#303: Bob Dylan, "John Wesley Harding" (1967)

William James IV was a friend to the poor. That’s what he told me, anyway. Also an abogado, set against the assembled corrupt powers of Corpus Christi; an injudicious lover, trawling the intersection of Leopard & Vine when he wasn’t pining for his cheerleader girlfriend; a white trash troubadour, ever since he was a young boy in New York State, gifted a jacaranda guitar from the Nicaraguan sugar plantation owned by a friend’s father. Speaking of New York….did you know he passed the state bar before John F. Kennedy, Jr.? Wait a couple cuts; he’d be happy to share.

John Wesley Hardin, he was a lawyer too. Passed the bar in Huntsville Prison, on a 25-year bid for killing a deputy. Pardoned with eight years left, he hung his legal shingle (some sources say in El Paso, others claim Gonzalez), committed his final murder, and took a bullet through his skull. Some seventy years later, Bob Dylan gave him a “g”. It was, perhaps, the only new detail he had to offer: his Hardin has no fixed occupationdoor opener? hand lender?and no fate. He carries guns, he has a female companion, he accrues unknown charges. In an interview published in the liners to 1985’s Biograph box, Dylan told Cameron Crowe that “John Wesley Harding” was “the one song that I had no idea what it was about, why it was even on the album.” No other title was considered for the LP.

In his 42 living years, Hardin appeared, like an itinerant disease vector, in countless towns: in Alabama, Florida, Kansas and Texas. Some of these places are ghosts now, as dead as those dozens Hardin and Dylan insisted were killed in self-defense. As far as I can tell, he never made it to Corpus Christi. He did claim a gunfight with two Mexican men about 45 minutes out of town; he blew one off his horse, he said, and the other rode away after. Neither did Hardin make it to College Station, which was a tiny university outpost during his time, and a thriving university outpost in mine.

William James IV did make it to College Station: a Hastings used-CD bin, specifically, alongside Subhumans’ EP-LP and many albums that did not alter my cultural trajectory in any way. It was called Requiem for the Nineties, the title and artist name rendered in severe serif capitals, on either side of a small horizontal photostrip depicting a winter tree. I’d been involved with the campus radio station; the cover ought to have been a dead giveaway for middling execution. But that “IV” looked like a clue. I bought it and the Subs record.

Odds and ends, odds and ends: lost time is not found again. Greil Marcus surveyed the banished lands of Dylan’s Basement Tapes (recorded in the months prior to the John Wesley Harding sessions) and dubbed them the Old, Weird America. He used the same appellation in the liners to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the 1951 “occult document” that Marcus linked to the Basement Tapes in his book Invisible Republic. To John Fahey, those that dwelt in this America were, simply, “revenants”: dead citizens with the power to animate at any time, if we choose to hear. John Wesley Harding is lousy with revenants. The titles are a tarot of archetypes: the Hobo, the Immigrant, the Drifter, the Wicked Messenger. Play them in the right time, in the right order, and fate is revealed.

The major arcana of William James IV were apparent on Requiem for the Nineties, and on every subsequent CD of his I found. The Immigrant is there, but as a client, and as an absence. There is the Sex Workermany, to be exactand the Cheerleader, the District Attorney and the Piggy. Instead of Hardin or Tom Paine, there is Selena and JFK and JFK, Jr. and Dylan his own self. James is the Artist, the wry barefoot center of town. Power runs through and around him; his battles never end. He is charming and contemptible: an archetype every bit as recognizable as Judas Priest, who likewise knew that everyone has their temptation. As Frankie Lee expires in Priest’s embrace, having run himself ragged through two dozen prostitutes in a house “as bright as any sun,” I find myself thinking: I hope he has a good lawyer.

The Old, Weird America was, of course, once called simply “America.” The mysteries touched by Dylan, Fahey, and Marcus were perhaps not solved, but they were pondered, often by a great many people. Had we invented recording technology in, say, the 1860s, would we still have the Nugrape Twins? And if so, would they sound like John Mayall? Writing about the interstate system in 1984, Lee Sandlin noted that “it is a world that by design touches only tangentially on the actual landscape of America. The goal of construction was never to join distant cities; it was to finish weaving a net that would contain the continent.” John Wesley Harding is a stark documenthermetic and spare, like a Ph.D. candidate’s studio apartmentthat tightens the looser strands of the Basement work. He presents a stasis that predicts flux: nervous men read letters and scout from watchtowers, anticipating overthrow. But how, and from whom?

