Page Two: A Personal Journey, Part 2
Nashville, Coconut Grove, and points in between
Originally published on May 25, 2007 in the Austin Chronicle
Our Story So Far: Having almost accidentally discovered Vince Martin's album If the Jasmine Don't Get You ... the Bay Breeze Will sometime around 1969, in the days before the Internet, I set out to find what I could about the album. I discovered that Martin was a Greenwich Village folk musician, that he partnered with the great Fred Neil, that he was the first to move to Coconut Grove in Florida (where a lot of New York folkies followed him to), and that he recorded the album in Nashville with Nick Venet producing.If the Jasmine Don't Get You ... features some terrific Nashville studio musicians – including Kenneth Buttrey, Fred F. Carter Jr., Lloyd Green Murray, M. Harman Jr., Charlie McCoy, Norbert Putnam, Henry P. Strzelecki, and John Buck Wilkin. Even before I discovered much about Martin, I knew these names from studying the credits on a lot of records.
Now, a few years before Martin's album was recorded, producer Bob Johnston had laid the groundwork by first bringing Bob Dylan down to record in Nashville in 1966. At first, the Nashville studio musicians didn't quite know what to make of this new situation, finding it a bit off-putting. Johnston had already brought famed harmonica player and multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy up to New York City to play on the Highway 61 Revisited sessions (mostly guitar, I think). McCoy would go on to play on every Dylan recording – Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline – released before Jasmineand then on Self-Portrait, recorded after. Kenneth Buttrey, the terrific drummer, came on board for the Blonde on Blonde sessions and continued to play with McCoy on the next three Dylan albums.
As Johnston explains, "I got some of the best Nashville talent: Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Kenny Buttrey, Pig Robbins, Jerry Kennedy, as well as Joe South. Now, these musicians down here in Nashville, they never had seen anything like these sessions. Usually, when they had a session, it was around three hours, and they recorded five songs or six songs. One of them would be the hit, and the rest for the album. None of the songs would run longer than three minutes, and most much less.
"Dylan showed up and went out into one of the studios there. He just stayed out there. He never left to go to the bathroom or anything. He ate candy bar after candy bar, all kinds of sweets. All day long.
"After three hours, Dylan hadn't left the studio he was in – much less even stepped into the studio in which we were going to actually record. Hours kept passing, until the studio musicians had been there all day long. I told everybody, just stay around. Play pingpong or even go to sleep as soundly as they could manage. Periodically I'd check on them, waking the sleeping ones up.
"Dylan had been in that studio writing forever. I began thinking that he was a junkie, because he kept eating sweets and chocolate, Cokes, and different things like that. I had never seen anyone eat that much sugar. I thought, damn, he must really be hooked or something. I didn't care, but I thought he must be hooked. But he wasn't; he wasn't hooked on anything but time and space.
"I don't know what time it was: 2, 3, 4 o'clock in the morning. Dylan finally came out, looked at me and said, 'Hey Bob, you still awake?'
"I said, 'Yeah.'
"'Is there anyone else awake down there?' he asked. 'Who is around you can get? I think I got something here.'
"'Yeah man,' I said, going off to wake them.
"They couldn't believe it. 'What! We're going to record now?!'
"'Yeah,' I answered.
"In about 20 minutes, they were all in there. There wasn't any turning the machines on. I always had them running. I had commandeered two machines on the way from Chicago. Got them and just turned one on after the other, so I'd never lose anything that he had played.
"'I got this song here; it goes like this,' said Dylan, 'Nnnn nnnn nnn – C G B,' or something like that. The poor musicians were always looking at Dylan to see where he put his fingers – so they can play the next chord, because he'd say, 'It goes like this: Aaaaa, ddddd, aaaa, okay?' Then he'd be off.
"That morning, when we finally got started, Dylan walked back to his place in the back of the recording room. He counted off – nobody ever counted off for Dylan. He was back there, out of nowhere, with no warning, suddenly, 'Two, three!' – he started playing the guitar. Everybody else dove in on the song."
According to Wikipedia¹, Ken Buttrey recalled, "[Dylan] ran down a verse and a chorus and he just quit and said, 'We'll do a verse and a chorus then I'll play my harmonica thing. Then we'll do another verse and a chorus then I'll play some more harmonica, and we'll see how it goes from there.' We were preparing ourselves dynamically for a basic two- to three-minute record because records just didn't go over three minutes. ... If you notice that record, that thing after like the second chorus starts building and building like crazy, and everybody's just peaking it up 'cause we thought, 'Man, this is it. ... This is gonna be the last chorus, and we've gotta put everything into it we can.' And he played another harmonica solo and went back down to another verse and the dynamics had to drop back down to a verse kind of feel. ... After about 10 minutes of this thing we're cracking up at each other, at what we were doing. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago. Where do we go from here?"
"We nailed the song 'Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' in one take," noted Johnston.²
McCoy and Buttrey were key players on Blonde on Blonde, with their contribution to "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" being of special interest. As Johnston recalls, "Dylan first played me that song 'Rainy Day Women' on the piano.
"'That sounds like the damn Salvation Army band!' I said.
"'Can you get one?'
