"Lots of places to hide things, you want to hide them bad enough. Ain't like Easter eggs, like Christmas presents. Like life and death." - Larry Brown, “Kubuku Rides Again”For April Fool's Day 2012 I posted an essay that demonstrates how Bob Dylan incorporated an encounter with an artist who exists only as an April Fool's Day joke into his book Chronicles: Volume One. I also presented how this imaginary artist, Robyn Whitlaw, had in turn been reviewed by the imaginary art critic Flora Gruff.
Just barely in time for April Fool's Day 2013 comes the release of Bob Dylan's new book Revisionist Art: Thirty Works. My eyebrows rose when I saw that the book's description includes, "Art critic B. Clavery provides a history of Revisionist Art, from cave drawings, to Gutenberg, to Duchamp, Picasso, and Warhol. The book also features vivid commentaries on the work, (re)acquainting the reader with such colorful historical figures as the Depression-era politician Cameron Chambers, whose mustache became an icon in the gay underworld, and Gemma Burton, a San Francisco trial attorney who used all of her assets in the courtroom. According to these works, history is not quite what we think it is." The "about the author" section adds, "B. Clavery is the editor of Sluggo: A Magazine of the Transformative Arts."
A quick check for other work by this B. Clavery turns up nothing beyond the essay for Dylan's book. Sluggo: A Magazine of the Transformative Arts does not appear to exist beyond the reference in the description of the book. It seems that Dylan is using the device of the imaginary art critic. Perhaps he even is the imaginary art critic. The choice of Sluggo as the title of the magazine is an intriguing one. The most obvious Sluggo is the Ernie Bushmiller creation, the pal of Nancy. In his essay "...and Artists and Con Artists..." Kevin McDonough explores Bushmiller's take on fine art: "To Nancy and Sluggo, artists were always hoaxes, goateed fast-buck hucksters pawning child's play off as 'abstract,' 'modern,' and ultimately incomprehensible art. While gullible adults might fall for these flim-flam men and their wares, Nancy and Sluggo were always ready to laugh at the emperor's new clothes."
In 1988 Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik published a groundbreaking essay on Bushmiller titled "How to Read Nancy." In their conclusion they state, "What you may once have considered simple will reveal itself as a complex fabrication of the highest order." I wouldn't presume to write an essay titled "How to Read Bob Dylan," but I can show that one can take that notion from Newgarden and Karasik and apply it to the work of Bob Dylan. Exploring the devices and techniques used by Dylan reveals that what critics have dismissed as simple and worthless in Dylan's art are actually elaborate constructions.
I've established previously that Dylan has read and employed techniques discussed in Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power. Law 3 is "Conceal Your Intentions." Greene breaks this law down into two sections. Part one is "Use decoyed objects of desire and red herrings to throw people off the scent" and part two is "Use smoke screens to disguise your actions."
Dylan uses material from this section of Greene’s book in Chronicles: Volume One.
Chronicles: Volume One, p. 212:
The song was like looking at words in a mirror and checking out the reverse images. It's like you set up a thick smokescreen and then put the real action ten miles away.The 48 Laws of Power, p. 27:
Selassie's way of allaying Balcha's fears — letting him bring his bodyguard to the banquet, giving him top billing there, making him feel in control — created a thick smoke screen, concealing the real action three miles away.One is able to observe Dylan's effective use of both the red herring and the smoke screen by taking a close look at the song "Jolene" from his 2009 album Together Through Life as well as his most recent interview with Rolling Stone.
"Jolene" is a song that Dylan clearly favors, as he has performed it well over one hundred times. It has not fared so well critically. Here's Sean Wilentz on the song in his book Bob Dylan in America:
Once more the simplest of the songs can contain layers that approach allusion, but only just. In her 1974 hit “Jolene,” Dolly Parton pleads with a raving beauty, “with flaming locks of auburn hair” and “eyes of emerald green,” begging her not to steal her man. Dylan's “Jolene” does not even attempt to match Parton's, which is one of the great performances in country-and-western music, but it is an interesting counterpart. In Dylan's version, a toss-off steady rocker with a nice guitar hook, Jolene's eyes are brown and Dylan sings as the king to her queen, while he packs a Saturday night special—a plain enough sex song, but lurking in the lyrics and the music are also hints of Robert Johnson's “32-20 Blues,” as well as Victoria Spivey's album recorded in early 1962, Three Kings and the Queen (on which a twenty-year-old Bob Dylan, no king, played harmonica in back of Big Joe Williams).Wilentz, the would-be Dylan detective, is oblivious to the actual hints and illustrates, once again, how he fills the role of the tired beat cop who tells onlookers, "Nothing to see here folks, move along."
