rolling Stone” was a breakthrough for Dylan in many ways, for at the time of its composition he was seriously considering tossing his musical career down the shithole. He told Playboy, “Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation . . . But ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ changed it all. I mean it was something that I myself could dig. It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.” What began as “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long” eventually turned into one of the most influential singles ever written, and convinced Dylan to stick with songwriting. During the months leading to its creation, he had developed the practice of sitting in front of the typewriter and dumping everything that came into his head onto paper. This cleansing ritual helped rid his brain of various expectations, overbearing influences and miscellaneous crap, enabling him to find his own voice within the muck. And I mean “voice” literally and figuratively—I’ve never considered Dylan much of a singer (she said in a tone that communicated understatement), but on “Like a Rolling Stone” he sings with absolute clarity and confidence, like a man who has found his true calling.
On one level, the piece is the ultimate karma’s-a-bitch song, with Dylan seemingly taking pleasure at Miss Lonely’s plummet from privilege. And while I certainly don’t buy the interpretation pitched by Jann Wenner that the song celebrates the poor woman’s liberation, I don’t accept Dylan’s offhand comment that the song is mainly about revenge. To my ears, the lyrics are a justifiable expression of outrage at the obliviousness of the wealthy, white and privileged when it comes to the suffering and resentment they generate. For me, the core couplet of the song appears at the beginning of the third verse:
Ah, you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
It’s that kind of obliviousness that earned Marie Antoinette a trip to the guillotine, the ugly fuel that feeds the justifiable resentment of the underclasses against an arbitrary system based on inheritance and tradition. That such an arrangement is allowed to exist in an allegedly democratic society is a fucking outrage. I think of the British, still under the rule of Etonians and Oxonians who have peddled the bullshit quality of their “superior” education for centuries. The truth is much more prosaic:
Ah you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Her fall from grace, occasioned by one of the many frauds who prey on the leisure class, is depicted in terrifying fashion, and any empathy we feel for Miss Lonely comes from the vivid description of her new life at rock bottom:
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
She has no choice but to sell herself for money, because of the uninformed and oblivious choices she made while riding high:
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
You may notice that there’s no evidence that Miss Lonely has learned a damned thing. Dylan doesn’t supply us with an appendix or a sequel describing how she rose from the mat and became a passionate social activist dedicated to eliminating income inequality and social injustice. Instead, he leaves her in the cold streets, devoid of understanding, clueless as to how she got there, another life trying to survive in the darkness, surrounded by society’s castoffs, part of an underclass created by an upper class that couldn’t care less.
The music that accompanies “Like a Rolling Stone” serves its purpose by providing Dylan an open stage to recite his lyrics. Mike Bloomfield was on a tight leash (Dylan told him he “didn’t want any of that B. B. King stuff”), and his contribution is appropriately pedestrian. Al Kooper lost his guitar slot once Bloomfield entered the picture, and over the protests of producer Tom Wilson, slipped into the mix on the organ. His contribution can be easily reproduced by any church-going grandma with a cheap portable electronic keyboard. The most impactful decision came early on, with the change from 3/4 to 4/4 time, unstiffening the flow and aligning the music with rock sensibilities (you can hear the “waltz” version on Volume 2 of The Bootleg Series, and it’s bloody awful). “Like a Rolling Stone” smashed paradigms about song length and subject matter in rock music, and remains one damned fine piece of work.
With a few notable exceptions, the music on Highway 61 Revisited is unremarkable, but hey, Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, not music (no, there isn’t a Nobel for music, but he wouldn’t have been under consideration had there been one). Half the songs are little more than standard blues progressions or variations thereof, beginning with “Tombstone Blues.” Though Bloomfield gets in a few good licks during the presentation, the rest of the band (including Dylan) seem to spend most of the time struggling to keep with the choppy, high-speed rhythm. The struggle has nothing to do with the chords, which add up to a grand total of two. The lyrics fall into the symbolist-surreal camp without much in the way of concrete imagery, and the listener leaves the table hungry for meaning. It’s one of those Dylan songs that have a few good lines you can quote to enliven a dull conversation; of those, the last verse takes home the gold:
Now, I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge
Ironic that these lines appear in a song largely bereft of melody. While it’s tough to follow a masterpiece, “Tombstone Blues” would be a poor choice no matter where it appeared on the tracklist.
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” features an easy, loping beat with a last-call honkytonk feel courtesy of Paul Griffin on piano and the rhythm section of Harvey Brooks (delivering a rather cheeky and playful bass line) and Bobby Gregg on drums. Though my usual reaction to a Dylan harmonica solo is “Hurry up and move on, Bob,” this one is well played and features a fantastic flourish at the end, as if he’d like to have another go-round. In addition to providing Steely Dan with the title of their debut album, the song foreshadows his deeper exploration of country sounds in John Wesley Harding. And though I wish his use of sexual metaphor could have been a little more explicit (or more complete with the introduction of a tunnel for that train to slide into), I deeply appreciate the line, “I want to be your lover baby, I don’t want to be your boss,” an emphatic rejection of all those early rock songs that made a big deal about making a girl “mine.”
