In August, a Bob Dylan album may well arrive in stores concrete and virtual. It may be called Shadows in the Night. It may have a song called “Full Moon & Empty Arms” on it; a stream of the tune was released without comment on his website a couple of months ago. Why Dylan chose to record a cover of an old Sinatra track isn’t clear; it may, or may not, be a clue that the purported album will consist of covers. Dylan has just finished shows in Japan, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia; will head next to Australia and New Zealand; and may or may not be preparing for a swing through the U.S. in the fall.
We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.
You have to start by disregarding the well-told narrative: The soi-disant vagabond’s rise through folk music to a place of utter domination at the highest level of literate, passionate, and difficult pop and rock music, all by 1966; a retreat and Gethsemane until 1974, when he came back, roaring and vengeful, more passionately focused than before, adding a remarkable personal dimension to his ’60s work. After that, depending on how generously you view his career, there has been either a long decline or decades of remarkable and kaleidoscopic creativity, culminating in the triumphs, late in life, of his five most recent albums.
For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him. First, you have to appreciate the many layers that make up his peculiar but unmistakable aesthetic. His work is grounded in acoustic folk-blues—ballads, chants, and love stories, populated with mystical or just plain weird meanings and themes, rattling and farting around like tetched uncles in the attic of our American psyche. To this add the dread-filled dreamscapes—unexplainable, unnerving—of French Surrealism, and then, arrestingly, the punchy patois of the Beats, who originally intuited the substratum of social stresses that would whipcrack across the ’60s and into the ’70s. Then factor in personal songwriting, a strain of pop he basically invented, doled out first with obfuscations, payback, tall tales, and lies—some by design, some on general principle, some just to be an asshole—and then the signs, here and there (and then everywhere, the more you look), of autobiographical happenstance and deeply felt emotion.
And remember that some of his narratives are fractured. Time and focus shift; first person can become third; sometimes more than one story seems to be being told at the same time (“Tangled Up in Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower” are two good examples). And then there’s plain sonic impact: Even his earliest important songs have a cerebral and reverberating authority in the recording, his voice sometimes filling the speakers, his primitive but blistering guitar work adding confrontation, ease, humor, anger, and contrariness, presenting all but the most unwilling listeners with moment after moment of incandescence.
And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks,which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I mightbe somewhere by now.”
He came to New York in early 1961, telling anyone who’d listen he’d ridden the rails, played with Buddy Holly, all sorts of nonsense. In reality, he was a fairly middle-class kid who’d hitchhiked, in winter, from the far north of Minnesota; in a way, this single act of propulsion toward reinvention by a 19-year-old is braver and more interesting than all his later tall tales of travel. He arrived in New York on the coldest day the city had seen in many years.
He was a prodigy, with a natural affinity for a medium that would, unexpectedly, afford a few people like him international acclaim and a permanent place in the cultural firmament, and lots of money too. His uncanny musicianship—producing enduring melodies and lovely harmonica solos—included an ability to effortlessly transpose keys that would impress professionals throughout his career. He also had a first-class mind, quick (almost too quick) of wit and relaxed enough to let inspiration flow without forcing it, yet also wiry, retaining permanently the complex wording of many hundreds of tunes. He soaked up the songs and the lore of folk and blues, cobbling together a shtick—an Okie patois, a shambling affect, and a fixation with Woody Guthrie, the socialist troubadour of the ’30s and ’40s and the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” who at the time was dying in a New Jersey hospital. It all served to disguise, at first, a mysterious charisma—with eyes, as Joan Baez remembered them later, “bluer than robin’s eggs”—and an apparent ambition that left a few damaged friendships, and egos, in its wake.
Baez, stentorian and humorless, recorded her first album in 1960 and was a star the next year. (She moved to Carmel and bought a Jaguar.) Dylan got an early rave in the New York Times, which led to his record contract. His second album contained several tracks that became standards. One, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” was a strikingly imagistic portrait of a child returning from a journey to impart wisdom to an older generation. It’s the place where Dylan’s self-definition begins to merge with his songs. On his third and fourth albums, Dylan showed he was capable of increasing nuance. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the compellingly told true story of a barmaid carelessly killed by a moneyed young drunk, still able to make one’s blood boil, never mentions Carroll’s race.
