Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Day Bob Dylan Played
"George Jackson" Live

John Prine, Steve Goodman

Bob Dylan didn't perform at any dates of his own in 1971. He played short sets at the two Bangla Desh benefit concerts, went almost unrecognized as a sideman for an Allen Ginsberg TV performance, and dropped in at the Band's New Year's show at year's end (probably after midnight). But he also played informally on a few other occasions, mostly unnoticed (or misreported) in the standard Dylan chronicles.
Two of these apparently took place on November 4, 1971, the day Dylan went into Columbia's Studio B in Manhattan and recorded his just-written "George Jackson." One of these, a short harmonica-and-backing-vocals walk-on with John Prine is fairly well-known, but usually (and quite inaccurately) reported as taking place a year or two later. Both Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray report it as a September 9, 1972 performance; Robert Shelton had it in 1973; and none of them could identify the first of the three songs Dylan played on. Let's clear that up now.

Prine and his fellow Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman came to Manhattan in the fall of 1971 for a showcase gig at the Bitter End, opening on November 3. Prine's debut album was about to hit the stores, while Goodman's had appeared a few months earlier. Billboard reviewed the stint in its November 20, 1971 issue, with comments that they might have applied to Dylan a decade earlier: "Prine is an essentially functional singer who throws away his songs in a deceptively offhand, head-scratching manner. His songs though are exceptional, enabling him to put across some strong ideas in a simple format often taking refuge in humor." (Unfortunately, the anonymous reviewer identified him as "Tom" Prine.) The New York Times review on November 5 noted a heavy Dylan influence, and declared him "a cut above the new generation of folksingers." It got his name right, too.

"I played my first gig ever outside of Chicago," Prine remembered in 1981. "I needed a harmonica player. I asked if there was anyone around.  Now, this is only my second night, and Dylan comes up.  He had brought a harmonica and learned the words to all the choruses of my songs.  I introduced Dylan and about two people were clapping.  No one believed it. They thought Dylan was either dead or on Mount Fuji." Dylan played harp and sang backing vocals on three Prine compositions: "Far From Me," "Donald and Lydia." and "Sam Stone." 

When Dylan leaves the Bitter End, he returns to Columbia Studio B for a post-midnight session to finish work on "George Jackson," which required more than a dozen takes to complete. It's often reported that he also recorded a cover of Prine's "Donald and Lydia" at one of the day's sessions.

Dylan turned up for Prine's second set of the evening.  There's a pretty nice tape floating around of Prine's first set. The late show apparently went unrecorded.

How did Dylan know Prine's songs?  Prine had been signed to Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler, driven by a strong recommendation by Kris Kristofferson. The enthusiastic Wexler sent Dylan an advance copy of Prine's first LP earlier in the fall.

But there was a second, quite informal, live performance by Dylan that day. Earlier in the day, at the rather unDylanesque hour of 10am, he went into the Columbia studios and recorded "Wallflower" and his first efforts at "George Jackson." That session broke around lunchtime, and, it seems, Dylan left for . . . Carly Simon's Greenwich Village apartment.

Simon wasn't there, but Kris Kristofferson was. Kristofferson had invited Prine and Goodman over for the afternoon, promising "a surprise for you guys." As Prine remembered things a few years ago, "There’s a knock on the door and in walks Bob Dylan." The four soon begin passing Kristofferson's (or perhaps Simon's) guitar around, playing their recent songs. When it reaches Dylan, he plays "George Jackson." When he finishes, in Prine's words, "Goodman looked him dead in the eye and took the guitar from him," saying "That’s great, Bob. It’s no 'Masters of War,' though. Man, I’ll tell you. It’s no 'Masters of War.'"

Dylan was "taken aback," but receives Goodman's jibe in good humor. He surprises Prine by singing along as Prine plays "Far From Me." When the guitar comes back to him, he plays "Wallflower." The quartet soon turns to running through Hank Williams songs. When they finish, as the sun sets in the late afternoon, Goodman needs to visit a nearby guitar shop, and Dylan takes him there on his motorcycle.

So, to put the day in more chronological order: 10 am - 1pm, 1st George Jackson session. Afternoon, informal musicmaking with Prine, Goodman, and Kristofferson. Night, guest spot with Prine at the Bitter End. 2-6am, 2nd George Jackson session. A rather interesting 20-hour stretch.

Note on the chronology: I've pieced this together from several sources, and none of them (except the session records) give any specific, accurate date. But Prine was quite specific about Dylan showing up on the second night of his Bitter End gig. The Times reported that Prine opened on November 3, 1971. The Columbia session records then frame the day neatly.


Cas said...

Another excellent piece of writing. Thanks for bringing back life in another of Dylan's interims which were inaccurately covered or put to death in all the biographies.

Dull Tool Dim Bulb said...

Thank you! A wonderful post, and as you can see from the link, one of my favorite (and one of the most ignored)
Dylan compositions. Also one of the most important.

Jim Linderman
Dull Tool Dim Bulb