Infidels (1983) remains one of Bob Dylan’s strongest post-60s albums. The album was Dylan’s first since the “Born Again” trio from his explicitly Christian period. Artistically, fans and critics considered the album as an advance over its predecessor, Shot of Love (1981), though they still scrutinized the album for evidence that Dylan was either still evangelizing or else had returned to making secular music. Fairly quickly a third thesis about the record arose due to the number of references to the Hebrew Scriptures and because “Neighborhood Bully” was clearly a song about Israel: Dylan had abandoned Christianity and returned to Judaism. With the passage of time it became clear that, on Infidels and beyond, Dylan had not renounced his Christian identity at all but had integrated many of the apocalyptic elements within Judaism into his worldview. Infidels is particularly remarkable for its opening track, “Jokerman,” which uses biblical imagery along with Dylan’s own brand of symbolic language. Dylan also, in “Jokerman,” addresses the persona that he adopted at the height of his mid-60s fame, making the song unique in Dylan’s canon.
Dylan has not often performed the song in the past two decades, but he did so earlier on several memorable occasions: on the David Letterman show on March 22, 1984, not long after Infidels was released, and at Woodstock 94 as part of a summer tour during which “Jokerman” served as the opening number. Meanwhile an earlier version of the song, with a number of alternative lyrics, appears on the recent release The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980-1985.
The very ambivalence that the imagery exhibits towards its subject has made this song subject to “almost endless interpretations” (Williamson 195). Terry Gans, in his authoritative account of the recording of Infidels, Surviving in a Ruthless World (Dylan’s original title for the album), says “the song practically sits up and begs to be taken as autobiographical” before acknowledging that the Jokerman could also be Christ or the Antichrist (80). Is it about his return to Judaism? Clinton Heylin calls it “the self-portrait of a gnostic” (556). Daniel Mark Epstein observes that “[t]he singer addresses a character central to his iconography, the Joker, the trickster who creates illusion and is himself a victim of his own trickery.…One might say that the song [is] deconstructing the myth of the hero; the joker is a figure for all men and gods, embodying good and evil, darkness and light” (270). Seth Rogovoy, in his study of the Jewish influence on Dylan’s work, after commenting on the difficulty of giving the song “a unified, coherent reading,” suggests that the figure strongly resembles the biblical King David:
Dylan overtly refers to David in the lines ‘Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features,’ and various other phrases suit David – and Dylan – to a t. ‘Shedding off one more layer of skin / Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within,’ he sings, with great insight into both his and David’s ever-changing personality and evasive maneuvers in their (mostly failed attempts) to avoid temptation in the form of the yetzer hara, the evil urge (237).
In “Jokerman” the composer/poet assesses the moral attitudes of the Bob Dylan who created the masterpieces of 1965-1966, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. Looked at from this perspective, the imagery of “Jokerman” is patterned and consistent, not ambiguous or contradictory. The key line is the last one of the first verse: “Freedom just around the corner for you / But with the truth so far off, what good would it do?” These lines can be seen as a devout Christian’s challenge to his younger self, whose most famous songs celebrated various kinds of freedoms, particularly from society’s expectations and commandments. But the Dylan of 1983 proposes that these freedoms are ineffectual if they are not backed up by the Truth – which for Dylan is now the biblical heritage that all people in the western world do have access to. In other words, freedom untethered from the truth of religion is ultimately unproductive, even fraudulent. As Christian thought has always insisted, truth assures authenticity; freedom and truth are meant to be synthesized, not regarded as a dichotomy. So much for existentialism – one of the –isms often applied to Dylan in the 60s, the most popular brand of which boasted that freedom in and of itself is the guarantor of an authentic life. “Jokerman” insists that freedom without truth leads to moral indifference (“Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame”) and an obliviousness to evil (“You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah/ But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister.”) Satan, the prince of this world in the biblical view, has free reign in such a world of ethical relativism (“He’ll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat/ Take the motherless children of the street and place them at the feet of a harlot.”)
