Just Like A Jukebox

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Just Like A Jukebox (live at the Great American Music Hall, 11/8/07).

The song was only ever performed once.

It was during the second set of a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott show at the Other End in Greenwich Village, on July 3, 1975. Bob Dylan happened to be present in the crowd, and Elliott called him up to play on “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “How Long Blues.” This was a nice, though not an unheard-of treat, but then something extraordinary happened: Dylan started strumming something nobody recognized, a brand-new song, whereupon Elliott had the good taste to withdraw from his own show and let Dylan have the stage as he premiered “Abandoned Love.” The number was recorded properly a few weeks later, briefly a candidate for inclusion on Desire, but for reasons known only to Bob – some have speculated that it was because the studio version failed to capture the unrepeatable power of that one live performance – it was shelved for a decade. It popped up, unheralded, on 1985’s Biograph, but over the course of those ten years it spent in oblivion, the song became legendary thanks to a bootlegger who, doing god’s work, had been running tape at the Elliott gig.*

“Abandoned Love” is worthy of an essay, a book, a monograph, a lifetime’s study of its own. You could build a minor religion around it. I won’t embarrass myself by trying to plumb its depths here, except to say that it’s a marvelous and baroque journey through a relationship in its last throes. It may well be about the dissolution of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds, though it feels gauche to tie something so ethereal to something so mundane. Its lyric deserves to be heard in its proper setting, as Dylan’s melody is sublime and simple and surprisingly bright given the shadows everywhere in the song, but I’ll give you a taste here on the page:

I can hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Something’s telling me I wear the ball and chain…

Things only get lovelier, and more complex and more unsettling, from here. I offer you this stanza in hopes that, regardless of whether or not you know “Abandoned Love” intimately, you’ll take a moment to imagine what it must have been like to hear it live for the first and only time. You’re in a club in lower Manhattan, and it’s the seventies so you’ve been on ’ludes for like two years running, and it’s getting kind of late, and you’ve knocked back a few. Even in this environment where attentive listening is encouraged, surely you’re not quite in a mental place to absorb something so rich and challenging when it’s being thrown at you cold. Making matters worse is the song’s push-and-pull, its upbeat tone contrasting with its dark and difficult subject matter. The phrasing and the imagery are delightful, but there’s pain shot through every couplet:

I march in the parade of liberty
But as long as I love you I’m not free
How long must I suffer such abuse?
Won’t you let me see you smile before I cut you loose?

What, one has to ask, is the appropriate response to this? As an audience, what do you do? Obviously, you shut your mouth and try to focus, recognizing how lucky you are to be present for a moment of history – even if you don’t realize, yet, just how rare a performance of this song will prove to be – and you say nothing. Sound itself is verboten. You suppress a cough; you shush anyone who whispers; you try to keep the ice in your glass from rattling too loudly.

But – and this is why I’m going to such lengths to talk about “Abandoned Love” in an essay that’s supposed to be about a different song, one written by a man I haven’t even managed to mention yet – there’s a point where the hush has to give way. Dylan is trading in tension here, constructing something impossibly precious and almost excruciatingly vulnerable, and so naturally you yearn to break it, to find any opening he’s willing to give you to let that tension out or to express a little sympathy or even just to rebel, for a second, against the tyranny of silence. The chance comes in the second-to-last verse:

Send out for Saint John the Evangelist
All my friends are drunk, they can be dismissed
My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love you but you’re strange…

It’s that last line that gets the crowd. Who knows how much of the preceding they’ve managed to process, but suddenly the greatest lyricist in history, the bard of the age, is uttering words you grasp in an instant: “I love you,” he says, “but you’re strange.” It’s such quotidian language, a sore thumb in that it’s almost slangy in the midst of all this poetry – it’s something you can imagine saying to your own partner. Everything else has felt alien, or if it’s felt familiar that familiarity has been ineffable and instinctive, like we’ve all experienced this stuff but failed or never even tried to express it in words like these. Yet this phrase, we get. Bob Dylan, of all people, is talking like we talk. It’s amazing, and exhilarating, and yes, a little funny, and it’s a tremendous relief. We laugh, heartily.

