Bob Dylan – Ode To Billy Joe
In 1986, Bob Dylan recorded Billy Joe Shaver’s classic song, Old Five and Dimers Like Me.
Dylan was in England to film his role as Billy Parker in Hearts Of Fire:
“I stayed drunk most of the time. It was a terrible script and we had no control over it. I did it for money. I mean, why else would I do it?”*
Part of the contract involved him recording songs for the film and subsequent soundtrack album.
So, on 27th and 28th of August, along with Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Kip Winger, Beau Hill and Henry Spinetti, he went into Townhouse Studios in London to record.
Along with John Hiatt’s The Usual, A Couple More Years by Shel Silverstein and Dennis Locorriere, the band recorded two versions of Billy Joe Shaver’s song – one a pretty standard rocker, followed by a slower, bluesier take. Then Dylan picked up an acoustic and performed it by himself.
The solo version is, quite simply, stunning.
I know lots of people who say ‘Bob Dylan can’t sing’. I don’t bother arguing any more, but think they are wrong. His voice may not always be pretty or easy on the ear, but it is extremely expressive, and instantly recognisable. For me, he is a brilliant singer with a limited vocal register, but what he lacks in range he makes up for in phrasing, timing and expressiveness.
The late, great Paul Williams had this to say:
“Where is there anyone around today who can sing half this well? […] Any fool can think, and most can write; delivering those thoughts intact to another mind, another consciousness, is the extraordinary talent … Every word on this record [Blood on the Tracks] is a hundred times bigger because of the awareness and skill with which it is spoken.” +++
The mechanics of singing (or tonal breath control), are simple. Air (via the lungs), is passed over the vocal chords (membranes stretched across the larynx) which act very much like a reed, controlling pitch. The resulting sound bounces around in the chest and head cavities, which act as an amplifier.
Many different muscles are used to create and affect the sound that is produced – abdominal, internal intercostal and lower pelvic, external intercostals, scalenes and sternocleidomastoids.
To sing powerfully and expressively can be a surprisingly physical exercise requiring strength, technique and control.
Although there are numerous techniques that help with expression (such as making your voice ‘tremble’ and break, or adding a throaty rasp for example) many singers use their own life experience to form an emotional connection, which can be communicated through the voice. This is why it can be so challenging, cathartic and satisfying for the singer, and so moving for the audience – there is genuine emotion rather than, or as well as, pure technique. Others still, believe that they open their soul to God and harness a divine power.
“Basically, I’m self -taught. What I mean by that actually is that I picked it all up from other people by watching them, by imitating them. I seldom ever asked them to take me aside and show me how to do it.”++
It is known that Bob Dylan has taken voice lessons on occasion**, and his vocal style has changed over the years, from the early whooping bark and bite of Bob Dylan to the country croon of Nashville Skyline, the ragged shout of Before The Flood, the strange, brilliant, Hebrew-gypsy cantillation on Desire to his ‘gospel’ voice, which was surely informed by being around great singers like Carolyn Dennis, Regina Havis and Clydie King.
I like all the permutations of his voice, but the acoustic version of Old Five and Dimers Like Me from August 1986 is a vocal tour de force and one of the finest example of Dylan’s expressive abilities I have ever heard – reminiscent of the wounded howls from the 1966 tour. There is clearly some vocal technique, and the key he has chosen pushes his voice, but there’s an intense sadness that sounds mighty real and is spell-binding.
Dylan’s songs cover every mood, from the comedy of Motorpsycho Nitemare or Highlands to the scathing darkness of Idiot Wind or Dirge, and everything in-between. His vocal performances, whether emotive, deadpan or humorous, are as vital to the songs success as the words and music.
Talking about Blood on the Tracks, he once said, rather testily:
“A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that…people enjoying that type of pain, you know?“***
It isn’t the pain I enjoy when I listen to that record; it is the recognition of certain emotional responses in the relationships he describes. I don’t know if the songs are based on events in his life or based on plays by Chekhov, and it’s immaterial as far as I’m concerned. Trying to analyse songs along autobiographical lines has always seemed a futile pursuit.
