Tiny Tim



by C. P. Lee

What do Tiny Tim, the eccentric American performer, and Bob Dylan, have in common? A lot more than you might think – Both of them came from immigrant stock; both of them were heavily influenced by early forms of 20th century American popular music; both of them changed their names to reflect the artistic direction they were heading in; both of them began their careers in the folk clubs and coffee bars of Greenwich Village; both of them played at the Albert Hall and the Isle of Wight; and in 1967, both of them made recordings with The Band in the basement of Big Pink.

And, one spring evening of that year, Tiny Tim taught Bob Dylan everything he could about a form of music that had become so unhip and uncool to the ‘modern generation’, that it looked just about ready to be confined to the cut-price, discount dustbin of nostalgia. My argument is that it was a lesson that Dylan learned well, one that would have its ramifications thirty-four years later on ‘Love And Theft’.

Links and threads. It’s all links and threads. Music weaving its discourse through our heads, through the air, through the centuries. In the mid seventeenth century somebody in Scotland fashioned a tale around a soldier’s attempts to seduce a young woman. The tune the balladeer used may or may not have been older, the message in the lyrics was the same then as it is now, “Come away with me now. Forget about your mother”. History placed the tune, now known by several different titles, as referring to an event that took place during the 1649 Monmouth Rebellion. Only it wasn’t about battles, or glory, or heroes, it was about a soldier trying to get his end away. Like I said, a perennial tale. It was the tune’s universality that has given it a shelf life that so far has endured for over three hundred and fifty years, a universality that enable it to be carried three thousand miles across an ocean and be transplanted into the Appalachian Mountains and Kentucky Hills of the New World, where eventually it was picked up by the young Bob Dylan and recorded and performed as ‘Pretty Peggy O’. Links and threads. Let’s look at some more….

The first link and thread in this particular story begins in the University of Minneapolis in 1960, when Robert Zimmerman met a young girl called Bonnie Beecher. Some commentators feel that she was the inspiration behind ‘Girl From The North Country’. Maybe it was Echo Helstrom, whatever, the fact is that she and Zimmerman were an item while he lived in the Bohemian quarter of Dinkytown. When they split up he moved away and ended up in New York City and became Bob Dylan.

There was a character there on the coffee/folk scene, called Hugh Romney. Romney came from the Beat Generation and found the transition to Folkie/hippy came easily. Acting as a kind of wacky MC in the clubs, he’s also credited with having introduced the custom of passing round a basket for donations during the performer’s set. This had the effect of increasing the fee that the artists were receiving. Some folkies in the early 1960s were said to be earning over $200 dollars a week as a result of Hugh’s innovation, a sizable sum for the day. Another thing that Hugh was responsible for was introducing the young Bob Dylan to an album by the man called Lord Buckley and therefore directly to the inclusion of ‘Old Black Cross’ into the nascent Dylan’s set.

This being about threads and stuff, we need to know that Bonnie Beecher came to New York, met and fell in love with Hugh Romney. They were wed and together they went off to the West Coast, where they became involved with Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters. Later they both changed their names too – Bonnie taking the Hindhu name, ‘Jahanarah’, Hugh becoming ‘Wavy Gravy’, who features heavily in the movie ‘Woodstock’. However, prior to this, they opened a cabaret club in Los Angeles called the ‘Little Theatre’, and it was there, in 1966, during a break from rehearsals for the world tour, that Dylan finally met up with Tiny Tim.

Tiny’s act consisted of his own peculiar renditions of hits from the 1920s and ’30s, performed in a shrieking falsetto accompanied by his ukulele. In the 1950s the gangly youth from New York had changed his name from Herbert Khaury several times in pursuit of fame. As his hair grew longer so did his list of aliases – Vernon Prince, Emmett Swink, and the formidable Larry Love, were all tried out and then discarded in favour of Tiny Tim, the name he’d use for the rest of his life. Tiny was a bona-fide eccentric, bizarre in appearance, but secure in his encyclopaedic knowledge of the music he was recreating. Tiny Tim was a lot of things, but he was never a phoney.

When Dylan arrived at the Little Theatre to catch his show Tiny had been honing his act for years and knew instinctively how to play an audience like it was a second instrument. When he spotted Dylan sat at the tables he quickly threw in a version of ‘Positively 4th Street’ sung in the style of old time crooner, Rudy Vallee. At the triumphant conclusion of the song, Tiny flung himself down onto his knees and with arms outstretched screamed out in his highest falsetto – “It’s not 8th Street! – 7th Street! – 6th Street! – Or even 5th Street! – But positively 4th Strreeet!!!” Dylan was blown away.

Fast forward now to the spring of 1967. An awful lot had taken place – Dylan’s infamous motorcycle accident back in July 1966 had given him the perfect opportunity to call a halt to the seemingly endless cycle of writing, recording and touring. Holed up now in his Woodstock home with his family, Dylan began putting his life in order. One commitment remained, the Stage TV Show needed finishing. Dylan had an idea. He and Howard Alk would shoot some new footage to be inserted around the concert performance scenes shot during the tour. One of the characters was a down and out drifter called Philip Granger. Dylan decided that Tiny Tim would be perfect for the part and gave him a call and invited him up to Woodstock.

By the time Tiny arrived the project had been put on hold and would eventually surface under the title ‘Eat The Document’. But Dylan wasn’t just simply going to dismiss Tiny and forget all about him. He invited him to stay in Dylan’s house. On their first evening together there, much to Tiny Tim’s surprise, Dylan sat the canary suited warbler down in an armchair, turned on a reel to reel tape recorder and asked him to tell him everything he knew about Rudy Vallee.