The mid-60s Dylan, the one that still has its hold on the popular conception of “Dylan,” is the Beat poet who don’t look back, the anarchist who wants another cigarette, the finger-pointer who would expel Mr. Jones from the room. The refrain “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune” recalls John Keats’s famous “Ode” and links the Jokerman to the British Romantic tradition that produced the earlier poet, a clear indication that Dylan himself regarded his mid-60s persona as a Romantic poet, just as the Beats conceived of themselves as the inheritors of the Whitmanic tradition. But the Dylan of the 80s, unlike his Jokerman self, does look back, and he sees his earlier Romantic attitude towards life and art as constricted.
By 1983 there was little of the Beat poet remaining in Dylan: That figure had given way to the biblical prophet. Infidels, and “Jokerman” in particular, initiates and contains all the themes that Dylan will explore over the next eight years, through Under the Red Sky (1990): The world as it stands is subject to the power of Satanic forces, and thus ongoing strife and war are inevitable; redemption will come only with the arrival of the Messiah. (The cover photo of Under the Red Sky beautifully conveys the artist’s position in his unredeemed world: Dylan is crouching in a wasteland observing the aridity of the desert landscape.) What distinctly marks the speaker’s description of the Jokerman is that the images are alternately positive and negative in their depiction of his behavior and attitudes. His artistic function in society is admirable (“Standing on the waters casting your bread”) but spiritually bankrupt (“While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.”) Carrying a satanic snake in both fists, the Jokerman is doomed to a futile existence: Both “fools” and “angels” dread their futures, but the Jokerman is without one. It’s “only a matter of time ‘til night comes steppin’ in” the speaker tells us, but the Jokerman, for all his charm and power, is evidently too preoccupied with the “nightingale tune” to come to this awareness.
Yet the chorus constantly reminds us that his earlier self, despite his spiritual sterility, does have the essence of a true poet. He dances to the “nightingale tune” as the bird flies into the heavens by moonlight, a traditional symbol of beauty, like both Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s “Skylark.” He also does manage to keep “one step ahead of the persecutor within,” presumably because he is familiar with the laws and the rituals of Judaism contained in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and because through experience he has learned how to survive in the jungle and on the sea. Yet he has had no other teachers, so he has not learned about the Messianic truth.
Several images in the song refer to the influence of 60s Dylan on his followers. He’s a “man of the mountains” who can “walk on the clouds”; he’s a “manipulator of crowds” and a “dream twister.” The speaker is aware of the reverence with which the pre-conversion Dylan was treated: “Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.” But the speaker also knows that morally the Jokerman has always been insensitive to evil: he knows what the prince in scarlet wants, but he doesn’t “show any response.”
With the release of Springtime in New York, we now have access to an alternate set of lyrics for “Jokerman,” some of them remarkable indeed, and all supporting the Messianic theme. Once again they present an ambivalent view of the title character as he vacillates between virtue and vice. On the one hand he lets “the wicked walk right into a trap,” but on the other hand “You give away all the good things that fall in your lap.” And then there is the contradiction between the Jokerman’s world fame and the emptiness in his personal life: “You’re a king among nations, you’re a stranger at home.” The song consistently implies that this state of contradiction will persist if the Jokerman goes on living with freedom but without truth.
Perhaps the most interesting lyrical change concerns the list of weapons of destruction. In the Infidels version, these weapons are waiting “behind every curtain.” In the Springtime version they are unable to drown out the sermon of the preacherman: a sermon about the “deaf and the dumb/ And a world to come that’s already been pre-determined.” “The World to Come” (HaOlam HaBa) is the Judaic term for the paradise God intends to establish with the coming of the Messiah. But before that paradise exists, and until the Messiah arrives, Satan will ensure that violence and war rule the day, culminating in the battle of Armageddon. One of scripture’s recurring symbols for evil is the wolf (i.e., “in sheep’s clothing”), and in unused lyrics for the song that Gans highlights, the wolf figures prominently: “a friend to the wolf”; “the secrets of the wolf”; the wolf will “divide your house”; and the woman in the final verse gives birth to a “wolf” today (81). In “the shadowy world” that “Jokerman” envisions, the wolf reigns, though after the coming of the Messiah, the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah) in the kingdom that the Messiah will establish.