The laughter is audible on the bootleg. It’s pretty loud, in fact. It’s moderately disruptive. There’s been noise previously on the recording – a clearing of the throat, probably Dylan’s, at the top; a little applause after Dylan refers to “disappearing,” as if to discourage the vanishing act he’ll eventually have to make from the stage. But now there’s chuckling, relieved and enchanted, pleased by the felicitous phrasing and amused by the line, mixed with appreciative clapping, and the hint of a hoot, and it – well, it doesn’t quite shatter the mood, but it changes it. The song, after the laughter, is different. One wonders what Dylan made of this. It might have been his intention, to give his listeners an escape hatch in case they want out before the song crashes like a tsunami upon a rocky shore: “Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit?” he’ll sing in the final lines. “Let me feel your love, one more time, before I abandon it…” But at the same time, maybe he was vexed. This is not a comedy, after all. This is high drama, verse of the finest quality imaginable conveying emotion incredibly refined. Surely its author knew people were going to giggle at the line, right? Or maybe he hoped that he’d have them under his spell by that point, so enraptured that they would ride right through to the heartbreak he had in store for the climactic verse. Was Dylan gratified by the laughter, or foiled by it? We can’t know, and I’m not going to bother to speculate. All I’m sure of, personally, and all that really matters here, is that the laughter at that spot in the recording does one of two things: it either ruins, or it perfects, “Abandoned Love.”

Elvis Costello’s song, likewise, was performed exactly once.**

“Just Like A Jukebox” was written in 1975, a companion to the post-Flip City, pre-My Aim Is True tracks that are usually shorthanded as the “Honky Tonk Demos.” Like many of its cohorts, the song would eventually find its lyrics raided and popping up in later tunes, but unlike them it never slipped out into the world of bootlegs and b-sides and bonus tracks. Instead it bided its time, much longer than “Abandoned Love” was ever asked to: it languished completely unknown for thirty-two years, in fact, until November 8, 2007 – or more likely the Ninth, because like Dylan’s song it was played in the late set only, and didn’t show up until well after midnight.

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Costello had consented to perform at a pair of benefit concerts, an early show and a late one on the same evening at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, for the Richard De Lone Special Housing Project. The hook for the shows was that they would reunite Costello with the Bay Area players from Clover*** who had been recruited in 1977 to back him on My Aim Is True, which was played in its entirety at both sets. The encores were other tracks from the Pathway era: “Watching The Detectives”; the original version of “Living In Paradise”; “Radio Sweetheart.” They encored with “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding?” But the really interesting material was a hodgepodge of early numbers scattered in among the shows’ post-break “bonus tracks,” many of the Honky Tonk numbers and the odd Flip City song, as well as never-before-heard tunes like “I Can’t Turn It Off” and “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” The rule for the night, Costello announced from the stage, was that he would play no songs from post-’77 – “Peace, Love, & Understanding,” though recorded by the Attractions in 1979, was originally on Brinsley Schwarz’s 1974 album The New Favorites Of… – and so it was that he dusted off some songs that, he claimed, could have been on My Aim Is True if the chips had fallen a different way. These included “Blue Minute,” and “Jump Up,” and “Wave A White Flag” – and also, at the second show, “Just Like A Jukebox.”

He had a guitar in his hands. The other band members had modestly retired. The crowd was being treated to something no one had ever heard before, and as such they responded with the same sort of hush that was afforded Dylan at the Other End thirty-some years earlier – at conceivably the exact same moment, it’s interesting to think, that Costello was composing this song in the wee hours at his London house an ocean away. Unlike Dylan, Costello granted his audience a short introduction, speaking of the song’s background – it’s about his very early performing days, in a duo called Rusty that he played in with his former partner Allan Mayes – and telling a not-that-funny joke:

“I used to play, with a partner of mine who lives in Austin, Texas now… I used to play in a pub on a Friday night, and they would come up to us after about nineteen pints of beer, and say, ‘Do you know any Slade?’ I think those guys… I think the guy’s name was Gallagher… This was in Widnes, which is just near, and up from, Manchester… I remember it was this monobrowed guy that… I always suspected that it might be the Gallagher guys’ brother. Anyway, I wrote this song about that experience…”

The stumbling stab at a jest about Oasis received a few charity-chuckles, and those only came because this crowd was hanging on every word.**** I’ll pay Elvis the courtesy of assuming the lameness of the joke was intentional, to evoke the uncomfortable atmospheres of those early gigs performed to hostile or indifferent crowds – but I won’t dwell on it either way, because immediately afterwards he played “Just Like A Jukebox.” And… well, let’s not beat around the bush. It may not have been “Abandoned Love,” because not much is – but it was very, very good.