Clinton Heylin expresses a particularly dismissive view of "Jolene" in his book Still On The Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan: Vol. 2: 1974-2008:
For a ditty that could as easily have been called “Baby I Am The King” to invite comparison with Dolly Parton's consummate song of the same name suggests a certain chutzpah on the singer's part. In the past, one would have expected such bravado to generally have been warranted. But this is truly desperate stuff. Line after line of missing links, it is tuneless, hopeless, almost worthless too.What is hopeless and almost worthless is his assessment. The red herring has taken him far down the wrong path as well.
The red herring is Dolly Parton's song of the same name. It is so powerful that Wilentz and Heylin are not able to see past it. Bill Flanagan asked Dylan about Parton's song, resulting in this exchange:
Flanagan: Any chance your Jolene is the same woman who got Dolly Parton so worked up?In this case Dylan is telling the truth - it is a different lady. The lady that he had in mind has a similar name, and she was the subject of a song that was a bigger pop hit than Parton's "Jolene." The song is "Rolene," a Top 40 hit in 1979 for composer Moon Martin. In this case the cover version by Willy DeVille's band Mink DeVille is the one to consider. A close look at the lyrics to Dylan’s "Jolene" reveals that it is comprised almost entirely of lines from songs found on the Mink DeVille albums Cabretta and Return To Magenta.
Dylan: You mean that woman with the flaming locks of auburn hair?
Flanagan: Yeah! Who's smile is like a breath of Spring.
Dylan: Oh yeah, I remember her.
Flanagan: Is it the same one?
Dylan: It's a different lady.
I first wrote about connections between Willy DeVille and Together Through Life back in 2009, before the album was released. At the time I pointed out that the song "This Dream of You" begins with, “How long can I stay in this nowhere café?” and how this echoes the Doc Pomus/Willy DeVille composition "Just To Walk That Little Girl Home" and its opening line "It's closing time in this nowhere café." Dylan had mentioned Doc Pomus in that Flanagan interview, so it was natural to look at the Doc Pomus catalog.
Besides the song "Rolene" there are eight other Mink DeVille songs to consider. Dylan used a similar method of construction in the song "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," which is a pastiche of Bruce Springsteen song titles and themes. That one is obvious to even the most casual listener. In "Jolene" Dylan tweaks the formula by making the homage distinctly more difficult to recognize.
First verse of "Jolene":
Well you're comin' down High Street, walkin' in the sunThe connection in that first line is to the David Forman (aka Little Isidore) composition "'A' Train Lady." High Street is mentioned five time in the fade out of the Mink DeVille version: "Following you all the way to High Street/Yes, I followed you to High Street/And I wished you were my baby/All the way, all the way/All the way to High Street/All the way, all the way/All the way to High Street/All the way, all the way/All the way to High Street."
You make the dead man rise, and holler she's the one
Baby, I am the king and you're the queen
The second line in "Jolene" is the first of a pair of lines that originate in the song "Cadillac Walk." That song includes, "dead men raise and sigh." "Cadillac Walk" is another song that was written by Moon Martin. In "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" Dylan namechecks "Jersey Girl" - a song written by Tom Waits, but familiar through the version by Springsteen. By having two of his songs referenced one could consider Moon Martin to be the Tom Waits of "Jolene."
Not only is the repeated "Jolene, Jolene" an echo of "Rolene, Rolene" from the song "Rolene," but there is a distinctive guitar hook in the chorus of the Mink DeVille version that was likely the starting point for the guitar line that is played in the refrain of the Dylan song.
Second verse of "Jolene":
Well it's a long old highway, don't ever endThe Mink DeVille song "Steady Drivin' Man" includes both "You know that long old highway" and "She's got a Saturday night special."
