Suze Rotolo: One of the Twentieth Century’s Great Muses

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – Don’t Think Twice

{Don’t Think Twice – Ramblin’ Jack Elliott}

Presley, Elvis – Tomorrow Is A Long Time

{Tomorrow Is A Long Time – Elvis Presley }

The above two songs have two things in common. First, they are two covers of Bob Dylan songs admired by Dylan. Second, they both were inspired by Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s former girlfriend who died several days ago at the age of 67 from lung cancer. Rotolo began a three-year relationship with the young Dylan in summer 1961 when she was 17, and she participated in a 1963 photo shoot with Dylan and ended up on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. A few years ago, Rotolo wrote a memoir about the 1960s and her time with Dylan called, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

Although you never may have heard her voice, Rololo appears on one of the most famous album covers of all time and inspired some classic songs. In 1962, Dylan was not happy that she was in Italy for several months, inspiring him to write the songs “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” By late 1963, Rotolo and Dylan were done, as she felt increasingly isolated from Dylan and his world of growing fame. In 1967, she married and later had a son.

Rotolo inspired other Dylan songs too. While she worked in the Civil Rights Movement, she told Dylan about Emmett Till’s 1955 murder, leading him to write “The Death of Emmett Till.” After a fight with Rotolo and her sister, Dylan wrote the angry “Ballad in Plain D,” leading him to apologize for the lyrics years later: “My mind it was mangled, I ran into the night. / Leaving all of love’s ashes behind me.” She inspired other songs to varying degrees, as songwriters incorporate various feelings and experiences.

The first song posted above is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” one of the songs Dylan wrote while Rotolo was in Italy in 1962. Dylan did not want her to go on the eight-month trip, and as you can tell from his song, he was angry about it. When Rotolo returned to Greenwich Village, several of Dylan’s folk-singer friends were mad at Rotolo, who they felt should not have abandoned Dylan for the trip. When she was around, they would make a point of singing Dylan’s angry songs about her, including “Don’t Think Twice.” The song lists each offense of a former lover, and then dismisses the offense and the lover with the great passive-aggressive line, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind,
You could have done better but I don’t mind.
You just kinda wasted my precious time,
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

In Dylan’s version, and I’m sure in the versions Rotolo heard from Dylan’s friends upon her 1963 return to Greenwich village, the song is an angry song, like so many of Dylan’s great songs. You can feel the sting she must have felt at hearing the song going around. But Ramblin’ Jack Elliott finds the heartache underlying the song. Dylan recorded the song in his early 20’s, an age when we are full of passion and anger at the world and those who offended us. Ramblin’ Jack, though, sings the song as an old man, looking back with loss, regret, and wisdom. One time Dylan was so moved by Ramblin’ Jack’s performance of the song, he reportedly told the singer something to the effect of “Take the song, it is yours.” The recording above is off of the soundtrack to The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, an excellent documentary.

The other song above is “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” which Dylan also wrote while Rotolo was in Italy. Unlike “Don’t Think Twice,” it is not angry and tells of missing a lover: “But no one and nothing else can touch the beauty / That I remember in my true love’s eyes.” This version of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is sung by Elvis Presley from his From Nashville To Memphis- Essential 60’s Masters box set.

Dylan once said that that Presley’s version of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” was his favorite cover of all of his songs. Because Dylan is not one who regularly heaps praise on artists who cover his songs, it is interesting that he admired cover versions of these songs inspired by Rotolo’s 1962 absence. Perhaps he liked that the other artists brought something new to the songs besides the anger and the pain he felt, or perhaps he believed their distance allowed them to capture the emotions better. Either way, they are great songs in both Dylan’s versions and these covers. Although the singer in “Don’t Think Twice” tells the lover that she wasted his precious time, through the lens of time, it is clear that Rotolo did not waste anybody’s time.

What do you think about Rotolo’s influence and these songs? Leave a comment.

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    Grammy Awards: Eminem and Bob Dylan?

    Rumors are circulating that Bob Dylan will perform at tonight’s Grammy Awards with Eminem. If true, it is almost guaranteed to be an exciting collaboration. [Update 2/14/10: It turned out not to be true. Dylan ended up playing with Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. See video toward end to see where Dlyan joins the bands for “Maggie’s Farm.” It’s a fun performance.]

    It will be hard to top Eminem’s collaboration at the Grammy Awards on February 21, 2001. Was it really a decade ago?! At the 2001 show, Eminem performed with Elton John. In light of homophobic lyrics in some of Eminem’s songs, it was great to see the two perform together and hug at the end, reinforcing Eminem’s claim that the offending lyrics in his recent CD, The Marshall Mathers LP, should not be taken seriously.