The Dylan of the 80s, though, never ceased to be a poet as well as a prophet. Beginning with two songs he cut for the Shot of Love album but did not release at the time – “Angelina” and “Caribbean Wind” – Dylan began to move beyond biblical paraphrase to incorporate his own distinct lyrical gift. “Jokerman” continues this trend. “Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space/ Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face” shows Dylan has retained his ability to convey an indelible mood – here the mood of respite from turmoil – with just a few wellchosen images. And his list of violent perpetrators and weapons is reminiscent of his streams of language such as those in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Here we have “Well the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame/ Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain/ Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks/ Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain.” Of course, the idea he is implying is not that we need peace but that we will never have peace until the end of this world and the start of the new one, the Messianic age, his continual message between 1983 and 1990. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984, a few months after the release of Infidels, when asked if he hoped for peace in the world: “There’s not going to be any peace…It’s just gonna be a false peace. You can reload your rifle, and that moment you’re reloading it, that’s peace. It may last for a few years.” In other words, until Armageddon (which in the same interview Dylan expects to arrive in a few hundred years), there will be “Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain.”
The other songs on Infidels convey similar messages about the state of the world. “Sweetheart Like You” describes it as “a dump like this,” and claims that to be here “you have to have done some evil deed.” “Neighborhood Bully” decries the violent hostility permanently directed towards Israel, the original Promised Land. “License to Kill” blames the human egotism (especially of the male variety) that forgets about God in the urge to violence and destruction: “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool/ And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled” (what an amazing couplet!). “Man of Peace” continues the theme that there will BE no peace in this age of the world since it is Satan who often lies behind the mask of the peacemaker. “Union Sundown” decries the oppression caused by globalist economics and the failure of the United States to combat it. (In the same Rolling Stone interview Dylan describes globalism, with its refusal to value local identities, as a symptom of the end according to the Book of Revelation). “I and I” again reasserts the need to acknowledge God as the unseen but all-powerful ruler of the universe, while “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” describes the world as lacking any refuge from evil: “You know, the streets are filled with vipers/ Who’ve lost all ray of hope/ You know it ain’t even safe no more/ In the palace of the Pope,” referencing the then recent attack on John Paul II, the pope Dylan would perform for fourteen years later in 1997. Infidels presents a consistent vision of what human life is like once faith in God and the world to come have disappeared from the modern human consciousness.
“Jokerman,” then, is a key song in the Dylan canon because, if one regards its message as autobiographical, it marks the first time that Dylan the artist directly reflects on his own image, influence, and world view during the first decade of his career, the one when he exerted his greatest influence on the culture. It also signals the beginning of a new phase of his songwriting, one that departs from the explicitly evangelical Christianity of the so-called Born Again period – one partially derived from his fascination with Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth as well as his studies in 1979 at the Christian Vineyard Fellowship and instead stresses a theme that Christianity shares with Judaism, one he labeled “the Messianic complex” in a 1985 interview: the current world in which Satan has free reign will be followed by the period of the rule of the Antichrist, finally leading to the coming of the Messiah, after which the dead will rise and Satan will be destroyed. Both traditional Judaism and Christianity believe the scriptures (Isiah, Daniel, Paul) that insist upon the resurrection of bodies, to be reunited with their souls when the Messiah returns. Thus Dylan sings that he hears “another drum / beating for the dead that rise” in “Dark Eyes” and “In a twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet blows / The dead will arise and burst out of your cloths / And ye shall be changed” in the song of that title. Though both religions, following Plato, have in their popular sermons and hymns stressed the immortality of the soul, the Talmudic traditions of Judaism and the Pauline traditions of Christianity are characterized by the idea that body and soul were intended by God to be reunited in the world to come, a transformed earth, though they are separated in this age by physical death. And before the end times the souls of the righteous dead do exist in a paradise corresponding to the popular conception of heaven. Dylan’s songs show that once again he found common ground between the two religions in their eschatological beliefs.