“…well, I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean it couldn’t be about anybody else but my wife, right? Stupid and misleading jerks sometimes these interpreters are…”
I love Son House singing Death Letter Blues (or My Black Mama, Part 2), which Paul Du Noyer described as “one of the most anguished and emotionally stunning laments in the Delta blues œuvre” and I Want You from Elvis Costello’s Blood & Chocolate album – I empathize with the basic human emotions in both songs and recognize them from my own trials in life.
It isn’t voyeurism or taking pleasure from someone else’s pain, it is responding to shared human reactions through the universal language of music, song and that most amazing of all instruments – the voice.
The music Dylan was releasing around the mid-1980s left me cold. I liked a couple of tracks off Empire Burlesque, very little from Knocked Out Loaded and thought the film of his tour with Tom Petty, Hard To Handle was dreadful – fake, hollow posturing and singing-by-numbers performances. I thought that his voice had gone, that he had lost that strange, evocative, complex delivery and was just going to knock out dull, lifeless, 12-bar blues-based pop-rock nonsense for an indefinite period – until he felt like bothering again.
So, when I first heard his plaintive vocal performance on Old Five and Dimers Like Me, I was completely taken aback and genuinely moved.
It is tender, pleading and though his voice sounds tired (his True Confessions tour had only finished a few weeks before), it is confident, warm, powerful and suits the lyric completely, cracking at the end of some of the lines. He cuts the notes short a few times, and allows his voice to slip into a weary, broken falsetto.
Some of the power in this version is technique for sure, but some of it, I believe, is pure soul.
The recording itself appears to have been made by somebody placing a tape recorder with a microphone in front of a pair of studio monitors, at some distance from them – which is why there’s so much hiss or ‘air noise’ and accounts for the generally thin sound. The actual studio master tape, if it still exists, would be amazing to hear. The Townhouse was known to have had a particularly great natural room sound.
Horace Freeland Judson: “Do you care about what you sing?”
Bob Dylan: “You got a lot of nerve asking me a question like that!”
(From 1965 film Don’t Look Back, Dylan vs. Time Magazine)
Dylan famously told Mary Travers:
“I don’t write confessional songs…Emotion’s got nothing to do with it. It only seems so, like it seems that Laurence Olivier is Hamlet…”
Accurate as that statement may be, it is only half the story. I don’t think for one minute that all Bob Dylan’s songs are autobiographical, but they certainly have his soul, his life experiences in the spark of creation and in the singing of them.
Although When the Ship Comes In is widely acknowledged to have been inspired by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s song ‘Pirate Jenny’, the voice in the recorded version on The Times They Are A-Changin’ (and subsequent performances) may have its biting edge from a more intimate source.
Joan Baez maintains that the initial spark for the song came when, in August 1963, the young, not-universally-recognised Bob Dylan was refused a room at a hotel, due to his unkempt appearance. (He was also picked up by police in Long Branch, New Jersey in 2009 after Residents called to complain about ‘an old scruffy man acting suspiciously’ – so I guess a shabby leopard can’t change its spots.)
Son House, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Stevie Ray Vaughan…they all had great control and technique, but were also deeply emotional, soulful performers and Dylan is no exception.
The emotional connection may be fleeting, and simply in order to play a role, to bring a character to life, but that is what I connect with and enjoy. There are plenty of ‘X Factor’ contestants who can technically sing Dylan off the stage, but they don’t have the soul connection. If I’m not moved in some way, I’m not interested. I want a voice with heart, soul, flaws, humanity, frailty, sex, sadness, joy, regret and humour. I want the human experience coming through.
Dylan has that gift and the performance of Old Five and Dimers Like Me is a perfect example. Although it is raw, un-effected, unmixed, hissy as a fit – it is still brilliant.
