Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

September 18, 2013


Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bob Dylan, 1997).
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bowie, 1998).

Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati spent the first weeks of 1998 sifting through and mixing recordings from the Earthling tour, for what Bowie assumed would be his next release: a live CD provisionally (and excitingly) called Live and Well. However, Virgin balked at putting out a live album. Earthling itself hadn’t sold well and its supporting tour had mainly played clubs and small theaters, thus reducing the “audience souvenir” factor that typically drove live album purchases. So Live and Well died. Bowie went off to act in three films in quick succession, Gabrels started planning a solo album, Plati was busy producing Duncan Sheik and Hooverphonic.

During these mixing sessions, the trio also had recorded a few potential bonus tracks, one being a version of “Fun.” The curio was Bowie’s impromptu decision to cover Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” a song from Dylan’s just-released Time Out of Mind. Plati, who confirmed that Bowie’s cover hailed from this session and wasn’t an outtake from Hours, saidas far as why it was chosen, hmm… me! I’d hazard a guess that David liked the song, and liked singing it. It was kind of like ‘Planet of Dreams‘, it just sort of popped up from out of nowhere. Which was fine by me!…I was psyched about it because it was a completely live track, and after all the programming we’d been doing it was a nice break in the cycle.”

Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s latest critical rehabilitation, beating out OK Computer in the Pazz & Jop poll of 1997. While similar (in overall tempo and production) to his previous critical rehabilitation, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind was the first collected evidence of Dylan’s “mature” songwriting. Having immersed himself in playing old country and blues songs, Dylan began making magpie collages. He would pilfer and quote from ghosts (he always had, to some extent). His new songs were palimpsests, sewn through with the words of other writers, with Dylan answering their voices, mocking them, shoring up their words with his own. He’d started out as a kid fervently playing these songs; now he broke them up, as if using them for kindling. He became the folk tradition (“the songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs” as he told Newsweek in ’97); he seemed to be walking backwards in time.

“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” which Dylan rewrote repeatedly during the album sessions, was a case in point. In its five verses, Dylan draws from Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory,” “Poor Boy”), Furry Lewis (“Turn Your Money Green“), various trad. folk songs (“Miss Mary Jane,” “Lonesome Valley,” “The Rising Sun Blues”) and for its chorus, he used a variant of a 19th Century hymn that Southern black churches had kept alive until the Thirties: “The Old Ark’s a-Movering” (“she trying to get to heaven ‘fo they close the do.'”). Yet the song hangs together as a single purgatory: a blasted world in which Dylan’s character wanders, from New Orleans to Baltimore, through valleys and across train platforms, subsisting on memories that are becoming a debased currency. He lies on the parlor floor, hoping for sleep, wondering if death will come in its place.


Maybe Bowie saw in Dylan’s developing late style a means to craft his own: the idea that history is over, or is merely repeating in lesser variations; accepting the past, or at least breaking it up and using it for spare parts; quarrying from memory; disappearing into your old, false selves. In 1971, Bowie had written his “Song For Bob Dylan” in the voice of a cult follower whose master’s gone to ground. In 1997, as he had back in the days of Self Portrait, Dylan had escaped into a songbook. But now he wasn’t in hiding anymore: he was living a public life again, seemingly touring every minor league baseball stadium and county fair that he came across (and his cult had become gentlemen academics).

Bowie’s version of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (which, at least in its circulating edit, cuts Dylan’s second verse and squeezes the fourth and fifth into one incoherent lump) is, essentially, a first draft of what would become Hours. The take begins somber and ashen enough. Yet the circularity of Dylan’s singing on “Tryin'”, conveying a journey undertaken but never in danger of ending, seemed to frustrate Bowie: he needed a narrative.

So in the “people on platforms” verse, Bowie builds to a manic desperation, as if he has to make an eleventh-hour sale or he’ll be sacked by his proprietor. We get a rattled “cha-hay-hay-hain,” a squeaked-out “looose,” the creaking onomatopoeia of “cloowwoose the door,” and a gargle. Having made a hash of Dylan’s last verses, Bowie latches onto a line as if he’d drawn it by lot to torture: “I’ve beeen! to Sugar Town-I shook! the su!gar down!” Dylan sang those words with an earned swagger, like a spendthrift man recalling a spent-out life. Bowie sang them as if he was just passingly familiar with the English language.

Whenever Bowie covered someone, he typically tended to go overboard in various directions (see “God Only Knows“). I once interviewed Tim Curry, who said when playing villains he’d give his directors different wattages for different takes: under the top, over the top, top over the top. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” seems to decide, midway through, to go top over the top. But what really murders the track is its backdrop: the cruddy reduction of Jim Keltner’s drum pattern on the Dylan track; the beyond-cliche blues licks that Gabrels plays; the somnolent keyboard “bed”; harmony vocals as a collective aural NyQuil. Bowie had been tasteless before, sure, but he’d never been so devotedly mediocre.

