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Bob Dylan: Love & Theft

Enid (played by Thora Birch): “Yeah, it took a while before I got a chance to play it, but when I heard that song it was like –”
Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi): “So you really liked it? Yeah, there’s some really rare performances. You liked that Memphis Minnie, huh?”
Enid: “Yeah, that’s good too… the whole record was good, but that one song, ‘Devil Got My Woman’ – I mostly just keep playing that one over and over… Do you have any other records like that?”
Seymour: “The Skip James record? Yeah, that’s a masterpiece. There are no other records like that!”

Bob Dylan turned up unannounced at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in 1972, the same year that Leon Redbone played. Redbone was a singer and guitarist who was mining an eccentric seam of music from the 30s and 40s, mixing Fats Waller, show tunes and songs like “May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose”. He was famous in a small way for his mysterious demeanour – no-one knew what his real name was or where he came from, or even how old he was. He was just there, in his dark glasses and bowler hat and moustache, and he met Bob Dylan.

Well, on Love and Theft it sure sounds like he remembers Leon. On some songs, it sounds like he’s channelling him (if, of course, Leon is now on The Other Side – who knows?). Quite what this album means in the pop marketplace of today is hard to fathom. Bob’s understanding of pre-rock ’n’ roll music has always been pretty deep, but now he has a band that enables him to play the kind of music that previously he’s only played solo (“Tomorrow Nightfrom World Gone Wrong, or Bing Crosby’s “You Belong To Me” from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack).

The question is—is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. Using tall stories and gnomic couplets that are reminiscent of the basement tapes, the albums alternates two basic styles pretty much track-by-track. First up is the blues – ranging from Chicago (Little Walter) to Texas (Bob Wills). When it’s good, it’s awesome, but there are weaker moments, especially on the opener “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee”, punchy riff notwithstanding. “Summer Days” is as authentic a jump blues as you’ll hear (listen to David Kemper’s drums!) sounding like it was recorded at King Records’ San Antonio Studios.

The other is patterned on Mr Redbone – 30s dance music, love songs, and Django Reinhardt runs. A little “Bye and Bye” or “Moonlight” go a long way, but there’s some nice playing, although they’re sometimes sabotaged by Dylan’s slightly lumpen way with their melodies. One song doesn’t fit into either camp. That’s “Mississippi”, and it’s a treat. Left off Time Out of Mind, here re-recorded, Tony Garnier’s taut bass defines the rhythm and the tune, and Dylan sings his tale of leaving town right up against it. The ascending chorus is glorious, as is the repeated payoff line Only thing/I did wrong/was to stay in Mississippi a day too long, moaned only the way Dylan can.

However, two songs really head and shoulders above the solid surroundings, one from each camp.High Water (For Charley Patton) is a meditation on old spooky music, taking in Charles Darwin and Big Joe Turner, among others. It’s carried by Larry Campbell’s insistent banjo, punctuated by Kemper’s rolling thunder, Dock Boggs by way of the 1812 Overture. It’s more “Crash on the Levee” than “Blind Willie McTell” – a gnarled and threatening invocation.

The other is the closer, “Sugar Baby, Gershwin-like in construction, and Dylan’s best vocal on the album. High in the mix, he sings like time is standing still. He’s surrounded by gorgeous guitars, Charlie Sexton on one side, all chiming sonics and reverb, Larry Campbell on the other, slicing out precise chords and fills. Dead-centre, Tony Garnier’s big bass paces Dylan word-for-word. A song about how hard it is to make love work, it’s a monumental performance, and incredibly moving.

So maybe it’s best to approach Love and Theft as a jukebox in a diner in Illinois as the 50s shade into the 60s. There’s a lot of selections to chose from as you order your pie a la mode – dance music, sweet love songs, raucous blues, some country, a little hillbilly weirdness, all waiting to be heard. Punch in tracks 7 and 12 for me – no-one’s making music like this anywhere else in the world.