The second attempt at blues-based rock, “From a Buick 6” doesn’t fare much better than the first—it’s a stiff presentation, in large part due to Harvey Brooks’ annoying make-sure-you-hit-all-the-right-notes bass part. Dylan seems to have fun singing about his shotgun-equipped squeeze who puts up with his shit and pulls his ass out of various jams, but “From a Buick 6” is not one of his most memorable works.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” certainly is. In order to appreciate the context of the song, I suggest you crank up your cable TV with its thousands of channels and find one of the networks airing old sitcoms around the clock. You’ll want to find episodes of three shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Notice the manicured lawns and manicured white people. Pay attention to the routines, and how the boys raid the refrigerator after a long day at school, how the dads sit in their easy chairs and read the afternoon paper after a hard day at work (except Ozzie—does anyone know what the fuck he did for a living?), how the family all sits down together for a dinner of meat, vegetables, potatoes and milk, how the neighbors drop in without knocking and are invariably greeted with a smile, how the moms are always in dresses and have plenty of time on their hands to make the beds and straighten up the living rooms without breaking a sweat. Pay particular attention to the characters of Ricky, Bud and Beaver, the three boys most likely to cause “trouble” by getting into “scrapes,” and how dad (or mom, on rare occasions) gets them out of the fix and wraps it up by giving them fatherly advice related to one of life’s lessons—all of which have to nothing to do with helping the boys find their true selves, but have everything to do with enforcing conformity to social norms that reflect the American ideal.
This was the America of Mr. Jones, a society where everyone knew their roles, where everyone adopted a very narrow definition of right and wrong, where everyone followed a routine, where everyone watched the same shows, where everyone’s goal was to try their very best to be a “good” father, mother, son, daughter, businessman, housewife, etc. That was the America that sucked the life out of early rock ‘n’ roll, the America that assigned degrading roles to women and people of color, the America that worked diligently to create a predictable, safe environment for its citizenry.
The façade began to crack in 1963 due to the Civil Rights Movement and the Kennedy Assassination, two events that shattered the manufactured image of American perfectionism. Women, equipped with The Pill and lessons from The Feminine Mystique, began to assert themselves in unfeminine, unpredictable ways. By 1965, the world of the Nelsons, Andersons and Cleavers seemed on the “eve of destruction,” and all those Mr. Joneses (Ozzie, Jim and Ward) who had built their lives around a very specific set of rules and the virtue of predictability proved themselves completely incapable of comprehending it all:
You raise up your head and you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says, “It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The verses in “Ballad of a Thin Man” form a series of nonsensical interactions, sort of like distorted takes on “Who’s on First” that evoke terror instead of laughter. What is most terrifying to Mr. Jones is that his “proper” education, where success is measured not by critical thinking ability but the ability to memorize certain “truths” and regurgitate them during the final exam, has left him completely unprepared to deal with the unexpected:
Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The unusually complex chord pattern (for Dylan) clearly indicates a song written on piano, as the contortions necessary to pull off that F#augBb in the second position on a guitar is itself a paradigm-breaker, whereas it’s a simple adjustment on a keyboard. Kooper’s horror-movie organ enhances the other-worldly feel of the song to the nth degree. Meanwhile, Mike Bloomfield plays his supporting role to perfection with nimble complementary counterpoint mixed with shimmery vibrato chords. Dylan’s vocal has all the right touches, and you can tell he’s on his game in the first verse:
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
(laugh) You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home
That little laugh feels like, “You’re kidding, right? You don’t know how to explain a naked man to your wife? Uh . . . hasn’t she ever seen one?” Perhaps not. It was twin beds/lights out for Rob and Laura, after all.
Flipping over to Side Two, we get “Queen Jane Approximately,” which most have interpreted as a softer version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” with the main character awash in the emptiness of a life based on materialism and the “need” to impress others. The difference is that Queen Jane’s story takes place before the crash, giving Dylan the opportunity to offer himself as her savior. The problem with the accepted interpretation of the song is Dylan’s response to Nora Ephron (cited in Andy Gill’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right) that “Queen Jane is a man.” At first glance, Dylan’s assertion smells like bullshit, but after turning the lyrics upside down and inside out in my head for weeks, I realized I was attempting to interpret the song through contemporary norms regarding LGBTQ relationships, forgetting that the song was written over four years before the Stonewall Riots when homosexuals were considered persona non grata.
Viewing the song through that lens changes everything. Instead of viewing Queen Jane as some form of debutante bored with it all and dealing with her looming old maid status by refusing to see anyone, the line “When your mother sends back all your invitations” becomes a mother’s painful rejection of a son for his immoral, socially-unacceptable behavior. The interpretation gains more validity in the third verse, especially when you remember that homosexuality was described as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the DSM as late as 1973:
When all of your advisers heave their plastic
At your feet to convince you of your pain
Trying to prove that your conclusions should be more drastic
Some of the “treatments” prescribed by mental health “advisers” to “cure” homosexuality were indeed “drastic,” including electro-convulsive therapy applied to the brain and genitals, castration and lobotomies. Given that Dylan spent his more focused formative years in the Village, he would have been acutely aware of the existence of the homosexual underclass and their struggles. So while I could be completely off-base by interpreting the song through my personal lens of bisexuality, let me point out the obvious: when you hear the word “queen,” what comes to mind after you’ve emptied your memory of British female monarchs, Freddie Mercury and the four suits in a deck of cards?