Recorded Looking Glass Studios?, ca. January-February 1998. Its only semi-official release was on a promo CD that also had the Danny Saber remixes of “Funhouse,” though fans learned of the Dylan cover when a Catalan radio station played the promo (and offered it as a download) in late 1999.

Top: Ted Barron, “Wild Bill’s, Memphis, Tennessee, 1998”; Dylan ambushed at the Grammys by Michael “Soy Bomb” Portnoy, 25 February 1998.

Like a Rolling Stone

November 20, 2012

Like a Rolling Stone (Mick Ronson and David Bowie).

When people came up and told him how wonderful he was, I think it just made him nervous. I don’t think he ever believed what they were saying.

Trevor Bolder, on Mick Ronson.

In late 1991, Mick Ronson learned that he had inoperable liver cancer, which killed him at age 46. He died on 29 April 1993, a few days after the release of Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise, to which Ronson had contributed. Bowie heard the news while promoting the album in America, and briefly eulogized Ronson on the Arsenio Hall Show.

There had been a reconciliation between the two of them before Ronson’s death, but then again, they’d never had as severe a split as had been imagined in the press. Bowie had considered Ronson as lead guitarist for his Diamond Dogs tour in 1974 (Ronson said he turned him down due to work commitments), they had played together live in 1983 and there were regular and possibly accurate rumors that Bowie had considered linking up with Ronson again at times during the late Eighties.

Since he left Bowie, Ronson had settled into a sideman’s life, working with everyone from Bob Dylan to John Mellencamp (Ronson’s responsible for much of “Jack and Diane”*) to Morrissey. Ronson had a professional open marriage with Ian Hunter: the two worked together for over 15 years, but were happy to let each other split for better opportunities (playing with Dylan, in Ronson’s case). Often based in Los Angeles in the late Seventies, Ronson, like Ray Manzarek, became a godfather to new bands emerging on the scene, producing and playing on records by the Payolas, Visible Targets, the Iron City Houserockers,, the Mundanes (with John Linnell, later of They Might Be Giants, on keyboards), Los Illegals and, back in Britain, for the Rich Kids and Slaughter and the Dogs.

Uncomfortable as a front man, Ronson had showed little interest in a solo career after his MainMain-hyped Slaughter on 10th Avenue in 1974, and it’s fair to say that he was often at the mercy of sharper personalities, both Bowie and later, Dylan, who allegedly refused to let him play on much of his 1976 tour, leaving Ronson sitting on the tour bus (Dylan “had lead-itis at the time,” tour bassist Rob Stoner later said). (Even after Ronson’s death, there were tensions and diva moments: Bowie didn’t perform at the tribute concert held in April 1994 at the former Hammersmith Odeon, with Ian Hunter and Trevor Bolder later accusing Bowie of not attending because the crowd wasn’t big enough.)

Learning that Ronson was making a new solo record, to be mordantly titled Heaven and Hull, Bowie sent Ronson “a box of tapes” while Ronson was producing Morrissey’s Your Arsenal in spring 1992. Unfortunately, the crop Bowie offered was a poor one, with the only apparently salvageable track being Bowie’s version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which hailed from one of his creative nadirs, the Bruce Fairbairn-produced demo sessions with Bryan Adams’ band, cut in LA in 1988. Ronson overdubbed as much guitar as the tape could take,** but “Rolling Stone” remains a sour finale to their partnership. Play “Moonage Daydream” instead.

Recorded (vocal, rhythm tracks) Los Angeles, spring 1988; (lead guitar, vocal overdubs) ca. spring 1992, Utopia and/or Wool Hall Studios?, UK. Released on 10 May 1994 on Ronson’s posthumous Heaven and Hull.

* Mellencamp, in a 2008 interview with Classic Rock, noted how Ronson’s knack for arranging was still sharp in the early Eighties. “I’d thrown [“Jack and Diane”] on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks…All of a sudden, for ‘Jack and Diane’, Mick said “Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.” I thought, “What the fuck does ‘put baby rattles on the record’ mean?” So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part “let it rock, let it roll” as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.

** Bowie also sang backup on Ronson’s “Colour Me.” That session is where he likely did the vocal overdubs for “Rolling Stone,” as evidenced by the goofy “Oh rock ’em, Ronno, rock!” ad lib on the latter.

Top: Mick Ronson, ca. 1992.

Maggie’s Farm

June 14, 2012

Maggie’s Farm (Dylan with Mick Ronson, 1976)
Maggie’s Farm (Tin Machine, live, 1989).

