Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times. Continue reading “Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl”

The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year

The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year

There’s a programme on Radio 4 that I hear sometimes when I’m driving in the car. Called Recycled Radio, it chops up old BBC programmes and recycles the snippets into something new. That made me think of all the recycled music I listen to, with album tracks often reassembled into new playlists. As I get older, I listen to a lot of recycled music – but not all the time. Every year brings exciting new sounds. In this post (the first of three) I want to round up some of the music – recycled and new – that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. Continue reading “The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year”

Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

<em>Highway 61 Revisited</em> at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

Unlike Bruce Springsteen, I can recall no revelatory experience on first hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Indeed I cannot recollect the first occasion when I first heard the song – or any other track from Highway 61 Revisited, the album with which it opens. I can, however, relive the exact moment when I first heard ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ off Dylan’s next album. Such are the vagaries of memory. Continue reading Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before”

Fifty years of Bringing It All Back Home: through the smoke rings of my mind

Fifty years of <em>Bringing It All Back Home</em>: through the smoke rings of my mind

Fifty years ago, in May 1965, Bob Dylan’s fifth album Bringing It All Back Home was released in the UK. I don’t know for sure when I first began to hear songs off the new album, though it must have been soon after its release since by then I was listening for nearly a year to music beamed from the pirate radio ship Caroline North, broadcasting to sleepy Cheshire from the Mersey Bay. My 17th birthday in September brought a copy of the LP with songs which have remained personal favourites through the years,  including ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’.

The album had been released in America on 22 March 1965, the first of a trilogy of electrified and electrifying records with which, in the next 24 months, Dylan would almost single-handedly transform ideas about what rock or folk music could express.

Dylan at the final BIABH session
Dylan at the final BIABH recording session

With Bringing It All Back Home Dylan shifted gears and began making what Greil Marcus, in Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads, calls ‘noisy rock ‘n’ roll songs’. In his book, Marcus sums up side one of the album – consisting of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ followed by ‘She Belongs To Me,’ ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit,’ ‘Outlaw Blues,’ ‘On the Road Again’ and the hilarious ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,’ as being ‘scratchy, clanging, written with flair, sung with glee, Dylan and his backing musicians in moments thrilled at their own new clatter.’

Even fifty years on, the punch of the album’s opening track, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, has not diminished. It took a 17-year old Cheshire lad a while to work out what the hell Dylan was on about in this helter-skelter poem set to Chuck Berry blues chords, all tense, choppy and excitable. At first, for a kid approaching the last two years of his schooling, it was these lines that leapt out from the clatter:

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle.

Now, the rest of it sounds far less nonsensical that it did in 1965; now I hear a disciplined expression of youthful alienation and paranoia, raging against the forces of conservatism and authoritarian control: ‘Look out kid, don’t matter what you did…’.  Nothing in these lines sounds dated:

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA.

Today, even though half a century has passed, we still don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

As a seventeen year old with a head full of ideas that were driving me insane, I heard the album as if reading a political manifesto, particularly when digesting the lyrics of the revelatory ‘It’s Alright Ma’, perhaps Dylan’s greatest political statement. My mind was nourished by the pointed aperçus with which this 24-year old peppered his song: ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears’, ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’ and ‘Bent out of shape from society’s pliers’. Verses like these were just about the most subversive I had ever heard:

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That nothing much is really sacred.

Advertising signs that con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

Here was a song that expressed the whole counter-cultural thing, not in tired political clichés but in words that spoke to those of my generation who really thought that if their thought-dreams could been seen, they’d probably have their heads placed in a guillotine. But it’s alright, Ma – it’s life, and life only!

Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’
I just might tell you the truth.
‘Outlaw Blues’

Thomas Erlewine, discussing the album on the Allmusic website states:

This is the point where Dylan eclipses any conventional sense of folk and rewrites the rules of rock, making it safe for personal expression and poetry, not only making words mean as much as the music, but making the music an extension of the words.