Proving that “third time’s the charm” isn’t just an exhausted cliché, Dylan and his pals finally hit pay dirt in the field of blues-based rock with “Highway 61 Revisited.” Though now truncated and merged with various interstate and US highways, Highway 61 is best known as the Blues Highway; the intersection with US-49 is the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly offered up his soul to Satan. At the time the song was written, the road stretched from the Delta to Duluth, where Dylan was born (the cutoff is now in the center of Minnesota, in the town of Wyoming). In Dylan’s imagination, Highway 61 is the place to go if you want to accomplish something that either a.) falls outside the boundaries of socially unacceptable behavior or b.) falls outside of society’s capabilities. It’s the ultimate back-channel for making things happen.
The steady, rollicking beat gives a singer lots of flexibility with their phrasing, and Dylan takes full advantage of that opportunity. Combined with his use of American vernacular (as opposed to high-falutin’ ”poetic” language), his phrasing reminds me of a street corner storyteller, a guy whose flair for language draws a crowd of regulars who gather ’round to hear his latest riffs. In the first verse, he transforms the story of Abraham and Isaac into a tale anyone can relate to through his use of everyday language, his depiction of a religious icon as an Average Joe and conversational phrasing with pauses and emphases in all the right places:
Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61”
Beneath the fun and language games you’ll find pointed commentary on the state of things in 60’s America. Georgia Sam in verse two (likely a reference to Blind Willie McTell) is a black man desperate to escape something (a lynch mob, the troopers, whatever) and asks poor Howard about an escape route. As Howard is carrying a gun, we can assume that Howard is poor and white; if so, we’re left wondering whether his directions to Highway 61 will lead Georgia Sam to freedom or to his demise. Verse three satirizes American consumerism and the useless junk left in its wake; the fourth takes on the myth of the American nuclear family. The last verse held special meaning for a populace living under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the real-time escalation of the American presence in Vietnam, but Dylan’s insight is even more relevant today, given the presence of the roving gambler in the White House and the sycophants who eagerly do his bidding:
Now, the roving gambler he was very bored
Trying to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said, “I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes, I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61”
Though I wish Dylan had eased up on the siren whistle after a while, “Highway 61 Revisited” qualifies as both a hoot and a storytelling masterpiece.
Dylan songs often improve when other people sing them, and I do prefer Judy Collins’ rendition of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” on In My Life with its varied instrumentation featuring winds and pizzicato strings. That said, Dylan’s version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” somehow feels more intimate and true-to-life. Integrating bits of Rimbaud, Kerouac, Poe and Hank Williams, the tale describes the experience of a painter (according to Mr. Dylan) who (like nearly every American expat who chose Mexico as their getaway destination) finds himself the victim of what he might define as “gringo exploitation,” but is more accurately the alienation he feels as a stranger in a strange land, where the exploiter has now become the exploited, where Americans are viewed with suspicion and distrust:
Sweet Melinda, the peasants call her the goddess of gloom
She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room
And you’re so kind and careful not to go to her too soon
And she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon
His attempt to distance himself from the culture through an attitude of cultural superiority hasn’t worked (“And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through”), and since he doesn’t want to wind up like Angel (“Who looked so fine at first but left looking just like a ghost”), he decides to move on: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” Good call, dude.
Now we arrive at the single reason why I have resisted reviewing Highway 61 Revisited with every fiber of my being: eleven minutes and twenty-four seconds of “Desolation Row.” The listening experience is a drag; the music rarely varies (three chords, I-IV-V); and the one notable variation—a Marty Robbins-like “latin-flavored” guitar counterpoint courtesy of Charlie McCoy—gets tiresome after the third verse. Geez, Bob, couldn’t you have pulled something out of the Johnny Cash Playbook and changed the key a couple of times? The lack of a narrative discourages continuing disinterest; the song is just ten stanzas of poetry randomly thrown together connected only by their proximity to Desolation Row. New York Times critic Robert Shelton watched Dylan perform the piece in concert and described it “another of Mr. Dylan’s musical Rorschachs capable of widely varied interpretation . . . It can best be characterized as a ‘folk song of the absurd’.”
I tend to agree, but getting back to the Swedish Academy justification for the Nobel Prize, the poem generally reads well. Some of the stanzas click; others seem overwrought; some feel like gibberish. I suggest you skip the album track, read the poem and pick your favorite verse. As I’m forever interested in the subject of gender within culture, my favorite is the second verse:
Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one, ” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
I always thought Romeo was an asshole and I hope the ambulances mean that Cinderella kicked his entitled male ass.