The first Tin Machine live gigs in June-July 1989 were more of a preview run than any sort of full-blown tour: only twelve shows, all of which were in modest-sized venues, in the US, UK and Europe. The set design was as severe—stark whites and shadows, calling back to the Isolar tour—as the set list was uncompromising: no past Bowie hits or even obscurities. Instead the band played nearly the entire Tin Machine album, tried out a handful of new songs* and played a couple of Sixties rock standards.

The latter seem to have been an afterthought, a mild concession to fans as well as an easy way to extend the set lists, as Tin Machine’s first gigs, in the US, had been nothing but self-penned material (except “Working Class Hero”). The Machine first played their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” at the Docks show in Hamburg, Germany, on 22 June 1989, and it stayed in the set for the rest of the tour.

Bowie had covered Dylan sparingly in the past: mainly in his folk gigs in 1969, when he sometimes closed sets with “She Belongs to Me” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” His own “Song For Bob Dylan” was a character piece, intended for another singer (his friend, and Dylan nut, George Underwood), and Bowie’s public thoughts on Dylan were respectful but hardly worshipful—Dylan had been a lesser influence on Bowie’s development, minor when compared to Anthony Newley, Jacques Brel, Scott Walker, Lou Reed or even Biff Rose.

“Maggie’s Farm” was an understandable choice as a cover, as it was simple to play (a three-chord song mainly built on an E chord with a vi-V7 turnaround (C#minor and B7 in the original)). Its lyric had some political resonance in the summer of 1989, particularly in Britain, where the impending Community Charge tax would ultimately bring down Thatcher’s ministry in 1990. Bowie sang the five verses as a set of increasing irritations, bellowing the last verse and nearly blowing out his voice.

The Machine’s ominous version of “Maggie’s Farm” (in which the band imposed Dylan’s melody upon the chassis of T. Rex’s “Jeepster,” for whatever reason) downplayed how much the Dylan original is comical, an absurdist parody of the standard “Down on Penny’s Farm”—Dylan’s prison labor camp seems run by a gang of ingratiating sadists. Dylan cut the track in one take. The best of his later live interpretations (especially the Hard Rain version with Mick Ronson on a stinging lead) had a swagger and a slide to them (Marc Bolan would’ve done “Farm” much better). Tin Machine stands in the long line of interpreters who have ignored the goofiness and fatalism of “Maggie’s Farm” (the singer shows no signs of actually getting out) in favor of a posturing, macho defiance (Rage Against the Machine comes to mind).

A version of “Maggie’s Farm” recorded at La Cigale, Paris, on 25 June 1989, was released as a double-A-sided single with “Tin Machine” in September (EMI USA MT 73, #48 UK). (Bowie utterly bungles the first verse on it.)  According to Pegg, a video was shot of the Machine playing “Farm” at the preceding show (the Paradiso, in Amsterdam) but I’ve not seen it. The Machine didn’t bring “Farm” back for their subsequent 1991-1992 tour and apparently made no attempts to cut it in the studio.

* Two of these, “You’ve Been Around” and “Now,” will be covered when we reach Black Tie/White Noise and Outside, respectively.

Top: Nimrod, the Neanderthal butler, is awed by the fang of the cave bear (from last Doctor Who serial to be filmed in the 20th Century, Ghost Light, autumn 1989).

Song For Bob Dylan

March 15, 2010

Song For Bob Dylan (first performance, George Underwood).
Song For Bob Dylan (LP).

Song For Bob Dylan (live, 1972).

Hey Bobby, where you been?
We missed you out on the streets.

Country Joe and the Fish, “Hey Bobby,” 1970.

You left us marching on the road and said how heavy was the load,
The years were young, the struggle barely had its start.
Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?
They’re crying for you.

Joan Baez, “To Bobby,” 1972.

I found myself stuck in Woodstock, vulnerable and with a family to protect. If you looked in the press, though, you saw me being portrayed as anything but that. It was surprising how thick the smoke had become. It seems like the world has always needed a scapegoat—someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire. But America wasn’t the Roman Empire and someone else would have to step up and volunteer…Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles.

The critic Ralph J. Gleason was the sort of man—earnest, middle-aged, bohemian-leaning—who would be most deranged by the counterculture. By the early 1970s, his columns in Rolling Stone were filled with tales of the rock & roll prophets who, although presently in hiding (or inconveniently dead), would return one day to deliver The Word. “Out will come the messages. Out will come the plans. In time,” he wrote.*

Gleason was writing mainly about Bob Dylan. Dylan, who had been living quietly in the Catskills since 1966, had recently moved his family to New York City in the hopes of greater anonymity (it didn’t work out—“scholars” were soon digging through his garbage). Dylan’s public absence had coincided, seemingly deliberately, with the full flowering of the youth culture: he had built the temple and had refused to worship there.