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It’s set in a barroom. Intriguingly and revealingly given that it’s a sort of dry run for later, more complex Costello narratives, it features multiple perspectives. It’s about the search for escape and redemption, and the finding of humiliation but also camaraderie in live music, and the dynamics that keep a watering hole functioning even as its wares obliterate most of its clientele each night. This is at best a tenuous link to a song the ’75-era Declan MacManus who wrote “Just Like A Jukebox” could never have heard, but like “Abandoned Love” it at least fleetingly depicts a worn-out relationship. The first verse arrives courtesy of our first of two speakers. Let’s call him, for shorthand’s sake, the Drinker. He says:

Signing off this faded love tonight
Stepping out in style
Got you cheating on my mind
Got my finger in the dial
I think I need another drink
Let’s go down to the bar, loosen up before I start to sink

The Drinker knows his love life is in the shitter, and he seeks the classic relief for a broken heart: he heads out to the bar. For a moment he’s tempted to call his woman, despite knowing she’s probably flounced off to meet some other lover, but he refrains. Getting soused is, after all, a far better comfort than a testy phone conversation would be. Up on the stage he spies a Singer – we can picture him, thanks to old Rusty-period photos of MacManus, unfashionably dressed and shaggy-haired and strumming a guitar with urgent sincerity. The Drinker, tossing his brews back, glances up at this other fellow with a sneer. The Singer could be anybody – he’s probably the same pathetic crooner from last week, the Drinker thinks, and even if he isn’t, he might as well be. The Singer is a fixture here, no more or less essential than that Barman over there, bussing the suds-soaked empties – only this poor sod is embarrassing himself by pouring his heart out to people who don’t give a fuck in exchange for what’s surely a lousy paycheck that’ll barely put food on his table:

Empty glasses are drained and stacked
The band is playing and the floor is packed
It’s the same old singer
It’s the same old beat
He trades his peace of mind for another piece of meat

Time passes, and by night’s end, our Drinker has gotten pretty squiffy. He hasn’t left, though, and through the haze of all that alcohol he notes with sodden amusement that the musicians, as they’re packing up their gear, are drunker still:

Bar is closing and the band is drunk
Picked up the drummer, and they put him in the trunk
Barman says it’s getting late
You better make it to the door
The one that I had over the eight seems less like one and more like four

But wait. Who is it the Barman is addressing, telling him to get himself together and head on home? Is he talking to the Singer, or is he talking to the Drinker? Which of them is it, exactly, who’s explaining himself in a line that, overpacked as it is with syllables, mirrors the sloppy talk of the drunkard? Who’s apologizing that he’s had not just the one proverbial drink, but more like four too many? It’s both, really. That loser up there onstage may be a pathetic lush, but – so thinks our Drinker, uneasily – so am I. So, indeed, are we all! And that last slurry excuse in response to the Barman’s hustling could be coming from the Drinker’s lips, or it could just as easily be spoken by the Singer. The two men, alike in their fondness for booze and maybe in other things too, are both extremely drunk.

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Meanwhile, as befits someone whose role in the bar is to sing loudly into a mic and occasionally disrupt conversations happening around the room, the Singer himself barges in during the choruses, a second voice offering a second point of view on the action. It’s a voice that nobody’s listening to. The Singer wonders why he puts himself through this, and what he gets out of it, and what he hopes to achieve. He’s as low as our Drinker, in his way, and this is some pretty heavy thinking for a room more or less designed to discourage overly-dispiriting ruminations. At least he couches it in a pretty little melody – the verses, after all, have been flat as a board, almost defiantly unhummable, but now the key changes, and the mood lifts as we hear the Singer’s musings:

Please don’t ask me why I do it
It’s the same old step from the same old shoe
But if the customers like it, they’ll keep on paying
If they keep on drinking, they’ll end up staying
If you try a little harder, I know that you can play
Just like a jukebox…