Highway 61 Revisited usually appears in the top ten in those greatest albums of all-time lists—lists that are still largely compiled by Baby Boomers. Although the reasoning behind those lists is fundamentally flawed (appreciation of a given piece of music is always affected by mood and individual experience), I can fully understand why the album has achieved such lofty status. In the context of 1965, Highway 61 Revisited was the ultimate mind-blower, an integration of folk, blues and rock loaded with compelling lyrics—lyrics that were light years ahead of anything else on the charts, lyrics that caused people to stop and re-think “reality.” What blows my mind is that there was once a period in modern history when producing intelligent, thought-provoking music resulted in mass-market acceptance and commercial success.
Hard to imagine that now.
After I graduated from college and returned to my childhood home for the we-love you-but-please-get-your-ass-out-of-the-house-dear-daughter ritual, my dad, feeling sentimental as he watched me rip my Iggy Pop poster from the bedroom wall, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He told me I could help myself to any five LP’s from his vast vinyl collection.
“Only five?” I cried.
“I’ll leave the rest to you in my will,” he said, shaking his head at what a greedy little bitch of a daughter he had raised.
I dropped what I was doing and headed for the living room, where he kept his treasure on every available piece of shelf space. He had over a thousand LP’s and I’d heard each and every one during my formative years, with varying degrees of attention. Sighing at the sheer difficulty at the task ahead but somewhat inclined to take a trip down memory lane, I started with the A’s (The Allman Brothers) and worked my way to the Z’s (Frank Zappa).
I literally spent all day and night fingering through the collection, pulling out possibilities and playing emotional tug of war with myriad possibilities. Should I go for Super Session or East-West? Do I dare break up his Beatles’ collection? (I didn’t, but I am looking forward to the day he croaks so I can become a proud owner of the original Yesterday and Today cover.) Ogden’s Nut-Gone Flake? Face to Face? Wheels of Fire? Pleasures of the Harbor? Stand Back!? Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music? Sketches of Spain? The experience turned out to be harrowing, but finally, drenched with sweat, sentimentality and angst, I called him into the living room to announce my selections.
“The good news is I’m letting you keep Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge and The Grand Funk Railroad,” I smirked.
“No surprise there,” he laughed. “Show me what you got so I can get started on the grieving process.”
I pulled them out one by one. Having a Rave-Up with The Yardbirds elicited a groan. Surrealistic Pillow yielded a tender smile. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band earned a comment, “Thank God it’s not East-West.” The fourth, Judy Collins’ In My Life, caused him to tear up a bit. However, my fifth selection sparked a change in his visage from nostalgic to stern and led to an irresolvable dispute.
“Nope, not that one.”
“What? You said any five!”
“Not that one. It’s out of print. Pick something else.”
“You prick!” I replied.
“I can live with that. Now pick something else.”
I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning this argument, so I grabbed Live at Leeds and was gratified to elicit another groan. “Serves you right, you welcher,” I taunted.
The album in dispute was, of course, The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry. I knew that Chuck Berry: The Anthology had been released a few years before, but the attraction of good old-fashioned vinyl with that nice big album sleeve was too hard to resist. There were other compilations, but I didn’t want anything that had that fucking “My Ding-a-Ling” song on it. I wanted The Great Twenty-Eight in blessed analog format because I wanted to experience what John Lennon had heard as a kid while listening to a crackly radio in his room on Menlove Avenue. I wanted to feel the same kind of inspiration that you won’t find in the sound quality, but in the rhythm, in the singing style, in the now-classic guitar licks and in the devil-may-care energy of early rock.
It took me a couple of years to find a relatively pristine copy (in part because I had devoted a large part of that period of my life to sharpening my bisexual fucking skills), but my patience was rewarded. I’ve also forgiven my father for being an asshole about the whole thing, because if I had been in his place, I would have done the same thing.
I have empathy, people!
Much has been written about Chuck Berry’s contributions, and the general consensus is that he’s pretty much the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His guitar stylings alone would have qualified him for legend status, and the list of guitarists he influenced is a mile long. More importantly, no other early composer made the ironic synergy between black blues and white hillbilly music work so seamlessly, giving early rock a crossover power that few genres have ever had. The Beatles and The Stones covered several of his compositions, and before the critics started labeling Brian Wilson a musical genius, he borrowed “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the musical base for “Surfin’ U. S. A.” (and was forced to turn over the copyright to the ARC Music Group, owners of Berry’s catalog). Of the early rockers who actually wrote most of their own songs (sorry, Elvis), only Little Richard and Buddy Holly can approach Chuck Berry’s lasting influence.
While his guitar work and his classic rock patterns were deeply influential, one of his strengths that is often ignored is his ability to write exceptionally compelling lyrics. Most early rock music consists pretty much of variations of “I love you, baby,” “You made a fool out of me, you bitch” or songs about dancing. Many of Chuck Berry’s songs contained vivid descriptions of life in concrete language in the context of great stories full of humor and narrative tension. While he frequently wrote songs designed to appeal to the white teenage market (that’s where the money was), he also wrote about the traditional subjects of love and sexual attraction from perspectives other than the malt shop, often adding discreet social commentary in the process.
