In a 2011 interview to accompany a catalog on his latest group of paintings, Bob Dylan was asked by curator and art critic John Elderfield if he kept up with contemporary art. He replied:
“I don’t follow it that much. Owen Smith, Terry Allen, I like their work. I think miniature golf courses are great art forms.”
It’s a typically playful response by Dylan as he lists two artists and then utilizes the comic writing principle of the “rule of three” to insert a seemingly surreal response for the final item in his list as a way of undermining the listener’s expectations. At face value, naming miniature golf courses as a mode of contemporary art seems like another example of Dylan good-naturedly hoodwinking an interviewer by never allowing himself to be pinned down. Yet as Scott Warmuth has pointed out, the reference to miniature golf courses as art is not as outlandish as it seems. In Ralph Rugoff’s 1995 exploration of the American bizarre titled Circus Americanus, Rugoff writes:
“Architect Charles Moore once called miniature golf ‘one of Southern California’s true art forms.'”
It’s evident that Dylan is back to a familiar practice of appropriating someone else’s idea or expression to create something new, in this case the art of playfully dodging expectations in an interview. Through all of this frisky subterfuge, Dylan is sending a message of sorts as he cites two contemporary artists at the beginning of his response; one being the artist Owen Smith and the other, Terry Allen. Warmuth pointed out to me that in addition to the reference to miniature-golf-as-art in Circus Americanus, Rugoff writes extensively about an artwork by Allen. It’s safe to infer that Dylan has read Circus Americanus and is interested in Allen’s work. So who is Terry Allen and why does Bob Dylan want us to know about him?
Allen was born in Wichita, KS in 1943 to his father, a retired major league baseball player and subsequent music and wrestling promoter, and his mother, a jazz pianist. Allen grew up in Lubbock, TX which Allen returns to physically and artistically off and on throughout his career. Allen first left Lubbock to go to California and the famed Chouinard Art Institute, eventually growing into a successful career as a painter, sculptor, video and installation artist, piano player, and songwriter. For Allen, there are blurry lines between these modes of expression as he sometimes writes songs in response to his artwork with the enduringly powerful Juarez as a prime example. Alternatively, music can be the driving force and inspiration for his visual art. This includes the 2016 installation Road Angel, a life-size bronze cast of a 1953 Chevrolet coupe in which one of the wheels has been replaced with a speaker playing a selection of songs and radio snippets. In the following quote, Allen shares the feeling that the piece is intended to conjure:
“The sense of hurtling through great black empty space…late at night on a dead straight line of asphalt with headlights shining…driving a car as fast as it would go…and listening to The Wolfman on the radio turned up as loud as it would go…is probably where every freedom I most value first began.”
This reverie by Allen is steeped in a yearning for the freedom of youth, a wildness that is intertwined with both music and place, specifically Lubbock. Lubbock-as-setting can indirectly be seen as an inspiration for a piece such as Road Angel and much more directly in his 1979 double album Lubbock (On Everything). It is “The Beautiful Waitress,” the twelfth track on that album that is notable when considering Dylan:
Allen’s piano starts the song accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a gorgeous country fiddle played by Richard Bowden. They’re playing a waltz, summoning a sound as old as anything that’s been played in the American West. Is it 1979 or 1879? Allen starts singing:
Well it’s not silly
When she brings you your chili.
This delightful couplet by Allen is a perfect opening for the song, establishing the setting as well as the tone. Allen finishes the thought and the verse by singing:
To grab a cracker
And distract her with a crunch
A cracker crunch.
Allen — though not the most gifted of vocalists — appropriately makes the words “distract her” soar and then downshifts to a more plaintive yet comic expression for the line, “a cracker crunch.” Allen and company move to the chorus of the song:
‘Cause you’ll only see her once
Only this one time at lunch.
Like Dylan, Allen is a master of utilizing a rhyme to convey humor, though in this case “once” and “lunch” can be deemed as a near-rhyme. But it says everything that it has to as others join Allen in singing the lines, providing flawless and pure harmonies. The chorus continues with the following lines:
And she might as well see you too
Ah, it’s the last time, you’re passing through.
After Allen sings “the last time,” the background singers echo the words twice, ascending each time to the next note to complete the chord. The harmonies are straight out of the church in a delightful juxtaposition with the lyrics that detail a flirtation with a waitress in a diner.