At the same time, his mash-up of influences was creating deeper, subtler work, producing mysterious moments like the end of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The song, spare and lulling, is a dialogue between the singer and his lover, who’s going on a journey. The woman wants to bring the guy back a present; the guy keeps saying he wants nothing besides her return. She finally says she won’t be coming back for a while—at which point the guy asks for a gift: some “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” It’s not clear why the word Spanish is repeated. Maybe the guy’s heart was broken, or maybe the woman was right—he did just want something from her. But there’s a self-referential meaning to the song as well: Dylan’s own journey. Stars, after all, promise devotion to their fans and then disappear, leaving a simulacrum of their former selves that fans can never get something authentic from.
Beginning in 1965, in a 14-month rush, Dylan released three albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde—each with two or three (very) major songs, three or four relatively minor (but still mind-blowing) efforts, and some doggerel and fun for leavening, all in a great spew of poetic verbiage. Dylan’s voice had deepened and matured; it rang with clarity, snickered with derision, led us compellingly, at its best hypnotically, through nightmares and fever dreams. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” introduced a modern, rock-and-roll Dylan, blasting off political aphorisms softened with absurdities—“Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters.” Lacerating new epics made his old epics seem trite. Take “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”; the title, and a potent Cold War reference in the first line, fixes our narrator seemingly as a wounded soldier, who then spends the rest of a very long song reflecting on the society he’s dying for. “Like a Rolling Stone” captured the second half of the decade in advance, a Scud missile of mockery directed at an entire pampered generation adrift. When Dylan howled the words “no direction home,” it was hard to tell if his tone was exultant or pained; it was a conundrum he and his audience have gnawed at ever since. In a telling example of how Dylan’s words can leapfrog meanings across decades, the song’s final silky lines—“You’re invisible now / You’ve got no secrets to conceal”—capture precisely the predicament of a new generation paradoxically rendered faceless by electronic connectivity and yet entirely without privacy.
Dylan’s remarkable work from this period is sometimes trivialized by stories about how he freaked everyone out by “going electric.” In I’m Not There, his cubistic cinematic portrait of Dylan, Todd Haynes represents the moment with the singer and his band mowing the crowd down with machine guns. Please. There were some boos at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan and his electric band played there. But at least some of the reaction came from the high volume and poor sound quality of the performance, which was, after all, at a folk festival. Meanwhile, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was Dylan’s first Top 40 hit, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” an unprecedented six minutes long, went to No. 2. Dylan’s move to electric is of course a key moment in his musical growth, and an interesting footnote in the history of 1960s American folk; but it was not a thumb in the eye of propriety. Everyone liked it!
Dylan is intensely private. More than almost any star I can think of, our understanding of his personal life is occluded and disjointed. His first wife was Sara Dylan, née Sara Lownds, née Shirley Noznisky. When they met, she was married to a guy in publishing in New York; early in their relationship, Dylan mentioned to an interviewer that he’d met a woman named Sara and that she was one of only two truly “holy people” he had ever met. (The other was Allen Ginsberg, though Ginsberg had never done a stint as a Playboy bunny.) “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is widely seen as a tribute to Sara; it has a title that suggests the name Lownds and other lyrical hints (“Your magazine husband / Who one day just had to go”) and is placed ostentatiously to fill up the entire final side of Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, some of which may be true, is at its most dyspeptic when the singer describes the hordes of hippies impinging on his and his family’s life by the mid-’60s. Using a motorcycle accident as an excuse, Dylan retreated in 1966 and began releasing country-flavored albums at long intervals to dampen his celebrity. In the meantime, he and Sara raised an eventual family of five in peace. The names and number of his children were widely misunderstood until the publication ofDown the Highway, a powerful, definitive biography by Howard Sounes, in 2001. (The children are Maria, from Sara’s first marriage; Jakob, whom you know from the Wallflowers; Jesse, a Hollywood and new-media guy, director of Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” Obama music video; Anna, an artist who stays out of sight; and Samuel, a photographer who keeps a low profile as well. This is not to mention his second, secret wife and at least one other acknowledged child, but that’s a tale for another time.)
