The Dope’s That There’s Still Hope
Dylan finds inspiration for one of his greatest songs on a movie set in Mexico. Neil Young kicks off his tour in support of the bestselling album of 1972 on January 4. The following day, Bruce Springsteen releases his debut.
Maybe Dylan had lost his muse, but he didn’t much care. His kids were busy being born, and he stayed home with them. He extricated himself from an unfavorable songwriting royalty deal with his manager. Kept his distance from the militant group that named itself after one of his songs and blew up government buildings and banks. Beat up the nut job who kept ransacking his trash for proof he’d “sold out.” Released country and folk-pop albums that radicals didn’t like, to ward them off.
But gradually his competitive spirit started flickering again. “The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold.’ I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’ There I was, stuck on the desert someplace, having to cool out for a while. New York was a heavy place. Woodstock was worse, people living in trees outside my house, fans trying to batter down my door, cars following me up dark mountain roads. I needed to lay back for a while, forget about things, myself included, and I’d get so far away and turn on the radio and there I am, but it’s not me. It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it and, you know, I never got over it. Maybe tomorrow.”1
Then Elvis’s old writers Leiber and Stoller produced a spoof named “Stuck in the Middle with You” by the band Stealers Wheel. Rolling Stone called it “the single you thought was the best Dylan record since 1966.” Singer Gerry Rafferty was Scottish but did a good impersonation, singing about a bad-trip party right out of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” stocked with Dylan-esque clowns and jokers. The title itself was a riff off “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”
Its line “I don’t know why I came here tonight”—that could have come from Dylan’s wife, Sara, in January. The couple and their kids were living in Durango, Mexico, filming Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. “My wife got fed up almost immediately. She’d say to me, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ It was not an easy question to answer.”2
Initially it made sense. Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer knew Dylan and asked for a song about Sheriff Garrett pursuing cattle rustler Billy the Kid. After all, Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding romanticized a gunslinger no one could track down. “So I wrote that song real quick and played it for [director] Sam [Peckinpah] and he really liked it and asked me to be in the movie.”3
As an added bonus, his friend Kris Kristofferson was starring as Billy. He said to Dylan, “Shit, you can get paid for learnin’ [how to make movies]. Come on, we’ll have a ball.”4
“I still feel guilty about sayin’ that,” Kristofferson later admitted. “The first day we shot was also Bob’s first day on camera. We had to be ridin’ horses after these turkeys and he ropes ’em. Well, Bob hadn’t ridden much and it was hairy riding, down in gullies and off through a river.… And then we had to rope these damn turkeys.”5
Peckinpah started his mornings off drinking and by afternoon enjoyed firing his revolver into the sky. When they screened the footage and discovered it was unusable due to a damaged lens, Peckinpah stood on his chair and pissed on the screen. Kristofferson said, “I’ll never forget Bob Dylan turnin’ and lookin’ at me like, ‘What the hell have you gotten me into?’”6
On top of that, Dylan’s character, Alias, barely had anything to do on camera except watch the action with an inscrutable half smile. He joins Billy’s gang, throws a knife into a bad guy’s neck, counts some beans.
There were some good times. Kristofferson recalled that the two “spent a lot of time chatting in our trailers and I told him about my friend Willie Nelson. I asked Bob, ‘Why isn’t Willie famous? He’s a genius.’ So, the next day, Bob calls Willie up and gets him to come down to the set, and he made him play his old Martin guitar for ten hours straight. They ended up doing all these old Django Reinhardt tunes. It was fabulous.”7
But the music was in danger of ending up forgettable. A recording session in Mexico City generated just one cut, “Billy.” The soundtrack album featured three variations on it.