Chuck also put out a few stinkers, and when he’d found a gimmick that tickled teenage fancy enough to pull them out of the back seats of their oversized automobiles and spend their allowances at the record shop, Chuck would milk it until the cow ran dry. He frequently re-purposed his own compositions, changing the lyrics and throwing in a musical variation or two. Hence “School Days” was refurbished with a new story line and became “No Particular Place to Go.”
The Great Twenty-Eight takes us through Chuck’s entire period with Chess, from 1955 to 1965, generally in chronological order. The only inexplicable absence is “You Never Can Tell,” which happens to be one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs, dammit! Astute researchers will note a significant time gap between the release of “Come On” in October 1961 and “Nadine” in February 1964. Chuck spent a good part of that time doing a stretch in prison on seriously trumped-up charges involving a 14-year old Native American girl. When he left prison, he found himself riding a new wave of popularity due to the dozens of covers by British Invasion bands . . . but we’re getting ahead of our story.
We begin our journey in July of 1955, the year when the Brooklyn Dodgers would finally win their first and only championship (they would not become the Fucking Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles and were christened thus by fired-up San Franciscans). July was a big month that year, featuring the opening of Disneyland and no less than three significant events in popular music history that exposed the socio-cultural tensions in the United States during the post-McCarthy years of the Eisenhower administration: the national debut of The Lawrence Welk Show, the rise of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” to the top of the Billboard charts, and the first single released by Chuck Berry, a clever little ditty by the name of . . .
“Maybellene”: Based on an old Bob Wills fiddle tune and named after a tube of mascara, Berry’s first hit single (heavily influenced by Chess bossman Leonard Chess) was specifically designed to appeal to young, horny hot rodders. When Chess ordered Berry to update the lyrics to achieve that end, Berry exceeded all expectations by coming back with an attention-grabbing narrative filled with you-are-there imagery:
As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side
When I hear the opening guitar lick, my 1990’s-programmed ear says shouts to the rest of my brain, “Is he using a distortion pedal?” The part attached to my vocal cords says, “No, silly, they wouldn’t be invented for years.” If you’ve ever seen today’s guitarists in live performances, you’ll see that they all have a huge rack of foot pedals to help them achieve various and sundry effects—few of which are as exciting as the tone Chuck Berry achieved with a relatively cheap amp using primitive recording technology.
“Maybellene” is hot and sassy, and must have seemed like the harbinger of the anti-Christ to all those Lawrence Welk fans who tuned in to hear the sweetly inoffensive Lennon Sisters and go gaga at the sight of a band surrounded by soap bubbles. The comparison to Bill Haley’s number is even more telling, as Bill Haley’s approach to rock was more “Let’s have some fun, kids” and Chuck Berry’s approach was more “Let’s do the deed, kids!” “Rock Around the Clock” is corny. “Maybellene” is hot. You could say that Bill Haley’s sound was the sound of “white people rock” and Chuck Berry’s was “black people rock,” and had you made that comment back in 1955, you would have been 100% correct. As rock continued to develop over the years, more white artists would begin to approach their work with the joy and abandon of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, effectively blurring the color line (Elvis and Buddy Holly being the original blurrers). Those who chose to remain forthright and uptight could look forward to twenty-seven-and-one-half fucking years of The Lawrence Welk Show.
“Thirty Days”: The musical twin of “Maybellene” with a similar guitar intro and the exact same rhythm, so the distinguishing features of this song are found in the lyrics. The thirty-day limit in the first verse is a warning to his woman that she’d better get her ass back home in thirty days. In the next two verses, however, the narrator resorts to the criminal justice system to attempt to get his woman back—an ironic step for a black man to take in the pre-civil rights era. Interestingly, Berry threatens to take his problem to the United Nations, beating Eddie Cochran to the punch by about three years.
“You Can’t Catch Me”: Another car song (again, when Chuck found a winning formula, he had a hard time letting it go), this one is noted primarily as the song that caused Berry’s music publisher to sue John Lennon for ripping off the “here come a flattop” line for “Come Together.” Despite the thematic repetition, Chuck’s vocal is strong and confident, the piano backing is pretty cool and the song moves exceptionally well.
“Too Much Monkey Business”: Chuck’s fifth single came out in 1956, the year that millions of boring Americans went to the polls to re-elect a boring president who was lucky enough to run against an even greater bore. While the masses proclaimed “We like Ike,” marveled at the wonders of American progress in the field of consumerism and delighted in their white shirt conformity, Chuck Berry argued that conformity was more of a threat to liberty than communism.
“Too Much Monkey Business” is the anti-Happy Days theme. Each verse is devoted to a link in the conformity chain (wage slavery, consumerism, marriage, education, bureaucracy, militarism and the job), and at the end of all but the first verse Chuck symbolically shakes his head in disgust with a growled “aah”:
Runnin’ to-and-fro, hard workin’ at the mill
Never fail in the mail, yeah, come a rotten bill
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in
Salesman talkin’ to me, tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy now, go on and try, you can pay me next week, ahh!