I moved back to Austin and holed up in a second-floor apartment with my brother. I worked at a computer factory for months at a stretchsometimes the second shift, sometimes overnightsuntil my temp contracts ran out. I’d buy Bud Ice or Thunderbird on my breaks; when I got home, I’d stash them in the freezer for a bit, then finish them off while dancing to music videos, passing out while the sky was still orange-black. I came home at 3 a.m. one day, when a neighbor was checking her mail. Because she’d never seen me before, and because we lived across a walkway, she wondered if I was following her home to murder her. She still tells this story when we’re at parties. I kept an eye on eBay, and whenever a William James IV CD appearednot oftenI bought it. I got them out of sequence, but he was always the raconteur. 1999’s Love Is the Power found him in rehab, pondering the Kennedy assassination and a motel bust that shook him to his core. (The full story of the bust can be found in “Red White & Busted,” a harrowing, live-tracked lurcher. He gets so het up that he starts screaming at his lead guitarist, Chris Gage: “RIP IT! RIP IT AGAIN, WAS THAT YOUR GOOD SIDE, MOTHERFUCKER?”) 1994’s On the Road to the Sun had “Desolation Arrow,” a full-on Dylan parody, and “The Last of the Believers,” his best Dylan homage ("I saw Jesus down at Wal-Mart / In a Volvo GLT / I said 'Now Jesus, I believe / that Volvo belongs to me’"). 1993’s South Texas Girl got him thinking about making love from nothing at all, as well as the daughter he saw too infrequently. (The cover model is reading Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism.)

Upon receiving Love Is the Power in 2008, I decided to go further. I e-mailed the label head at Club de Musique, who had sold me the CD and whose website has the only worthwhile James bio. He replied the next week: he’d only met James during the Power sessions, and he passed on the e-mail of the producer, who had met James in 1990 and collaborated on a number of his records. In between a recap of his accomplishmentswhich are manythe producer noted that he and James were “close as brothers,” and he had about 300 copies of his albums, some of which he was willing to sell me. After living for a time with his ex in Corpus, James had decamped for Austin eight months prior. The producer had left messages with him and the ex, but no one replied. “Life is short,” the e-mail concluded. “The story is long. Nice to hear from you Brad.”

I left the story there. I also didn’t buy the producer’s CDsI was broke, is how I spun it. Three new records for 33 bucks….that wasn’t bad. But I had come so close to the man, only to be turned away: the CDs were a poor consolation. I did another stint at the factory, then lost a series of jobs as a mail clerk, administrative assistant, and a non-profit marketing director. I met Catherine; her orbit of family and friends contained the same strain of vivant, only better tempered, that James presented. Her father was a Texas lawyer, by all accounts a remarkable man. He loved the Four Tops and his daughter, just as I did. Some of her high school classmates maintained a party house and booked the occasional gig at Saxon Pub or Sahara Lounge. Inevitably, they’d reach into their pocket and pull out Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” the final cut from Nashville Skyline, his follow-up to John Wesley Harding.

It’s my favorite of his love songs. And it’s a cross between the final two cuts on John Wesley: the passenger-train chug of “Down Along the Cove” and the heavy-lidded parley of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” The album’s final verse is “Kick your shoes off, do not fear / Bring that bottle over here / I’ll be your baby tonight”will the night be fueled by alcohol, or autonepiophilia? I bet William James IV and I would make the same pick.

Because to me, the era of rock’s first flowering is as much a mystery to me as, say, Nelstone’s Hawaiians must have been to Dylan’s peers. (In sheer terms of elapse, they’re pretty close too.) The prosaic detailsthe hotels, the overnights in unfamiliar towns, the illicit substances, the assignationsare common to each, but also to many millions from Woodstock to Corpus Christi, from Hardin’s day to now. Until that closing one-two kiss, John Wesley Harding clears a dusty landscape of arbitrary justice and dread mysteries. Dylan and the Band bashed out the Basement Tapes all through the 1967’s Summer of Loveduring which, depending on your vantage, the earth was cracking open, or bursting forth. With but four days left in the year, he emerged not with playfulness, but pronouncements. Dylan knew that each is timeless, but decided the time was really right for only one.

After contacting James’s producer, I picked up a bar regimen. On any nightin between karaoke takes on “Father Figure” and “Friends in Low Places”if I listened hard enough, I could hear a chorus of Dylan’s drifters and renters: sharing setbacks, begging for more time. With enough beers between us, they became William James’s: profane, sly, lustful, stranded. Now I’m married, and my beers come from the neighborhood coffeeshop. It has an adjoining venuelocally acclaimed, hosting the cream of Austin’s pickers and strummers. Every couple weeks or so, you can hear Chris Gage & Friends. I’ve never paid to see him, but they always pipe his sets through the coffeeshop PA. I’ve never known him to make a foolish move.

—Brad Shoup