According to Steven Van Zandt, the two most important sentences in the history of rock ‘n’ roll are from Bob Dylan’s 1965 single, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement thinking about the government.”
The second of these lines, Van Zandt writes in his new memoir “Unrequited Infatuations” (which I review here), “changed everything forever.” Dylan saying he was thinking not about love and sex but the government was “The Big Bang of political consciousness in Pop.” Combined with other breakthroughs by The Beatles, The Rollings Stones, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and The Who, this led to “the new Artform of Rock,” Van Zandt writes.
Dylan himself is a recurring character in the memoir. Van Zandt writes about getting him to sing on his all-star “Sun City” protest song, and about being asked to produce “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” in 1985. He didn’t end up getting producing credit, but did play on the the version that was included on Dylan’s 1991 boxed set, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. In “Unrequited Infatuations,” he writes that he believes that “(Dylan’s) vocal performance (on that version) was spectacular, his greatest at least since ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ and arguably since Blonde on Blonde.” You can listen to it below.
Two more versions of this song, both previously unreleased and both featuring Van Zandt, are included on the Dylan boxed set that was released just 10 days ago, Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15, 1980-1985.
Van Zandt also writes in “Unrequited Infatuations” about Dylan considering using him as a producer a few years later. He went to a rehearsal, and Dylan and a bunch of musicians Van Zandt didn’t know (“West Coast guys,” he writes) were playing classic rock songs such as The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”
Van Zandt wrote that he told Dylan, “Unless you’re planning on playing somebody’s bar mitzvah, you cannot do these songs.” Then he he made the following suggestion: “How about you go back to your roots? The Carter Family, the Seegers, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, whatever. It’ll have real value. It’s where you come from, and you’ll be keeping that tradition alive.”
Van Zandt writes that Dylan told him he’d think about it. And Dylan’s next two albums, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, ended up featuring folk and blues covers.
Another intriguing encounter Van Zandt writes about was in 1999. “The Sopranos” had launched a few months earlier, and Van Zandt was on tour with the E Street Band in Europe. On a night off, he and Nils Lofgren went to see a Dylan concert in Zurich, and Dylan invited both of them onstage. Nothing was rehearsed.
With the crowd going nuts, Dylan walked over to him and started chatting about the “The Sopranos.” “Hey, I saw you on TV! … Oh, man. You were wearing a wig! … Man, I wasn’t sure it was you!,” Van Zandt remembers him saying.
Van Zandt suggested they continue talking about it later. “We played ‘Not Fade Away’ and never did finish the conversation,” Van Zandt writes. “Always memorable seeing Mr. Dylan.”
You can watch that “Not Fade Away” below.
Dylan, by the way, wrote a blurb — an unusually long blurb, I should add — for the book. He writes:
In the New Jersey state of mind somewhere between Bruce Springsteen Stadium and The Bon Jovi Arena is a little known street called Little Steven Boulevard with hundreds of endless souvenir shops, gift stores all associated with Little Steven the Consigliere, all top level stuff, the gangster memorabilia, Little Steven wallets and handbags, bandanas and head scarfs, Little Steven glassware and coffee mugs, Little Steven flags, key chains, stickers and patches, pens and guitar picks, cardboard stand-up cut outs of Little Steven, jigsaw puzzles and buttons. You can spend a fortune on the street, listen to every song he ever played on and watch every television show that he’s made, visit the underground garage and also enroll in the Little Stevie’s underground college. It’s all there, a lot of copies of this book as well. And just like one of Stevie’s favorite songs, this book keeps you hanging on and checks all the boxes …
This indeed is a cautionary tale filled with outrageous humor, worldly wisdom, and an uncanny sense of daring. No doubt about it, Stevie proves it time and time again he’s the man to know.
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