Bob Dylan: Water From A Deeper Well

There are five men on stage in a variety of western-wear. The drummer wears a big white stetson, the bassist a menacing leer, a pencil moustache and a black hat (very Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil). Stage left is Antonio Banderas, stage right—Matt Dillon (well, it looks like them, but it’s dark in here), both armed with acoustic guitars. The fellow in the middle is no film star. In fact, in the white spotlight he resembles a ghost, or a character from Dickens, dusted in talcum powder, and looking distractedly into the middle distance. He’s wearing a dark western suit with white piping, Tom Mix crossed with Hank Williams.

They light into the opening song, a bluegrass gospel number called Somebody Touched Me, and their voices swoop into the air on the refrain “It must be the hand of the Lord,” in true Louvin Brothers style. They finish to whoops and hollers from the crowd, and launch straight into a gorgeously dreamy romantic waltz, with a Mexicali feel. Antonio plays delicate filagree lines, Matt plays self-effacing rhythm guitar and the backroom boys swirl the beat around like a carny ride. The funny little guy seems to be the lead singer, and he wheezes into the opening lines in a sly fashion, imparting the words sideways from his mouth. The song’s a timeless marvel called To Ramona and the next one that they ease into is even better. Mama You Bin on my Mind has a melody both Moby and Mariah Carey would kill for, and it is so gorgeously played and sung that for the time it lasts you’d die and go to Boot Hill, happily.

The band then swing into a groovy vamp, the singer twitches and shrugs, and the audience roars its approval. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks/When you’re tryin’ to be quiet.” This is hip-swinging stuff, and the audience is almost forced into dancing along. Antonio rips off another fine solo and then the funny guy starts playing. He plays like his fingernails are too long, and the jerkyness makes the audience blink from their reverie. He pays no heed if he hits a bum note, instead searching for a kind of repetitive intensity—a Chicago Blues version of Philip Glass. But it’s an intriguing approach and it keeps the band on their toes as they try and figure out where he’s taking the song. Antonio in particular wears a look somewhere between terror and joy.

Then a song called Tangled Up In Blue, stage lights dramatically throwing the band’s shadows onto the wall on the title line, which builds up to a crazily intense climax that leaves the audience exhausted. They revert to the style of the opener for one more song (about standing on a soldier’s grave, it seems) and, in an atmosphere so intense that it’s hard to see where it can go from here, the front line ditch their acoustics, and choose electric guitars from racks at the side of the stage.

First up is a jagged slice of country funk, Country Pie, with the guitarists going hell for leather, one moment Clarence White, the next Jerry Reed, sweat flying from the dashing brow of Matt Dillon as his fingers claw their way up and down the frets. But the party-time mood is just a distraction, as the show turns a dark corner in the road for the anguished blues of Can’t Wait. Blistering vocals, blistering guitars, the wail and thump of a Howling Wolf band in the early sixties brought to life in this municipal hall on the south coast of England…

The menacing strut of the next song, Gotta Serve Somebody—featuring an intense, preaching vocal—keeps the energy level high before the gentle coming down of a country strumalong on If Not For You. This innocuous song features an extraordinary moment: after playing his solo right at the third attempt (nobody minded, you understand), the singer looks down into the audience with a piercing stare, a hint of a smile at the corners of his lips, and sings the middle eight straight at them —“If not for you, My sky would fall, Rain would gather too. Without your love I’d be nowhere at all, I’d be lost if not for you…” And you feel it’s true. Playing live seems to give the singer a powerful reason to keep going.

Wicked Messenger and Leopardskin Pill Box Hat keep the high-voltage approach going, although the downside of pounding into the songs like this is the danger of coming off more Foghat than ZZ Top, which happens in Leopardskin. Messenger, however, is apocalyptic tonight, and possibly a definitive version—the combination of the whiplash guitar playing and a stunning harp solo is simply overwhelming.

