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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Today I'm wishing the great Fats Domino a very happy 80th birthday (not in person, though as it happens I did once meet him, in London, 30 years ago; he was wearing a lemon-yellow suit and a forlorn expression, possibly brought on by having to be interviewed by music journalists).

When the paperback of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia comes out on Tuesday April 15, it will include this newly-updated entry on Fats, which takes into account his temporary disappearance and lucky rescue after Hurrican Katrina struck his hometown of New Orleans. It'll go like this:

Domino, Fats [1928 - ]
Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino, born 26 February 1928, became the most successful New Orleans big-band R&B million-seller of the long era between 1955 and the early 1960s: a man who gave us hit after huge, endearing hit, with a fat, simple sound and a warm, much-imitated faux-naïve voice that built many memorable self-penned songs into mountains on the music landscape.

One of the creators of rock’n’roll, and by far the biggest-selling rhythm & blues artist of the 1950s, his originality was such that these labels don’t quite fit him. Nor was he anything so flimsy as pop, yet his records often crossed onto the pop charts, so that while he was crucial in breaking down the musical color barrier, he was too mainstream and popular to retain credibility as a blues singer. He brought a new, heavy back-beat to white ears, yet trailed old-fashioned jazz-band habits behind him. Out in his own uncategorisable stratosphere, Fats Domino sold astonishing quantities of records much loved by blacks and whites alike, until that point in the 1960s when a new black consciousness rejected all the pre-soul stars, and white consciousness shied away from hit-singles artists and the suddenly embarrassing, unhip simplicities of 1950s music. Fats seemed further away in 1970 than he does now.

In the classic photos, Fats Domino’s head is a perfect cube, thanks in part to his trademark flat-top haircut. This, unique to Domino in the 1950s, became fashionable among young black males in the US and UK thirty years later. (In Chronicles Volume One, Dylan, describing how he envisages some future rap star rising to artistic greatness, writes that it will be someone ‘with a chopped topped head’.) In Guy Peellaert & Nik Cohn’s book Rock Dreams, Domino is painted at home, in a pink stage suit but grinning into the casserole his tired wife Rose Mary is stirring. His eight smiling children surround him, and Fats is saying ‘Clean living keeps me in shape... and New Orleans home cooking.’

He never was master of the bon mot, but he was one of the few true giants of post-war American popular music. No-one sounded like him, yet when you ask who he influenced, the answer is everyone.

The second number he ever recorded was ‘The Fat Man’ (named after a radio detective), which sold 800,000 in the black market and gave the 22-year-old the first of his many Gold Discs. In 1955 came ‘Ain’t It A Shame’ (aka ‘Ain’t That A Shame’): and though Pat Boone’s cover topped the pop charts, Fats’ original chased it, the blackest sound that had ever hit the Hot 100, and the no.1 R&B side for eleven weeks.

So great was his reach that it was he who taught white pop fans about idiosyncratic flexibility in lyrics - particularly in rhymes - through odd emphasis (later a Dylan trick) and odd pronunciation. These were specific lessons Dylan must have picked up from Fats Domino.
In his ‘Good Hearted Man’ (1961) he manages, by his accent and his disregard for consonants, to make the word ‘man’ rhyme with ‘ashamed’: no mean feat. Dylan not only walks this forward so that in 1965’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ he can rhyme ‘hers’ with a laughing ‘yours!’ but then runs with it to score a previously undreamt-of goal by rhyming ‘January’ with ‘Buenos Aires’ in 1981’s ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar’.

In 1961 Fats Domuno issued a record called ‘Rockin’ Bicycle’ - but, delightfully, he sang it as ‘Rockin’ Bi-sic­­-l’, and its lyrics included nifty formulations like ‘If we don’t be in front we’ll be right behind’, and ‘Let ’em take the bus / ’n’ leave the ’sic-l to us.’ There’s plenty of evidence in Dylan’s work of this Domino oddity of emphasis, too: as for instance, in ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, to achieve the rhyme of ‘half-sick’ with ‘traffic’. In ‘Jokerman’, in the 1980s, when Dylan comes to rhyme ‘scarlet’ with ‘harlot’, well, any other white person would do it straight - would maximise the rhyme by sounding both as ‘-arlutt’. Dylan sings ‘scarlett’ and then snatches a full rhyme by singing ‘harlett’ to match!