How wonderful is that first couplet, which serves as a sort of pre-chorus? It’s an almost sweet declaration of helplessness in the face of function. Frankly, the Singer insists, he plays these songs because he has to: he’s been built to sing songs the way a shoe is made to take steps. And then we’re given the gorgeously-grim arithmetic that Costello will later salvage for Trust’s “From A Whisper To A Scream”: if the customers like what he plays, by which he means if they aren’t too put off by it, then they’ll stay – which, because their continuing to pay for their pints will keep the Barman happy, means the Singer will be permitted to remain onstage and fulfill his purpose in life, singing, for just a little longer. The Singer then reminds himself why he’s here: he is, or at least he aspires to be, “just like a jukebox,” an automated dispenser of song to make the hooch go down easier.***** His task, of course, is to put just enough feeling into the music to accompany drinking without distracting from it – and to keep, needless to say, his own pitiful feelings out, because those would only make everybody sad. In a room filled with men imbibing to take their minds off it all, the Singer necessarily has in his performance the same objective of mindlessness. This is a place everyone goes to, to push the rest of the world away.

Thus are the two men linked, the song intercutting between them almost cinematically: we’re tight on the Drinker at the bar; we jump to the Singer slumped gloomily at the mic onstage; we cut back again at a critical moment. Keep in mind that “Just Like A Jukebox” predates by several years Costello’s more ballyhooed attempts at rendering film in song, “Watching The Detectives” and “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.” At the risk of speaking ill of holy writ, the device works even better here, if admittedly with an effect less impressionistic. The agenda of “Just Like A Jukebox” isn’t, as with those later songs, to disorient the listener, but to use its cinematic techniques to compare and contrast its two main characters. Indeed, through them we’re invited to consider how much the first speaker’s initial derision for the second is misplaced, since after all these two men are so much alike. Not to present you with a riddle as lame as Costello’s Gallagher-brothers joke, but why does the sadsack Drinker drink? Well, it’s for the same reason the Singer sings: both actions are, when it comes down to it, “the same old step from the same old shoe.” And what is it the customers have to like, in order to keep ponying up for beer? It’s the performance by the band, to be sure, but it’s also all of it – the music, the atmosphere, the company at the next stool. The Drinker is as much a part of this community as anybody else, as crucial to its continuing operation as the band is. And what is it to be “just like a jukebox”? Sure, it’s to crank out song after song, tirelessly and cheerfully. But extend the metaphor a little more, and just being alive is like a jukebox too. You do what’s expected of you, whenever you’re asked to. You put up with your woman stepping out, you drown your sorrows in drink, you go home when you’re told and the next day you wake up and do it all again. A coin is inserted, and you perform your function – just like a jukebox. There’s something faintly heartwarming, in the end, about the connection the song depicts. It’s gossamer-thin, as big as smoke disappearing in the air, but it exists, and that’s enough: the Drinker has come here in search of someone to sympathize with him, and in recognizing a sort of existential simpatico between himself and the Singer, he attains that; the Singer just wants someone to hear him for a second, to do more than just nod along to the music the way they would to an inanimate machine spinning 45s in the corner, and in managing to get the Drinker to look up at him and feel, if nothing else, sorry for him for a moment, that’s what he gets. It’s a victory for both, however minor, and one these two lushes probably won’t even remember in the morning – but such are the wins achieved while in one’s cups. It doesn’t diminish them any, as any good bartender can tell you.

