Saturday Single No. 496

Here, edited slightly, is one of this blog’s earliest posts, originally offered here on February 5, 2007:

When I was a kid, the man across the alley – Leo Rau—was a jobber. That’s what my dad said he was. I didn’t know what a jobber was, but from what I could see of Mr. Rau’s work life, it was probably a lot of fun: In the Raus’ garage were boxes of candy and cases of cigarettes, and boxes and boxes of 45 rpm records.

What being a jobber meant, of course, was that Leo Rau had a chain of vending machines that he kept filled with the good stuff of life: Snickers, Nut Rolls and Juicy Fruit gum among the candy; Camels, Winstons and Herbert Tareytons among the cigarettes, and performers such as Sandy Posey, Petula Clark and Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass on the records destined for juke boxes in the St. Cloud area.

As I headed into my teens, being across the alley from the Raus seemed like a pretty good deal. Steve Rau, who was a few years older than I was, decided one day to get rid of his comic book collection, and gave it to me: Lots of Jughead and Archie, some war comics (stories of World War II, which was just more than twenty years past), and comics based on television shows of the mid-1950s, which I didn’t recall at all. It was a treasure trove.

And on several occasions, Mr. Rau passed on to me a box of 45 rpm records. I don’t recall everything he gave to me; I know one of them was Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” because I still have it. Another was the subject of this little piece, ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” by Bob Dylan and The Band, released as the B-side to Dylan’s” I Want You” (Columbia 43683). There are a few others that Mr. Rau gave me that have survived the forty years since I was thirteen.

And it’s remarkable that any of them survived. You see, at thirteen, I was distinctly unhip. I did not listen to Top 40 radio. I had only a few LPs and no singles to speak of in my record collection. And I didn’t listen to the records Mr. Rau gave me – I used them for target practice with my BB gun.

I cringe. I have no idea how many 45s I aimed and shot at, punching neat little holes in the grooves. Maybe a hundred. A lot of the records Mr. Rau gave me were country & western, a genre that was far less cool (and far more real and gritty) than country music is today. I remember a lot of Sandy Posey, Sonny James and Buck Owens, records that it would be nice to have today. But I know a good share of the records that met my BBs were pop and rock, simply because of the two for sure that I know survived: the Procol Harum and the Dylan. And it’s knowing how close I came to destroying the Dylan record that makes me shake my head in something near disbelief.

Here’s what Dave Marsh said about the record in his “Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made,” where he ranked the B-side at No. 243.

“If you liked the jingly folk-rock of ‘I Want You’ enough to run out and buy the single without waiting for the album (which only turned out to be Blonde on Blonde), you got the surprise of your life: A B side taken from Dylan’s recent European tour on which and a rock band (which only turned out to be The Band) did things to ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ a song from Highway 61 Revisited, that it’s still risky to talk about in broad daylight.”

Marsh continues: “Rock critics like to make a big deal about B sides but there are only maybe a dozen great ones in the whole history of singles. This one’s rank is indisputable, though, because it offers something that wasn’t legally available until the early Seventies: a recorded glimpse of Dylan’s onstage prowess. ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ came out before anybody ever thought of bootlegging rock shows, before anybody this side of Jimi Hendrix quite understood Dylan as a great rock and roll stage performer. And so this vicious, majestic music, hidden away in the most obscure place he could think of putting it, struck with amazing force.”

The group behind Dylan wasn’t exactly The Band: The drummer for the European tour was Mickey Jones. Levon Helm had become fed up with performing in front of angry and jeering crowds who wanted to hear Bob Dylan the folksinger and were being presented with Bob Dylan the rock and roll performer. He’d gone back to Arkansas and wouldn’t reunite with the other four members of what became The Band until after the tour, when he joined them and Dylan in Woodstock (where the six of them began recording the music later released as The Basement Tapes and where The Band began work on its debut, Music From Big Pink.)

The version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that so entrances Marsh was recorded in Liverpool, England, on May 14, 1966, just three days before the so-called “Albert Hall” concert, which actually took place at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester (and was released in 1998 as The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966).

I look at the fragile 45 that survived my BB gun and shake my head. It’s undeniably a treasure, but it didn’t survive because I knew that. It didn’t survive when so many other records were splintered by BBs because it was by Bob Dylan. As unhip as I was at the ages of twelve and thirteen, I had no real good idea who Bob Dylan was; that awareness would take at least another four to five years. It was an accident, pure and simple, that I never looked past the sights of my BB rifle at the Dylan record – a happy accident, to be sure. Historically, the sounds on the record are priceless; musically, they’re astounding.

Dave Marsh sums up his comments about the record: “Today it sounds like the reapings of a whirwind, Dylan’s voice as draggy, druggy and droogy as the surreal Mexican beatnik escapade he’s recounting, Robbie Robertson carving dense mathematical figures on guitar, Garth Hudson working pure hoodoo on organ. Slurred and obtuse as Little Richard reading Ezra Pound, there’s a magnificence here so great that, if you had to, you could make the case for rock and roll as a species of art using this record and nothing else.”

The riddle I find is this: The label on the 45 from 1966 says clearly “Recorded in Liverpool, England,” and the date of that show was May 14, 1966. And the Live 1966 “official bootleg” set released in 1998, says just as clearly that everything in the set was recorded in Manchester three days later. But the video below from the Live 1966 set sounds the same as my B-side.

So is it Liverpool or Manchester? I don’t know, but because the first recording date that I saw for that singular B-side was fifty years ago today, the supposed Liverpool performance of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” by Bob Dylan (and most of The Band), is today’s Saturday Single.

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