Dylan emerged in the mid-’70s to tour with the Band, release two of his strongest albums (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), and embark on a nutty and hilarious gypsy-caravan tour dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue. His relationship with Sara was strained at this point, though she came along on the tour and even starred in his bizarre four-hour movie, Renaldo & Clara. But in the end, Dylan’s womanizing fueled what became a bitter divorce. His most plainly personal album is Blood on the Tracks, a lancing portrait of a romantic death spiral. (Jakob has said he gets no pleasure from listening to it: “When I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.”) Among (many) other things, Blood on the Tracks is an exercise in emotional intensity, from self-pity and anger to ruefulness. There are obvious references to his wife in the wrenching “Idiot Wind” and also at the beginning of “Tangled Up in Blue” (“She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced”). Blood on the Trackswas recorded in bizarre circumstances, first in New York and then more than half of it rerecorded in Minneapolis with a pickup band; yet its shuddering atmospherics and controlled, specific writing combined to make it the most organic and emotionally fulfilling work in Dylan’s canon.
The Rolling Thunder Revue saw the return of the lovely Baez; she sang “Diamonds & Rust,” her greatest song, a poison-pen love letter to Dylan, and did the frug behind Roger McGuinn during “Eight Miles High.” A decade on, in the ’80s, she and Dylan toured again, this time in Japan, with what was supposed to have been shared star billing. Baez inevitably became an opening act and eventually told the tour to fuck off, as she later told the story. Granted an exit audience with Dylan, she found him an aged version of the immature ragamuffin. He was tired but slipped his hand up her skirt for old times’ sake.
The next two decades were tough for him artistically; as Greil Marcus has put it, Dylan was essentially committing a “public disappearance.” Beginning in 1979, he tested his audience’s expectations and goodwill more tellingly than any punk by releasing three albums of unimaginative Christian-themed songs, along with two tours in which he plowed stolidly through this material. The problem was not Dylan’s beliefs, though they leaned to the crackpot; lots of acts had religious leanings—Van Morrison among them. It was how Dylan articulated those beliefs. To listen to the albums today is to enter a (not very) fun house of mediocrity and intolerance.
Dylan began to produce his own albums. He wasn’t dogmatic about it; he would once in a while bring in an outside producer—Mark Knopfler helped on Infidels, and Daniel Lanois superimposed a decent setting (and demanded a suite of coherent songs) for Oh Mercy. Other albums from the ’80s and ’90s were weirdly inconsistent in the quality of both the songs and the production values. Even weirder is the fact that Dylan was actually writing and recording some of his best work during this time. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, “Blind Willie McTell,” “Caribbean Wind,” “Foot of Pride,” “Series of Dreams” … Authoritative and undeniable, they were better than anything his contemporaries were then releasing. Unfortunately, they were also better than anything Dylan was releasing and only turned up later on compilations albums.
In 1997, Lanois returned for Time Out of Mind. The critics went nuts over this work and the four regular releases since. I think these albums are woefully overrated, but they have sold well, and with the critics behind them, too, I’m willing to acknowledge the disconnect may be mine. But deep down I know that it’s hard to find, over the past ten or 15 years, more than three or four songs you’d stick on a mix tape to try to convince someone of this singer-songwriter’s greatness. Too many of his recent songs start with a pleasant-enough (or, more often, serviceable) riff—which is then beaten into the ground by his backing band. My hunch is that Dylan, producing in the studio, nods in inscrutable approval when he hears something he likes. The band, nervous but eager to please, obliges and starts playing the damn riff continuously. There’s no outsider around to tweak it or vary it or add dynamics.
In the folk-blues tradition, older songs were reappropriated and built upon; in his later years, Dylan has played with this tradition and found himself in mini-controversies when researchers find that some words in his songs first appeared somewhere else. Amateur sleuths discovered that his album “Love and Theft” had a pattern of lines seemingly taken from a fairly obscure Japanese writer, Junichi Saga. More recently, some obsessives started looking at passages in Chronicles and found lines taken from an astonishing variety of places, from self-help books to The Great Gatsby. The pickings seem to be phrases bouncing around the ragged mind of a guy with a photographic memory. On the other hand, some of the inner workings are plainly mischievous, like an in-passing list of news stories; the headlines were all from a mocking take on the press in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.