In addition to an exceptionally fluid vocal performance, Chuck is seriously hot on the guitar, with a ripping opener, a frenetic, extended solo and some fabulous fills.
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: This was the flip side of “Too Much Monkey Business,” a pairing that has to make anyone’s top ten lists for the greatest singles in rock history. Inspired by a scene he personally witnessed in California where a Mexican man was hauled away by the cops while his woman shouted at them to let him go, Chuck subtly raises the terrifying specter of the non-white man’s attractiveness to white women while throwing in subtle digs at fundamentally oppressive and corrupt criminal justice system:
Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man.
If you want your job you better free that brown-eyed man.”
In the USA, you’re certainly treated like a criminal when you’re out of a job, and as a guy who had already done a stretch in reform school for armed robbery, Chuck Berry had some experience with the inherent corruption in the American legal system.
“Roll Over Beethoven”: The revolution is now! Compared to the million or so covers of this song, the original shines with its testosterone-dripping vocal serving both as the conveyor of the anti-square lyrics and a vital component of the song’s driving rhythm. When the band starts driving the sucker home in the final chorus, Chuck sounds like he’s shaking with erotic delight. While concert music appeals to emotions and intellect, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off listening to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and this celebration of the erotic foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, solidly grounded in the blues, is the perfect cure for any Puritan hang-ups or Catholic guilt hanging around the psyche.
“Havana Moon”: Chuck tries to go Latin on us and the result is massive disappointment. Look, if I wanted 1950’s Latin, I’d turn on I Love Lucy and hope that Ricky Ricardo does “Babalú” in his set at the Tropicana.
“School Days”: While it’s apparent that this song was aimed squarely at white teenagers of the time, “School Days” has turned out to be one of Chuck Berry’s most timeless compositions. When I reflect on my brief existence, I can think of no greater waste of time than the years I spent in an American high school, an environment characterized by lazy, tenured teachers, whitewashed textbooks, ludicrously rigid schedules and seriously confused adolescents. Chuck captures the ennui of the school day in tone and lyric, and though we didn’t have malt shops and jukeboxes in the 90’s, getting the fuck out of there at the end of the day definitely qualified as a “lay your burden down” experience after hours of repressing everything from sexual urges to native intelligence. It’s comforting to know that the teenagers of the 50’s had the same things on their minds that I always have on mine—sex and music:
Drop the coin right into the slot
You’re gotta hear somethin’ that’s really hot
With the one you love, you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been wantin’ to dance,
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round we go
“Rock and Roll Music”: Great song, but we’d have to wait another seven years for John Lennon to do this song justice. Chuck Berry’s vocal is surprisingly tame, especially when compared to Lennon’s let-it-the-fuck-out performance and Chuck’s own performance on “Roll Over Beethoven.”
“Baby Doll”: Another song for the high school crowd that falls far short of “School Days.” Apparently this was recorded during Chuck’s “Letter Sweater” phase.
“Reelin’ and Rockin’”: Chuck gets back in the groove with a driving, swing-your-partner-round-and-round number with a curious opening guitar bit that is reminiscent of the tones I hear in the Jeff Beck era of the Yardbirds. Great piano runs from either Johnny Johnson or Lafayette Leake—both are credited on the album One Dozen Berrys.
“Sweet Little Sixteen”: One of the classic singles of the era, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is loaded with socio-cultural ironies. Let’s just take the second variation of the chorus as an example:
‘Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand
In Philadelphia P. A.
Though Chuck Berry appeared on American Bandstand, he sure as hell didn’t see any people of color in the teenage dance crowd. That’s because station WFIL banned black teenagers from the studio audience, a prohibition that led to brawls between black and white teenagers on the streets outside. The station was located in a West Philadelphia neighborhood that had already been a focal point of the struggle against racial discrimination in housing, as more African-Americans flocked to West Philly, developed vibrant neighborhoods and pissed off the white demographic. You can find an excellent socio-historical analysis of American Bandstand on Matthew F. Delmont’s website, The Nicest Kids in Town.
The last verse highlights the hypocrisy regarding the double standard and the strict gender expectations of the time:
Sweet little sixteen
She’s got the grown up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She’s sportin’ high heel shoes
Oh, but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen
And back in class again
The real girl is the one in tight dresses, lipstick and high-heel shoes; the repressed phony is the girl in high school. While most early feminists would run like hell from any honest discussion of female sexuality, here we have a vivid image of a girl wants to feel hot and look hot—and that doesn’t have anything to do with oppression or “learned behavior.” It’s fun to feel sexy, be sexy and look sexy! While this verse may very well reflect male fantasies, what the fuck is wrong with that? People think about sex! Early, late and often! Get over it!
It’s important to note that our little girl was very likely to be labeled a slut by the insecure males of the era, but we’ll cover that aspect of the male psyche when we explore Dion’s contributions to the topic. Cultural complexities aside, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is one hot song with an irresistible chorus and a superb use of stop-time techniques.