Domino also comes up, maybe accidentally, with the pathetic use of bathos, which again is something that Dylan has used. ‘Fell In Love On Monday’ (1960) includes this hilarious couplet: ‘Her hands, were soft, as cotton / Her face, could never, be forgotten.’

All these winsome characteristics can be found in abundance in this great artist’s earlier work too: on the big hits like ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Blueberry Hill’ (which Domino didn’t write but makes utterly his own), ‘I Hear You Knockin’’ and ‘My Blue Heaven’ (or as Fats has it, ‘Mah, Blee-oo, Heavon’). Of course, all these things were in the great tradition of idiosyncratic pronunciation exemplified in black song from the beginning of time, but we encountered them first from Fats Domino.

GLEN DUNDAS’ Tangled Up In Tapes Revisited, 1990, says that Fats Domino’s early ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’ (so early - the start of the 1950s - that his voice was an octave higher than later on) was among the songs Dylan rehearsed in Woodstock in September 1965. Decades later - 3 Aug 1988 - Dylan ventured a very Fats Dominoid version of ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ in concert in Hollywood. It also emerged in the 1990s that Dylan sang the same song on the Basement Tapes in 1967.

Then with Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, which echoes many records of the period in which Fats Domino was in his pomp, it’s natural that we should encounter Fats himself once more. The first vocal remark of the album, ‘I’m walkin’’, is the title of one of Domino’s greatest hits. Of course it’s also a very anonymous remark, but that doesn’t stop us remembering that Fats Domino whispers behind Bob Dylan many times down the years. It’s impossible that Dylan should sing that phrase without being conscious of its Fats connection. Especially since one of the spiritual homes of Dylan’s album is New Orleans, which would not be the same place without Fats Domino, the most famous epitomiser and greatest populariser of New Orleans R&B. Everyone knows too that all his classic and hit recordings were made there and he names this, his hometown, in his lyrics - not least in the case of his big 1960 hit ‘Walking To New Orleans’. In Dylan’s line ‘I’m goin’ down the river, down to New Orleans’, then, it is hard not to hear an allusion to Domino’s early classic ‘Going To The River’.

Elsewhere on Time Out Of Mind we encounter the Domino title ‘Sometimes I Wonder’, and the allusion that seems the most subtle yet the most certain: namely, the line from ‘’Til I Fell In Love With You’ where he sings that he’s ‘thinkin’ about that girl who won’t be back no’ mo’.’ This ‘who won’t be back no’ mo’’ echoes in every way - the attractively bouncy distribution of the syllables, the accent on that ‘no’ mo’’, the mournful tone, as well as the words themselves: all these recreate Fats Domino’s singing about the girl who ‘won’t be back no’ mo’’ - and left a note to say so - in another 1960 hit song ‘It Keeps Rainin’’. One of the girls Dylan is thinkin’ about who won’t be back no mo’ cannot but be the one on Fats Domino’s great record. And you can bet that her hands were soft as cotton.

At Brixton Academy, London, on November 23, 2005, Dylan unexpectedly performed Fats’ hit ‘Blue Monday’, three months after Fats’ home was one of those destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Fats had always lived in the badly-hit 9th Ward, and was himself thought missing for some days. He was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter.

Moved by the widespread expression of concern for his welfare, he responded by making a new album, Alive and Kickin’, donating its proceeds to the Tipitina’s Foundation, dedicated to preserving and restoring New Orleans’ musical culture. The title track of the album offers as endearingly simple, as faux-clumsily direct a lyric as any of Fats’ classics, opening like so: “All over the country, people wanna know / Whatever happened to Fats Domino? /… I’m alive and kickin’”.