An hour has passed and the band line up and face the audience, and stare at them. That’s right – they don’t bow, and they don’t wave, they just stare out from the stage. They resemble a Brady photograph of captured Confederate troops. It’s deeply spooky. The hall goes wild, the band disappear for five minutes and then launch into part 2—it lasts forty-five minutes, too long to call an encore. Love Sick is next and its weary fatalism rebounds around the room. The singer hunches and swivels, for all the world like a moody Chuck Berry, driving the band with his Freelance Guitar Stylings™. They all seem to be enjoying it, digging deep into the music. Even Like A Rolling Stone is energised.

Appropriately for a concert hall that last looks like it was last refurbished in 1966, the singer chooses a song called Fourth Time Around and sounds like no-one else on planet earth. He grimaces his way through the storyline, savouring the gnomic lyrics. A swift canter through I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Forever Young lead into a coruscating Highway 61 with a fabulous T-Bone Walker-drenched solo by Matt dropped into the Allmans groove, before a reverential reading of old-as-the-hills Blowing In The Wind, where the voices rise up as they did at the beginning, mountain music for the mind and body.

And in the end, that’s what it all comes down to—the music. It’s not about the history of those on stage, really, or a glib perception of what a ‘dinosaur rock tour’ will be like. It’s about great music in the here-and-now, about its power to move you. It’s about the fact that the next night the singer and his compadres play the same hall and only play five of the same songs, or that when they play Wembley a week later, the set is different again. It’s about the well that this great stuff is drawn from, and the fact that it still hasn’t dried up.

Cast List: Starring in Water From A Deeper Well were: Larry Campbell as Antonio, Charlie Sexton as Matt, David Kemper as The Man in the White Hat, Tony Garnier as The Man in the Black Hat and Bob Dylan as The Singer. It was showing at Portsmouth Guildhall, September 24th, 2000

The Choir Songs

For the last few years MJ Paranzino has run two choirs that she founded, The South London Choir and The Brighton City Singers. Every summer they put on a concert as part of the Brighton Fringe at which they only sing new compositions. They put an open call out for composers to write choral pieces that have to be learned and rehearsed in a very short space of time.

In This World Before

The first piece, for the theme ‘The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same’ is an adapatation of a track from the Mountains ep, Himalaya. I was casting around for some inspiration when I came upon a mention of a blog dedicated to a day-by-day posting of Samuel Pepys’ Diary. At the time the papers were filled with dire discussions of global warming…

Monday 21 January 1660/61
This morning Sir W. Batten, the Comptroller and I to Westminster, to
the Commissioners for paying off the Army and Navy, where the Duke of
Albemarle was; and we sat with our hats on, and did discourse about
paying off the ships and do find that they do intend to undertake it
without our help; and we are glad of it, for it is a work that will
much displease the poor seamen, and so we are glad to have no hand in
it. From thence to the Exchequer, and took 200l. and carried it home,
and so to the office till night, and then to see Sir W. Pen, whither
came my Lady Batten and her daughter, and then I sent for my wife, and
so we sat talking till it was late. So home to supper and then to bed,
having eat no dinner to-day. It is strange what weather we have had
all this winter; no cold at all; but the ways are dusty, and the flyes
fly up and down, and the rose-bushes are full of leaves, such a time
of the year as was never known in this world before here. This day
many more of the Fifth Monarchy men were hanged.

The lyrics are:

Strange what winter
Strange what weather
No cold at all
Rose bush-es full

Such a time of year as was
Never known in this world before

I put the base version together and MJ valiantly helped me organise my rudimentary notes into something singable by 150 voices.

This is a fairly poor audience recording…

Stanzas For Music

The next year had ‘Food Of Love’ as the theme. For this I figured adaptation was the way to go again, took another Mountains piece, K2, and concentrated on finding a poem about music (it being the food of love, apparently). It didn’t take long to find Byron’s Stanzas For Music. With judicious editing it fit fairly well:

None of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee
Like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean’s pause
The waves lie still and gleaming,
The lulled winds dream

And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o’er the deep,
Whose breast is gently heaving
As an infant’s sleep
So the spirit bows before thee,
To listen and adore thee,
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer’s ocean
Lord Byron

Here’s my first attempt to sketch out the basic melody.

