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Last Thoughts on Woody

The voice of Bob Dylan the music of Chris Copping

It was a great pleasure, a few days back, when a CD dropped into my pigeonhole at work, containing the latest versions of a most intriguing extended piece of music featuring two artists whose work I've always enjoyed a lot: Chris Copping and Bob Dylan!

Entitled Last Thoughts on Woody, the music sets, and offsets, Dylan's bizarre, scathing, ultimately uplifting stream-of-consciousness, towards the end of which he mentions the dying Guthrie, the singer-writer hero of his youth, in a more-or-less spiritual light. Since Chris Copping is by his own admission 'a huge fan' of Dylan there is perhaps a double, nested act of homage in this highly original and highly commercial concept [Excerpt 1 (mp3) all the excerpts on this page are about 400k].

A tiny bit of history: Dylan met Guthrie in early 1961 as the latter lay in a New Jersey hospital suffering from Huntington's Chorea. This was the very start of Dylan's career: Song for Woody, Dylan's first recorded original composition, was written a month later, and eight weeks or so after that he gave his first paid performance. Two years on, Dylan gave a major concert at New York's Town Hall, his first ever recital of only self-penned pieces, and it included the Guthrie poem Chris Copping has now set to music, the only known instance of Dylan reading his own poetry or prose in public. Columbia recorded the show, which was widely bootlegged, bits finding an outlet on Greatest Hits Vol. II and Biograph, and Chris came to know it from the Columbia boxed set, 'The Bootleg Series'.

Last Thoughts is a wide-ranging text of many moods, partly a quest for salvation and a quest of hope, ending with Dylan looking either for the right church to find God in, or for Guthrie dying in hospital: its strange 'Grand Canyon' finale needs to speak for itself [Excerpt 2]. Eliot's The Wasteland springs to mind as one reads its sweeping portrayal of barrenness and disillusion. Though the text looks like a rant in the beat traditions of Whitman and specially Ginsberg, Dylan takes it at a terrific speed and with no great vocal clarity; Chris's technique of cutting it up into rhythmic chunks (there are some re-arrangements, supplying a very nice hook that links the two main parts of the piece) mitigates the rush of the original, and makes it a lot easier to focus on the imagery and the sense. I would say this does a significant service to the Dylan original, and it certainly brings out some of the Reidy parallels in his most paranoid proclamations: 'And your sidewalk starts curling and the street gets too long, and you start walking backwards though you know its wrong' / 'And you're knee-deep in the dark water with your hands in the air, and the whole world's a-watching with a window peek stare' / 'And your bell's banging loudly but you can't hear its beat '

Whereas I'd heard some preliminary work from Chris via mp3, it had always been on a 'your-ears-only' basis; this new CD came with the suggestion that we might be interested in airing a bit of it at BtP, by way of a sample of Chris's current work. The Dylan monologue had now developed into three spoken sections [Something Special Part 1, Something Special Part II, Grand Canyon and Epilogue (yes, the titles are a little bit Wormesque, and you do hear two chords that suggest that down in the forest a young man is about to come riding! [Excerpt 3]) and then the instrumental tracks, presumably for DJs to busk their own monologues over]. Furthermore it was evident that the piece had developed greatly since I'd first heard bits of it, and it had grown a great hook and some sophisticated contrasts.

This unusual meeting of elements from 1963 and 2000 was immediately seized upon by my daughter Jane, who wanted to play it at work the spoken component to ravish the 40-50-something Dylan obsessives there, who manufacture violins in the basement, and the bassy-drummy-trancey musical element to entice the 'young things' who do the non-craftsmanlike stuff in the rest of the building. [Excerpt 4]

So I mentioned to Chris that BtP would be very glad to feature this highly promising 'collaboration' and offered a number of 'prompts' to flesh out the story:

Can you elucidate the history of the project?

Chris Copping
The Bob story is as follows: I did the first slicing of his vocals eight years ago when I had limited equipment, but the idea worked and Chris Thomas really liked it (he wouldn't say so if he didn't). So last year I finally got round to revisiting it. Firstly the original just goes on in the same groove for ten minutes or so which gives it a nice beat poetry kind of thing but this time I thought it might be fun to split it into sections and have a hook there I think you said similar in an earlier e mail).

What were your technical resources?

And by last year I had amassed quite a bit more equipment. Akai S3200 and 1100 samplers, Roland Super Jupiter (bass sound, some of it through a POD amp simulator) Oberheim Xpander which I've has since '85 great for fanging the filters as it goes down a Roland M VS1 module that I use for Hammond gigs, Roland D50. And the Roland VS1680 for recording onto and everything via a borrowed Avalon 737 valve compressor /equaliser.Bob's original (mumbling) vocal was brightened up in a studio on a Focusrite eq and an 1176 compressor the rest was done at home apart from a quick master and edit.

And how does this stand with the Dylan camp?

I contacted and Dan Levy got straight back and said he couldn't guarantee Bob hearing it but gave me an address so he could pass it on to the management. He also added that he's seen a gig of ours Santa Monica Civic with the Eagles on first!! So I thought I might get treated seriously. I e-mailed two weeks later he said it had arrived and he would be passing it on shortly. Two months later I wrote again but no reply I gather Dan had done his part. By then it was pushing Christmas.

So in what spirit should the excerpts on the net be presented?

The object of excerpts on the net would be to start the ball rolling it could introduce Bob's genius to youngsters. If the thing were to be cut on to vinyl, including the instrumentals, then a DJ could have as much or as little of vocal as he chose. Anything that could lead to a singles deal would be good other than that, just to show Procol fans what CC is up to at present.

Any other work in progress? Given your evident penchant for streams of consciousness, how long before you do a setting of a bit of James Joyce?

At this moment I'm slicing up vocals of a girl that I recorded it will probably be a pop-dance thing. I've also got the parts for an Ali G track with samples of him taken from UK telly that needs a bit more work. And I have done music to KR's telegram

So there we have it much interesting activity from the Procoler-down-under, and we wish him the very best of luck with it all. Enjoy the mp3 excerpts on this page (all extracted with Chris's permission here's one more [Excerpt 5]) and let us know your reactions: these will be passed on to Professor Copping.

Chris Copping's page at BtP

Copping Music: (FAX) 61 03 9523 8654 (Australia)

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