Dylan and his session musicians regrouped at Warner Bros.’ scoring stage in Burbank that February, to play along live while the film was projected on a screen. Engineer Dan Wallin, veteran of dozens of Hollywood soundtracks, remembered, “[Dylan] kind of slowly walked in, looking up at the ceiling. Then Bob said, ‘Wow … big room.’ I laughed and said, ‘Well, don’t worry, we’ll cut it down a little for you.’”8
Dylan’s friend Roger McGuinn of the Byrds played guitar, along with top session drummer Jim Keltner, who recalled, “Sam Peckinpah was there, and he was huddled up with Bob, talking to him. I admire Peckinpah as much as anyone, but that day, which was the only day I ever met him, he had a rumpled suit on, a red bandana round his head, and when I got up close to him, I saw his face and I felt so sorry for him, because he had the Hangover of Death. Y’know that one? I mean, his face was crushed.”9
It was early in the morning, not musicians’ favorite time to record. They listened to Dylan run through the first song just once, maybe twice. Then the tape started rolling and they stared up at the screen. One of the lawmen, Slim Pickens, was mortally wounded in a gunfight. His beloved wife tried to comfort him as he clutched his stomach and the blood ran out of him. Dylan and the three female backing vocalists hummed like angels mourning beside her. The ominous groan of the harmonium, and the echoey depth of the big room, lent an epic grandeur to Dylan’s words about putting guns in the ground. And suddenly, Keltner said, “It was the first time I actually cried when I was playing.”10
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” seemingly materialized out of nowhere to become one of Dylan’s most covered songs, captured in one or two takes. Keltner said, “The great thing about the really great songwriters, is that the great songs, the really magic ones, they play themselves. There’s very little question about what you’re supposed to do.”11
On the other side of the Pacific, some lucky soldiers boarded planes and flew away from the decimated landscape of Vietnam. The United States’ involvement had just ended, the peace treaty signed on January 27. That day saw the last US combat casualty. Artillery shells in An Loc hit US Army Colonel William Nolde, forty-three, father of five, eleven hours before the cease-fire.
* * *
Dylan was wrong when he said “Heart of Gold” was No. 1 for a long time. Neil Young only enjoyed one week in that spot before his own imitator America knocked him out with “Horse with No Name.” Billboard did rank Young’s album Harvest the bestselling LP of 1972, however. But that year Young could not tour to support it, first due to health issues, then the arrival of his son Zeke in September. “Neil was so damn happy,” mother Carrie Snodgress remembered.12 Zeke’s cerebral palsy from a slight brain aneurysm in utero would not reveal itself until the boy went to school.
But that year Young could not tour to support it, initially due to health issues. Then in September his girlfriend Carrie Snodgress gave birth to their son Zeke. “Neil was so damn happy.” Snodgress remembered.13
Whitten was a member of Crazy Horse, the band that frequently backed Young, until his heroin addiction grew so debilitating his bandmates fired him, inspiring Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.” When Young heard Whitten was doing his best to get clean, he invited the guitarist to join his 1973 tour.
But during rehearsals Young was dismayed to see that Whitten “couldn’t remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to L.A. ‘It’s not happening, man. You’re not together enough.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?’ And he split. That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he’d OD’d [on alcohol and valium].”14 In his memoir Young wrote, “I knew that what I had done may have been a catalyst in Danny’s death. I can never really lose that feeling.”15
Under that grim shadow, Young embarked on his biggest tour to date, sixty-two shows scheduled through early April. He opened with an acoustic set, then brought out his band the Stray Gators for the second half, in the mode established by Dylan and the Band during their 1966 tour. The Gators included Jack Nitzsche, who had produced and played piano for Young intermittently since 1967, alongside the musicians who backed him on Harvest.
Young brought a mobile recording truck on tour so he could release a live album afterward. But he threw his label Reprise a curve ball when he informed them the live album would be comprised entirely of original songs—no hits. Time Fades Away does not actually sound much different from Young’s studio albums that followed, as the audience is seldom heard.
“For years I wouldn’t play unless the tape was running. I just recorded everything—all the tours, everything. Make it so there’s no difference between playing and recording—it’s all one thing. Then you forget you’re recording, ’cause ultimately the music gets in your face, you forget what you’re doing, and all of a sudden you realize, ‘Jesus, we recorded that.’ That’s the ticket, that’s the way to get it. So I just tricked myself into not having to worry about whether we were recording or not.”16
Three of the tracks are lovely piano ballads. Young wrote “Love in Mind” during the first flush of love with Snodgress. He wakes to find it raining outside, but his lover keeps him warm. “Journey Through the Past” came from that period as well, written when he had to leave her for a tour. The rain reminds him of her, and he wonders if she’ll return to him when he finishes traveling. The melancholy recalls “After the Gold Rush,” but instead of that song’s surreal vision of environmental destruction, he offers a straightforward love song.