When Dylan studied with the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn in the early 80s, he presumably came to a deeper understanding of the union of Christianity and Judaism regarding the end times. So it was not that he abandoned Christianity for Judaism; rather, he had come to see that the two religions share the same vision about the meaning and goal of human life. Infidels is the record most deeply informed by this vision. Personally he had not abandoned Christianity, as some believed at the time, as his many Christian references in his later songs attest to. Dylan had used numerous Christian allusions throughout his songwriting career, but now prophetically he saw his religious beliefs within a larger, Messianic vision in which Judaism and Christianity both participate – as “Jokerman” and the entire Infidels album emphasize. Confident in his faith, he can now see that to “dance beneath the diamond sky” – or as he puts it in “Jokerman,” to “dance to the nightingale tune” – might be sufficient for poetic inspiration, but such a dance needs the music of the Lord to lead also to personal salvation.
Dylan, Bob. Interview, Rolling Stone, June 1984.
Dylan, Bob. Interview, Spin, December 1985.
Epstein, Daniel Mark. The Ballad of Bob Dylan. Harper, 2011.
Gans, Terry. Surviving in a Ruthless World. Red Planet, 2020.
Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. William Morrow, 2001.
Lindsay, Hal, with Carole C. Carlson. The Late Great Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1970.
Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. Scribner, 2009.
Williamson, Nigel. The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, 2nd edition. Penguin, 2006.
https://thedylanreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/DR-logo-e1620168950350.png00Nicole Fonthttps://thedylanreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/DR-logo-e1620168950350.pngNicole Font2022-08-04 22:06:592022-08-04 22:09:49MAN OF THE MOUNTAINS: JOKERMAN REFLECTS ON DYLAN – SONG CORNER
“I and I”: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare’s King Richard III
With the release of The Bootleg Series Volume 16: Springtime in New York 1980-1985, I’ve been revisiting tracks from my favorite album from that period, 1983’s Infidels. I’ve always thought that the song “I and I” is one of the record’s strongest. I’m not alone in that assessment. Rolling Stone classifies “I and I” as one of Bob Dylan’s best songs from the 1980s. Dylan has performed this song more times than any other from Infidels: 204 times from May 28, 1984 to November 10, 1999, according to his website. The title phrase, repeated several times in the song’s chorus, has long fascinated me as a pithy statement of the complexity of selfhood and individuality. How can we unpack the modalities of “I and I” both in terms of the phrase itself and the song as a whole?
The phrase “I and I” has several possible levels of significance. It is a key part of Rastafarian vocabulary. The sociologist Ernest Cashmore states that Rastafarianism’s “acknowledgement of the inherence of God in man” came to be expressed “in the principle of ‘I and I’ the unity of all people” (Cashmore 1979: 26). The song’s genesis and recording have strong connections to the Caribbean Islands. The liner notes to Springtime in New York cite several interviews from the time of Infidels’ release: “‘That was one of them Caribbean songs,’ Dylan told interviewer Paul Zollo about ‘I and I.’ ‘One year, a bunch of songs came to me hanging around down in the islands. . .’ Talking to Kurt Loder in 1984, he named ‘Jokerman’ another. ‘It’s very mystical: the shapes there, and the shadows, seem to be so ancient.’” The song has something of a reggae feel and the personnel involved with the album’s recording furthers the Caribbean connection. The legendary Jamaican duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare play drums and bass respectively on all of the album’s tracks. It is plausible that Dylan was aware of the significance of “I and I” for the Rastafarian community. Yet this connection simply treats “I and I” alone and does not seem to me to address the complexity of the song, which is focused less on unity and more on self-division. There may be another level of significance to the title that better links up with the song’s themes of sleep, dreams, justice and self-division that may be traced back, paradoxically, to the namesake of the track’s bassist.