To tweak the purists again, he’ll once in a while appear in a TV commercial—distracting from the subtle attention he pays to how posterity will see his work. He goes out of his away to appear on awards shows when they beckon; he’s shown his artwork and sells it online; his memoir, while odd, was nonetheless transfixing and reminded us that he was once a young man groping for a future and placing his bets on a very long shot indeed. The Dylan camp is readying an extraordinary digital archive of his songs, recordings, and paraphernalia. Dylan owns a coffeehouse, it’s said, in Santa Monica; unprepossessing and iconoclastic, it has an extremely friendly staff and no Wi-Fi. There’s not much on the walls, but you notice the references contained in what’s there: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Leonardo da Vinci. There’s one big oil painting behind the counter, one that looks a lot like Dylan’s own work, silent and content in the company it keeps.
And then there’s the touring. In Chronicles, Dylan details, with seeming frankness, the aimlessness that brought him to a slough of despond at the end of the ’80s. He may have been facing what all rock stars who survive face, which is how to grow old gracefully in a medium cruelly tied to youthfulness. He resolved to get out and play his songs—and went back on the road in 1988 with a small, seldom-changing backing ensemble, with whom he delved into his back pages, including many songs he’d never played live before.
Here’s the odd thing—26 years on, he hasn’t stopped. He’s been playing about 100 shows annually ever since, growling through a set of songs old and new with a small band. It’s an endeavor that for a good chunk of each year keeps him on a private bus and, in the U.S. at least, in relatively crummy hotel and motel rooms. (He’s said to prefer places that have windows that open and allow him to sleep with his pet mastiffs. Beyond that, they are places fans wouldn’t expect to find him.) The shows at first may have been a tonic, but over time they revealed themselves to be a panacea. It must have struck Dylan: How could he look foolish if he just kept doing the same thing? If he were an artist, he would continue to create and show his art publicly. If he were a celebrity, he would appear in public. And if he were a seer, a prophet, or even a god, well, he would let folks pay and see for themselves how mortal such figures actually were. And far from saturating the market, he has created a new industry for himself as a touring artist. On a good night he makes some of his best-known songs unrecognizable, and on a bad one you come out wondering what it was, exactly, you’ve just seen. So far this year, the 73-year-old has played in Japan (17 shows), Hawaii (two), Ireland, Turkey, and nearly 20 other cities in the hinterlands of Europe; he’s headed now to more than a dozen shows in eight different cities in Australia and New Zealand—and this is before what should be a fall run through the States. Robert Shelton, the New York Times writer who first noticed Dylan, labored on a biography for more than 20 years; seeing the star’s unstable arc on its publication in 1986, he titled it, grandly, No Direction Home. Dylan hadn’t even begun not to go home.
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from. The exultant cry of “no direction home” derived its power from the fact that, in the end, any place new was better than where we’d come from. In that context, not remembering what you left originally is a remarkable statement of anomie.
Still, we might have focused over the years too much on the word direction, as in “heading toward.”
Maybe “no direction home” means that there’s no guidance home, that you have to figure it out for yourself.
If Bob Dylan is a question, maybe this is the answer. Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be. Even his remoteness is a by-product; it’s what he deserves after having given his all. Call the work art, call it crap, call it Spanish boots of Spanish leather, but in the end it’s the creation of an artist who defies us to ask for something more.
*This article appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
THE AMAZNG HEARST CASTLE
The Indoor Pool
The Outdoor Pool
The Dining Area
The Isabella Jewel Box
November 9, 2011
Mr. DiCaprio, wouldn’t it be nice to do a shitty romantic comedy every once in a while?
I am completely open for doing a romantic comedy but I will never do something just for the sake of doing a specific genre or because it’s the time or place to do a different type of movie. I think that would be a huge mistake. Ultimately I read a script and I say, “Woah, I am emotionally engaged in this.” I never think about the subject matter, what it will be to popular culture, what it means historically – ultimately all that stuff passes and this movie will come out and it’s either good or it’s not. So that’s the only way I know how to pick films, otherwise I am not connected to it.
How important is it for you to challenge yourself even further with every film that you do?
That really depends on the role. It’s always this grand search in the industry to find good material. Whenever there is good material they all jump on it and it’s like a food fight to get it made. That’s why so many things take years and years to develop because it all shows up on screen. If there are holes in the story structure, if it’s not a compelling, moving narrative, that shows on screen and the movie fails.
