by Jim Gillan




How do!

This is my first contribution to Freewheelin'’. With a combination of inspiration and perspiration on my part, coupled with any amount of tolerance on yours, it perhaps won’t also be the last. Anyway, a big HI THERE! to everyone. Hope that life is good, that you still find the music wonderful and that you get good tickets to the shows. OK. Time to scribble hopefully. Lord knows where I will arrive.

At John’s suggestion, I was going to ease myself in by setting down some of the backdrop to the 27th May 1966 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which aside from being the first time I saw Bob, was also the first time I was in the RAH; the first time I was at a major concert of any sort and the first (OK, only) time I knowingly ignored a Police summons.  In theory I’m still on the lam from that one.

But as is often the case with Dylan related matters, something better came up. On to that in a moment. First a word of explanation. I thought I would name this and subsequent (I’m ever the optimist) pieces “What Was It You Wanted” – entirely because I haven’t a clue what I’m going to write about. Never mind, as can be said of many (but especially of all politicians and organisational apparatchiks everywhere) “despite your best efforts, things continue to improve.”

OK. The Grammy’s. As an illustration of oleaginous excess, the Grammy’s arguably excel even the Oscar’s. This kind of smug, slick, sick and entirely dollar-driven ephemeral extravaganza, attended by an audience entirely dependent on narcissism, botox and therapy has nothing whatsoever to do with musical worth or artistic excellence. Dylan, maybe more than anyone else, doesn’t need to do that stuff. But wasn’t he wonderful! Bit fleshier round the face than of yore. Bit more strained in the vocal range. But the delivery! The phrasing! The guitar work! The performance!  Roll on May. Actually, re-reading the first part of this bit, roll on the next awards ceremony, as I think I may qualify for a Grammy nomination in the “gratuitous and sustained use of alliteration” category.

Now then. I saw Chris Smither last night (3rd March) at the Memorial Hall, Sheffield. A regular visitor to the UK, Chris is an exceptional guitarist, singer/songwriter, raconteur and all round good egg. As anyone who has seen him knows. Those yet to come across him, either live or on CD are in for a SERIOUS treat.  By way of a small coincidence, he has recorded “What Was It You Wanted” – which he describes as a “creepy Bob Dylan song.”  I think he means that both are creepy. This is more of a complement than a condemnation, but does need thinking about. ANYWAY, towards the end of the evening he said something along the lines of “here’s a Dylan song for you……I was playing at Boston Folk Festival and was asked if I would participate in a Dylan workshop, along with Jimmy La Fave and Tim O’Brien…..I said sure, I must know about 100 Dylan songs…….But then I realised that I only knew a bit of all of  them – and that the audience would ALL be Dylan fans, each of ‘em ready to pounce on any mistake……”

“It was also just a week after the planes hit the World Trade Centre and everybody, both performers and audience came along with a whole different head full of thoughts….Of course, in those circumstances when you listen to Dylan for about ninety minutes he begins to sound like Nostradamus…..Anyway, this is a version of Desolation Row….”

Now, as a performance, “Desolation Row” is wonderful.  A flowing guitar arrangement, over which Chris sings the lyrics, slowly and with great sensitivity and feeling. Verse one is pretty much as Bob writes it.  Verse two is the “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” stanza, again without much departure from the original. Three leads off with “Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window” but after “she already is an old maid” he sings “And here comes Romeo, he’s moaning / You belong to me I believe / Then someone says you’re in the wrong place my friend, you had better leave / They all play on the penny-whistle ” etc. Verse four is “Cinderella, she seems so easy” down to "Betty Davis style,” when it becomes To her death is quite romantic / She wears an iron vest / Her profession’s her religion / Her sin is her lifelessness / The only sound that you can hear/ After the ambulances go /Is Cinderella sweeping up / On Desolation Row”. Verse five is the “Yes I received (sung as Didn’t I get) your letter yesterday” stanza, again pretty much as written, though with the closing couplet repeated to fade. Huge applause.

Now, this was not mere confusion, but instead was a deliberate reworking – indeed Chris specifically talked about that in his introduction to the song, albeit without giving his reasons for the choices he made – but then, this wasn’t a Dylan workshop. For me at least, his take didn’t detract in the slightest from Bob’s work – if anything it added something, in that I had to first listen hard and later think about what (if anything) the changes amounted to. Clearly the overall song is very different but, speaking strictly for me, I didn’t (and still don’t) think that something ruinous was done. It remains as surreal, as beguiling, and as cinematic as ever. I liked it and hope that Chris puts it on his next CD.

Of course if it was old Bob who did it, the assumption would be that (once again) he had forgotten the words, but made a splendid recovery. Art is in the eye and the ear hole. Its expression and any response to it, is ultimately only an opinion.

Catch you soon.