(A follow-up fund-raising album, a tribute to Fats by various artists, including Dr. John, NORAH JONES, B.B. King, WILLIE NELSON, Randy Newman, Irma Thomas, TAJ MAHAL, TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS, Toots & the Maytals and NEIL YOUNG, was released in late 2007. There was no contribution from Bob Dylan.)

[Fats Domino: ‘The Fat Man’, New Orleans, 10 Dec, 1949, Imperial 5058, LA, 1950; ‘Ain’t It A Shame’, NO, Feb 1955, Imperial 5348, 1955; ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ c/w ‘Good Hearted Man’, NO, May 1961, Imperial 5764 (London-American HLP 9415, London), 1961; ‘What A Party’ c/w ‘Rockin’ Bicycle’, NO, Aug 1961, Imperial 5779, (London-American HLP 9456), 1961; ‘Fell In Love On Monday’, NO, Dec 1960, Imperial 5734, 1961; ‘Blue Monday’, NO, Feb 1955, Imperial 5417, 1955; ‘Blueberry Hill’, LA, Jul 1956, Imperial 5407, 1956; ‘I Hear You Knockin’’, NO, 4 Nov 1958, Imperial 5796; ‘My Blue Heaven’, NO, Dec 1955, Imperial 5386, 1956; ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’, NO, 18 Apr 1953, Imperial 5240, 1953; ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ c/w ‘I’m Walking’, both NO, 3 Jan 1957, Imperial 5428, (London American HLP 8407), 1957; ‘Walking To New Orleans’, NO, Apr 1960, Imperial 5675, 1960; ‘Going To The River’, NO, Dec 1952, Imperial 5231, 1953; ‘Sometimes I Wonder’, NO, Feb 1951, Imperial 5123, 1952; ‘It Keeps Rainin’’, NO, Dec 1960, Imperial 5753, 1961. The Imperial sides are all CD-reissued in the $200 8-CD box-set Out Of New Orleans, Bear Family BCD 15541, Vollersode, Germany, 1993. Beware cheap imitations.
There is one fine post-Imperial Domino LP, the self-produced Sleeping On The Job, NO, 1978, Conmedia, Germany (Sonet SNTF 793, London), 1979, plus the less gutsy but welcome Alive and Kickin’, nia, US, 2006. Various Artists: Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino, Vanguard, US, 2007.
Dylan quoted from Chronicles Volume One, p.219.]

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Just in case you're interested, I've put one more (for the time being the last) Dylan artefact up for sale on eBay. It's a CBS Records promo copy of the 'Lenny Bruce' single, and it's here, and here:

Thursday, February 07, 2008


If everything goes to schedule and plan, we'll be moving house at the end of this month. The prospect has made me realise with some trepidation just how vast the amount of paperwork is that has accumulated around me. Time to discard many things of little value but also a good time to sell a couple of things that are of value. The item that may be of most interest is my copy of the Newport Folk Festival Program[me] for 1965. Having no idea whatever what it's worth, I've put this up for auction on eBay here.

Monday, February 04, 2008


Barry Beckett, who co-produced Slow Train Coming and Saved with Jerry Wexler, is 65 today. Here's his entry from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Beckett, Barry [1943 - ]
Barry Beckett was born in Birmingham, Alabama on February 4, 1943. He started his musical life as a pianist for a dancing school, but moved on to become a keyboards session player and eventually a record producer. He first became involved with Rick Hall’s Fame studio, on a session for James & Bobby Purify, and then replaced SPOONER OLDHAM in the Muscle Shoals band. He co-produced Mel & Tim and his later production credits include work with JOAN BAEZ, Joe Cocker, Etta James, JOHN PRINE, Delbert McClinton, Alabama, the Staples Singers and McGUINN-Hillman.

Beckett was co-producing with JERRY WEXLER when, in 1979, Dylan called on Wexler to produce the Slow Train Coming sessions in the Muscle Shoals studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Beckett not only co-produced the album but played piano and organ throughout.