Speaking of which, I feel obliged, before moving on, to mention the third fellow in the song: there’s also this Barman, who slings pints and looks on impassively, and who nudges himself into the narrative very briefly in that third verse when he points out the hour and suggests, to one or both of these guys, probably both, that they mosey on home. It’s possible he speaks only that one, rather pedestrian line: “It’s getting late, you better make it to the door…” It’s a snippet of dialogue that could well be indirect, reported to us as it’s heard by its addressee, whoever that is. But it’s also possible, if we want to push the lyric a little, to find the Barman all over the song. Maybe he’s a third speaker; maybe he’s even the omniscient speaker of everything, providing us with the Drinker’s and the Singer’s thoughts by virtue of his privileged perspective. At the risk of overreading, he could be the one who assesses the Drinker in the opening lines, observing this guy stumbling into his bar and rendering him the hero of a country song by summing him up in a couplet straight out of Nashville: the Drinker’s sputtering relationship is a “faded love”; his beer-soaked stagger “stepping out in style.” Maybe it’s the Barman who takes a gander at the Singer, retreading standards listlessly; the guy running the place would, after all, know better than anyone just how much the Singer is making, and how all that performative anguish is being traded for nothing more than “another piece of meat.” The Barman could be watching the band load out; he could be rolling his eyes as he hears the usual-usual from the drunks at closing time, with their time-honored protests of being sluggish only because they’ve had one – or four, max – more than they should have. The Barman is the guy who understands how this place works, what a bar really is, what a community it supports: how the customers liking “it” – the place in its entirety, his place – is what keeps everything running. The Barman’s serving out the pints, too, is another example of “the same old step from the same old shoe,” and it’s also the cueing up of a song, so to speak, on the jukebox that is the establishment as a whole: he inserts his coin, and pours a beer, and the entertainment and the camaraderie start. The Barman too is just like a jukebox, but he might also be the director of our little movie, aiming the camera at whatever we’re supposed to be paying attention to. His is the overarching, hopefully objective perspective on everything, the black line between the two halves of the splitscreen that divides the cinematic panorama of “Just Like A Jukebox” into the song’s two voices. It’s not essential to pay the Barman any mind at all, of course, if you want to enjoy the song – but isn’t that true of a bar likewise, where the guy serving you your drink can be the person you’ve come here to talk to, or the person you ignore as you chat up some girl or just stare down listlessly and run your fingertip through condensation circles? Yet it’s also possible to hold him up as the key to everything, the orchestrator and observer of the song’s shimmering barroom profundity. And, crucially, that there’s a pivot upon which this entire enterprise can be seen to balance, teetering precariously, means that the balance can be disturbed.

So you’re in the Great American Music Hall on that chilly November night. Probably you’re a die-hard fan, so you bought tickets to both shows despite their C-note face value, which means at this point you’re out two hundred bucks plus fees, and you’ve been here in this packed room for coming up on six hours straight. Maybe you flew in for this, from your home in Boston or San Antonio or Eugene, so you’re jetlagged and bone-tired. You’ve bought a few too many cocktails from that fantastic bar downstairs, the one with the cute bartender with the weird piercing in her lip, and you’ve muscled your way to a good spot on the rail up top, and you’ve had to hit the men’s room for at least thirty minutes but you don’t want to miss anything or risk not being able to reclaim your place. Maybe you’re one of the three, this time, bootleggers capturing the performance for future listeners – an Elvis Costello concert in the twenty-first century, it turns out, enjoys far more enterprising preservation efforts than a mid-seventies unannounced appearance by Bob Dylan did. If so, you’ve been standing stock-still, lest the slightest motion bump your mics or add a swivel to the sonic field of your recording: your legs hurt, as does your back, and you’re starting to feel a certain numbness in your shoulders. You’re too old for this shit. Nevertheless, you’re enjoying the hell out of the show, even as it’s featured an awful lot of familiarity: built upon an in-sequence performance of My Aim Is True, the setlists are, sort of necessarily, a little predictable. But then, suddenly, as the night’s growing late, Costello plays something you’ve never heard before – something unfamiliar to you and indeed to the entire crowd, which is made up of the sort of Costello nerds who know and respect what it is to see him with Clover, and as such are fluent in his catalog, backwards-and-forwards. Everyone in this room is well aware when something pops up that isn’t canon. You, like your counterparts in a different audience thirty-two years earlier, fall silent. You listen eagerly. You steel yourself to tell your neighbors to pipe down, not that any of them would dare pipe up. There’s a kind of determination that falls over the room, a tension that comes with resolute listening, with pushing through fatigue and inebriation and discomfort and age to grab, like the good-hearted but greedy residents of a small town showered with banknotes from an overturned Brinks truck, at what Costello is playing for you. Things draw taut. The sheer weight of the song builds until it can’t be supported any longer: like the folks at the Other End back in ’75, you laugh.