As the song progresses, the flirtation evolves from a few words exchanged to a lingering touch of fingers. The waitress reciprocates the narrator’s moves as she touches back. After a tasteful piano solo by Allen, Bowden steps forward on the fiddle and underlines the heartbreaking realization of the song’s two characters that this will be their only moment of connection. The narrator kisses her and whispers that he will “miss her forever.” It’s a beautiful stolen moment between two people. Allen accentuates the incongruity of the setting for this lovely turn by singing one last “cracker crunch,” blending the humorous with the sweet.
After playing the chorus a final time, the song shifts into a different mode as the acoustic guitar and the fiddle repeat a charming musical figure over and over. After a few instrumental bars, Allen begins a spoken word recitation. Recitations of this sort were a common device in 20th century popular music, particularly country music. Sometimes the spoken word part occurs in the middle of the song, acting as a change of pace from the singing or to emphasize a particular point not found in the rest of the song’s lyrical content. Other times, the recitation enables the singer to create a tension that builds towards an emotional climax when the singing resumes as in Elvis Presley’s 1960 hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”:
Sometimes entire songs are spoken word narratives with musical accompaniment. Hank Williams employed the pseudonym “Luke the Drifter” under which he released a series of songs that were morality tales, bordering on sermons in deep contrast to his regular living-the-hard-life songs. Luke the Drifter allowed Williams to operate in a different artistic mode as represented by the 1951 song “Men with Broken Hearts”:
This device is still used in popular music, either tongue in cheek or in homage to these earlier songs. The recitation performed by Terry Allen as an extended coda in “The Beautiful Waitress” feels like both at the same time. Here is the recitation in full:
A waitress asked me what I did
I told her I tried to make art
She asked me if I made any money
I said, “No, I have to teach to do that.”
She asked me what I taught and where
I told her, she told me, she liked art
But that she couldn’t draw a straight line
I told her if she could reach for something
And pick it up she could draw a line
That was straight enough
She said, she weren’t interested in that kind of drawing
But I always liked horses, I said “I did too.”
But they’re hard to draw, she said, “Yes, that was very true.”
Said she could do the body okay, but never get the head, tail or legs.
I told her she was drawing sausages, not horses
She said no, they were horses.
It’s a funny encounter between the narrator and the waitress because at each turn of their conversation, the narrator’s sense of self is subtly tweaked by the waitress. First, he has to admit that he doesn’t make much money as an artist. After saying that he teaches art to support himself, each of his attempts to be instructive about art is pushed back with another rejoinder by the waitress. The last exchange about sausages and horses is an enduring reminder to the narrator about the subjective nature of art.
Additionally, the entire recitation works to undercut the sentiments of the song that came before it; the idealized, romantic notion of two people instantly recognizing a connection and knowing that their interaction will need to count since they will never see each other again. The interaction between the narrator and the waitress in the recitation rebukes the fantasy nature of the earlier part of the song. The recitation seems to be Allen’s ultimate message in “The Beautiful Waitress” that real life encounters in diners are filled with missed connections and unintended insults.
What does this all have to do with Bob Dylan? An extended exploration of Allen’s “The Beautiful Waitress” is necessary because in 1997, two years after Rugoff’s writing about Terry Allen and miniature golf courses as art, Dylan released his album Time Out of Mind, the first collection of original compositions by Dylan in seven years. “Highlands,” the 16 minute-plus final song on the album, has compelling parallels with Allen’s “The Beautiful Waitress”:
As written about previously on Recliner Notes, Dylan creates an imaginative ideal within “Highlands.” The song depicts a narrator with a yearning to escape the despondency of his regular, ordinary life. This craving allows him to endure and ultimately to create art. In the middle of “Highlands” there is an episode in which the band keeps playing the same music as before, but Dylan switches to a different mode. It could be recitation, but it’s admittedly hard to know if Dylan has shifted from singing to speaking. There is certainly a change in Dylan’s delivery during this section that gives it the feel of a spoken word interlude.
In this part of the song, the narrator says that he is “in Boston town, in some restaurant” and trying to decide what to order when the waitress comes over to the table. Dylan sets the ironic tone for the narrator’s exchange with the waitress with this wonderfully comic rhyme:
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
I said, “Tell me what I want.”
She said, “You probably want hard-boiled eggs.”
After this, the waitress looks at the narrator and says, “I know you’re an artist, draw a picture of me.” The narrator tries to beg off, saying that he doesn’t “do sketches from memory.” The waitress insists, and the narrator again tries to put her off by saying that he doesn’t have his drawing book. She counters by handing him a napkin. At this point, he is trying anything he can do to push back and says that he doesn’t have a pencil. She hands him one. The narrator relents and says:
I make a few lines and I show it for her to see
Well she takes the napkin and throws it back
And says, “That don’t look a thing like me!”
The narrator shoots back: “Oh, kind Miss, it most certainly does.” The waitress replies, “You must be jokin’.” The narrator says, “I wish I was.” Then the waitress, sensing an opening for a quick jab, accuses the narrator of not reading women authors. The narrator counters by saying that he’s read Erica Jong, known for breaking ground in the early 70s for writing about desire from a female perspective. For Dylan, it’s a laugh line in part because of the fun rhyme completion between “wrong” and “Jong.” The narrator moves out of the restaurant, away from the waitress, “back to the busy street but nobody’s going anywhere.” Dylan resumes “Highlands,” continuing to sing about escaping reality and using imagination to find escape and achieve a sense of renewal.
The similarities between Allen’s “The Beautiful Waitress” and Dylan’s “Highlands” are strong. The two songs contain a spoken word recitation featuring a narrator talking with a waitress. In both encounters, the narrator and the waitress explore the nature of art, specifically drawing and its inability to truly reflect and capture lived experience. Additionally, the exchanges between the narrators and the waitresses are presented as light, comic banter, but at the same time reveal how the characters miss the opportunity for connection.
Allen and Dylan in their respective songs are exploring the theme of searching for an idealized world but do so in different ways. For Allen, the narrator/waitress repartee in the recitation is an ironic rejection of the romantic illusion of the waitress and narrator falling in love as depicted in the beginning of the song. For Dylan, the waitress in the “Highlands” recitation is deeply annoying to the song’s narrator, reflecting the unsettled nature of his regular life. The narrator craves for the idealized Highlands, a world of art and love, the sort of love found in the non-spoken word part of “The Beautiful Waitress.” But instead of the recitation acting as a repudiation of what came before as in Allen’s song, Dylan uses his spoken word piece as a way of supporting the musings within “Highlands” on a life without art and connection.
While the full 2011 interview in which Dylan mentions Terry Allen and miniature golf architecture as art is no longer online, parts of the interview can still be found. During their conversation, the interviewer asks Dylan about one of his paintings and how it seemingly references a work by Paul Gaugin. In response, Dylan expounds on the act of quotation in art:
“Quotation is something that happens a lot in the music world. Merle Haggard can mimic Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson perfectly. The Beatles, in ‘Back in the USSR’ mimic The Beach Boys. Quotation is a phrase that is used all the time in jazz solos. It happens a lot in old-time string band music too. One song is always using a line from another song to brace it. But then goes off on another tangent. Minstrels did it all the time. Weird takes on Shakespeare plays, stuff like that. It’s just done automatically.”
Many have examined Dylan’s use of quotation and/or appropriation in his writing and music in greater depth. When questioned about these occurrences, Dylan usually replies in similar manner as in the quotation above, maintaining artistic license for “quotation” in the act of creativity. This post will not litigate or act in judgment of this trend in Dylan’s work. It’s impossible to determine if “The Beautiful Waitress” is the source, a source, or even an influence on “Highlands.” Dylan would never say outright if he was aware of Allen’s song. Yet Dylan cites Allen in that interview while also musing on the artistic act of quotation, so it may be another breadcrumb that Dylan has dropped for us to follow. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to observe Dylan riffing off of a similar premise as Allen and using it for his own purposes in a different song and musical context. Still, within “Highlands” and “The Beautiful Waitress,” Dylan and Allen explore similar themes of utopian ideals and the real-life implications on the function of art while utilizing the same recitation performance technique. The obvious next step should be that Dylan and Allen join forces to design their own miniature golf course for the ultimate act of artistic collaboration.
Many thanks to Scott Warmuth, Jochen Markhorst, and @dylyricus for their assistance and support in the writing of this post.
Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.