So Dylan was letting down the side. Partly because he seemed disengaged from the struggle (where was he in Chicago? in the march on the Pentagon? he’d even skipped Woodstock, which was held in his backyard), partly because his post-’66 records were quiet, contained and, to some, frustrating: John Wesley Harding was followed by a barely half-hour-long country LP; Self-Portrait, Dylan’s official bootleg (Greil Marcus: “What is this shit?”); and New Morning (Gleason: “We’ve got Dylan back again!”) In 1971, after his topical “George Jackson” single (which got the radicals off his case for a while), Dylan fell silent for what turned out to be years. His goodbye note was another 1971 single, “Watching the River Flow,” that cheekily begins: “What’s the matter with me? I don’t have much to say…”

So Bowie’s “Song For Bob Dylan” is set against all of this: it’s a plea for an absent sentinel to return to his post (“give us back our unity/give us back our family”), and the pathos of its lyric suggests that the Seventies had already begun suffering the inferiority complex that would define the decade—the Sixties, only a year and a half in the grave, are already the lost time of legends. It’s arguable that Bowie was mocking just this sort of hippie idol worship, though he sings his lines convincingly enough.

Song for Zimmerman

Why did you choose or refer to Zimmerman, not Dylan?

Because Dylan is bullshit. Zimmerman is his name. You see, I don’t believe in Dylan and I don’t believe in Tom Jones either, in that way. Zimmerman is his name. My name isn’t John Beatle. It’s John Lennon. Just like that.

John Lennon, interviewed by Jann Wenner, January 1971.

Bowie’s lyric begins by directly referencing Dylan’s own “Song To Woody” from a decade earlier, and so sets Bowie up as the heir presumptive—Bowie years later admitted that sheer opportunism in part drove him to write the song. “It was at that period that I said, ‘Okay, Dylan, if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void,” he told Melody Maker in 1976.

But Bowie wasn’t interested in the sort of leadership people wanted from Dylan—his “Dylan” is a pure construct, far removed from the actual Dylan’s roots in folk, blues and rock & roll. Bowie seems to be singing more about the Milton Glaser poster (Dylan in silhouette with rainbow hair) included in Dylan’s first greatest hits LP than anything else (“you gave your heart to every bedsit room/at least a picture on the wall”). His use of Dylan’s real name (only becoming known in the very late ’60s) suggests that Bowie was most interested in Dylan as another self-craftsman. Where John Lennon, as part of his list of false idols in “God,” had sneered “I don’t believe…in ZIMMERMAN,” arguing that Dylan’s pseudonym had shown him up as a phony, Bowie found it liberating—if “Bob Dylan” had been a fiction all this time, then a fiction is what people really wanted.

Still, there’s something off about “Song For Bob Dylan”—for one thing, you get the sense the song’s been rewritten to fit the Dylan theme. The chorus in particular could be lifted out, placed into another song, and would just work as well (John Peel introduced the song as “Here She Comes,” suggesting it may have been yet another Velvet Underground tribute). And Bowie sings it in an odd voice that seems to be parodying Dylan’s (as well as Elvis’—the way Bowie turns the last line of the second verse into a long slur “scared togetherthanalone”).

As with all the Hunky Dory tracks, the song’s exactingly arranged and performed—the intro cycles through the chords of the verses in sequence; the verses, in A major, are assembled so that chords are continually resolving to the tonic, while the chorus changes key, letting Bowie  and Mick Ronson open up. Rick Wakeman’s piano alternates from being a counter-melody to the vocal to a secondary bassline at the end of verses, while Ronson’s guitar intro (elaborated on in an 8-bar solo after the second chorus) has a taste, in style and tone, of the soon-to-come “All the Young Dudes.”

First performed (sung by Bowie’s old friend/LP sleeve designer George Underwood) at the BBC on 3 June 1971, recorded for Hunky Dory a month or so later, and played at a few 1972 concerts. Ronson went on to play with Dylan in the mid-’70s, becoming the linchpin of the Rolling Thunder Revue shows. Bowie and Dylan met a few times in the ’70s and ’80s, though there’s been little written about their encounters—Dylan allegedly was rude to Bowie, and according to one Bowie biographer, Christopher Sandford, said he hated Young Americans.

* This is a paraphrase, from weak memory, of a quote reprinted in Robert Draper’s history of RS, though I recall reading the actual Gleason column when, bored at school, I went through most of the early RS archives on microfilm.

Photos: Dylan confers with Rasputin at the Concert for Bangladesh, 1 August 1971; trans-Atlantic icons meet and greet, ca. 1985.