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Strictly speaking, of course, you laugh twice. First, you laugh at Costello’s Gallagher-brothers joke, but that’s just you trying to be generous. Then, after being carried through this strange song with its shifting perspectives that you probably can’t even latch onto on a first listen, you’re presented with an image goofy enough to serve as an opportunity for release, and you laugh again. Costello has been singing about his Singer’s band, who’ve knocked plenty back over the course of their set, and how they’re stowing their things in the car, in the course of which almost routinely – perhaps they do this every night, the way many a musical outfit in the seventies surely did in real life – they have to “pick up the drummer and put him in the trunk.” It’s a funny image, slapsticky and comical, immediately imaginable – this guy might be a cousin of the drummer from “Ghost Train,” who “threw up in the sink” – and a ripple of amusement runs through the room. But this – let’s be clear – is not the dutiful, supportive laughter Costello received, because this crowd loves him, when he made that crack about Oasis. This is a different kind of laughter – a kind we’ve heard before, on the Dylan tape: this is relieved, happy, encouraging, ballooned with satisfied release like the lungs of a diver gulping down air before he plunges again into the dark depths. Listen to the tape – any of the three. The audience, after signaling their presence with that chuckle in the song’s introduction, falls pin-drop quiet. But then Costello offers up that image, the hiccupping drummer being shoved into the boot of a car, and people are pleased by it, delighted by it, lifted and exulted by it. They get it. Surely, once again like that first audience for “Abandoned Love,” this is the sound of a crowd who, even as they’ve known it’s good, haven’t been sure what to make of what they’ve been treated to up to this point, and are grateful for some little something they can latch onto. Their quiet befuddlement heretofore isn’t about being washed around in a great tide of poetry, the way Dylan’s crowd’s likely was – Costello’s lyrics here contain few mysteries, few odd constructions – but more about never having heard this song before, and having to listen in a different way than they’ve been listening all night long. They laugh, and as with “Abandoned Love,” the laughter is oddly disruptive. And, also as was the case thirty-some years prior, the laughter changes “Just Like A Jukebox.”

Just as we did with Dylan, we can wonder what Costello made of it. Now, the connection I’m drawing between these two songs is, I admit, one entirely dependent on an accident of accessibility, in that both these very disparate pieces of music exist almost solely as bootlegs whose crowds can be heard stepping on one-off performances. Otherwise, they could hardly be more different: Dylan was working in a folk tradition, stringing together a series of chorusless verses bobbing upon a melodic line like a ship on a sea, whereas Costello’s is a popular ditty, verse-chorus-verse in structure, catchy and singable. (Indeed, like many of his Honky Tonk-era compositions – “Cheap Reward,” for instance – he’s overburdened the song’s refrain with hooks, to the point where he’ll be able to strip one out, easy-peasy, for use in a later tune.) This isn’t songwriting intended to lull a crowd, as Dylan’s was. But though Costello is likely asking here for the laughter he gets, requesting notice from his audience just as the character onstage in his lyric is, it’s hard to believe he really wants it. The tentativeness of the song indicates it isn’t eager to be disturbed; the lyric is balanced too shakily to be asked to be straight comedy or drama. “Just Like A Jukebox” was built for audiences who’d be far happier to hear a Slade cover, and was meant to be crooned into a room filled with indifference. If the song ever received any airing at all in the years closer to its writing, perhaps in one of the unrecorded D.P. Costello folk-club sets EC performed prior to being signed to Stiff, surely it met with a cold shrug. One imagines Elvis had grown used to hearing it in a setting of utter silence. But playing it live again, at last, all these decades after its composition, he wasn’t playing, as his Singer is, to a crowd where, if he’s lucky, a solitary Drinker happens to hear him. He was playing “Just Like A Jukebox” to an audience of devoted fans who lapped it up – and their lapping wasn’t the gratifying roar of applause or the happy visual of everyone in the stalls section leaping to their feet, but rather the earthier, cheaper, warmer sound of chuckling. Something heartfelt, delicate, precarious and personal – something not about divorce but about something that, to his twenty-one-year-old self, was probably just as fraught – had met with a response where the most palpable reaction was one of mirth. We can ask the question: was this what he wanted when he wrote “Just Like A Jukebox”? It’s as unanswerable, however, as when we asked it of the laughter Dylan elicited in “Abandoned Love.” But like that other, very different song, there’s a sense that the laughter, for better or for worse, contributed to the song’s being relegated once again to oblivion after a single airing.

