What’s A Sweetheart Like You Doing In A Dump Like This?
On writing your own anthems and psychic conversations between Bob Dylan and a rock'n'roll waitress...
At the end of 1983, when I was thirteen years old, Bob Dylan released the song ‘Sweetheart Like You’, and eventually it worked its way onto lounge room stereos and radio waves across Australia and soon worked its way deep into my consciousness. I became obsessed. I’d found after school employment in an array of thankless jobs from a young age; pizza bar waitressing, cafe waitressing, cocktail waitressing, house cleaning, babysitting, typing, handing out pamphlets for crappy restaurants in the street, etc etc, and something about the ‘what’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?’ scenario appealed to my tender burgeoning vanity. It was like Bob Dylan could see the real me, beneath the facade of the mythical ‘cute hat’, behind the ever churning wheels of grime, sweat and damp tea towel. He saw my shine, knew that given half a chance, I could make them tires squeal with my talents. As the years went on, the song was never too far from my stereo, or my heart. Listening always took me away, was a welcome release from the stresses of everyday drudgery, but it also began to grow a secondary notion. Its’ claws dug in in a different way.
I began to feel like he was talking to me artist to artist. I felt like he was sitting me down in an empty diner booth and straight talking to me, saying ‘I recognise what you’re trying to do here - but do you understand what you have to sacrifice for success?’. It was like a ‘Danger Ahead!’ sign from the dude watching it all go down from the sidelines at the Devil’s Crossroads. I felt like the song had become a kind of warning; of the value judgements, the demands, the dismissiveness, the hurt, the fakery, the gritted teeth, the itchy glamour, the inherently messed up world of ‘making it’. I took my own messed up comfort from that reading of it.
Twenty years after first hearing it, I felt compelled to write an answer song to it. I was still working crappy jobs, and playing a lot of rock’n’roll shows at the same time. I was both inspired and intrigued by Liz Phair’s answer album to the Rolling Stone’s ‘Exile on Main Street’, ‘Exile in Guyville’, that had come out a few years before, and had tried to understand how it worked. I played them back to back and track for track and couldn’t quite make the connection, even though I loved both albums passionately. But what I did connect with, and it really annoyed me, was that a woman’s experience of being a rock’n’roll artist was always going to contain an element of being a response to the predominantly male world of rock’n’roll we’ve grown up around - with a hell of a lot of notable exceptions of course, but never enough for my liking.
I love answer songs. Jody Miller’s ‘Queen of the House’ responding to Roger Miller’s ‘King of The Road’ (especially the totally surreal Scopitone video featuring bump’n’grinding French maids and Jody Miller just loving the suburban grind in a 50’s housecoat). Gerri Granger released ‘Just Tell Him Jane Said Hello’ in answer to Elvis’ ‘Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello’, more just the other side of the coin than a real answer song. Maybe Bob answered them both with ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. Cam’s recent killer single ‘Diane’, is a revisioned version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, sung from the point of view of Jolene herself when she comes to the horrified realization that the man she’s having an affair with is married. Joy Division’s maudlin classic ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ negated the relentlessly upbeat Captain & Tenille hit ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’. Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ and Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m a Man’ duked it out for sexual supremacy, and Peggy Lee put them both in their place with ‘I’m A Woman’ (written by songwriting kings Lieber & Stoller). Meatloaf’s epic ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’ was a playful twist on Elvis’s ‘I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’, which was playing on the radio as Jim Steinman wrote it.
So I wanted to write a song where I was the girl in ‘Sweetheart Like You’, but who she was when she gets home from her shitty job, and transforms into the songwriting machine she really is down deep inside, where money doesn’t matter and all that matters is the words spread out around her, where she looks like wreck and she doesn’t care cos she’s fired up and excited cos she’s busily invested in working on stuff thats important to her, not trying to put on a presentable or appealing front for the boss or the customers, not worn down by the relentless dumbing down of what the world requires of her for her survival. Writing the song felt empowering. More than anything, I wanted to play it for Bob. I knew he’d understand the journey it took to get there. I took his anthem and turned it into my own anthem. Just like he’d done a million times before with his own ancestors in song.
I called my answer song ‘Rock’n’Roll Tears’. In my mind, rock’n’roll tears are nothing tears, the kind of self indulgent, meaningless tear you might momentarily shed when you feel sorry for yourself cos you’re broke and nobody gets you and nobody plays you on the radio and you’ve got to get up for work in the morning. The kind of tears you allow yourself briefly in your bedroom, cos they’re great for writing a song that gets you all choked up and makes you feel something, before pulling your blessed cotton socks up and getting on with the show. I tried to rewrite the story, to twist his golden hued vision to fit my reality.
