Chapter 12. What Good Am I? (Richie Havens, Bob Dylan,and Eric Andersen)

The death of Richie Havens and the release of Bob Dylan’s 1970 recording of Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” reminds us that Dylan was no genius anomaly, but part of a scene that included many singers and writers who were as passionate and articulate as himself, and that many of these people were his friends and accomplices. When Dylan’s career went into warp speed, there was a lot of jealousy spewing from  the Greenwich village crowd, especially among those who somewhat rightfully complained, “It should have been me.” Dave Van Ronk had the truest answer to these claims, when he replied, “That may be so, but you didn’t write Hard Rain, and you didn’t write it first.”

I was surprised to hear that Dylan had recorded a song by Eric Andersen for his “Self Portrait” album, and even more surprised to hear that song was ”Thirsty Boots,” as it had been inspired in no small degree by Phil Ochs, who prodded him to finish it after hearing the first verse in a New York Subway. That album, though, was bursting with the music that had  played a part in forming his own musical palette, and ”Thirsty Boots” would have nicely into the mix, right alongside “Early Morning Rain” and ”The Boxer.”

Another thing we tend to forget is that Dylan’s early success was due to the proliferation of recordings of his songs by other artists, beginning with the Peter, Paul, and Mary hits and continuing into the electric era, when everyone from  Jimi Hendrix  to Dino, Desi, and Billy was covering “Like a Rolling Stone.”  And after the 1966 World tour, the Basement Tapes were written and recorded with the primary aim of getting the songs cut by popular artists.  Most writers fail in their attempts at solo careers, and depend upon established stars to get their material into the marketplace. While it is relatively easy for people to write for themselves, it can be a bitch writing for others. And you’ve got to be a pushy son of a bitch to get anywhere.

Dylan had a lot of help from his manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed Peter, Paul, and Mary, and was slicing the pie in all directions by taking a piece of the publishing along with a percentage of artist royalties. But even with a pushy bastard like Grossman doing his legwork, Dylan had to write the songs that everybody wanted to record because they wished they had written the songs themselves. Even more, they had to feel as if they had written it; that was their song.  And that is how, to this day, millions of amateur musicians the world over feel when they pick up a guitar and open the Bob Dylan Songbook.

“Chimes of Freedom,” the 3-CD compilation of Dylan covers, is a testament to the continuing relevance of the Dylan legacy.  That a varied group of contemporary artists is moved to such unexpected interpretations ensures a future in which Dylan’s songs are proof that his music will withstand the many ways in which time will change it.

But back to where it started. Although Richie Havens had been on the scene in Greenwich Village since the beatnik era, he wasn’t part of the early sixties’ folk revival. Since he didn’t put out his first record until 1967, he was neither a threat to Dylan nor was he threatened by him. It is strange to find that he was only one year older than Dylan, as seemed like an old soul from the beginning, where Dylan was just a kid. At Woodstock, he looks and sounds like a toothless African sage, but was only 29 years old.

His first album, Mixed Bag, came out in 1967 and contains one of the first versions of a Dylan song to rival the original, a soulful and heartbreaking version of “Just Like a Woman.”  Twenty years later, his recording of “License to Kill” shows that was one of the few at that time who understood what a brilliant and important song it was. Every songwriter, even Bob Dylan, needs people like Richie Havens to keep his music in the air.

That was one of Phil Ochs’ problems.  During his lifetime, nobody wanted to cover his songs.  Joan Baez had a mini-hit with “There but For Fortune,” and all the coffeehouse folksingers played “Changes,” but that was about it. Oh, and Melanie did “Chords of Fame.”  But the songs outlived the obscurity of their creator, and today there are Phil Ochs song nights all around the country, where people who love his music get together to play his songs. And there are loads of troubadours even more obscure than Ochs who has been shuffled aside in the shadow of Bob Dylan. Eric Andersen, David Ackles, Paul Siebel, Tom Rapp, Ron Davies, Mike Heron, Robin Williamson, Tim Buckley, Joe MacDonald, and so many more. Sometimes I think Dylan is like the woman on the block who has the reputation for making the best cherry pies in the neighborhood.  As a result, all those other delicious cherry pies are known only to the lucky few for whom those pies were made.

These are the kind of simple myths that have obscured the country’s history and prevent its people from facing the truth about where they come from and who they are and the crimes they have committed. Next Door Joe is known as the guy who flips the best burgers at the barbeque, not as the pervert who molests his stepdaughters. Down The Road Sam coaches the best little league team in the neighborhood when he isn’t hitting black kids with baseball bats when he creeps out in early morning to catch them fishing off the bridge.

What good are you, Bob Dylan?  From where I stand, you are just about the last good thing that has come out of the United States.  As long as there is someone somewhere singing a Bob Dylan song, an echo of what the country might have been will still be heard.