Half of Bringing It All Back Home was fierce stuff like ‘It’s Alright, Ma’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Gates of Eden’ – not forgetting ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’, the hilarious satire that closed side one (at the time even the false start seemed subversive, undermining accepted ideas about recorded order and perfection; I now know it wasn’t Dylan breaking up with laughter and saying ‘Start again’, but Tom Wilson, the producer).

Captain Ahab he started
Writing up some deeds
He said, ‘Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads.

But the other half of Bringing It All Back Home consisted of enchanting songs of great beauty and mystery, poetry to be pored over as I sought the key to unlock their allusive and elusive puzzles. I saw pictures like never before.

There were romantic ballads like ‘She Belongs To Me’, dedicated to the mysterious woman (Joanie, no doubt) who wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks, who had inspired verses of a kind you didn’t hear from anyone else:

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees.

‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ was another delectable love song, the imagery evocative and mysterious and Dylan’s words accompanied by rippling guitar:

My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.

The song features one of my favourite verses:

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all.

‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (memorably covered by Van Morrison and Them – see below) was a new kind of break-up song. While some have speculated that Baby Blue was Joan Baez, the consensus seems to be that Dylan was singing to his old folk-singer friend Paul Clayton who had shared the trip across the American south during which Dylan had written ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.  The pair had parted company because Clayton’s amphetamine abuse had become intolerable (though Dylan was to set the bar high in the same respect himself). Later, during the infamous 1966 world tour, Dylan heard that Clayton had killed himself.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

For me, no song in Dylan’s long career has ever come close to the twilight imagery of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’:

Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming. 

I am moved to tears even now when I hear the line ‘And but for the sky there are no fences facing’ or visualise that beach beneath the diamond sky whose dancer  – one hand waving free – is silhouetted by the sea.

The oldest song on the album, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ had been roughed out a year before during a road trip through the south. His first ideas were scribbled down after a night in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, before the song was finished off in New York.

The song’s poetry is enhanced on the album recording by Bruce Langhorne’s delicate electric guitar. Langhorne – whose giant Turkish tambourine inspired the song (according to Dylan himself, in his sleeve notes for Biograph) – later revealed how easily things came together during the Bringing It All Back Home sessions: ‘Some of those numbers were barely rehearsed. Some were done in one or two takes.’

‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ became Dylan’s first number 1 radio hit when covered by the Byrds in April 1965. Their densely harmonized  version, drenched in Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker guitar, is often cited as the beginning of folk rock.

Dylan at the first BIABH session
Dylan at the first BIABH session

With the exception of ‘Gates of Eden’, ‘It’s Alright, Ma,’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man,’ Dylan wrote the bulk of the songs on Bringing It All Back Home between the end of November 1964 and the second week in January 1965. There were just three recording sessions. On 13 January 1965, Dylan entered Studio A at Columbia, and during a three-hour session with Tom Wilson producing, recorded 14 songs. On the first day Dylan recorded alone, accompanying himself, as he had done for his previous albums, on guitar, piano and harmonica.

None of the versions recorded that day were used on Bringing It All Back Home, and only five have so far been officially released. ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ was included on Biograph, and an acoustic ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Farewell Angelina’ appeared on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. With all the first day’s takes subsequently discarded, clearly Dylan was seeking something new. He found that something during the next two days’ recordings.

Dylan at the second BIABH session
Dylan at the second BIABH session

For the second session, on 14 January, Dylan and producer Tom Wilson assembled a group of musicians to record with Dylan. On hand were: Al Gorgoni (guitar), Kenneth Rankin (guitar), Bruce Langhorne (guitar), Joseph Macho Jr. (bass), William E. Lee (bass), Bobby Gregg (drums), Paul Griffin (piano), John Sebastian (bass) and John Boone (bass). Eight songs were recorded that day. Five of them – ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Outlaw Blues’, ‘She Belongs To Me’, and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ – found a place on the album.

