Dylan by A. Fortier
Portrait  by  A. Fortier


by Michael Crimmins


“Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”

It would have been so nice to have seen Chuck Berry walking side by side with Allen Ginsberg in the famed opening sequence, that is “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from D.A.Pennebaker’s fly on the wall style documentary ‘Dont Look Back’ from 1965. I did have the idea of superimposing Berry’s image onto a still from the video, much in the same way that Freewheelin’often features our favourite minstrel keeping good company on its covers. Up until the release of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ Chuck Berry stood alone as the poet laureate of Rock‘n’Roll, added to this the fact that his guitar solos, never mind songs, were the real inspiration behind The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and countless others, Dylanologists would do well to look a little closer at the songs of Charles Edward Anderson Berry and realise the huge importance of his influence on not only The Beatles and The Stones, but on Dylan too.

Bob Dylan chose to open the film ‘Dont Look Back” with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, he also chose it as the opener for his ground breaking album ‘Bringing It All Back Home”. I doubt very much that this was any coincidence. I see it as a direct reference; call it tribute if you like, to Chuck Berry. The album cover itself reveals Dylan’s intention to note some of the influences upon himself and his songs, some of which are quite obvious and others that are not so. Among them being Robert Johnson and Sally Grossman. All sorts of interpretation have been laid at the door of those first few lines from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” Dylan biographer Bob Spitz had this to say in his book ‘Dylan A Biography’.

“The influence of LSD is everywhere in Bringing it all back Home, launched by the opening line “Johnny’s in the basement/ mixing up the medicine”- into brilliant and ethereal allusions “Ah, get born keep warm,/ short pants, romance…” The guy was gonged out of his nut”.

The influence of LSD may have been elsewhere, though certainly not everywhere! when it is I think I can spot it, but in those opening lines? I really don’t see that at all. The song, as has been noted many a time, is obviously a rework of Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and to me those opening words, far from being drug references, refer to Berry and Dylan themselves. Berry, who may or may not, have not carried his guitar in a gunny sack, is without doubt Dylan’s Johnny! the one synonymously united with the greatest guitar lick of all time in “Johnny B Goode” “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine” Johnny is the creator of the Rock ‘n’ Roll platform on which Dylan “talking about the government” stands. Dylan yearns to return to Rock ’n’ Roll. He IS homesick and needs to get back to base. Dylan’s return, not conversion to, Rock ‘n’ Roll is the whole point of these opening lines from an album where the title is so obviously stating the same.

Dylan has always turned his nose up at the term “Folk Rock”. Basically I trust that his reason for this is because he finds it misleading, pretentious! There was no invention here, no wondrous fusion of Rock and folk! It happened yes, and Dylan played his part, but certainly not here! or at any precise point in time! Please don’t misunderstand, this is a great record and side two, as we old un’s used to call it in our vinyl youth, contains some wonderful music indeed. “Mr Tambourine Man” is nothing short of phenomenal! as Dylan found the sound(his sound) and inspiration to take him to the even greater heights of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. With ‘Subterranean’ the supposition could be that Dylan turns the trick of saluting Berry while ripping him off at the same time! Mr Berry must have taken the former as being our Bob’s intention, as he didn’t pick up the phone to call the artist or his lawyer as he had with Brian Wilson (Surfin’ U.S.A) or was to with John Lennon (Come Together), it is though my belief that Dylan was tipping his hat at Berry by featuring the song as opener for both film and album, and in the album’s case alluding to and underlining it’s title. The Rap like Rhythm and Blues structure of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that is so similar to “Too Much Monkey Business” and therefore so Berry like, and the urban imagery so strong in both songs, added to the fact that the Chuck Berry song came eight years earlier, makes an obvious mockery of modern day claims that Dylan is the Godfather of Rap.

To go back to his Rock ‘n’ Roll roots, Bob Dylan chose to pick up an electric guitar. If Dylan is to be credited with any hand in the invention of Folk Rock, it is easier to make a case from the point of his first album rather than anything you will find on ‘Bringing It All Back Home’. Dylan was using folk music changes and timing, and then adding a beat, although I’ll bet this was not a combination that he gave too much thought to. Dylan had done this before a few years earlier anyway with “Mixed up Confusion” and “Corrina Corrina”. The integration of musical styles helped along by people like Dylan who refuse to be pigeon holed as this or that, help the music to evolve naturally.

Roger McGuinn is another whom people have bestowed honour on as the inventor of Folk Rock. In the BBC/TV music documentary programme ‘Dancing in the Streets’ McGuinn indirectly passed that honour onto The Beatles when he told of first hearing them while still playing folk music himself . “I realised that this was electrified folk music, I was never really a purist but I did respect the people who liked the acoustic music and didn’t want to see it changed, however I realised that The Beatles were incorporating a lot of folk music changes into their songs” he went on to say how he first heard Dylan’s version of “Mr Tambourine Man”, the version with Jack Elliott, and how he was inspired to use a little Bach like refrain at the opening of his version of the song. McGuinn was now using a twelve string Rickenbacker guitar that he had noticed George Harrison using in the film ‘A Hard Days Night’ “I decided to put the Beatle beat to it (Mr Tambourine Man) and that was 4/4 time instead of 2/4 time”. Dylan himself revealed part of the process to Anthony Scaduto, that you can find within ‘Bob Dylan. An Intimate Biography’ when he also talking about The Fabs said “They were doing things nobody was doing, their chords were outrageous, just outrageous” The Beatles themselves of course grew out of the Skiffle roots of Lennon’s Quarrymen group, and of course Skiffle leads us straight back to the likes of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.