He did not go on the road as a gospel tours musician behind Dylan, but he was back in the studio with him in February 1980 to co-produce, again with Wexler, the album Saved, on which he was replaced on keyboards by Spooner Oldham and TERRY YOUNG after the session of February 12, 1980 and so does not play on ‘Saving Grace’, ‘Pressing On’, ‘In The Garden’, ‘Are You Ready?’ or ‘Covenant Woman’, but does play on the album’s title track and on ‘Solid Rock’, ‘What Can I Do For You?’ and ‘Satisfied Mind’. On the album liner notes Beckett is billed as co-producer and as ‘special guest artist’.

In 1985 Beckett moved to Nashville, working with Warner Brothers’ A&R department before running an independent production company. He is also a partner in BTM Records. He has never worked with Dylan again since the Saved sessions.

Friday, February 01, 2008


There have been some very interesting e-mails bouncing my way - some forwarded to me, some addressed to me - by people either enthusing about, or ranting against, Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There. I've now received permission from all the writers of the excerpts given here to quote them.

The first came to me from Neil Corcoran, after he'd been very surprised to read my largely favourable review of the film in Sight & Sound. This was what he thought of the film:

"I think it's pretty bad. Blanchett wonderful imitation but totally pointless; Gere material unspeakably pretentious and pointless; the young black guy material sentimental and pointless (and he can't act); the film buff intertexts self-regarding and pointless, most notably the Richard Lester bit; the play with Dylan materials an invitation to knowingness and snobbery, and pointless; the Mr Jones stuff really bad video (and the self-cruising, if that's what it was, crass); the interweaving of the whole thing uninterpretable and pointless. Plus, I was actually very BORED much of the time. Useless and pointless knowledge."

Terry Kelly weighed in on that side too:
"I thought I'm Not There was a big nothing of a movie really; simply a cut-and-paste series of Bob references; a chronologically fluid cinematic tableaux, full of sound and fury, signifying very little more than a cultural tick-box. The Dylan biographical deck could have been shuffled any which way and Todd Haynes could have come up with something similar. Humourless and utterly predictable, when not arch and plain corny (Pete Seeger at Newport with - yes, you've guessed it - an axe; amphetamine, vomitific Bob insulting Edie; a drunken Dylan at the Tom Paine awards; etc etc).

Cate Blanchett is the closest 'impersonation' of Dylan, but even her performance quickly grows tiresome, with her conventional mimicking of the 1966 eye-rubbing and shade-wearing speed freak. But some of the other performances are truly cringeworthy. And most of the script is a patchwork quilt of lifted quotes from the Dylan canon. (But I could have second-guessed which quotes would have been used before seeing the movie). To be honest, most of I'm Not There felt like a well-meaning Idiot's Guide to Bob Dylan.

It didn't move or inspire me and the only scenes I found bearable - despite widespread criticism - were the less frenetic backwoods sequences with Richard Gere, particularly the carnivaleque performance of 'Goin' to Acapulco', which at least gestured towards some kind of emotional resonance. I'm Not There failed because it wasn't really experimental at all. The movie bore all the hallmarks of hyperactive Bob Dylan zealotry, with Haynes keen to share his referential grab bag with all and sundry. But none of the disparate parts coalesced into anything even approaching cinematic insight. A hollow victory of style over substance, lacking an emotional core, I'm Not There ultimately left me completely disinterested."

(Terry and I will have to disagree about his use of the word "disinterested" there...)

Then Robert Forryan, who hadn't read either of the above, sent this opinion independently to another friend:

"I was hooked from the opening credits/sequence when 'Stuck Inside of Mobile' came on. I found the whole thing terribly moving - not what I'd expected at all. I'd thought it was going to be very arty and clever-clever but instead I found it utterly emotional. Not like me at all. It created an overwhelming sense of loss, of times past. Perhaps it's my age. I could feel tears trying to break through though I held them back. Just the soundtrack was enough - so many of my favourite songs and they were mostly performed by Dylan which also I hadn't expected. There were flaws and I didn't like Bale much but nothing to spoil the whole. I loved it. Loved the images, the music, the allusions, the characters - each one someone else and not Dylan at all.