You seem to be winning the food fight, considering the material that you get.
It’s been director driven. I have to say that whatever decisions I make, I really do think that movie making is a director’s medium. They are the people that ultimately shape the film and a director can take great material and turn it into garbage if they are not capable of making a good movie. So that is why I have chosen to work with directors that I feel can transport themselves in the audiences mind.
You have worked with Spielberg, Nolan, Eastwood, Mendes, Boyle, Cameron, not to mention you are a regular with Scorsese. Is there anyone left on your list?
There are a lot of directors I’d still love to work with. Paul Thomas Anderson is someone I’d love to work with. I think Alejandro González Iñárritu is very talented. Ang Lee is very talented. I mean, there are a lot of people. There are many great directors out there.
How much of your life involves making movies and thinking about movies?
A lot of it, that is for sure. (Laughs) I can’t say that it isn’t the most dominant thing going on right now. Look, the truth is that I always wanted to be an actor; it was always my dream and now is the time where I am really able to choose my own parts.
You have been able to do that for a while…
Yes, but I know a lot of actors who I grew up with in the industry – growing up in Los Angeles – that don’t get to do that. I just keep imagining myself thirty years from now thinking, “Why didn’t you take advantage of all the opportunities you had? Look at all the people you could have worked with, the roles you could have done. Go for it.” And that’s what I am thinking.
So do you put other things aside?
No, I don’t. Either they fit in in a natural way or they don’t. I never want to force anything but I do know that ultimately this is what I love doing and those other things will find a way to happen.
So you always knew that acting is what you wanted to do?
I really don’t remember. But I do remember loving to imitate my mother’s friends. I’d do little performances imitating them, making fun of them, making her laugh, making my grandparents laugh.
Sounds like you were a handful.
I kind of am an energetic person. It seems calmer now, but you should have seen me when I was younger. Whew! I would have been very difficult to be around, especially before I became a teenager. I don’t know how my mother dealt with me. I was just running, constantly doing things. I am a lot calmer now, but I still have a lot of energy.
Do you ever think you’ll lose that energy and try something else completely?
I could one day. But I happen to love acting, I happen to love doing movies. We are all shaped from these memories we have as young people and those were my earliest memories: wanting to be an actor, pushing my parents to take me out on auditions. I didn’t even know you could get paid for it but I wanted to do it. When I found out you could get paid for it then I said, “Okay, this is what I really want to do.” I am getting to fulfill that so I am not going to do anything, for now anyway, to change that.
Is it strange when you reflect on how completely you’ve achieved your childhood dream?
I sometimes have to look back and say, “Wow, this is amazing what has happened to me. I have been able to fulfill a lot of these dreams that I had when I was very young.” I would have never guessed that I would have gotten to have one tiny role in a Martin Scorsese film and to have done four now, it’s pretty amazing. I have to say it’s a pretty amazing feeling. But at the same time it becomes addictive! So yes, my dreams have been surpassed.
Famous Last Words
Sometimes witty, sometimes sad, and sometimes even a little prophetic, these are the final words of some famous people before they shed their mortal coil.
Anxiety And The Creative Personality:The Good, Bad And The Ugly
Henri Matisse’s simple statement on the creative personality is powerful and complex. It does take courage living with uncertainties and hoping for possibilities. We spend our days sharpening skills taking classes, training, staying in loop, and getting ready for the moment lady luck knocks at our door. Yes true grit, selecting a career where worth and professional success are based upon others’ opinions who may or may not have more skill and talent.
Don’t we sound GREAT?
We’re what dreams are made of!
Here comes the “but”….
Characteristics of a Creative Mind: Anxiety and Stress
Living a creative life sounds exhilarating and it is; when is good it’s great when it’s bad well…you’ve read the stories of troubled artists and the depths of their depression. Theanxiety, stress and phobias stem from of the creative process can bring the most successful to their knees unable to cope or manage the smallest bump in the road.The stakes are high in creative fields, your uniqueness, individuality your entire self is defined by what and how much you create. It’s one thing to be the “that funny entering friend” and another thing to be the “nailed the audition, got the job, can pay the rent guy” and the more you have vested in a situations outcome the higher the anxiety. Performing artists’ live in a nameless field of the unknown, with no guarantees of success; yet success is only an audition or connection away. Worrying feeling edgy, preoccupied with the future are all part of the creative process.