Tim was in his element and rattled on for hours, including in his rap information about the whole gamut of American crooners and songwriters. Every now and then his monologue would stop as he took the opportunity to burst into song in order to illustrate a point. Towards the end of the taping session he thrilled Dylan by singing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in the style of Vallee, finishing off by seguing into a devastating parody of Dylan singing Vallee’s ‘There’s No Time Like Your Time’.

A quick links and threads digression here. A guy I know collects and occasionally sells National Steel guitars and instruments. A fellow collector and friend of his was George Harrison. One day they went to look at a collection that was for sale. It included three National Steel ukuleles. My friend bought one, Harrison bought the other two. Mark asked him why two? Harrison replied that one was “for Bob”.

George Harrison was the Honorary Chair of the British Ukulele Federation and had an obsession with George Formby who he regarded as one of the greatest players in the world. One of Harrison’s favourite ways of wiling away an evening was to sit down with his ukulele and strum along to Formby records! It’s fun to imagine Harrison regaling Dylan with songs and tales about the ‘cheeky chappy’ from Wigan. Actually, it’s not fun, it’s horrifying, but there you go.

Back to Woodstock and 1967. Dylan duly introduced The Band to Tiny Tim and this led to a session or two being recorded at the Big Pink. Listening to them now is very instructive. There’s no way The Band are throwing this session away. They treat the music, bizarre and strange as it is, with an air of respect. They’ve obviously worked quite hard on the arrangements and overall the material seems to be recorded with a degree more of, shall we say, professionalism, than the rest of the Basement Tapes. Perhaps this is because some of the tracks were eventually used in the film ‘You Are What You Eat’ which was released in 1968. This peculiar documentary, sadly now out of print, was directed by Barry Feinstein, husband of Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, who was Dylan’s official photographer on the 1966 world tour. More threads, more links.

These often neglected Tiny Tim/Band tracks begin with a rousing duet between Tiny Tim and Robbie Robertson on Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’. This really has to be heard to be believed. The whole number is done totally straight without any kind of camp whimsy, or element of urine extraction. It’s a straight forward rendition of a perfect pop number. The same kind of downhome Rock traditional format is given to Chuck Berry’s classic ‘Memphis Tennessee’, a number The Band certainly wouldn’t have had trouble with, doubtless having performed it on the Southern college circuit with Ronnie Hawkins countless times. Though I doubt Berry’s strangely kiddy porn lyrics have ever sounded so strange as when sung in Tiny’s strangled falsetto.

The Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’ is given the same ‘classic rock’ treatment, and swings in a kind of Wagnerian sturm und drang way, exactly as it should be. Once again Tiny’s vocals battle with The Band’s arrangement and both sides come out winners.

It’s the final cut, the last number they collaborated on, the one cut left out of the movie, where a whole new world opens up. A world that almost ranks on a par with the material The Band were more used to doing with Dylan. A cursory listen to this version of Al Jolson’s ‘Sonny Boy’ lulls the listener into thinking that it’s a joke, a nothing. It became Tiny Tim’s signature tune, along with ‘Tip Toe Through The Tulips’, a kind of snapshot of what the man was all about. But listen harder and on this version something else begins to come through. This is the sound of a Gothic-Americana. This is the sound of a thousand ghosts scratching on the windows of history demanding to be heard. Eerie and spooky, ‘Sonny Boy’ down in the basement of Big Pink has a darkness in its musical arrangement that very nearly matches ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ for weirdness. Garth’s ‘Circus of Horrors’ ornamentations on the organ have the same spine-tingling qualities of much of his work with Dylan. An echo of the past hangs over the whole proceedings like a ghost at a banquet.

One of the myths that’s emerged over the years about the Big Pink and the Basement Tapes, is that somehow The Band, and Robbie Robertson in particular, used it as an opportunity to teach Dylan about Rock and Roll. In return, so the legend has it, Dylan turned them on to Folk and ballads. This is a nonsense, except maybe for Dylan having to teach them about Folk, I can believe that. Dylan had always been a rocker at heart. Way back in high school with John Bucklen and all the others, Dylan was essentially a rocker who diverted to Folk along the way. We know for a fact that his knowledge of American music is vast, and it’s a knowledge that isn’t simply restricted to Blues and Old Time. Dylan knows as much about crooners as he does about Mississippi field calls.

Here’s a strange digression – Interviewed once in his cell in Corcoran Prison California, Charlie Manson said that he was sick of people going on about him and The Beatles. He didn’t even particularly like them, he said. They weren’t from his time because he wasn’t a child of the ’60s, or even the ’50s. His favourite singer was Bing Crosby. Oddly enough, Dylan has made the same observation, just because he was in the 1960s doesn’t mean that he was of the 1960s. Dylan placed his formative musical years as the 1940s. We know for fact that the first song he ever performed in public was ‘Accentuate The Positive’ when he was just four years old. It had been a hit for Bing Crosby in 1944. Another hit for Crosby was ‘Soon’, the song he chose to sing at the George Gershwin tribute in 1987. Love and Theft anybody?

My point here has been to track and trace some of the threads in the pattern of Dylan’s creativity. He and Tiny Tim both shared a deep love for American popular music in all its many and varied forms. I’m sure that Dylan, that spring night in 1967 learned a lesson about Americana that he never forgot. He just waited until it was needed and then he pulled it out, added it to all the other information he keeps inside his mind and wove it into the dreamscape that’s ‘Love and Theft’.

Tiny Tim
Rudy Vallee
Tiny Tim (above) and Rudy Vallee.