“Johnny B. Goode”: It’s just one classic after another with Chuck Berry, isn’t it? From the time Elvis first appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, young boys have seen the guitar as a powerful and complex symbol. Some saw it as a way to grab attention, others as a way to get girls, and a few others were fascinated by its musical and rhythmic potential. “The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself,” said Beethoven, a very early recognition of the instrument’s unlimited potential. While the guitar had been used in jazz and classical music, and was a staple in country, folk and blues music, it was rock ‘n’ roll—with a huge assist from television—that turned the guitar into something more than accompaniment.
Although some of the early rockers pounded pianos (Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino), the piano could have never become the center of rock ‘n’ roll for several reasons. One, it was associated with the piano lessons many kids were forced to endure when they would have rather been outside playing baseball or throwing rocks in the pond. Two, in the 50’s, the piano was associated with squares like Liberace, and glam rock was years away. Three, you can’t hold a piano like you can hold a guitar—you can cradle a guitar in your hands like you’d cradle a lover. Last but not least, guitars were a lot cheaper and a lot more portable than a piano—you can’t take a piano to a beach party and you can’t pull it out of your trunk and serenade your honey when your more pedestrian attempts to get past second base have failed.
Think about it: can you imagine a video game called “Piano Hero?”
If it comes out, I want in on the royalties.
“Johnny B. Goode” established the archetype of the guitar hero, and appropriately, Chuck lets it rip in an energetic variation of the opening riff to “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s a more than suitable introduction, because this is a song that starts with pedal to the floor and never lets up. The story of the poor boy (and his mama) discovering that his guitar playing could forge a path out of poverty and into stardom is a fairy tale that has come true for many successful rockers and still has power today, even with rock in decline. “Johnny B. Goode” is really an updated version of the Horatio Alger myth—and a helluva lot sexier.
“Around and Around”: Chuck varies the rhythm and dynamics in this number, similar in theme to “Rock and Roll Music.” While I appreciate the slight variation, I wish the instrumental passage had been more than a simple repetition of the background rhythm. The Stones and The Dead both got a lot more out of this sucker.
“Carol”: Not my favorite. The lyrics are unusually awkward, the story line confusing and the music is “meh.” Apparently neither Carol nor the narrator can dance, which makes for a less-than-compelling dance song.
“Beautiful Delilah”: A spunky little ripper with a fab opening riff and serious blue note bends on both chords and single notes, I rarely bother listening to the words when this song comes on. This song is about Chuck Berry, guitarist, and he steps up big time here.
As for the story, the girl in the center of the story is a more mature version of Sweet Little Sixteen, seriously focused on using her sexual power to bring the boys to their knees. She’s a precursor of Runaround Sue, and though Chuck doesn’t get as apoplectic as Dion does about a woman having multiple partners, he does comment that “Maybe she will settle down marry after a while.”
Fat chance, dickhead.
“Memphis, Tennessee”: A song that’s been covered by more people than you can count, this one doesn’t move my needle a bit. The discovery that Marie is a 6-year old kid is one of those corny, sentimental twists that often end Spielberg movies, and I hate Spielberg movies. Yeah, I know it’s sad when marriages break up and kids get hurt in the process, but this crosses the line into gross sentimentality without providing much in the way of insight.
“Sweet Little Rock and Roller”: Ditto for this one. The lyrics never come together into an interesting narrative and these stories of rock chicks dressed to the nines and ready for action are starting to get irritating. Move on, Chuck!
“Little Queenie”: Ah, that’s better. It’s still the hot girl theme, but here Chuck allows her to play a part in the classic seduction ritual that begins with the innocuous words, “Wanna dance?” Chuck slips into spoken word for the inner dialogue of the lusting male and nails the tone of delightfully evil intent as he plots his way into her pants:
Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’
If it’s a slow song, we’ll omit it
If it’s a rocker, then we’ll get it
And if it’s good, she’ll admit it
C’mon Queenie, let’s get with it
“Almost Grown”: Chuck Berry rarely used background singers, but when he did, he sure knew how to pick ‘em! Etta James with Harvey & the New Moonglows (who had just hired a young kid named Marvin Gaye) knock it out of the park with a soulful combination of call-and-response and scat vocals. Chuck also varied the formula by holding off on the guitar solo until the second instrumental passage, allowing the piano to provide the fills.
Chuck Berry’s radar was always focused on shifts in his audience demographic, so here he gives us the story about a guy who’s “done married and settled down.” Only a few years before, rockers were ripping up movie theaters, but the combination of Elvis going into the army and the multiple tragedies on The Day the Music Died sucked the life out of the party. The 50’s teen revolution was an adolescent revolution without purpose; the teens of the time didn’t give a shit about politics and never questioned consumerism, segregation or American foreign policy the way their younger sisters and brothers would in the mid-60’s. “Almost Grown” is a dismissal of “the silly things we did as teenagers,” opening the path that would allow this mini-generation to eventually color the entire era with the pastels of nostalgia and turn the Fonz into an inoffensive folk hero:
You know I’m still livin’ in town
But I done married and settled down
Now I really have a ball
So I don’t browse around at all
Don’t bother just leave us alone
Anyway we’re almost grown
“Back in the U. S. A.”: If it seems odd that a black man living most of his life under varying degrees of Jim Crow would write a song celebrating the virtues of the home of the brave, it must be pointed out that Chuck wrote this song after doing a tour in Australia, and this song compares his lifestyle to the primitive existence of the Australian Aborigines. In that context, the song mirrors the tone of the argument Martin Luther King adopted in the “I Have a Dream” speech, basically, “We believe in the same things you do.” While Dr. King was referring to the rights embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Chuck Berry focused on less lofty benefits of the American experience:
Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.