In an album that is largely a jeremiad on the direction of US and international politics and society, the penultimate song, “I and I,” might initially appear to be the record’s most personal track. As the title suggests, the song is an investigation of the nature of selfhood (Riley 1992: 271-2). Yet the song does more than simply offer a contrast between a false public and a pure private self, especially, if, as I believe, one of this song’s key intertexts is Shakespeare’s KingRichard III. In this drama, the Duke of Gloucester and later king of England is a master at playing different roles. Throughout the play he presents one face, often of kindness, purity and concern, to other characters, while revealing his true, violent intentions in a conspiracy with himself and the audience. The possible links between Richard and the speaker of “I and I” problematize any easy notions that a purity of intentions automatically comes from listening to one’s heart. “No man sees my face and lives,” sings Dylan in the chorus. Indeed, throughout the play, seeing Richard’s true face leads to death. By the end of the play, when Richard finally confronts himself, when his criminal self and his guilty conscience come together, he too is destined to die. The justice served in this play is like the justice the speaker has learned in “I and I:” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This version of justice is applied to Richard when, for example, he is cursed by his mother, “bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end” (4.4.195) and by the ghosts of his victims (5.3.154-5).
William Shakespeare’s arch-villain, King Richard III, uses the phrase “I and I” in one of his most famous soliloquies after a night of horrifying dreams before his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field (August 1485). The speech comes in act 5.3, after the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him. Each promises that he will die in battle and that his adversary, the Earl of Richmond, the future King Henry VII, will be victorious. Richard, awaking in great fear and confusion, cries out:
Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft, I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue; it is now dead midnight.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by;
Richard loves Richard, that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!
Then fly. What, from myself?
Antony Hammond comments on the significance of “I and I” in this passage: “Richard . . . is distinguishing between aspects of his personality: the clever, witty, self-reliant villain, and the conscience-smitten coward he is just now discovering. He is Legion, devil-in-man; and now the fearful self . . . surfaces and stands beside the willful Vice-demon self that rules Richard’s conscious mind” (Hammond 1981: 340). In other words, “I and I” in this play does not signify unity, either of self or between self and other. Rather, the phrase is part of Richard’s recognition of the other within the self. This recognition leads to condemnation, judgment and death.
In addition to this lexical connection, the opening of Dylan’s song “I and I” gives an ironic twist to the setting in Shakespeare’s play: “Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed / Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams.” If we take the play as our starting place, the theme of self-division is already apparent. While Richard responds to his own nightmares, the narrator in the song looks at the “strange woman” and imagines that she is sleeping sweetly with “free dreams.” Of course, the narrator cannot know this about his partner, and can only guess about the interior life of another. In Shakespeare’s play, peaceful repose is granted to Richmond, who declares after Richard’s fearful monologue: “The sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head / Have I since your departure had, my lords” (5.3.227-9).
The narrator of the song imagines that his “strange woman” must have been a queen in the past: “In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed / To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams.” The “righteous king” writing psalms is likely a reference to King David, who according to tradition, had several wives and concubines and was the author of the Biblical Psalms. Dylan’s song may initially seem to set up a key contrast between two visions of kingship: the righteous King David who composes songs peacefully in the moonlight, and the iniquitous King Richard who is awoken by nightmares and engages in monologues of self-division. Yet the Biblical portrayal of King David is ambiguous. God grants David success in battle (2 Samuel 8:6, 8:14) and David rules with “equity and justice” (2 Samuel 8:15). Nevertheless, David’s familial relationships lead to crises throughout his reign. These problems begin when he has sexual relations with Bathsheba while she is still married to Uriah the Hittite. David has Uriah killed in battle, so that he may marry Bathsheba. She laments the loss of her husband (2 Samuel 11:27) and God punishes David with the death of their son, who was conceived out of wedlock. Later David becomes embroiled in a civil war with his son, Absalom. When Absalom is eventually killed, David laments bitterly (2 Samuel 18:23). While David generally has a reputation as an ideal king, his story in the Bible also presents his reign as troubled due to his relationship with Bathsheba while she was another man’s wife (“a strange woman”). This dichotomy also serves as background to the opening verses of “I and I.”