I've got a Saturday night special, I'm back again
I'll sleep by your door, lay my life on the line
You probably don't know, but I'm gonna make you mine
The third line is built out of bits from the song "Just Your Friends": "You know that all of the time I've laid my heart on the line" and "I don't know why I want more but I will sleep by your door for the truth." The second part of the couplet is taken from the Mink DeVille recording of "Little Girl" (a cover of the Phil Spector/Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry composition "Little Boy," a hit for the Crystals). DeVille starts his version off with, “Little girl, you probably don't know it."
Third verse of "Jolene":
I keep my hands in my pocket, I'm movin' alongThe first line of the third verse is right out of the song "Desperate Days": "Put your hands in your pockets, you keep moving around." With the third line Dylan is back to "Cadillac Walk," reworking the line, "Ain't she something nice/Bones rattle my dice." Dylan rhymes the "dice" line with "I can't say I haven't paid the price," which is from the Mink DeVille song "Soul Twist": "No, I can't say that you haven't paid the price."
People think they know, but they're all wrong
You're something nice, I'm gonna grab my dice
I can't say I haven't paid the price
Final verse of "Jolene":
Well I found out the hard way, I've had my fillDylan begins the final verse with more from the song "Soul Twist," the first line: "I found out the hard way." In Moon Martin's original recording of "Rolene" he sings about her thighs. Willy DeVille took some liberties and changed that line to be about Rolene's "big brown eyes."
You can't fight somebody with his back to a hill
Those big brown eyes, they set off a spark
When you hold me in your arms things don't look so dark
Dylan finishes the final verse with, "When you hold me in your arms things don't look so dark" and that is straight out of the song "Guardian Angel": "When you hold me in your arms, things don't look so dark no more."
One of the few lines in "Jolene" that doesn't appear to come from a Mink DeVille recording is, "People think they know, but they're all wrong." One can apply that to Sean Wilentz's notion that "Jolene" is a plain and simple toss-off with "layers that approach allusion, but only just." He couldn't be more wrong, as the song is a complicated construction that is almost entirely allusion. Just because he fails to recognize the allusions he seems to think that they don't exist. What Clinton Heylin sees as, "Line after line of missing links" is anything but. The links to the first seven songs from Mink Deville's Return to Magenta, as well as two of the songs from Cabretta, are right there - if one can dismiss the red herring and get past the smoke screen.
When considering if there was evidence of Dylan showing any interest in the music of Willy DeVille during the time when the songs on Together Through Life would likely have been written I came across a telling anecdote in a 2011 interview with musician Paul James conducted by Lisa McDonald that ran in smalltowntoronto.com. Beyond his own career Paul James played with Bo Diddley regionally for decades and has shared the stage with Dylan (and Dylan with him) many times, going back to 1986.
Paul James did a stretch as the touring guitarist for Mink Deville and is featured prominently on the DVD Mink DeVille: Live at Montreux 1982, which was released in April of 2008. James also wrote and recorded a song about his tenure with Mink DeVille, a reggae tune about what you end up doing when your band leader is "kicking the gong around" called "Waiting For Willy."
In the interview Paul James talks about an encounter he had with Dylan in August of 2008: "I parked my van right in front of Dylan’s bus at Copps Coliseum, like I was told. And then these guys came and took me to my seat. I was then told, 'Right after the encore, we’ll come back and bring you to Bob. He wants to talk to you.' When I was taken to see Bob, the first thing he says to me is, 'Hey, I saw that video where you played with Mink DeVille. Willy is something else.' (Willy was still alive at this point). We talked about Mink DeVille and then Dylan said, 'You think you could play guitar for me?' I said, 'Yea!'"
On Mink DeVille: Live at Montreux 1982 Willy straps on an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack for the song "Just Your Friends" and it would be difficult for anyone not to see the impact of Dylan in the performance. The idea of Dylan watching it is compelling, but even more interesting is the notion of Dylan perhaps watching DeVille's performance of the same song on the 2006 DVD Willy DeVille: Live in the Lowlands. As DeVille puts on the harmonica rack he tells the crowd, "To tell you the truth I hate this fucking thing, I really do. I can't stand this thing, it drives me goddamn nuts. But I don't have four hands so there's nothing I can do about it. But right now at these moments when I have to put this on I would like to kill Bob Dylan."
The September 27, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone featured a contentious interview with Dylan that, when parsed closely, shows Dylan actually giving hints as to the hidden layers of "Jolene." In the interview Dylan talks about the walking blues and states, "I've been raised on that. The walking blues. 'Walking to New Orleans,' 'Cadillac Walk,' 'Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane.' It's the only way I know. It comes natural."