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There is, after all, as much push-and-pull in “Just Like A Jukebox” as there was in “Abandoned Love,” and that delicate construction is what makes both songs function. Dylan’s song worked a seam of musical tension between jaunt and despair; Costello’s wavers between near-tuneless verses and the happier shuffle of the chorus, a reflection perhaps of the tug between the Drinker’s and the Singer’s perspectives, balanced on the fulcrum of the Barman’s. Dylan’s is about a relationship that, in a matter of moments, will no longer be a relationship; Costello’s about men trying to obliterate all thoughts of the world yet, contrary to that intent, finding a glimmer of connection with someone else that makes the world worthwhile. The songs are comedies, yes, but they’re also dramas, and they’re both those things and also neither of them the way Schrodinger’s cat was and at the same time was not: both songs totter on a wire, and neither is built for the buffeting of attention that laughter represents. Their magic is one of suspension; the fact of hearing them via bootleg spotlights that glaringly – more than anything, this music hovers between being unheard, as they were in the seconds before these recordings began, and being heard, as they become before our ears in the space of the capturings we can listen to today. And once they’re heard, judgment is rendered by their audiences – and the fact that the judgment in both cases is approving is unimportant. The answer to the unanswerable question of why these songs were recalled, yanked back into obscurity after being allowed to take a tentative step into the glare of public scrutiny, lurks stealthily within that laughter.

“Abandoned Love” made it out eventually, but nobody pays much attention to that Biograph version from ’85; “Just Like A Jukebox,” meanwhile, doesn’t seem ever to have been recorded at all, and it was never given any kind of a proper release. Even those three bootleg recordings of it are will-o’-the-wisps: as of this writing, the song can’t even be found on YouTube. We shouldn’t be able to listen to these songs, let alone listen and relisten and study them and pick them apart. That we can is a miracle. It’s a bird alighting on your outstretched finger, who tilts its head and regards you for a moment and then wings away. This music lives in a suspended moment, a glimpse of a blizzarded house within a snowglobe, in those few illicitly-captured minutes while the flakes were afloat. The two audiences gave the two songs the courtesy of breathless attention, but the songs weren’t quite strong enough to handle it. Maybe that makes them better songs. Maybe it makes them the best songs of all. The magic of them is that, even for a moment, we can hear what they were when they first appeared. The tragedy of them is, that they weren’t that thing anymore by the time they were through.

Recorded (if at all): MacManus house, 1975. DM: vocals, guitar. Never released. To our knowledge it was played live only the once, in 2007.

* The power of bootlegs at work: “Abandoned Love,” despite not even officially existing, still managed to cast its spell on such luminaries as George Harrison and the Everly Brothers, both of whom recorded covers during those years the song spent as nothing more than a wisp of tape smuggled surreptitiously out of the club. Some music simply can’t be restrained, and makes its way out into the world whether its author likes it or not.

** Once, I should say, that we know of. It’s hard to believe it was never performed during Costello’s folk-club days, but as none of his D.P. Costello-era setlists have been preserved, it’s impossible to say either way. As we can only talk about what we know, for our purposes it ambled shyly onstage just the one time, and then retired into eternal obscurity.

*** Drummer Mickey Shine, may he rest in peace, either declined to participate or was not invited, depending on who you talk to. I mention this solely for the record. Pete Thomas percussed in his place, not that anyone save Costello played on the particular track under scrutiny here, which was performed solo acoustic.

**** For what it’s worth, Costello tells the same story in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, but the posers of this request are far less Gallagher-like, and not incidentally female:

For a short while, our Friday-night gig was at The Crow’s Nest, a pub in Widnes, a short drive in Allan’s Ford Anglia, overburdened with guitars and equipment, along the north bank of the Mersey into rugby league territory, where the accent tips to the sort of flat Lancastrian dialect that sounds as if the speaker has just been hit with a plank of wood.

