074 – “Tombstone Blues”

Episode 74
“Tombstone Blues.”
Highway 61 Revisited.
Blockhouse.
Recorded November 4, 2018.

Context (3:20)

“Tombstone Blues” was Dylan’s first song recorded after “Like a Rolling Stone” and would be followed by “Desolation Row.” It was put to tape on July 29, 1965. (The entire session is available on The Bootleg Series, Volume 12: The Cutting Edge.) The song features Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Paul Griffin on piano, Bobby Gregg on drums, Joe Macho, Jr. on bass and Al Kooper on organ.

This is #88 on Rolling Stone‘s list of best Dylan songs. Dylan’s performed this live 169 times from officially August 28, 1965 to October 14, 2006. However, there’s German television footage of him playing this at Newport Folk Festival on acoustic guitar on July 24, 1965, a few days before he’d record it, and just one day from him famously “going electric.” As mentioned before, poet Nicanor Parra in 2000 said Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature based on the chorus of “Tombstone Blues” alone. He’d receive the award in 2016.

Song Itself (7:00)

Kelly and Daniel listened to the studio version, The Cutting Edge, as well as his Unplugged session from 1994. In order to get to the studio version, The Cutting Edge takes us into the minds of the musicians as the song evolved. Like “One of Us Must Know” it starts slow, almost like a waltz. Producer Bob Johnston implores Dylan: “Don’t play it, feel it!” and “really get a groove going.” Dylan, on cue, just before locking into the song’s final form, says “I don’t know how long I can keep singing this.” On the 11th take, just before the final, Bloomfield and Griffin go NUTS and even Dylan has to stop and tell them, “You’re doing too much.” Toning it down just a smidge produced the take on Highway 61 Revisited.

‘Tombstone Blues’ represents the formal unveiling of what would become the stock scenario for a midperiod electric Dylan song, or as Paul Cable put it, ‘the typical melee of totally unrelated events involving totally unrelated weirdo characters.’

Clinton Heylin

As for the song, Daniel and Kelly explore that park bench feeling of Dylan soaking in the world around him and spitting it out in verses. On the outside looking in, he sees Paul Revere’s horse, the ghost of famous gunslinger Bell Starr, Jezebel the nun, Jack the Ripper, John the Baptist, President Johnson, Gypsy Davey, Pedro, Galileo, Delilah, Brother Bill, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, and Beethoven. And while “the typical melee of totally unrelated events involving totally unrelated weirdo characters” is perfect, there is obvious commentary on how Dylan sees political and cultural life at this restless moment.

This song also has a killer ending which almost repudiates the nonsense above. That the next song of Highway 61 is the lovely “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is brilliant.

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
of your useless and pointless knowledge

Does this song work for 2018? Hell yes. Not only does the imagery relate to all times (especially now) but it anticipates something like hip-hop with disjointed bars that may or may not all specifically connect. “Tombstone Blues” is also a celebration of learning for its own sake, for one’s own fulfillment and understanding. Dylan connecting these dots is still thrilling fifty years later. 

Playlist and Housekeeping (40:00)

Welcome back to the playlist: Against Me!, Billie Holiday, Justin Townes Earle, La Dispute, Jackson C. Frank, TV on the Radio, and The Doors

Welcome to the playlist: Moby, Cotton Jones, The Head and the Heart, Fleet Foxes, The Wonder Years, Seasick Steve, Joe Strummer, Lil AK, and Richie Havens

Recommendations (45:30)

Kelly listened to The Greeting Committee and Cake’s latest single, “Sinking Ship” while lamenting not being part of the sold-out Portland show.  

Daniel listened to Touché Amoré and their first live record 10 Years / 1000 Shows.

Endings

There’s 436 songs left, and only 1 episode of Season 2 left! Kelly guesses #397, which could have made “Heart of Mine” the final song (a bullet dodged twice so far). It’s not. It’s #20. “Shooting Star,” our fourth track from Oh, Mercy

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