Bob told me:
You know you can make a name for yourself
You can hear them tires squeal
You can be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal
And I tried to explain myself with this conversation:
He said ‘What happened to you, you’re all rouged up
And you got soot on your knee’
I said ‘I been crawling across cut glass
Just trying to get somewhere clean’
Bob told me: You know, news of you has come down the line
Even before you came in the door
They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions
Each one of them got a fireproof floor
I laid it out for him like this:
Like my daddy before me I earned my stripes
Staying up nights, in late night bars
Standing around, stumbling on, singing my song
And loading up cars
I ain’t getting nowhere, I’m just sittin’ here cryin’ rock’n’roll tears
You know, a woman like you should be at home
That’s where you belong
Taking care of somebody nice
Who don’t know how to treat you wrong
I get his point, and that does sound nice, especially if that somebody nice is taking care of me right back, but this is how I felt then:
Holy Toledo, why don’t we go out tonight
The things that we know, the stuff in-between
I wanna get so clean
My legs is long I keep walking on
Tijuana guitar and a penny jar
And a bed full of rock’n’roll tears
I meant the kind of clean you can only get from getting down and dirty in the thick of it. Bob mused:
You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you
She wanted a whole man, not just a half
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh
In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear
It’s done with a flick of the wrist
What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?
I told him this is how the scene actually went down, and no one was going to make me disappear:
He said ‘Look at you, you’re coming apart at the seams
I said ‘No one’s been where I’m going and no one knows where I’ve been’
He said ‘You better come up for air ,you better brush your hair
And shake off this bad dream
I heard a voice say ‘Sister, c’mon, save a little love in the tank for yourself’
Just how much abuse will you be able to take?
Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss…
And warned me:
Got to be an important person to be in here, honey
Got to have done some evil deed
Got to have your own harem when you come in the door
Got to play your harp until your lips bleed
I’m tougher than I look. Rock’n’roll is my real world, waitressing never was. And waitresses know how to take more abuse than anyone, and also know more than anyone that abuse reflects far more about the person that inflicts it than the person it is aimed at.
So I replied, steadfast:
There’s lipstick on the microphone and a tear in my eye
A river running through me and a hollow piece of sky
I gotta go, I gotta go to a show
And come home, to a bed full of rock’n’roll tears
In my song, I recast the romantic co-star waitress role as the important role, the lead singer, the leader of the gang, the teller of the tale. I recorded the song with my incredible simpatico band and released it on an album of the same name. On the front cover of Rock’n’Roll Tears, my countenance replicates Bob’s on the Infidels front cover, sans sunglasses; on the back cover, there’s another photograph of me, in black sunglasses, to my mind the spitting sister image of Bob’s inscrutable Infidels front cover. I’d spent a long time inside that cover. I really took it in. My photograph was taken in front of Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Someone had scrawled ‘ROCK’N’ROLL IS DEAD’ in marker across his headstone. I liked the sound of the sentiment but I didn’t believe it. I still don’t. I know it’s an old fashioned, out-of-fashion word, and it makes millennials laugh, but I still love it. It still has a breathless energy and truth to me, and encompasses every genre that ever flipped a middle finger at the establishment it emerged from. It’s more a feeling than a sound.
People find Bob so mysterious but he always makes complete sense to me (excuse my familiarity here, in my house growing up, my father always referred to our favourite artists as part of the family - Uncle Bob, Uncle Tom, Brother Ray, Sister Aretha - so we’re on first name basis). If you listen, it’s not hard to understand the secrets he’s telling you, like ‘steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king’. It’s all there for the taking. Take what you need and make up the rest. At the end of writing my answer song, I felt like I’d gone head to head, toe to toe, with the King, conversed in a corner with the court jester and walked out crowned a Queen. By the time I was releasing the album, I had a new photograph to promote it, that looked more exactly to me like the ‘Infidels’ cover. I never breathed a word of the deep feelings inside me that inspired both the visual and lyrical references, but I knew, and I liked it. My friend Noah Taylor kindly sent me a quote to use for publicity that went like this: Wake up motherfuckers of the music industry, Australia has its own Bob Dylan and her name is Loene Carmen. I knew I could never use it, and I knew it wasn’t true, but goddamn, did I secretly love it.
To me, rock’n’roll will always survive so long as someone cares enough to take it and turn it around, or reinvent it, make it their own. It’s a crumbling surround sound wall made of human bricks stacked loosely upon each other, each needs the other to build upon and grow. Witnessing the rock’n’roll tears shed by all my imaginary compadres on the long road to getting rock’n’roll satisfaction fills my veins with hope and glory. I like living within my dearly held interior vision of a world of music makers and song singers taking turns to sit opposite each other in beat up red vinyl booths in dusty roadside diners and offer coffee and comfort and sage advice and fire each other up to keep forging ahead, on and on, cos as we all know, the road goes on forever, and we all need our own anthems for the roadtrip.