On that score, consider me as patriotic as Chuck. The French make lousy burgers and pay very little attention to rock ‘n’ roll.
“Let It Rock”: Chuck rips off his own “Johnny B. Goode” in a song about working on the railroad. Hey! Whatever happened to that ditty? “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live-long day . . .” And who was Dinah and why did she blow a horn? Was the horn some kind of sexual euphemism? What was going on in those Pullman cars anyway?
You can see that “Let It Rock” is one of those songs that encourages the mind to wander.
“Bye Bye Johnny”: Yecch. I hate sequels as much as I hate Spielberg movies. Chuck should have let us just imagine the poor kid making it big and moved on.
“I’m Talking About You”: Covered by The Stones, The Hollies and even Hot Tuna, the song lends itself to multiple variations because of its exceptionally strong groove. But what really knocks me out on this cut is Reggie Boyd’s bass. Jesus shit, could that fucker play! He proved to be a challenging person to research, but apparently he was a renowned Chicago jazz guitarist and teacher with exceptional knowledge of music theory and history and gave lessons to guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush. This is a bass part light years ahead of anything going on in rock during the 50’s.
“Come On”: Chuck’s last single before entering the slammer is one of my favorite Chuck Berry records. I love Martha Berry’s (Chuck’s sister) harmonies, the sax support and the lyrical depiction of the all-too common experience that one piece of bad news deserves another:
Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted
All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn’t get my car started
Laid off from job and I can’t afford to check it
I wish somebody’d come along and run into it and wreck it
“Come On” was the Rolling Stones’ first single, a version Mick Jagger correctly described as “shit.”
“Nadine (Is That You?)”: A free man once again, Chuck Berry took “Maybellene,” slowed it down a tad, parked the car and pursued his woman on foot and by taxi. Supported by smooth saxophone and a good steady groove, what makes this song one of Chuck Berry’s greatest are the remarkable lyrics and Chuck’s exceptional phrasing. The lyrics are full of fascinating similes (“She move around like a wave of summer breeze” and “I was movin’ through the traffic like a mounted cavalier”) and memorable imagery:
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat
Chuck also knows how to move a story forward without wasting words:
Downtown searching for ‘er, looking all around
Saw her getting in a yellow cab heading up town
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody’s tab
Flipped a twenty dollar bill, told him ‘catch that yellow cab
Testifying to the strength of Chuck Berry’s lyrics, both Dylan and Springsteen adored the words to “Nadine.”
“No Particular Place to Go”: Obviously impatient to get back in the groove after wasting away in jail—and never a guy interested in reinventing the wheel—Chuck takes “School Days” and turns it into “No Particular Place to Go,” a song about sexual frustration triggered by a jammed seat belt. While I would look at such a challenge as an opportunity to test out a new form of bondage, Chuck instead drives home for a date with a cold shower. As on “Nadine,” Chuck’s vocal is strong, confident and nuanced. I love the way he dampens his vocal on the line “So I told her softly and sincere” and his tension-loaded staccato delivery on “Can you imagine the way I felt/I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt.” While the tune is beyond familiar, Chuck manages to make it work with his palpable energy and sense of humor.
“I Want to Be Your Driver”: This song closed out the album Chuck Berry in London, but really, they should have gone with “You Never Can Tell,” which truly qualifies as one of the great twenty-eight.
Chuck Berry’s music will never dazzle you with unexpected chord changes and thematic texture: it’s classic twelve-bar, three-chord blues with few variations. The music serves primarily as the foundation for the vocal and lead guitar performances. It sounds exceptionally tight and energetic because Chuck was an exceptional musician lucky enough to work at Chess Records in Chicago, where he could work with of the best musicians of the day: Willie Dixon, Johnnie Johnson, Lafayette Leake. Chuck is an energetic guitar player, but what he lacks in precision he more than compensates for with his sense of rhythm.
Though his music might be (and should be) relatively simple, Chuck Berry managed to accomplish something very few musical artists manage to achieve: he changed lives. When you sit down with The Great Twenty-Eight, the first sounds you hear are the lo-fi guitar coming out of a tube amp shoved back against the wall of the studio, all warm, fuzzy and sexy as Berry glides into “Maybellene,” delivering a spirited vocal with exquisite enunciation at just the right points. As the song proceeds to that primitive but exciting lead solo, imagine yourself a scruffy kid in far off England in the late 1950’s, stuck at the lower layers of the social strata with nothing to look forward to in the future but a dreary sameness, as your life path was determined for you long before you were born. If you were that kid, what you heard in Chuck Berry’s music was so much more than fantastic, kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.
You heard the way out.