Rob Fraboni, having watched Dylan work up-close, had this to say:
“When he starts playing, there’s nothing else happening but that, as far as he’s concerned. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who performs with such conviction.”
His guitar playing is a bit loose, and he hits some odd notes at the end, but that doesn’t hurt the feel of the performance.
He changes a couple of lyrics, whether by design or accident, but does stay pretty true to Mr Shaver’s original:
Old Five And Dimers Like Me.
I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be
More than the measure of what I thought others could see
Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between
For Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me
She stood beside me letting me know she would be
Something to lean on when everything ran out on me
Fenced yards ain’t hole cards and like as not never will be
Reason for rhymers and old five and dimers like me
It’s taking me so long and now that I know I believe
All that I do or say is all I ever will be
Too far and too high and too deep ain’t too much to be
Too much ain’t enough for old five and dimers like me
Yeah, an old five and dimer is all I really meant to be.
Copyright © 1973 Billy Joe Shaver
I have been lucky enough to see Dylan perform quite a few times since I first saw him in 1981, and at every single concert he has impressed, amused, confounded, surprised and moved me. Sometimes, within the same song. He is, indisputably, a great lyricist, performer and musician, but he is also a great singer. It is marvellous to see how he has adapted his vocal style to cope with the deterioration in the sound of his voice – lowering the register, playing with the phrasing and focusing on the nuances of his almost spoken delivery, skipping the reels of rhyme and delighting in the emphasis and pronunciation of certain key words.
His voice is as human as his songs, and has naturally grown old and worn. We will never hear him sing like he did, in 1986, on Billy Joe Shaver’s classic, so I listen to it now and am extremely grateful that this recording exists. It serves to remind me that, as a singer alone, he is up there with the greats.
Columbia released the Hearts Of Fire soundtrack on October 20, 1987. Other songs recorded at the session include:
The Usual was released as a single (and on promo cassettes of Down In The Groove).
Night After Night was an original composition. Had a Dream About You Baby was also an original, but is different from the mix that appeared on his 1988 album, Down in the Groove.
Townhouse Studio, London, was built by Richard Branson in 1978, as part of the Virgin Studios Group. Richard sold Virgin Records to EMI in 1992. The Sanctuary Group bought the studio from EMI in 2002. Universal closed it in late March, 2008.
Of the Don’t Look Back Dylan VS Time incident, Mr Judson, speaking in 2000, had this to say:
“The whole episode was entirely unprovoked,” he said. “That evening, I went to the concert. My opinion then and now was that the music was unpleasant, the lyrics inflated and Dylan a self-indulgent, whining show-off.”
+ Sheryl Crow, Popeater, By Michael D. Ayers Dec 20th 2010:
“Bob Dylan’s a great example of someone who didn’t want to stay static and he wound up making ‘Nashville Skyline’ and he actually sounds like Bobby Goldsboro on it. And then later on he did a very big event in Tokyo with Joni Mitchell and took voice lessons for it. So I think good singers and singers who are very alive in their art continue to work at it.”
++ To Cameron Crowe, Biograph Liner Notes, 1985.
+++ Paul Williams, quoted in ‘A Simple Twist Of Fate’, Gill & Odegard: 175-76).
* Interview by Vojo Sindolic, 2008.
** Seth Riggs lists Bob Dylan as a client and has worked with his backing singers, Carolyn Dennis, Helena Springs, JoAnne Harriss.
*** Mary Travers radio show, 1975.
**** Time Magazine’s London arts and science correspondent Horace Freeland Judson.
Joan Baez discussed the 1963 ‘hotel incident’ in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home.
Dag ‘Kick Ass’ Braathen for access to his infinitely large archives, Expecting Rain site, the site Searching For A Gem, which lists pretty much everything ever released (officially) by Bob Dylan, and Bobs Boots, who lists pretty much everything else.