"'Probably not – it's 2 o'clock in the morning – but let me see what I can do.' I called up Charlie McCoy, and he said, 'I can wake up Wayne Butler. He plays trombone, and I can play trumpet.' I said, 'That's all we need, we don't need a clarinet or anything else. Get Kenny Buttrey to play the drum, all that stuff.' Wayne Butler came down there, still wiping his eyes from sleep.
"Dylan said, 'Well, it goes like this ...' Nobody knew anything! McCoy and Butler had their horns. I said, 'Get yourself a drum, Kenny!' He put his drum out there like in a marching band.
"First, Dylan played a little bit on the piano. They all marched around while he played. He said, 'It goes C-B-G,' and they were gone. All of us walking around, yelling, playing, and singing. That was it!
"It's the only one time that I ever heard Dylan really laugh, really belly-laugh, on and on, going around that studio, marching in that thing.
"Nobody ever knew what Dylan was gonna do. When, how, where, what, why, anything. I used to laugh about it, because I'd see Robbie and Al sitting there, trying to follow. ... They couldn't have any charts or anything, so they were following where he was putting his hand. It was so spontaneous. Al Kooper used to call it the road map to hell!"
I've heard a bootleg version of "Rainy Day Women" done straight-ahead; what ended up on the album is a different song.
Many recordings, including the one under discussion here, have long been thought of as having been influenced by Nashville Skyline. In the wake of Blonde on Blonde, there is only one recording I know of: the impossible-to-find, insane tribute to alcohol and who knows what else, Moldy Goldies: Colonel Jubilation B. Johnston and His Mystic Knights Band and Street Singers Attack the Hits. Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games is the only person I know who ever had a copy (Steve, I returned it finally, didn't I?), but I'd sure love to find one.
After Blonde on Blonde, however, the aforementioned and other Nashville session musicians had been stretching their chops. Some had played on the Dylan albums, others on other recordings by Eric Andersen, Gordon Lightfoot, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen, and Jerry Jeff Walker, as well as on some pushing-the-envelope recordings by Flatt & Scruggs and Marty Robbins. Most notable of these recordings, in many ways, is the still-underappreciated masterpiece by the Beau Brummels, Bradley's Barn, which featured as players David Briggs on keyboards, Kenneth A. Buttrey on drums, Norbert Putnam on bass, and Jerry Reed on guitar.
The Nashville crowd was absolutely ready to cut it loose. Vince Martin would benefit from this almost more than anyone else. Often it's reported that Jasmine was recorded in the wake of Nashville Skyline, but it had only Buttrey and McCoy in common with those sessions. Henry P. Strzelecki had played on the Harding sessions, and Fred Carter Jr. would be on Self Portrait. Putnam had played with Buttrey on Bradley's.
Especially on the last two cuts on If the Jasmine Don't Get You ..., they really took off. Martin was forced to scat a number of times as the musicians raced ahead of the song. All in all, it is an intoxicating, mellow, but driving 20 minutes of music, smelling of Nashville, ocean air, jasmine, and bay breezes.
Around the same time, the band Area Code 615 was formed by some of these players, along with a number of other top Nashville studio musicians: McCoy, Buttrey, Moss, Briggs, and Putnam joined with Bobby Thompson, Buddy Spicher, and Weldon Myrick. Interestingly, the playing on their two albums, though always expert and interesting, never gets as wild or free-form as it does on Martin's album.
I visited Coconut Grove only once, long after I had started listening to the album but before I associated Martin with the locale. It was beautiful and impossibly bright; it felt and smelled pure and clean. Just walking there would refresh you. In a record store there, I bought a used copy of John Cale's Paris 1919, another album to which I've never stopped listening.
Okay, when vinyl disappeared and CDs came in, I stopped listening to all my old records. Eventually I found a copy of the Cale, but never the Martin. Finally, I realized that I should search the Internet, and I found reissues of the album. I bought several (both different reissues and several copies of each, so I could pass them around). I've now found copies at Waterloo Records.
Regularly, I send friend and filmmaker Jonathan Demme CDs and DVDs I think he'll find interesting. A few months back, I sent him a copy of the Vince Martin, asking him if he had ever heard it. He e-mailed me back enthusiastically, reminding me that he once lived in Miami, where he had regularly traveled over to Coconut Grove to listen to Martin (pointing out that it was not "Orange" Grove, as I had called it). Of course, having heard the album, many times, he was excited to get it.
Demme came to town during SXSW 07 with his son, Brooklyn. Demme was here to interview Emmylou Harris and catch some more Alejandro Escovedo performances. Brooklyn's taste ran more to rap and cutting-edge rock.
One evening, Jonathan and I were walking along; it was that sweet smell and nearly perfect taste of early evening, when it's become shaded enough to modulate the light but it's more like fog than darker night. I don't remember what we were talking about – undoubtedly music. Smiling, Demme leaned over to me at one point and, pretty much out of the blue, said, "You know, he was so right about Coconut Grove. ... If the jasmine don't get you ... well, then, the bay breeze surely will."
¹ As is the case with almost any Bob Dylan album, there are many, many different versions of stories about what actually went on. In this case, I'm trusting Bob Johnston over all other sources.
² There are some who claim the song recorded that night was "Visions of Johanna," with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" recorded the next day.