Of course we do have to have an order to things so we can see the wood for the trees, but so often over categorisation within music just leads to so much snobbery. On the 5TH September 1977 the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched, it is now estimated to be 13.5 bn kilometres away from the Earth. The craft has Earthly music on board, ninety minutes of it to be precise. “Johnny B Goode” is to be found alongside of Beethoven’s ninth symphony! Does this make Ludwig Van Beethoven and Chuck Berry far out man? Boom Boom! Did Berry foresee this coupling when he penned “Roll over Beethoven”? enough of the jokes, my point is that physically through science this music has transcended it’s time and place of origin, and if listened to in the great unknown, perhaps our categorisation will mean little.

Leonardo Da Vinci called music “The shaping of the invisible”. I believe music poetry and visual arts to be a human manifestation of heavenly beauty “Ghosts of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face” is as good of a way as any to express such a manifestation, but I’m sure that it’s been done before!

Recently as part of the TV music documentary series ‘Faith & Music’, Sanandra Maitreya on much the same theme, had this to say “Writing songs or being the recipient of songs is a grace” I was elated, although it may sound strange to say, this elation was not brought on by hearing words that I wanted to hear, he went on “In my experience, all good song writing is prophesy”. Sanandra Maitreya is a name of Buddhist origin, meaning in the first instance Saviour of the universe, and in the second, a reference to the tree of life. Sanandra is the newer name of another artist whose work is important to me, Terence Trent D’Arby. Forgive me if you already knew that. Of course there are two sides to every coin, and while I believe that to create good music is to reach out and grab a piece of heaven, then maybe to label every article and overstate any one persons contribution is to grab a little of the opposite.

Getting back to the monkey business though for a while, and to a little known, or at least a lot less talked about, Dylan show from 1988. It was the eleventh of July in Hamilton, Ontario, and as had been Dylan’s routine for the past month or so, he opened with, yes you guessed it “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. The connection your waiting for isn’t forthwith I’m afraid, it is just that I have been trying to get hold of this show on DVD for a while, and lo and behold,(didn’t even mean that one) it decided to arrive right in the middle of my sitting here today to write my bit for Freewheelin’. I had been informed what a great outing this one was. It is. It is an incredible performance, and a just a titchy bit spooky, with Dylan deciding to deliver ‘Blonde on Blonde’ nuggets like “Absolutely sweet Marie” and “Stuck inside of Mobile” with all of that old vitriolic sneer that made the electric half of those 1966 shows – well so electric!

Dylan worked so well with G. E. Smith in the early years of the N.E.T, that it makes you wonder if Smith’s departure in October 1990, that Dylan even comments upon on the jacket notes of ‘World gone wrong’, affected him in any great way. Some of the drunken stumbling performances of 1991 signalled loud and clear that something was very wrong. Smith’s influence on the way Dylan performed was quite obvious to anyone taking note. Dylan who before and after Smith, for all intents and purposes, at least always looked to be in sole control of his band, the exception of course being most of 1991, made it glaringly obvious during their time together that he was taking his cue from him. On this particular night in the Copps Coliseum, Dylan delivered “breath taking” performances of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “A Hard Rains A-Gonna fall” and it was that very breath taking, that made these versions so special. After Dylan’s return to live performance in 1974 there was a marked difference to Dylan’s delivery of his songs. To me that difference was the spacing between one verse and the next, or the spacing between verse and chorus, most commented that the 1974 delivery was rushed, and some even questioned his ability, timing wise. They were wrong to do this! His timing has always been impeccable. His timing/spacing from this period I would say had become unconventional, although he must have been very aware of this to remain constant with it. My point is that G.E. Smith during his period with our man somehow managed to keep the reins on him, and that maybe, for whatever reason, this control was something Dylan was loathe to relinquish. Two songs that perhaps state the exact opposite of each “Gotta serve somebody” and “Maggie’s Farm” wryly brought together here and featured for their very positive position in Dylan’s career, were never better. Glorious rock music. I could go rambling on about the acoustic set that featured Dylan and Smith on twin Martin’s for “It Aint Me Babe” “To Ramona” and “Mr Tambourine Man” but I will have to let someone else get a word in soon. This is all ancient history to most readers here I know, but there are always new faces to our ranks, and as life long Dylan nut, all of this stuff is the very breath to me!

The fourth annual John Green Day held in Northampton at The Moat House Hotel on 27th March, was another great success. This was my third John Green Day and my first as a Freewheeler. I was honoured to be shown the secret Freewheelin’ handshake and I must confess that at first thought that the whole thing was a massive put on arranged for my benefit. It was the real thing though! ceremoniously performed, though importantly not without humour, and initiated I’m told first time around by John Green himself. Thank you all for extending the hand of friendship. All of the performers and speakers of the day were excellent and it was nice to meet some of them later as the day wore on. I was glad to see John Nye present, he has been a good pal. Trev Gibb impressed me with his knowledge of Bob, he seems happy and at home on either piano or guitar. I would like to wind up here by thanking the Sisters of Mercy (the real thing) for turning up and treating me and Gerry to a lovely meal.

For information on Michael's band "Dylanesque", including a gigs guide, go to his website.