MJ again helped with the arrangement of the voices, getting carried away with a kind of African thing, which gave the actual concert a Lion King moment as she made the audience sing it…

Eartha Kitt, Mary Jane & Jerry Lee

Last year the theme was ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’. I broke it into 3 sections, one for each, choosing archetypes. Who embodies sex in music better than Earth Kitt, who was still alive when I started writing? Called ‘the most exciting woman in the world’ by Orson Welles, her best known hit was Santa Baby. My favourite, however, is C’est Si Bon, so I stole the bass line and adapted some of the words, aiming for a kind of Pink Martini feel to the music. Due to the many paens to Marijuana in popular music, the herb seemed the best fit for drugs. I had written a grungy, slow blues instrumental so looked for something that fitted, and found the words to an unreleased Janis Joplin song called Mary Jane. Again I adapted some words, wrote others and then went looking for the final part. No-one says Rock & Roll to me like Jerry Lee Lewis, even more than Elvis Presley or Little Richard. His gloriously unrestrained ode to the joy of lust fitted with my idea of ending with a raved-up Gospel shout-out, using the chorus of Great Balls Of Fire repeated over and over. Here’s the first version, just to work out the basic voicings…

C’est Si Bon | Just your slightest embrace
C’est Si Bon | For the rest of my days
C’est Si Bon | I’ll whisper this phrase
C’est Si Bon | You’ll be my purple haze

C’est Si Bon | Just your slightest embrace | Embrace me now
C’est Si Bon | For the rest of my days | Like you know how
C’est Si Bon | I’ll whisper this phrase | Drive me cra-zy
C’est Si Bon | You’ll be my purple haze

When I bring home my pay
I spend it all on Mary Jane
When she comes out to play
My whole world seems alright again

Everyone must get Rolling Stoned | Rolling
That’s what the kids all say | Rolling
Panning around my stereo | All night
When Mary Jane comes to play | All day

Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire
(You shake my nerves, you shake my nerves, you shake my nerves, and you rattle my brain)

Cocktails With Leo & Bill At The Windows On The World

This year, the theme is Walls Of Sound, celebrating great and iconic buildings. In 1986 we visited New York at the end of a trip around the States to the West Coast and back. We had arranged to meet our friends Leo and Bill and when we got to their apartment they decided that we should go and have a drink in the bar at the top of the World Trade Center. It was astonishing. We marvelled at the view as the sun went down, seeing if we could spot
where they lived (we could), and generally feeling vibrantly alive in the city that never sleeps. So this is a tribute to that feeling, and those buildings. This is the instrumental track.

Cocktails With Leo And Bill At The Windows On The World

Here are the lyrics

Here’s the pdf of the score for the voices

Cocktails With Leo


The Southwestern Recorders site is designed by me, implemented by the very patient Mark (what’s the letterspacing on that again?) Pringle. Blame me for the fuzziness of small type, I was going for a letterpress effect. Photographs on Poisonville are by the great Bob Gumpert ( The main photo on the opening page wall, of my uncle Ken with Sister Rosetta Tharpe is by Terry Cryer, great chronicler of the 50s and 60s in British music (see more of his work in Goin’ Home, the book I recently designed about Ken The photos of me are by Mark, part of his excellent series of close-up twin lens reflex portraits (see The idea for the Autobiography section came from this great 60s press release for the Beatles.

Thanks to Graham at Guitar Classics of Webbs Road for the great Fenix telecaster, and Hank’s of Denmark Street for the cute Finnish Landola. Thanks to Leo Fender for the bass.  Thanks to macaudioguy for some great loops, and I also have to thank the Apple Loop Library, without whose great catalogue this would have all been much more difficult to do…