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The Ballads of Steven Slater

Among the more rational propositions blurted forth by John Lennon in the early 1970s was a notion to release his new songs on cardboard 45-RPM singles. Lennon had just relocated from London to New York, and he seemed to be following the tracks of Bob Dylan’s bootheels from Dylan’s first days in the city a decade earlier, when he had fashioned himself after Woody Guthrie as a leftie newshound with an acoustic guitar. Reacting quickly to current events such as the Attica riot and the imprisonment of Angela Davis—so quickly that there was no time for reflection or musical fine-tuning—Lennon recorded a string of songs that he recognized as disposable as cardboard. (Most of this unaffected, if sometimes simple-minded, material appears on the period double album Some Time in New York, which also includes one genuinely thrilling, loopy vocal improvisation by Yoko on her song, “Don’t Worry, Kyoko.”)

I thought of Lennon’s vision of ready-to-crumple topical ephemera as I watched more than a dozen videos of songs about Steven Slater, the feisty Jet Blue attendant and working-class hero of the summer. These clips appeared on YouTube too quickly to have granted their writers much time for thought or the application of craft, and most of the songs are done in the Guthrie-to-Dylan-to-Lennon mode, by young or youngish white people warbling on the cusp of earnestness and snark while strumming a few first-week guitar-lesson chords. One anomaly is a rap, done to an old-school hip-hop beat track; another is a novelty song set to a Jule Styne melody, in the spirit of the 419 different gag songs written to the tune of “On the Street Where You Live” in Mad magazine during the ’60s. One, sung and played by Jimmy Fallon on “Late Night,” is lame in a way that the songwriter could defend as knowingly, wryly bad, though I’m dubious. One, a minor-key lament by a twentyish woman who could not know how much she comes off like the charming Bonnie Dobson, is fairly appealing and, at points, clever. (Chorus: “See you later, Steven Slater/Didn’t need no elevator.”) It has caught on sufficiently to be covered by at least one other home strummer!

Was Bob Dylan ever so bad? He was at his weakest in his polemical phase, and he disavowed his “finger-pointing” ballads about one-time folk heroes such as Donald White and John Brown not longer after he recorded them. Still, to look back at Dylan in his youthful folk period is to be stunned by the beauty and delicacy of both the songs and their singer. As evidence, this studio performace of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” done for Canadian television in 1964.