We hauled in our “PA,” two heavy, homemade wooden speaker cabinets painted lime green, through which both our voices and guitars were amplified. The few bored-looking girls, nursing Babycham, sat puzzled through a few of our more esoteric songs and then ventured out of their corner to make a sarcastic-sounding request.

“Do you know any Slade?” they said with a sneer.

None of our songs bore any resemblance to “Cum On Feel The Noize,” so we gave up on Widnes, or maybe Widnes gave up on us.

***** I’ve noted elsewhere Costello’s fondness for imagery that turns human beings into machines, and needless to say it’s not usually meant in a positive way. But, as was the case with “Radio Soul,” here it doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing to be machinelike, provided the machine you’re turning into is one that plays music. To be a jukebox doesn’t seem quite so unmitigatedly positive as to be a radio, but still I’d go so far as to say Costello is mildly approving, in “Just Like A Jukebox,” of his characters’ efforts to comport themselves like the titular device.

Top to bottom: Dylan in 1975, around the time he wrote “Abandoned Love”; the Great American Music Hall marquee from the night of the EC/Clover gigs in 2007; Dylan on a break from the Rolling Thunder tour, perhaps contemplating how it’s all “the same old step from the same old shoe”; The Singer, in his schoolboy days; EC fronting Clover at that SF gig, photo by Katy Raddatz for the San Francisco Chronicle; one more backstage Rolling Thunder-era shot of Dylan. All the Dylan photos are by the great Ken Regan.

2 comments

  1. Jay Essman · March 20

    At the risk of seeming too pedantic, Harrison was a close friend of Dylan’s and was probably given a copy of the studio version of “Abandoned Love,” on which his recording was based. The Everlys probably got it from Dylan’s management company. Highly doubtful that bootleg was the source for the well-connected, though it was a godsend for the rest of us.

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  2. ecsongbysong · March 25

    No shame in being pedantic! Far be it from me to discourage pedantry. Your point is very well-taken, and much appreciated, and your suggestion about how the song percolated through the industry almost certainly true.

    I remember being disappointed when I learned that, I dunno, “Million Dollar Bash” on “Unhalfbricking,” say, is there not because Fairport Convention had gotten their hands on some obscure “Basement Tapes” bootleg but because they’d walked into a London music publisher’s office and were allowed, with everything completely above board, to comb through Dylan songs to their hearts’ content. It took some of the magic and illicitness away to think that whereas I had to find those songs in back rooms of shady record stores, there was a place where management was perfectly happy to have them live in the bright light. For what it’s worth, though, musicians from that era do seem to have been surprisingly fluent about bootlegs: John Lennon seems never to have met a Beatles boot he didn’t listen to; Jimmy Page has the most complete collection of Led Zeppelin concert recordings on earth. Dylan was the one guy all these musicians were and are genuine fans of, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of them had a scratchy LP copy of that Joe Kivak recording of “Abandoned Love” on their shelves, their access to a more pristine official version of the song notwithstanding.

    And — I’m sure I failed entirely to convey this in the above essay, but it was the idea, anyway — there is, in any song that is written and then performed and recorded and listened to and loved, an essentialness that looms above grooves in vinyl or oxides on tape, authorized or otherwise. Not to get philosophical, but there’s a kind of Platonic ideal of a song that every specific performance or recording of it can only partake of — and, in the case of “Abandoned Love” and perhaps “Abandoned Love” alone, this one live-in-Seventy-Five performance somehow doesn’t just replicate the Platonic ideal of the song but rather stands as it, touching the infinite, existing as perfection itself. It’s an extraordinary, and extraordinarily rare, thing — and an exceptionally beautiful thing too.

    I should note, while I’m here, that since I wrote this essay “Just Like A Jukebox” has been aired a second time. EC busted it out at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on October 3, 2016. “I never do this,” he muttered before playing it; he seemed surprised to find himself singing the words. The performance was a shade unsteady, and you got the sense once it was over that Costello would be putting the song back in the drawer for a very long time — which is a shame, as it’s very, very good. Regardless, there are now exactly two, rather than exactly one, recordings of the song out there. Does that change what I had to say in this essay? I suppose it does — and, at the same time, and in the spirit of not discouraging pedantry, I have to insist that it also doesn’t, at all.

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