In the midst of venting about "wussies and pussies" who complain about his borrowing, people he calls "evil motherfuckers," Dylan chooses to conceal the real action - unrecognized source material. Obviously Mink Deville's "Cadillac Walk" is right there for the careful reader to consider and possibly track back to "Jolene." In this case I can point out that I had already shown that I was aware of the origins of the song and had demonstrated this through a similar method - in the last paragraph of my 2012 April Fool's Day post I intentionally incorporated lines from the Mink DeVille's song "Soul Twist." I also wrote about the connection in a post that appears in cipher form. I did these things to serve as a marker in the event that Dylan might do anything that could be viewed as tipping his hand as to the origins of "Jolene." Dylan is using the interview as a game, something that I've demonstrated a number of times over the past few years. When encountering such elaborate game play one can choose to play along.
Also worth considering are the two other walking songs that Dylan decided to mention. Dylan quotes "Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane" in "Ain't Talkin'" from Modern Times: "Ain't talkin', just walkin'/Hand me down my walkin' cane." That leaves Fats Domino's "Walking To New Orleans." The song "Soon After Midnight" on Tempest is essentially the ghost of the Bobby Fuller Four song "A New Shade of Blue," but other songs haunt the recording as well. The loping rhythm and the way in which Dylan enunciates the line "A gal named Honey/Took my money" directly calls to mind Domino singing, "You use to be my honey/Till you spent all my money." People were hearing and making this connection before the Rolling Stone interview was published. For instance, in a discussion of "Soon After Midnight" on expectingrain.com someone known as tensteel commented, "I also hear Fats Domino loud and clear, and just a little Ricky Nelson, especially shades of Lonesome Town. As far as Fats, listen to how Bob sings 'muhhhnay,' for money. Totally Domino."
Dylan has presented three walking songs that play a role in Tempest, Together Through Life and Modern Times - his last three studio albums of new material in reverse chronological order. This pattern of behavior can be demonstrated again and again and again.
Dylan often will hide things in interviews in such an obscure way that only great attention to detail and rigorous digging will expose them. Occasionally he use the “in plain sight” approach and once in a while he will be quite straightforward. While discussing quotation with John Elderfield in an interview that appears in The Asia Series catalog Dylan states, "Minstrels did it all the time. Weird takes on Shakespeare plays, stuff like that." That is as blunt and obvious as Dylan gets.
While looking into how minstrels approached Shakespeare I came across an essay by William J. Maher titled, "Ethiopian Skits and Sketches: Contents and Contexts of Blackface Minstrelsy, 1840- 1890" in the book Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Maher states, "The most frequently parodied Shakespeare plays were Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III." He devotes a fair amount of discussion to parodies of Othello, particularly George Griffin's Othello: a Burlesque from 1866. He mentions, "...the comedians viewed a wife's role as subservient to her husband, something Othello makes clear when he tells Brabantio, 'If for my wife — your daughter — you are looking, you'll find her in the kitchen busy cooking.'"
This passage jumped out at me initially because it was underlined by a previous owner of my copy of the book. I also couldn't help but recognize how similar it is to the first lines of the song "Po' Boy" from "Love and Theft": "Man comes to the door—I say, 'For whom are you looking?' He says, 'Your wife,' I say, 'She's busy in the kitchen cookin'.” Dylan also happens to mention Othello and Desdemona a little later on in the song. The full play, and other Shakespearean parodies, can be found in the book This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage. They are all written in dialect, so reading is slow going, but I think it is essential if one aims to gain a better grasp on some of the roots that Dylan went to while writing “Love and Theft.”
The radio documentary “Shakespeare in American Life” includes an episode by Richard Paul on the African-American experience with Shakespeare called “Shakespeare In Black and White.” It asks the question “Who ‘owns’ Shakespeare?” and Paul begins his piece by contrasting a straight reading of Othello with actors doing the very same lines from Othello: a Burlesque that Dylan uses in “Love and Theft.”
This is the second minstrel skit that I've identified in the lyrics of "Love and Theft" and this one I found because Dylan, in his own peculiar way, suggested very specific subject matter to study.
