Oh, Johnny


Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

Primarily known as an actor (Bloodline, Mud, Cold in JulyDays of HeavenThe Right Stuff, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for his embodiment of test pilot cool) and playwright (True WestBuried Child, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, Fool for Love, for which he won one of his many Obie Awards), Sam Shepard had a long relationship with rock ‘n’ roll. He sometimes played drums and/or percussion for the lower east side 1960s New York psychedelic folk band Holy Modal Rounders, here featured in Easy Rider:

In the early ’70s, he collaborated with Patti Smith on the play Cowboy Mouth. Their relationship is featured prominently in her National Book Award winning memoir Just Kids.

Nominally, the playwright co-wrote the largely improvised film Renaldo and Clara shot by Bob Dylan during his 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder Revue. Shepard also published The Rolling Thunder Logbook chronicling his  experience of the tour. A decade later, Shepard co-wrote a song with Dylan:

In 2007, Shepard again collaborated with Patti Smith, playing banjo on her cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

A Hard Rain Falling in Stockholm

A clearly awe-struck and occasionally stumbling, but all the more affecting for it, Patti Smith performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in her best nasal, twangy imitation of its writer during the ceremony honoring Bob Dylan‘s being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature:

In his acceptance speech, literally sent in and read at the later banquet by the United States ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, the ever elusive Dylan addressed, but ultimately nimbly sidestepped the question of whether his songs, his lyrics, qualify as literature:

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan

ps — What the hell were those wrinkled pink blobs on top of the four columns in front of the orchestra? They looked like the brains of former Nobel laureates — are smarter brains more tasty to zombies?

* Thanks to Vicky, Tracy and Thom for all sending me links to Smith’s performance to make sure I had not missed it.

On My Way to Life on Mars

In 1968, Claude François had a big hit in France with “Comme d’habitude”:

Paul Anka* liked the tune so much he bought the American publishing and recording rights. Perhaps more important, he acquired the adaptation rights so he could strip the original lyrics and write new ones for Frank Sinatra to sing over a slightly changed melody:

Meanwhile in the U.K., a young, pre-stardom David Bowie was asked by his music publisher to translate the French lyrics to English. As he laughed on VH1 Storytellers, he failed miserably. However, he later adapted the tune for his own song, “Life on Mars” (the clip is cued to Bowie telling his story, but it is worth going back to the beginning to hear him sing it) . . .

. . . which he notes was later covered by, Barbra Streisand, not very well in his estimation. I’ve got to agree, but judge for yourself:

The song later lent the title to the British crime/sci-fi show Life on Mars . . .

. . . and its American adaptation, . . .

. . . but was not the opening theme for either. I guess they felt it was more important to explain and/or remind viewers of the show’s convoluted concept each week.  (The song did appear on the show’s UK soundtrack album and another Bowie song provided the title for the show’s U.K. sequel, Ashes to Ashes.)

“Life on Mars” was one of several songs sung by Jessica Lange in season four of American Horror Story. Her German character, Elsa Mars, gave it a very Kurt Weill, Weimar cabaret sound:

(She also sang Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” another song associated with Sinatra.)

“Life on Mars” appeared more recently in the “god-awful small affair,” HBO’s Vinyl. Although sung by black Trey Songz, it was lip synced by white Douglas Smith, . . .

. . . just one of so many things wrong with this show.

* If you are at all interested in Paul Anka, or early ’60s teen idols in general, I highly recommend seeing the short documentary Lonely Boy. Peter Watkins consulted it while making the film Privilege, a fascinating fictional, Marxist take on the ’60s rock scene that I’ve always felt must have inspired Bowie. Patti Smith later sang the movie’s theme on Easter.

note — I must give Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie credit for reminding me of the origin of Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”

Patti Smith Covers Debby Boone

The Talkhouse does not just feature the usual album reviews (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Instead, it is a forum for musicians to write about the works of their peers, who sometimes respond.  While the reviews do tend to lean towards mutual admiration, they often serve up unique insights.  For instance, shortly before he died, Lou Reed wrote a rave for Kanye West’s Yeezus.

The site also occasionally offers think piece like this one about the recent spike in covers albums, written by Jonathan Meiburg, whose band Shearwater just released one.  But I want to pick up on this passing comment of his that stopped me in my tracks:

And remember that link you sent me of Patti Smith doing a really earnest version of ‘You Light Up My Life’ on that kids’ show from the ’70s?  I loved that.  Even (maybe especially) when she forgets the words at the end.”

Wait, what?

Turns out Patti Smith appeared on the June 24, 1979, episode of Kids Are People, Too, a Sunday morning children’s TV show.  She answered questions from the audience and then, instead of singing a song from her just released album, Wave, she sang “You Light Up My Life,” accompanied by Joe Brooks, who won a Grammy, Golden Globe, ASCAP and Academy Award for writing it, the biggest hit of the 1970s: