If You See Elston Gunn, Say Hello
(In memory of Bobby Vee)
by Kevin Harvey
For me the trouble started when Eric Burdon parodied "Take Good Care of My Baby" as an example of how miserable music was until, as he put it, "four young guys with mop-top haircuts" came along to save it. I love Eric Burdon, Winds of Change is a great acid album, but the first time I heard "House of the Rising Sun" on a car radio- I can actually remember we were driving up a steep hill- I burst out laughing. It sounded like a pre-Cookie Monster gag. The Animals! Really? How about Grunty Guys? Or The Poops? Still, the great Burdon was, like most elitists, a snob, be it a Blues Snob, a Jazz Snob, a Punk Snob, or the guy who has to hear everything first so that he can turn his finely tuned ear holes up and back and say: "You haven't heard Blah Blah and the Death Dentists! Really? They have one EP out on Faux Phun! But it's probably out of print...."
Years passed before Keith Richards, Master of Decadent Pirate Shtick, would point out "Take Good Care of My Baby" as an example of that from which the world needed saving. Why "Take Good Care of My Baby," I wondered. Well, I suspect the simple answer is the song, like it or not, entered everyone's mind and stayed there. But that was only one reason, I thought. Snobs like to make fun of nice guys and Bobby Vee was obviously a nice guy. You know how this goes: The Stones came over from the Dark Side; Lennon was better than McCartney because he, Lennon, was sarcastic; Dylan trumped Lennon because he, Dylan, was an inscrutable prick- his critical audience turning on him when they discovered he was kind of nice guy and he wrote "Wigwam." And yet, to my ears, loving all of them, "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," perhaps Bobby Vee's second most famous hit, was pure David Lynch paranoia thirty years before Lynch used "In Dreams" to freak us out forever on Roy Orbison, another marginalized nice guy. Until finally getting his due and dying far too soon. But Bobby Vee was pretty good; and as I said, his singles went into the subconscious and stayed there. And then we found out that Dylan, aka Elston Gunn, pounded the keys in back of Vee as far back as 1959! The same Dylan whose every move was mimicked from Lennon's "Hide Your Love Away" to the creation of country-rock, to the New Basement fragments fleshed out by Elvis Costello and lads young enough to be Dylan's grandkids. (See if you can find the photo of the Highway 61 session that shows Dion in the booth. Yeah, that Dion, the same Dion everyone always knew was cool but wouldn't admit it. Read Dylan's liner notes for King of the New York Streets , Dion's box set. But I digress.)
Yet more decades later, wanting to hear Bobby Vee live, I caught one of those Oldies line-ups, Fabian, Chris Montez, and half a dozen other performers. Fabian looked and sounded better than anyone thought possible, and, gripping his tune with both hands, managed to hold that tiger. Be that as it may, at one point in Bobby Vee's eventual set, my judgment suspended in the presence of his greatest hits, Bobby and his son performed "No Expectations" together on acoustic guitars, that's the "No Expectations" to be found on the Stone's Beggar's Banguet album, and I use the term "album" without shame. I was stunned. It was, by my measure, a one of a kind offering. Not to mention an ego-free nod to decades of hip rejection. "I was listening, you know," he seemed to say. Which brings us to now: Bob Dylan releases a set of Sinatra inspired covers , complete with a David Lynch-worthy photo of the singer sitting with a Lone Ranger-masked dominatrix perusing a Sun Records single, and the world's reviews are ecstatic; the recording an instant classic. Dylan gives an interview to AARP pointing out how good Nancy Sinatra is, and Bobby Vee, wounded badly by time , embraced by his family as he wobbles on the edge of the chasm Alzheimer, goes to Arizona where , sounding strangely like Warren Zevon, makes a stripped down , heart-breaking record called The Adobe Sessions. It is a document of extraordinary faith and artistic courage. I don't know how much time Vee has left before his mind and heart are pulled away from him, but this bare-bones, brilliant, human collection, tossed back from the doorway, is - to use Henry James' phrase- a distinguished thing. The song selections are wonderful; what they've added or subtracted from the originals all perfect decisions. Dylan's "Man In Me"; Doc Pomus' heartbreaking "Save the Last Dance for Me", written from a wheel chair at Pomus' wedding. "My Baby's Eyes." An extraordinary version of Daniel Lanois' "The Master." A rocked-up version of an obscure Elvis B-side, "I Gotta Know," that, god help me, trumps Presley's version. There's more, but I've made my point. Bobby Vee, having taken a standing eight count, has, as the great trainer Angelo Dundee used to say, gone to the well. Go to the well, Dundee yelled at Ali in Manila. Go to the well, champ! Well, Bobby Vee, battered in the late rounds but not yet broken , has indeed gone to the well and come back with one final bucket. I can see Dylan listening to it on his bus, somewhere in the American night, the Dylan who said: It's not dark yet, but it's getting there, tipping whatever hat he's chosen for this part of the journey, back across the years in Bobby Vee's direction.