    The 2001 performance was certainly a classy act, especially on the part of Elton John, who showed us that the best force against hate, ignorance, and prejudice is usually a little love. It is the kind of force we saw in action this week, when peaceful protesters were able to topple a corrupt dictator in Egypt. Of course, the 2001 performance by Eminem and Elton John did not change the leadership of the country and did not end prejudice in general or homophobia specifically. And it did not necessarily undo damage Eminem had done with his songs. But it did show the power of music to heal a little bit. It was a lesson the U.S. would need again less than nine months after the 2001 Grammys.

    Eminem and John have remained friends through the years, and the rapper even turned to John for help when he was dealing with a prescription drug addiction. Also, in the decade since the Grammy performance, views on issues such as gay rights, civil unions, and gay marriages have progressed in the U.S., especially among the younger generations. Did the 2001 performance have a little to do with that? I don’t know, but I like to think so.

    What do you think? Leave a comment.

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    Lenny Bruce is Not Afraid

    On February 4, 1961, Lenny Bruce performed before a full house at a midnight show at Carnegie Hall. Outside that cold night, a blizzard was blowing through the city, and there was also something powerful going on inside.

    The Carnegie Hall Performance

    Although Lenny Bruce’s career had been slowly building, the performance at Carnegie Hall launched him further into a career of breaking comedy and language barriers that would bring fame, legal troubles, and ultimately his death on August 3, 1966.

    Below is the beginning of his performance at Carnegie Hall.

    Persecution and Death

    Before the end of the year, Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco for obscenity for one of his performances. Although he was acquitted in that case, police officers in other cities began monitoring him more closely.

    Here is part 2 (and you may continue listening to the concert on YouTube):

    The close scrutiny led to other similar arrests and arrests for drug possession. In 1964 after a performance in New York, Bruce was again charged with obscenity. This time, he was sentenced to four months in a workhouse.

    While out on bail during the appeals in 1966, he died of an accidental overdose. Phil Spector said it was an “overdose of police.”

    Five years after Lenny Bruce’s death, a similar story would be repeated. Another star would face an indecency conviction, dying while the appeal was pending from an apparent death by drugs: Jim Morrison, who died in exile in Paris on July 3, 1971.

    It would be almost 50 years after Bruce’s death before New York Gov. George Pataki pardoned Bruce in 2003.

    Lenny Bruce’s Influence

    Lenny Bruce influenced many performers who came after him. Richard Pryor said, “Lenny changed my life,” noting that “[i]t was him who said comedy wasn’t about telling jokes – it was about telling the truth.”

    George Carlin has often discussed how Lenny Bruce was his hero. One may see the Bruce connection to Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Bruce also has been mentioned in a number of songs, including R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Bob Dylan’s “Lenny Bruce” from his Shot of Love album:

    They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
    He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
    They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts
    He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
    Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had.

    A bio-pic about Lenny Bruce was made in 1974 starring Dustin Hoffman, who gives an excellent performance. Lenny, which was directed by Bob Fosse and was based on a Broadway play by Julian Barry, appears to be out of print on DVD, but you may watch it streaming on Netflix.

    Although Lenny leaves out some background about Bruce’s tragic life, the movie is a good introduction to Bruce.  And Hoffman presents what Bruce’s “shocking” performances were like.

    It amazes me that Lenny Bruce was constantly harassed and faced prison for using words we hear all the time today. But I still remember seeing the Dustin Hoffman movie when I was a kid when we first got cable in our house.

    I had never heard anyone speak like that. My education on movie profanity would continue with Al Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon. But Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Lenny Bruce was quite eye-opening. Many of Bruce’s intelligent points about censorship have stayed with me throughout my life. So, thank you Lenny and Dustin (and Richard Pryor and George Carlin).

    Bonus Website: The Official Lenny Bruce website, approved by his daughter, also sponsors a link to donate to Lenny’s House, a non-profit charity for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

    Bonus Quote and Movie Reference : One of the Lenny Bruce quotes on the website is: “Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers, will allow you to satirize it which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.” In one of Woody Allen’s best movies, Crimes and Misdemeanors, a character played by Alan Alda says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Allen was a supporter of Bruce and even signed a petition on Bruce’s behalf after an arrest, so I wonder if the line was inspired by Bruce?

    What do you think about Lenny Bruce and his influence? Leave a comment.

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    YouTube Covers: Bob Dylan’s “Red River Shore” Edition

    When I purchased Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (2008), the Bob Dylan CD that features unreleased songs from the time period of his more recent albums, the song “Red River Shore” stood out immediately as I played the CD in my car. I kept playing the song over and over again, barely getting to anything else on the CD. It is another example of a great song that Dylan originally decided to leave off an album he was making. At least they eventually get released. The music is great, as are the beautiful lyrics of loss.

