Sunday, February 8, 2015

Long Distance Dedication: Bob Dylan and the Top Forty

Bob Dylan’s speech at the MusiCares benefit on Friday night has garnered a lot of attention for its attacks on legendary figures like Leiber & Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun and Merle Haggard, all of whom supposedly committed the sin of not liking Dylan’s songs. But I wanted to discuss his frontal assault on the somewhat hapless Tom T. Hall. Once considered a great country singer and songwriter, Hall's reputation has fallen on hard times, in part because of his lone pop hit, and that's what Dylan took aim at.

“Now some might say Tom is a great songwriter,” Dylan said. “I'm not going to doubt that. At the time he was doing this interview I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio.

“It was called ‘I Love.’ I was listening to it in a recording studio, and he was talking about all the things he loves, an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think that he's just like you and you're just like him. We all love the same things, and we're all in this together. Tom loves little baby ducks, slow-moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions.

“Now listen, I'm not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I'm not going to do that. I'm not saying it's a bad song. I'm just saying it might be a little overcooked.”

Oh come on, Bob, you’re saying it’s a bad song. Man up.

The thing is, everyone thought it was a bad song, and a lot of people felt betrayed by it, because Hall was known as one of the most incisive storytellers in Nashville. Or I should say everyone thought it was a bad song except the American public, since “I Love” went to No. 12 in early 1974, becoming Tom T. Hall’s only Top Forty pop hit. After years of toiling in Nashville relatively anonymously, who can blame him for selling out and trying to garner a hit song? The 1983 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide noted, “Lately he’s seemed more interested in selling pickup trucks than in writing a good song.” No doubt, the pickup trucks pay a lot better. I sure hope Hall got some dough from the movie and TV series based on his song “Harper Valley PTA.”

In the MusiCares speech, Dylan unfavorably compared “I Love” to “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” by Kris Kristofferson, but hey, most songs are going to lose that comparison. Most Dylan songs are going to lose that comparison.

But at the same time, Dylan clearly knew “I Love” inside and out, to the point of recalling the rhythm of it, dropping that little “and onions” onto the last line. He clearly didn’t think much of the song, but he knew it. In February of 1974, Dylan was listening to treacly Top Forty country-pop crossovers. And remembering them forever. I wonder what he thought of "I Honestly Love You."

The Tom T. Hall episode reminded me of the song “Clothes Line Saga,” on The Basement Tapes, which Dylan and the Band recorded in 1967. The structure of the song – a youngster in a rural family overhears the adults matter-of-factly discussing a tragedy, in this case the vice president going mad (“When?” Last night.” “Where?” “Downtown.” “Hmm, that’s too bad.”) – is precisely the same as Bobbie Gentry’s wonderful “Ode to Billie Joe,” a Number One hit in the summer of 1967. Clinton Heylin discovered (at least that is where I first read about it, although someone else may have seen it first) among the trove of tapes stored somewhere up in Woodstock that “Clothes Line Saga” was originally titled “Answer to Ode.” Dylan’s song was an affectionate parody of what was happening on Top Forty radio that summer.

My point is that the man was engaged. Whether it was Bobbie Gentry or Tom T. Hall – or in our own century, Alicia Keys, upon whom Dylan drooled in “Thunder on the Mountain,” from 2006’s Modern Times – he knew what was happening in the world of popular song.

Dylan approached Sheryl Crow several years back, and ended up offering to help her whenever he could. She recorded Dylan's own “Mississippi” before it appeared on “Love and Theft,” and told Austin Scaggs of Rolling Stone, “The fact that Bob Dylan even knows who I am is shocking to me.” But Dylan has always known the Sheryl Crows of the world. And the Tom T. Halls of the world.

If I had a choice between Dylan knowing and disparaging my work, or Dylan having no idea who I was, I’d take the former in a heartbeat. And if Dylan remembered a forty-year-old pop hit of mine well enough to recite one of the verses in toto – well, isn’t that victory enough?