In the title rocker Young just wants to get through the new tour so he can get back to his family before “time fades away.” He borrows the fifteen jugglers of Dylan’s “Obviously Fifth Believers” and turns them into fourteen junkies too weak to work, while President Nixon lurks in the window. In “Yonder Stands the Sinner” a different specter yells down to Young through the broken glass of an attic window, “Sinner man!” Young tries to hide in the trees, but the figure follows. Perhaps it’s Whitten. “I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and … insecure.”
Or perhaps the phantom represents the other musicians. During the tour, they learned Young was paying the drummer more than anyone else; he was Dylan’s frequent session player Kenny Buttrey. Eventually Young raised everyone’s salary—and replaced the drummer—but the mutual resentment cast a pall over the proceedings.
In late March, Young developed a throat infection and began to lose his voice, so he called in his CSNY compatriots David Crosby and Graham Nash to sing backup. Crosby also played rhythm guitar on “Don’t Be Denied,” a litany of the adversity Young had overcome: father leaving the family, bullies in school, struggling for stardom, business strife. Certainly the obstacles he faced would have derailed a less determined soul. He repeated tenth and eleventh grade, then dropped out. In 1966, he joined a group with R&B singer Rick James that got signed to Motown, only to implode when James was arrested for being AWOL from the navy. When Young found a new band, the Buffalo Springfield, he wrote the best songs, but the managers didn’t want him to sing because his tenor was too unusual, like an Appalachian mountain man or strangulated Muppet, hunched over from a youth racked by polio, thousand-yard stare under Neanderthal brow. Onstage, psychedelic strobe lights gave him epileptic fits. He quit the Springfield just before Monterey Pop, refused to go on Johnny Carson. Later he had to fight to get the name Young added to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. But now here he was touring the biggest album of the previous year. Don’t be denied, indeed.
The final song recorded on the journey, in Sacramento on April 1, hints at the new effort that lay before him: reuniting with Snodgress and Zeke after his three-month excursion. “The Bridge” echoed “A Man Needs a Maid,” an earlier song he’d written about falling in love with her while watching her Oscar-winning performance in Diary of a Mad Housewife. In the new track, the “bridge” of connection he makes in the first verse falls down, but in the final verse she lets him back in to rebuild it.
* * *
Like Dylan and Young, Bruce Springsteen grew up playing in rock bands, but at age twenty-two he was stagnating on the Jersey Shore. With his guitar he could emulate anyone from Hendrix to Clapton to Allman, but 1972 was the year of the singer-songwriter. Billboard’s top four albums were by Young, Carole King, Don McLean, and Cat Stevens. So Springsteen reinvented himself as an acoustic solo artist—the same choice Dylan made when he switched from Buddy Holly to Woody Guthrie twelve years earlier.
Springsteen won himself a manager named Mike Appel with a new composition called “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.” It was folk guitar but galloped, danced even, as Springsteen spelled out exactly how he was going to burst like a supernova. Appel quit his job and mortgaged his house to promote Springsteen 24/7. He hustled him into the office of Columbia Records’ John Hammond, the man who signed Dylan himself, not to mention Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, Olatunji, Leonard Cohen. Springsteen played him his new stuff, including “Growin’ Up,” in which he combed his hair till it was just right, bombed his high school, spent a month-long vacation in the cosmos, then found the secret of the universe to be the blue-collar verity of an old car engine, a year before Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Hammond got the green light from label head Clive Davis to record an album. The Dylan parallels continued when Hammond wanted an all-acoustic LP, but Springsteen asked to bring in musicians from his earlier band. Appel had never seen Springsteen play with a group and resisted, but Davis gave his okay.
Of the record’s proto–E Street Band, only bassist Garry Tallent remains today. Springsteen’s first two albums have a different feel from his later oeuvre because of the drummer and keyboardist. Vini Lopez played in the Keith Moon tradition with wild fills and a looser sense of time than his replacement, solid Max Weinberg. African American David Sancious was jazzier and more ornate than successor Roy Bittan, although on tracks like “Growin’ Up” he introduces the tinkling piano keys that would remain one of Springsteen’s signatures.