Welcome To Haartfelt!
On June 3, 1965, a brand new Rolls-Royce was delivered to John Lennon. The Phantom V model had been fitted with a limousine body and was finished in Valentines black. The car’s license plate was FJB111C. A guarantee was issued to John on June 10, 1965. The car was 19 feet long and weighed three tons.
A notoriously bad driver himself, John seldom drove the plush car himself, instead preferring to employ a chauffeur. John had two different chauffeurs during his Beatle years- Bill Corbett and (more frequently) Les Anthony.
John and his fellow Beatles were driven in the vehicle to the premiere of their second movieHelp! in July of 1965. On October 26, ’65, a very ambivalent John and his three comrades were chauffeured in the car to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBE medals from the Queen. While being driven, John loved to lie on his back and play with the car’s various control buttons with his feet.
In 1966, John had the back seat converted to a double bed. Later, a Sony television, a portable refrigerator, and telephone were installed. A “floating” record player (with perfect balance so it could be used without being effected by stops and bumps while driving) was also fitted inside. An interior and exterior sound system was included. John added blacked-out windows and was the first person in England to have this feature in his car.
In September of ’66, when John went to Spain to film his first solo movie How I Won the War, he had his beloved Rolls driven to Spain. “We were in Almeira, which was very sandy, and the local kids would write ‘el Beatle’ on the car,” recalled Les Anthony.
On January 7, 1966, a mileage check on the car showed 6,673 miles on the odometer. On March 28th, another check revealed it to have clocked 11,181 miles. By February 4, 1967, the total had risen to 29,283 miles.
In early 1967, Ringo Starr suggested to John that he should have the car painted in psychedelic colors. “We were passing the fairground one day,” remembered Les, “and they were admiring the fairground decorations and gypsy caravans. Ringo said why not have the Rolls painted the same way. John thought it was a great idea. It was painted all yellow first, then hand painted (with bright blue and red flowers and psychedelic designs). The first time i drove it, I was followed by hordes of photographers and Pathe news.”
John later told a story of a woman rushing at him and attacking him with her umbrella when she saw his car, shouting, “You swine! You swine! How dare you do that to a Rolls-Royce!”
The psychedelic paint job was done by a group of Dutch artists who called themselves “The Fool”. John had previously employed The Fool to paint a gypsy caravan he kept on the grounds of his home. The paint job cost around $4,200 (U.S. dollars).
On November 25, 1969, John decided to return his MBE medal. “I drove it (the Rolls-Royce) to Buckingham Palace in 1969″, said Les, “to hand back his MBE (medal). Well, not actually take it into Buckingham Palace. I had to take it to Lord Chamberlain’s office nearby.”
In 1970, after John had married Yoko Ono, the couple moved to the United States and had the car shipped to America. John loaned the car out to several rock stars, including the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues and Bob Dylan. John hardly ever used the car himself anymore and eventually had it put in storage.
In 1977, when John and Yoko were having some tax problems, it was handed over to the nation -in the form of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum at the Smithsonian Institute- in lieu of the $250,000.00 tax owed. A year later, the museum produced postcards of it. John sent one of these postcards to his uncle Norman in 1979. (“Dear Norman, Happy ’79. Cheers, love, John & family.”)
In 1985, the Smithsonian decided to sell the car to Sotheby’s for auction. It fetched $2.3 million dollars, making it the most expensive car in history. It was bought by the owner of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in South Carolina. By 2011, it was being exhibited at a museum in British Columbia.
Ships, Champagne, and Superstition
If the christening bottle didn’t break, the ship would be unlucky
Launching of USS Maine, Brooklyn Navy Yard, November 1890
US Navy Historical Center
The ceremony of christening new ships began in the distant past, and we know that Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians all held ceremonies to ask the gods to protect sailors.
By the 1800s the christenings of ships began to follow a familiar pattern. A “christening fluid” would be poured against the bow of the ship, though it was not necessarily wine or champagne. There are accounts in the US Navy records of 19th century warships being christened with water from significant American rivers.