    Now I’m wearing the cloak of misery
    And I’ve tasted jilted love
    And the frozen smile upon my face
    Fits me like a glove
    But I can’t escape from the memory
    Of the one that I’ll always adore
    All those nights when I lay in the arms
    Of the girl from the Red River shore

    Some writers have wondered if the girl from the Red River shore is the same person as was featured in Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” as in this piece on Gardener is Gone. Some have found religious overtones in the song, such as in Songs for the Journey, with some arguing that the song is about Dylan’s relationship with Christ.

    At first, I was interested that there might be a hidden meaning in the song. Of course, Dylan is Dylan and one may never know his intent, but on further listening I think those claiming religious meaning are wrong. The song is what it appears to be: a song about loss and memory. And while the final verse does have a reference to Jesus, it’s a statement that in today’s modern world, we unfortunately cannot count on God to undo what is lost. “He knew how to bring ’em on back to life/ Well, I don’t know what kind of language he used/ Or if they do that kind of thing anymore /Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all/ ‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore.”

    There are few Dylan videos on the Internet, and none of this song that I can find. Although covers rarely match the original, I am intrigued by the number of people who have the guts to play a song and post it on YouTube. There are some nice covers of this song on YouTube. Here’s a good one by a German band called CCC Inc. It takes awhile for them to get to the song, though (around the 2:00 mark).

    This video of Henry Lim looks very professional, and it has nice instrumentation. Lim is the technical services assistant for the UCLA Music Library, and he has a busy extracurricular life. He has covered other artists like Radiohead with his string quartet, and he is an artist with Legos.

    There are some good versions in the “dude with a guitar” category, such as a nice one by Kevin Magoon, who also adds a little electronic drum. C22romero does a nice job on the song too, but maybe he should turn down the reverb a little. I wish Chris Pap below would focus the camera, but he does a nice quiet version of the song below.

    Perhaps because of the viewpoint of the lyrics, almost all of the covers are by men. But here is one by Linda Kosut performing in California.

    After this post was initially published, singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave covered “Red River Shore” on his album, Depending on the Distance (2012). Below is the excellent version from that album.

    In another video after this post’s original publication, an artist named Kape does a nice version too. I cannot find much about him from the Internet, but he appears to be from Sweden.

    Finally, my favorite cover may be this version of “Red River Shore” by lornisply with a guy playing an electric piano in his home. He has a good voice and seems to connect to the song. And there is something about the simple weariness of the performance of the melancholy song that makes it believable.

    I know nobody matches the Bob Dylan version, but which cover version do you like best? Leave a comment.

    Bob Dylan and the Fine Line Between Love and Hate

    The two Bob Dylan songs below, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Idiot Wind,” show a drastic range of human emotions.  Like several of Dylan’s songs, these two were inspired by his first wife, Sara Lownds, who is also the mother of Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers.  The songs reflect the vast divide between being in love and being angry at one you once loved.

    The first is “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” released as the final song on Blonde on Blonde in 1966, early in his 1965-1977 marriage to Lownds.  (“Lowlands”/Lownds, get it?)  The song is used to great effect in the recent movie “about” Bob Dylan, I’m Not There.  Although the lyrics are not a clear narrative, the poetry and the music convey pure affection:  “With your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims  / And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns.”

    The second song, is “Idiot Wind,” written almost a decade later in 1974 and released on Blood on the Tracks as the Dylan-Lownds relationship was crumbling.  The performance below from the 1976 Rolling Thunder Tour is amazing for its intensity and venom.  It’s Bob Dylan punk.  To his surprise, Sara showed up at the concert, and he is performing it for her.  You can see what he is feeling.  This blog post title’s reference to “hate” is not really accurate, as I should describe it more as pain and anguish covered to seem like anger.  But one may only guess her feelings hearing this song.

    Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
    From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.
    Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
    You’re an idiot, babe.
    It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

    There is some debate about how much of the song is really about Lownds and how much is about other things going on in Dylan’s life at the time.  Dylan being Dylan, he leaves it ambiguous, as it is for the artist to let the listeners hear for themselves.  One of the brilliant touches is the final chorus where the angry finger-pointing evolves into a more understanding and humble “we’re idiots, babe. . . .”    That line sounds more convincing in a slower and sadder version of the song he initially recorded for Blood on the Tracks before rerecording the song and replacing it with the angrier version that ended up on the album.  That alternate version is worth seeking out.  It is available on the first official “Bootleg” series  his record label released in 1991, and it is also available on various unofficial bootlegs of the New York City Sessions version of Blood on the Tracks.

    Below is the angry live performance during the Rolling Thunder Tour with Lownds in the audience.  The performance, which is also available on the Hard Rain live album, is worth seeking out. If you’ve ever been angry at someone, put it on full screen and crank it up loud.

    Bonus: The alternate slower and sadder version of “Idiot Wind” from the New York Sessions may be heard here.

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