Springsteen fought for a band, but knew what Hammond wanted, and brought the Dylan. The old Dylan everyone missed from before his 1966 motorcycle accident, before he jettisoned the phantasmagoric imagery for plainspoken biblical/western verse. Springsteen borrowed liberally from the master: crooked crutches, teenage diplomats, omnipresent jokers, and plenty of multisyllabic words that sounded Dylan-esque: masquerades, calliopes, interstellar mongrel nymphs.
“For You” gave his muse a room at the Chelsea, the hotel in which Dylan and his wife lived while he penned hymns like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and employed the same style of word combinations: barroom eyes, Cheshire smile, pony face. “Lost in the Flood” was Springsteen’s “Desolation Row,” with borderline blasphemies springing from his childhood abuse by teachers in Catholic school: spastics breaking crosses, bald pregnant nuns drinking unholy blood.
But amid the emulation, Springsteen staked out his own territory. Hot rods and motorcycles race through the night on choked interstates. A Chevy speeds into a hurricane, painted red, white, and blue with Woody Guthrie’s words “Bound for Glory” on the side. One protagonist tells his lover he knows a place where they can go to get good jobs and start all over clean. Angels heal Peter Pans and lonely circus acrobats. Characters get sucked into criminal activity inspired by Springsteen’s lifelong addiction to B movies on late-night TV. High school friends survive Vietnam only to find their return home to be a new kind of struggle.
At the heart of the Springsteen myth was his turbulent relationship with his father, who was there, too, between the lines. When Springsteen performed “Growin’ Up” live, he sometimes added a monologue about how his father cursed his “God-damned guitar” and tried to dissuade him from practicing in his childhood bedroom by cranking the heat through the vent. His father’s childhood was haunted by his sister’s death, run over by a truck at five years old. After serving as an army driver in World War II, he returned home to chronic unemployment and bipolar bouts of depression or anger, frequently directed at his son’s long hair. In “Saint,” Springsteen sang of being “born blue and weathered”; in “Growin’ Up,” of surviving a fallout zone.
In later decades Springsteen suffered crippling stretches of depression himself, though in 1973 the rocket ride of his career was medicating him fine. Still, there were undercurrents. Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote, “I used to listen to ‘For You’ on a portable Panasonic tape recorder in seventh grade, while I cut my legs up with a razor blade in the girls’ gym locker room.”17 The buoyant melody obscures the story of a lover’s suicide attempt. Springsteen rams down the door to get her in an ambulance to Bellevue.
Despite the many upbeat tracks, Clive Davis determined the album still needed a hit single that could get on the radio to promote the record. Many recording artists take such dictums with resentment, but Springsteen seized the opportunity to slip another of his favorite musicians onto the LP: a 6'5" black sax player named Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. They had met a year earlier when Springsteen played the Student Prince club on the Jersey Shore. “A rainy, windy night it was,” Clemons liked to say, “and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, ‘I want to play with your band,’ and he said, ‘Sure, you do anything you want.’”18
Springsteen set about constructing “Blinded by the Light” with rhyming dictionary in tow. That month there was a new Doobie Brothers song released called “Listen to the Music.” Perhaps that was kicking around in the back of Springsteen’s brain as he started strumming his guitar, singing whatever came into his mind: drummer “Mad Man” Lopez, his Little League team the Indians. Suddenly he locked into his new gimmick: populating scenes with a menagerie of characters with wacky names, Go-Cart Mozart, little Early-Pearly, silicone sisters, while tossing in asides like beating off into your hat and friends none-too-bright catching the clap from hookers, whatever. Though he did not sing “cut loose like a douche”’ he sang “deuce,” as in little deuce coup. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band mutated the word when they covered the song later. Springsteen cracked, “One version is about a car, the other is about a feminine hygiene product. Guess which the kids liked to shout more?”19 (The douche version went to No. 1.) Either way, Clive Davis loved it. He sent out a promo to radio stations featuring himself proudly reading the lyrics of his label’s new discovery.
Next, Springsteen finished a song he’d been kicking around with Clemons in jam sessions. “Spirit in the Night” related the evening he fell for the inamorata of “For You” (and most of the songs on his second album), Diane Lozito. He met the sixteen-year-old high school graduate in the fall of 1971, when he was twenty-two, at a concession stand on the Asbury Park boardwalk. “She was Italian, funny, a beatific tomboy, with just the hint of a lazy eye, and wore a pair of glasses that made me think of the wonders of the library.”20
Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Grant Jackson