The christening of ships became great public events, with large crowds assembled to witness the ceremony. And it became standard for champagne, as the most elite of wines, to be used for the christening. The tradition developed that a female would do the honors and be named the sponsor of the ship.
And maritime superstition held that a ship that wasn’t properly christened would be considered unlucky. A champagne bottle that didn’t break was a particularly bad omen.
The Christening of the Maine
When the US Navy’s new battle cruiser, the Maine, was christened at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1890, enormous crowds turned out. An article in the New York Times on November 18, 1890, the morning of the ship’s launching, described what was to happen. And it stressed the responsibility weighing on 16-year-old Alice Tracy Wilmerding, the granddaughter of the secretary of the Navy:
Miss Wilmerding will have the precious quart bottle secured to her wrist by a short bunch of ribbons, which will serve the same purpose as a sword knot. It is of the utmost importance that the bottle be broken on the first throw, for the bluejackets will declare the vessel is unmanageable if she is permitted to get into the water without first being christened. It is consequently a matter of deep interest to the old “shellbacks” to learn that Miss Wilmerding has performed her task successfully.
An Elaborate Public Ceremony
The next day’s edition provided surprisingly detailed coverage of the christening ceremony:
Fifteen thousand people – on the word of the watchman at the gate – swarmed about the red hull of the giant battle ship, on the decks of all the assembled vessels, in the upper stories and on the roofs of all the adjacent buildings.The raised platform at the point of the Maine’s ram bow was prettily draped with flags and flowers and upon it with Gen. Tracy and Mr. Whitney stood a party of ladies. Prominent among them was the Secretary’s granddaughter, Miss Alice Wilmerding, with her mother.
It was upon Miss Wilmerding that all eyes centred. That young lady, clad in a cream white skirt, a warm black jacket, and a big dark hat with light feathers, wore her honors with a very modest dignity, being fully sensible of the importance of her position.
She is scarcely sixteen years old. Her hair in a long braid fell gracefully down her back, and she chatted with her more elderly companions with perfect ease, as though entirely ignorant of the fact that 10,000 pairs of eyes were looking toward her.
The bottle of wine which her hands were to break over the formidable bow was a pretty thing indeed – quite too pretty, she said, to be offered up on the shrine of so unfeeling a monster. It was a pint bottle, covered with a network of fine cord.
Wound around its full length was a ribbon bearing a picture of the Maine in gold, and from its base hung a knot of varicolored silk pennants ending in a gold tassel. Around its neck were two long ribbons bound in gold lace, one white and one blue. At the ends of the white ribbon were the words, “Alice Tracy Wilmerding, November 18, 1890,” and at the ends of the blue were the words, “U.S.S. Maine.”
The Maine Enters the Water
When the ship was released from restraints, the crowd erupted.
Johnny Cash was one of country music’s first “outlaws,” but the music industry was still surprised in 1957 when he played a concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas. Over the next decade, Cash performed over 30 prison shows and recorded albums during at least three of them. (The shows at California’s Folsom Prison and San Quentin became the most famous). Here are ten little-known facts about the Man in Black’s prison concerts.
1. Columbia Records repeatedly rejected Cash’s requests to record a prison concert.
Cash started playing at prisons in response to fan mail from inmates who identified with his songs (especially “Folsom Prison Blues”). Soon he discovered that “prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for. We bring them a ray of sunshine into their dungeon, and they’re not ashamed to respond and show their appreciation.” He suspected that their excitement and gratitude combined with the thrill of performing in a dangerous venue would create the perfect setting for an album. His record company disagreed -they thought the concerts would kill Cash’s career and hurt the label’s image. But when Columbia brought on producer Bob Johnston -known for being a bit wild himself and for bucking authority (as well as producing for Bob Dylan)- that stance changed. Johnston readily approved the country star’s idea.
Columbia remained tight-lipped about the performance and the release of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968, still believing the album would never sell. But it did… an incredible 500,000 copies in one year. Sales were boosted by Cash’s tough guy image (he wore solid black clothing, used profane language, had a gravelly voice, and fought an on-again-off-again addiction to drugs). To help the cause along, Columbia released exaggerated ads claiming Cash was no stranger to prison. Which brings us to…
2. Cash never served time at Folsom, or any other prison.
He did seven short stints in jail, though, for drug- and alcohol-related charges. his song “Folsom Prison Blues” was instead inspired by the 1951 movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. According to biographer Michael Streissguth, another influence was Gordon Jenkins’s song “Crescent City Blues,” from which Cash “borrowed” so heavily that when his version was recorded on the Folsomalbum, the original artists demanded -and received- royalties.
