Nikki Sudden's column #1
A few days back I went to see Bob Dylan playing at the Arena in Berlin. Tickets were around 50 Euros, which is reasonable enough these days. The first time I saw Dylan was at Radio City Music Hall in New York - October 1988. I should have seen him years earlier, but then I should have done a whole load of things in my life that I've never done.
As I write I'm listening to a bootleg of the Radio City show. Called "Stuck Inside Of New York", it's a pretty neat document of an early show from the so called 'Never Ending Tour'. Though I have bootlegs of most of the Bob Dylan shows I've seen I've not yet become a 'Bobcat' - one of the fans who follows a tour from gig to gig - town to town. One of these days I'm going to have to go to a number of shows on a tour. It's the only way you can really pick up on the nuances that go into the same song, or into different songs, night after night.
It is a real honour, a real privilege, to be alive at the same time as people such as Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. To be able to see them creating their art on stage. To hear their latest songs as they are released. So many great names have died over the years. No one lives forever. And you should catch people before it's too late. I first saw the Stones at London's Wembley Stadium in June 1982. I should have seen them earlier but that's missed forever... I tried to make up for my previous mistakes by seeing them another three times during the tour, but then I had to wait until 1989 to see them again.
I've seen Bob Dylan in New York, in London, in Dusseldorf and in Berlin. About ten times over the years. And every time it's different. And every time Bob is great. In some ways he approaches songs like Picasso approached painting - never afraid to put down a brush stroke that others would be wary of - always intent on never fading away - of never repeating the past. I've been to the Picasso museum / gallery in Paris - in an old chateau. The whole building reflects glory - the glory of the Spanish painter's life - of his paintings - of his sculptures - of his work. It doesn't tell the whole story. No one place or one building or one book can do that. Likewise no one record or album or box set can tell the whole story of a musician. To get the whole story - or to get closer to the whole story - you have to see the person working - to see them moving - the way they play guitar or use a paintbrush - the way they walk. You have to hear them talk - see them breathing - see them as a real person. I never met Picasso - I've seen him on film - but that and his works are the closest I'll ever get.
There's no way that even knowing a person gives you the full story. You can't even tell your own story in it's completeness. You see aspects of your character and conveniently forget others. To grasp the whole picture takes more than one camera - more than one pair of eyes. Johnny Cash wrote songs, played concerts, wrote books, made films. I saw Johnny Cash in concert two or three times. But although I've heard every record Johnny Cash ever made and I've read the books and I've seen some of the films there's still so much that I don't know.
I was in Athens, Greece, when I heard about the death of Johnny Cash. I met both John and June Carter backstage at the Glastonbury Festival back in the early nineties. I met Johnny Cash and shook his hand. He said, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash..." I asked him about Charlie Feathers, "A real gentleman," he replied. Likewise with JR Cash - for this was his christened name - his family called him John and Sam Phillips, the god like genius who started Sun Records, called him Johnny. Sam Phillips also died this year. Both of them real gentlemen - the world is a sadder place without them... But it's also a greater place for having known them.
Playing at the Vystrelenho pub in Prague in early August I dedicated a song to Sam Phillips who'd died a few days before. My friend Phil Shoenfelt, who was playing with me, said, "No one in this country will even know who Sam Phillips is..." True enough, they didn't... But, as I said to the audience, "If it wasn't for Sam Phillips you'd still be under the communists..." which is very true. Sam Phillips was the man who discovered and first recorded Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Feathers, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash and many, many more. If it hadn't been for Sam Phillips there would have been no Beatles, no Rolling Stones... and the world would have been a very different place.
Around five or six years ago people started saying to me that I should get Johnny Cash to record my song, "Liquor, Guns & Ammo". I asked my publisher, Warner-Chappell, to try and get the song to him. Like any good publisher they didn't do a thing. I tried other avenues but they always ended up at dead end streets. This spring I met Dave Molton, drummer from the Joey Skidmore Band, and we got to talking about pirates and the like - a mutual fascination - and at some point during the evening "Liquor, Guns & Ammo" came up in the conversation. Dave mentioned that he knew Kent, JC's road manager... Long shot is that Dave passed the song onto Kent. Kent said if he thought the song was suitable for JC he'd pass it on. He heard it, thought Johnny would like it and got the tape to him. The trouble is that when June Carter, Johnny's wife since the mid-sixties, died earlier this year he lost most of the will to live. Kent reported that at June's funeral Johnny couldn't walk by himself and that if he made it for more than another six months it would be a miracle.
As is so often the case with me I'm, oh, so good at being a little bit out of time. I hope Johnny Cash is happy now and I hope he heard my song before he died. I wish he'd recorded it, but...
Anyway, Bob Dylan was, as he is always, inspiring. He looks so cool these days - a kind of mixture between Bill Monroe and Elston Gunn. In June 1959 Bob Dylan, or Robert Zimmerman as he still was, joined the band of rock and roll singer, Bobby Vee, as piano player. He said that he was called Elston Gunn. Mr. Gunn played a few gigs with Bobby Vee's band before they decided they didn't really need a pianist. A few months later Bob Dylan told a friend that he wanted to be a rock & roll singer - a rock & roll singer who sang Johnny Cash songs. Two months later - Christmas 1959 - Bob Dylan told a friend that he was a folksinger.