Jan 15, 1965 Bob Dylan - The third & final recording session for “Bringing It All Back Home
Dylan during the third and final recording session for BIABH

A day later, the 15 January session was momentous, with Dylan recording ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘On the Road Again’, ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, ‘Gates of Eden’, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ just as they appear on the album.

Dylan at the final BIABH session 2
Dylan at the final BIABH session

In Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, Greil Marcus, discussing the second side of Bringing It All Back Home, wrote:

There was no laughter on the other side of the album. There, except for ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ where single backing instruments were so subtle they seemed more like emanations from the songs than pieces added to them, it was Bob Dylan as he had always been, alone, with his guitar and harmonica. The side comprised four long songs, all of which promised they would never get near Top 40 radio – and they were so self-evidently full of meaning, so striking, so important, so elegant and so beautiful that their quiet drowned out the noise of the songs on the other side.

Bringing It All Back Home cover
The cover of Bringing It All Back Home

While we listened to the songs, there was much to study on the LP sleeve. Far removed from the earlier folk album covers, at the time it was all quite mysterious, but through the years the pieces of the puzzle have been explained. The album’s cover, photographed by Daniel Kramer with an edge-softened lens, featured Sally Grossman (wife of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman) lounging in a red trouser suit in front of an impressive fire surround. Artefacts are scattered around the room, including LPs by The Impressions, Robert Johnson, Ravi Shankar, Lotte Lenya (Berlin Songs by Kurt Weill), and folk singer Eric Von Schmidt.

Just visible behind Sally Grossman is the cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan; under her right arm is a copy of Time magazine with President Lyndon Johnson on the cover. Leaning against the table is a fallout shelter sign while above the fireplace is a copy of a magazine devoted to Beat Generation poetry. In the foreground Dylan sits holding his cat.  he’s wearing cuff-links that were a gift from Joan Baez (referenced in her 1975 song ‘Diamonds and Rust’.

Bringing It All Back Home back cover
The back cover of Bringing It All Back Home

There was more to study on the back of the LP sleeve. Monochrome photos included shots of Dylan with Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg wearing a white top hat, and of Dylan having his head massaged by the film-maker and performance artist Barbara Rubin. Alongside these images is another of the prose poems which Dylan had included on earlier LPs. It begins:

i’m standing there watching the parade/
feeling combination of sleepy john estes.
jayne mansfield. humphry bogart/morti-
mer snerd. murph the surf and so forth/

Later, he writes that his songs are

written with the kettledrum
in mind/a touch of any anxious colour. un-
mentionable. obvious. . . . i have
given up at making any attempt at perfection/

It’s all entirely zany, stream-of-conciousness:

the fact that the white house is filled with
leaders that’ve never been t’ the apollo
theater amazes me. why allen ginsberg was
not chosen t’ read poetry at the inauguration
boggles my mind/if someone thinks norman
mailer is more important than hank williams
that’s fine. i have no arguments an’ i
never drink milk. i would rather model har-
monica holders than discuss aztec anthropology/
english literature. or history of the united
nations. i accept chaos. I am not sure whether
it accepts me. i know there’re some people terrified
of the bomb. but there are other people terrified
t’ be seen carrying a modern screen magazine.
experience teaches that silence terrifies people
the most . . . i am convinced that all souls have
some superior t’ deal with/like the school
system, an invisible circle of which no one
can think without consulting someone/in the
face of this, responsibility/security, success
mean absolutely nothing. . . i would not want
t’ be bach. mozart. tolstoy. joe hill. gertrude
stein or james dean/they are all dead. the
Great books’ve been written. the Great sayings
have all been said/I am about t’ sketch You
a picture of what goes on around here some-
times. though I don’t understand too well
myself what’s really happening.

He goes on:

a song is
anything that can walk by itself/i am called
a songwriter. a poem is a naked person . . . some
people say that i am a poet

It’s obvious now that Bringing It All Back Home was a transitional album, one where Dylan was beginning to see how long-form poetics might fit into the pop, soul, and rock music that he now found more interesting, more challenging than folk. The Beatles were having a big influence on him (and vice versa): it seems truly remarkable that in less than two years the twin axes of rock music produced Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965), Highway 61 Revisited (August 65), Rubber Soul (December 65), Blonde on Blonde (May 1966), Revolver (August 66), and Sgt Pepper (June 1967).