3. Cash inspired future country music star Merle Haggard.
Haggard was serving three years at San Quentin Prison for armed robbery and escaping from jail when Johnny Cash took the stage there in 1958. When Haggard later told Cash that he’d been at that concert, Cash said he didn’t remember Haggard performing that day; Haggard replied, “I was in the audience, Johnny.” In fact, he was sitting in the front row and was mesmerized by Cash. He and his fellow inmates identified with Cash’s lyrics about loss and imprisonment.
Haggard reminisced, “This was somebody singing a song about your personal life. Even the people who weren’t fans of Johnny cash -it was a mixture of people, all races were fans by the end of the show.” Haggard also soon realized that he shared Cash’s talent for making music and for speaking to the struggles of the working class. He joined the prison’s country band shortly after Cash’s concert and penned songs about being locked up. After his release in 1960, Haggard sang at clubs until he eventually became a country superstar himself.
4. The Live “Folsom Prison Blues” was too grisly for radio play.
Cash’s declaration “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die,” followed by an inmate’s shriek of joy, was edited by radio stations. But the hollering wasn’t real. It had been dubbed in by Columbia Records since the prisoners had been too enthralled by Cash’s performance to whoop it up during songs.
5. Cash’s band smuggled a gun into Folsom.
Johnny Cash and his bassist, Marshall Grant, often performed a comedy skit with an antique cap-and-ball gun that make smoke. It was a prop -but it was a real gun. Grant accidentally brought the weapon inside his bass guitar case to the 1968 show. A prison guard spotted it and politely took it away to the warden for safekeeping until the concert ended.
6. Folsom Prison inmate Glen Sherley wrote the song “Greystone Chapel” and credited Cash with changing his life.
Glen Sherley was in Folsom Prison for armed robbery, but he also loved music. Before Cash arrived for the 1968 show, Sherley recorded the song “Greystone Chapel” at the prison chapel. Appropriately, it was about a man whose body was imprisoned but his soul is freed by religion. Cash’s pastor, who also counseled inmates, smuggled the tape out to Cash, who learned to play the song the night before the show. After seeing Cash perform his song, Sherley vowed to make a mark with the musician. Once he was released from Folsom, he went to work for Johnny Cash’s publishing company, House of Cash. Sherley later remarked, “I was a three-time loser when John reached out his hand to me in 1968, and since then I sincerely believe that I have become a worthwhile person and can contribute to society.”
7. Cash’s concert at Folsom landed him his own musical variety show: The Johnny Cash Show.
FOLSOM PRISON BLUES
Cash noted, “I’ve always thought it ironic that it was a prison concert, with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders, and miscreants should, that pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show.”
8. When Johnny Cash recorded At San Quentin in 1969, he didn’t know the lyrics to one of his most famous songs.
I was the first time cash had performed “A Boy Named Sue,” written by poet Shel Silverstein, so he had to read the lyrics from a sheet he’d stained with coffee. And before playing “Starkville City Jail,” cash explained that he was thrown in the slammer for picking daisies and dandelions at two in the morning. (By other accounts, he was breaking curfew, drunk in public, and trespassing.)
9. Cash brushed up on his Swedish for a show overseas.
In 1972 Cash went to Stockholm, Sweden, where he recorded the album Pa Osteraker at a Swedish prison. Between songs, he impressed and thrilled the inmates by introducing some of his songs in their language.
10. At the 1969 show, Cash’s song “San Quentin” nearly incited a riot there.
He’d just written the song the night before, and its inflammatory lyrics like, “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,” clearly struck a chord with the audience. The prisoners clamored and stomped until he repeated the song. Shrieking and jumping up on tabletops, they were so close to rioting that the guards drew and cocked their guns and the camera crew backed untoward the exit doors. According to producer Bob Johnston, Cash later said of the hair-raising moment, “I knew that if I wanted to let those people go, all I had to do was say, ‘the time is now’ And all of those prisoners would have broken…I was tempted.” (But of course, he didn’t.)