"Love and Theft" is a particularly rich and dense work, and even more than a decade after its release it still holds plenty that has yet to be considered and discussed. The 20th anniversary edition of Eric Lott’s Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, with a new forward by Greil Marcus, is due in August. I imagine that Dylan might come up there, but I think the extent of Dylan’s use of minstrelsy material is just starting to be discovered.
In a discussion about quotation in the Rolling Stone interview Dylan throws down a challenge, "And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who's been reading him lately? And who's pushed him to the forefront? Who's been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it's so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get."
The question that prompted this response would have been more appropriate in 2006 than in 2012. I would have liked to have least seen a follow up question that talked about how Dylan peppers his prose in Chronicles: Volume One with hundreds of little lifted items, including bits from over a dozen Hemingway short stories – not to play the “as far as Ernest Hemingway is concerned, we’ve all heard of him” card, but because the process involved in writing this way must be incredibly labor intensive and I would find a discussion of this process interesting.
The do-it-yourself approach to using the work of Henry Timrod that Dylan challenged his critics to try was already taken up, years ago, by the combo Bobby Dee and the Folk Process. The band's name is clearly a reference to this passage from a 2006 New York Times article on Dylan's use of Timrod's work: “But some fans are bothered by the ethics of Mr. Dylan’s borrowing ways. 'Bob really is a thieving little swine,' wrote one poster on Dylan Pool), a chat room where Mr. Warmuth posted his findings. 'If it was anyone else we'd be stringing them up by their neck, but no, it’s Bobby Dee, and ‘the folk process.'"
That article ran on 9/14/2006 and the band's MySpace profile, at http://www.myspace.com/bobbydeeandthefolkprocess, shows "Member Since 9/16/2006." In late 2006 The Folk Process posted a recording of a song called "Huck's Tune" before Dylan's song with the same name was released on the soundtrack to the film Lucky You. On their MySpace page the band states, "While we are waiting for the 'Lucky You' version we thought that it would be fun to take a stab at our own 'Huck's Tune.' The lyrics are from the Blind Boy Grunt school of appropriation - see if you can track down some of the places where we nicked them!"
It doesn't take long for one to discover that the stolen lyrics are comprised almost solely of lines from Timrod poems. I don't know that I'd call the song much of an achievement, but as songwriting exercise in response to the methods of Bob Dylan, one that Dylan would explicitly challenge his critics to attempt years later, it is interesting. To see how far you can get was part of Dylan's challenge. The Folk Process doesn't seem to have made it that far, but they were richly rewarded in irony when their "Huck's Tune" was pulled from consideration in a Battle of the Dylan Cover Bands hosted by DylanRadio.com. Apparently the "The World's First Bob Dylan Radio Station" was not yet ready for "the world's only conceptual Bob Dylan cover band" - at least as far as that competition went, since their "Huck's Tune" is available for request on the station, alongside the actual Bob Dylan catalog.
I just received my copy of Revisionist Art: Thirty Works in hand and haven’t had the chance to give it more than the most cursory look. In the interview that appears in the catalog for The Asia Series Dylan brings up both camera obscura and methods that one might use when making a painting of the Last Supper. This caused me to wonder if Dylan had been reading and was referring to David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. The use of optical aids, such as camera obscura, is the focus, and methods and processes used in Last Supper scenes by Dieric Bouts and Andrea del Castagno is one of the subjects discussed.
Hockney states the drive behind his project succinctly: "Like most painters, I imagine, when I look at paintings I am as interested in 'how' it was painted as 'what' it is saying or 'why' it was painted (these questions are, of course, related).” I can relate to that. I am far more interested in discussing the processes that Bob Dylan uses in his work than blathering about how it might speak to me. This focus on process is also an area that deserves greater attention, in that, as demonstrated, the current literature is severely lacking.
Hockney, camera obscura and the nature of portraiture are mentioned in B. Clavery’s essay for Revisionist Art: Thirty Works, titled “Step Inside the Hurricane.” Clavery tells us, “Revisionist art, at its center, lies not in the events but in the willful manipulation of the response to those events as triggered by the artist."
If one replaces “Revisionist art” with “April Fool’s Day” in that sentence it reads just as well, if not better. I think that makes the first of April the perfect day to sit down and take a close look at Clavery’s essay, as well as the wild annotations that appear in Revisionist Art: Thirty Works, keeping in mind the possible use of those red herrings and smoke screens as part of that willful manipulation of response.
Have a happy April Fool's Day.