An amazing time to be alive, and young; to believe that ‘But for the sky there are no fences facing’.

Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Bringing It All Back Home covered

Some of the best cover versions of songs – and outtakes – from Bringing It All Back Home.

Tim O’Brien: Subterranean Homesick Blues

Neil Finn’s Pajama Club: She Belongs To Me

The Specials: Maggie’s Farm

Tim O’Brien: Maggie’s Farm

Jackson Browne: Love Minus Zero No Limit

White Stripes: Outlaw Blues

Bob Dylan: On the Road Again (a song never covered)

John Bull and the Bandits: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

Roger McGuinn: Mr Tambourine Man

Julie Felix: Gates of Eden

Roger McGuinn: It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Them with Van Morrison: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue


Joan Baez: Farewell Angelina

Fairport Convention – Si Tu Dois Partir (If You Gotta Go, Go Now)

Nico: I’ ll Keep It With Mine

Dylan’s American music history lecture – illustrated

Dylan’s American music history lecture – illustrated

Last month Bob Dylan spoke at a benefit in his honour, organised by the MusiCares Foundation, an offshoot of the organisation that puts on the annual Grammy awards which provides medical care for musicians in need. They were honouring Bob Dylan as their Person of the Year, and, unusually, he spoke at length about the formative influences on his music.


Here are some extracts from a sometimes rambling, but consistently interesting speech in which he spoke about the debt he owes to others.

I’m glad for my songs to be honoured like this. But you know, they didn’t get here by themselves. It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been travelling on hard ground. […]

I have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group. They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it – they straightened it out. But since then, hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me. […]

Oh, and can’t forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames – something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player. After he became famous, he took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here. […]

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joan Baez. She was the queen of folk music then and now. She took a liking to my songs and brought me with her to play concerts, where she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice. People would say, “What are you doing with that ragtag scrubby-looking waif?” And she’d tell everybody in no uncertain terms, “Now you better be quiet and listen to the songs.” We even played a few of them together. Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. Loyal, free minded and fiercely independent. Nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. A woman of devastating honesty. And for her kind of love and devotion, I could never pay that back.

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock & roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone. For three or four years, all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffee-houses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me – “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” “I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.”

I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,
Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61

You’d have written that too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / Roll the cotton down/A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.

If you’d had listened to the Robert Johnson singing, “Better come in my kitchen, ’cause it’s gonna be raining out doors,” as many time as I listened to it, sometime later you just might write, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. […] If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time like I did, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”

You’d have written that too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all you know. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense. “When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in your socks / Women on Deep Ellum put you on the rocks.” Sing that song for a while and you just might come up with, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too / And your gravity’s down and negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs / When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue / They got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess outta you.”

All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.

Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down and you’ve just got to bear it. In a sense everything evened itself out. […]

Traditional rock and roll, we’re talking about that. It’s all about rhythm. Johnny Cash said it best: “Get rhythm. Get rhythm when you get the blues.” Very few rock and roll bands today play with rhythm. They don’t know what it is. Rock & roll is a combination of blues, and it’s a strange thing made up of two parts. A lot of people don’t know this, but the blues, which is an American music, is not what you think it is. It’s a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out. But it’s true.

The other half of rock & roll has got to be hillbilly. And that’s a derogatory term, but it ought not to be. That’s a term that includes the Delmore Brothers, Stanley Brothers, Roscoe Holcomb, Git Tanner and the Skillet Lickers… groups like that. Moonshine gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock & roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science laboratory or a studio.

You have to have the right kind of rhythm to play this kind of music. If you can’t hardly play the blues, and you don’t have the hillbilly feeling, you’re not really playing rock & roll. It might be something else, but it’s not that. You can fake it, but you can’t make it.

Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do? That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations. Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it. “What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.” You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations. And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. I don’t even know what that means or who has time for it. […]

The Blackwood Brothers have been talking to me about making a record together. That might confound expectations, but it shouldn’t. Of course it would be a gospel album. I don’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. One of the songs I’m thinking about singing is “Stand By Me” with the Blackwood Brothers. Not “Stand By Me” the pop song. No. The real “Stand By Me.”

The real one goes like this:

When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind and water / Stand by me

In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou whomever lost a battle / Stand by me

In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / When I do the best I can / And my friends don’t understand/ Thou who knowest all about me / Stand by me

That’s the song. I like it better than the pop song. If I record one by that name, that’s going to be the one. I’m also thinking of recording a song, not for that album, though – a song called “Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” But I don’t know, it might be good on the gospel album too.

Anyway, I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I’m honored to have all these artists singing my songs. There’s nothing like that. Great artists. Who all know how to sing the truth, and you can hear it in their voices. I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I think a lot of this organization. They’ve helped many people. Many musicians who have contributed a lot to our culture. I’d like to personally thank them for what they did for a friend of mine, Billy Lee Riley. A friend of mine who they helped for six years when he was down and couldn’t work. Billy was a Sun rock and roll artist.

He was a true original. He did it all; played, sang and wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You kind of have to take a step back. You just don’t stand a chance.

So Billy became what is known in the industry – a condescending term, by the way – as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him.

And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life. He did it with power and style and grace. You won’t find him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not there. Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas – I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan – I’ve got nothing against Metal, Soft Rock, Hard Rock, Psychedelic Pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff. But after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Lee Riley is not there. Yet. And it’s taking too long.

I’d see him a couple times a year and we’d always spent time together and he was on a rockabilly festival nostalgia circuit, and we’d cross paths now and again. We’d always spend time together. He was a hero of mine. I’d heard “Red Hot.” I must have been only 15 or 16 when I did and it’s impressed me to this day. I never grow tired of listening to it. Never got tired of watching Billy Lee perform, either. We spent time together just talking and playing into the night. He was a deep, truthful man. He wasn’t bitter or nostalgic. He just accepted it. He knew where he had come from and he was content with who he was.

And then one day he got sick. And like my friend John Mellencamp would sing – because John sang some truth today – one day you get sick and you don’t get better. That’s from a song of his called “Life is Short Even on Its Longest Days.” It’s one of the better songs of the last few years, actually. I ain’t lying. And I ain’t lying when I tell you that MusiCares paid for my friend’s doctor bills, mortgage and gave him spending money. They were able to at least make his life comfortable, tolerable to the end. That is something that can’t be repaid. Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.

I’m going to get out of here now. I’m going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it. I probably left out a lot of people and said too much about some. But that’s OK. Like the spiritual song, ‘I’m still just crossing over Jordan too.’ Let’s hope we meet again. Sometime. And we will, if, like Hank Williams says, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

Bonus feature

More Dylan

Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist

Songs of Freedom: the <em>Selma</em> playlist

Watching Ava DuVernay’s film Selma which takes as its subject the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches brought back memories of how, as a teenager growing up in a Cheshire village at the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness.  Reading or hearing on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South, had a deeply radicalising effect on me.

The anthems sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, and the electrifying assertions of black pride from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke just added to the intensity of my feelings. And it wasn’t just me, of course; in the way of these things, the ideas and methods seeded in the civil rights movement spread on the wind – to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, to South Africa, and to student activists throughout the world. Continue reading “Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist”

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all
David Bowie

He was one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. He had nothing to say.
– Robert Hughes

Walking around Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool, I realised I haven’t got much time for Warhol.  Oh, I get what he was saying, and I know about his impact on the art world.  But looking around this small but well-chosen selection of his work I cannot find one work that really moves or inspires me, nothing that reflects the beauty or the mystery in the world, or speaks to the realities of daily life as experienced by most people now, in our time of austerity. Continue reading “Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all”