Bob Dylan was born in May 1941. His earliest known composition is a song called "One Eyed Jacks" which he wrote in early 1960. He first arrived in New York City during a snowstorm in January the following year. That September he was signed by Columbia Records. His first album, "Bob Dylan", was released in March 1962. Forty-one years later Bob Dylan is playing in a town somewhere down the road. You can go and see Bob Dylan playing in your town.
Bill Monroe was a country and bluegrass mandolin player - like Bob Dylan has of late, Bill Monroe played until he died. Every year he was on the road playing the backwoods and outposts of rural America - county fairs, school gymnasiums, church halls and cinemas. To be a musician you have to play. The other day I was talking to my friends Tom and Conrad from Australian band, The Devastations. I told them that in an average year I play 100 concerts. They replied that that was a lot of shows. I said that a musician should either be playing shows or writing or recording songs. If you're not playing you're dying. Like me, they live off the income from their gigs. I've played three shows this week, they played two. It's a kind of life.
In an interview in West Berlin in June 1984 Bob Dylan said, "Good music can define how you feel. It can make you feel not so much alone. That's what it has always done for me - people like Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson..." He could have added Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, The Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers and Elvis Presley to the list and maybe on another day he would have. But in the four names he mentioned you have much of the inspiration that American music has given out to the world.
Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were born poor and black in the dirt of the Mississippi delta. Robert Johnson died poor and black - poisoned at a country dance just outside of Greenwood, Mississippi in 1938. Muddy Waters died reasonably well-off, but still black, in Chicago in 1983. He'd found fame and fortune - Robert Johnson found glory but little else of worldly use. Their songs came from Africa, from the delta, from folk song and from their lives.
Hank Williams and Bill Monroe took their inspiration from the soil of their land and mixed it up with the old, unforgotten, English, Scottish and Irish folk songs that their forefathers had brought across the Atlantic with them. Songs that are still sung in the villages of the Scots borders or out in County Donegal or County Mayo in Ireland and in hamlets on the banks of the river Thames or in the dales and hills of Yorkshire. These same songs lived on in the Appalachian Mountains that stretched down through the American continent. Songs like Barbara Ellen or Eileen Aaron. Songs that Bob Dylan has sung. Songs that inspired the songs that he wrote in Woodstock for the sessions that history has recorded at "The Basement Tapes".
American writer, Greil Marcus, wrote a brilliant and very readable book about a box set called the "Anthology Of American Folk Music" and it's relation with "The Basement Tapes". This collection, originally released in 1952, was compiled by a 29-year old called Harry Smith. Marcus' book, "Invisible Republic" tells the story of the crazy folk and country singers who with one shot at success sang stories of, "Roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels." That, as Dylan put it in his 1966 interview with Playboy is the crux of folk music, "Traditional music comes about from legends, bibles, plagues... mystery is a fact, a traditional fact. Traditional music is too unreal to die. It has to do with a purity thing. I think it's meaninglessness is holy." If this interests you then you should read the incredibly inspired sleeve notes Dylan wrote for his "World Gone Wrong" album.
Maybe there is a similar school of folk music in Russia but the glory of the lunacy of singers such as Uncle Eck Dunford, Buell Kazee, Dick Justice, Columbus Fruge, Hoyt Ming, Moses Mason, Bascom Lamar Lunsford or Dock Boggs is something so essentially rural American. I couldn't have made those names up...
These people displaced from the countries of their forefathers and placed in the middle of a massive deep-old weird continent that is the United States took their shot at glory - took it, stumbled and fell - stumbled and fell on their feet. Maybe they never felt that songs such as "Old Shoes And Leggins" or "Peg And Awl" or "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" - the most unappealing title is "Greasy String" by the West Virginia Coon Hunters - would stake their place at the top of any charts, but maybe they really believed that such was the stuff for everlasting fame. If they thought this they were right. The songs that they sung will never die and because theirs were the voices that sang the songs they'll also live forever.
This is one of the laurels won by musicians, by writers, by painters, by filmmakers. They create something in their lifetime that will live on past their time. Shakespeare is as alive now as he ever was. When all the politicians and kings have been forgotten - who remembers the name of the Tsar's apart from the insane ones or the last one? Who remembers the name of any American presidents save for Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy? The others did nothing of any import. They never left glory behind them. Bob Dylan will live on as will Hank Williams. Michael Jackson and Arnold Schwarzanegger will be long forgotten because although they made records and films they made ones of no importance. Like cheap American presidents, likewise with cheap singers and actors. Michael Jackson made some good records with his brothers in the Jackson Five but all of his bombastic later solo career will be soon forgotten. Those songs that sold millions of copies will be played for a few more years and then will disappear as fast as the dust of the bones of those age-old kings.
And that is something to be grateful for!
Nikki Sudden-Berlin-26 October 2003.
Anthology Of American Folk Music - Smithsonian Folkways Recordings - SFW 40090
The Essential Bill Monroe And His Blue Grass Boys - Columbia/Legacy C2K 52478
World Gone Wrong - Bob Dylan - Columbia 474857
The Bristol Sessions - Country Music Foundation Records CMF-001-D
Stuck Inside Of New York - Bob Dylan - Kiss The Stone KTS 012
Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes - Greil Marcus - Henry Holt - New York - 1997
A Life In Stolen Moments ~ Bob Dylan Day By Day - Clinton Heylin - Book Sales Ltd. - London - 1996