And right at the end - just before we get a snatch of the real 66 Dylan on harmonica - there is a view of people milling around outside a building. I was there. It is from Eat The Document and it is outside the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, 15 May 1966. It capped a wonderful afternoon.

And at the end, when Richard Gere says goodbye to the dog I could've cried. It was like Old Shep or Old Yeller all over again."

Finally, Roy Kelly was having none of that...:

"I couldn’t honestly see the point of it. If you were a film fan with no Bob interest, but wanted to follow the Todd Haynes career, what would you make of it? As a film narrative it was entirely incoherent, only held together by people who would know and recognise the quotes he used. Often though they were inaccurate or altered to make some point he presumably had in mind but which didn’t come up on screen. It functioned just like those clunky series I saw last year on Channel 5 about The Sixties, where everything is a cartoon and falsified and the sense of history is simply taken from headlines and caricatures that were wrong at the time anyway. In the end it was simply a chopped up biopic trying to make a virtue of not having Bob look alikes by claiming they were other named aspects of his personality, but then mocking up Bob albums and clothing and all of that flapdoodle until the only sensible reaction is: What point is he trying to make? What logic is informing the way this is put together? Knowing too that there will be an all-purpose get out in that it’s about the mystery alluded to at various times. Only the presence of Bob on the soundtrack made it worthwhile being there. I was struck by how much his voice made a difference. Christian Bale was miming to someone else I noticed at the end, Mason Jennings, never heard of him, and it reduced 'Hattie Carroll' to some Playalong ditty. Whereas when Bob came in with 'Idiot Wind' it focused on what we’ve said endlessly: the sound and timbre of his voice is what gives the songs meaning.

I think what I resented most was the way it promulgated all the layers of wrong-headedness it was supposed to be excoriating, if you could say he had any identifiable purpose at all. The Newport scene was the reduction ad absurdum of that. According to Joe Boyd, who was there, none of that is true, but hearsay and exaggeration play better. When 'Idiot Wind' reached the lines about images and distorted facts I thought that would be the ideal review headline. All he’s done is read all the stuff we’ve read and mixed it up all over the place. The core of the film is the Blanchett sequences, but they don’t sit at all well with anything else. Why spend so much time on a story featuring an imagined actor who is suppose to have played the imagined Bob person in a film, and give him a broken romance story. The reason, it seemed to me, was so that Haynes could film in an apartment in an imaginative way. And those colours and décor were the parts of the film where I felt he was really engaged, along with the landscapes. The washing up was more interesting than poor, wasted Ben Wishaw, and Christian Bale has an unsympathetic face and a ridiculous Method mumble. All of the pastiche filming of Sixties styles were as annoying as the pastiche things the Bob stand-ins and Joan stand-in had to say. Everything, everything else, is like a school play production told to re-enact what they think the Sixties meant if Bob Dylan had to be the thread. The Gere scenes make no sense at all in any context, and worse, look silly. As do all the instances where people enact or quote lines from songs. 'Pack up the meat sweet', indeed. Anyone who knows Bob’s lines or interviews is just going to get nettled by the continuing misuse, and anyone who doesn’t is going to have nothing else to hold their attention.

I felt that what kept me from being bored was being irritated, and a vague hope that something good would come out of it. It was lovely to hear 'I’m Not There' itself, but then that gets faded for dialogue. I was surprised that so little of the soundtrack covers album appears in the film, but glad that there was so much real Bob. It was the only thing that kept me going. Some people want to see it again, or went to see it again, but I think I’d want paying to sit through it twice. I could feel myself dying in there."

This is such an abyss of a divide of opinion - it makes it fascinating. Anyone else with strong views? More unusually, anyone with mild views??