To return to the Shakespearean connections, before his soliloquy, “a strange woman” visits Richard III. The ghost of his wife Queen Anne appears as the penultimate of his victims (5.3.160-67). Anne was not “faithfully wed” to Richard. In the opening of the play Anne condemns Richard for killing her husband and his father, King Henry VI. But through his rhetorical abilities and confessions of love, Richard succeeds in convincing Anne to marry him, even as she is following the funeral cortege of her dead father-in-law (1.2). Once they are married, Anne never enjoys peaceful sleep, but is always wakened by Richard’s nightmares: “For never yet one hour in his bed / Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep, / But with his timorous dreams was still awaked” (4.1.82-4, see also 5.3.160). Once Richard is king he starts a rumor “that Anne, my Queen, is sick and like to die” (4.2.57). Richard feels that her death is necessary. The sons of his brother Clarence must also die so that he can marry their sister, his niece, Elizabeth (4.2.60-3). Richard tells the murderer of his nephews, James Tyrrel, that the boys are “two deep enemies / foes to my rest, my sweet sleep’s disturbers” (4.2.71-2).
“I and I” also brings together several key ideas that run through Dylan’s corpus. In other writings, Dylan explores the multifaceted nature of the “I.” He does this humorously, playing on the homophony between “I” and “eye” at the end of the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited: “I cannot say the word eye anymore….when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody’s eye that I faintly remember….” Writing decades later, at the end of Chronicles, Vol. One about his early influences, such as Robert Johnson and Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny,” Dylan notes the importance of Suze Rotolo’s introducing him to Arthur Rimbaud. Dylan writes, “That was a big deal, too. I came across one of his letters called ‘Je suis un autre,’ which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier” (Dylan 2004: 288).
His repositioning and reimagining of Shakespeare is well known, from writing of the bard “in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells” in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” (1966), to Desdemona giving Othello “poison wine” in “Po’boy” (2001), to “Murder Most Foul” (2020, see Hamlet 1.5.27-8). “I and I” goes deep into questions of selfhood, self-dialogue, authenticity, and masks. Dylan’s polyvalent personae do not need recounting here. Already early in his career, he could joke to the audience in the Philharmonic Hall Concert on Halloween, 1964, that he was wearing his “Bob Dylan mask.” Shakespeare’s Richard III, too, is a master dissembler. In order to fulfill his plans to become king, he stages himself praying with two priests and pretends that he does not want the crown (3.7).
While I haven’t come across any direct evidence that Dylan was reading Richard III when he was writing “I and I,” in recent years, he has made his interest in the play apparent. In a 2008 interview with Eurozine, Christopher Ricks describes his meeting with Dylan in which the two discussed King Richard III:
Shortly before the concert I received word to come backstage, so my wife and I went half an hour before the show. And Dylan said, “Mr Ricks, we meet at last.” My reply was, “Have you read any good books lately.” . . . And he said, “Richard III.” . . . But Dylan wasn’t at all surprised by my question and he really did want to talk about Richard III. I think it was partly because there had been some films of it and partly because I’d mentioned Richard III in something I’d written about his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
In Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Ricks identifies traces of Richard’s opening monologue not only in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (Ricks 2003: 226, 229), but also in “Seven Curses” (Ricks 2003: 236). More recently, Dylan has slightly reworked the opening words of the play, “Now is the winter of our discontent” (1.1.1) in “My Own Version of You” (2020 “Well, it must be the winter of my discontent”). Here Shakespeare/Richard III meets Shelley/Dr. Frankenstein. This recent reference to King Richard III brings out issues of bodily integrity and deformity in the play that only remain latent in “I and I.” A central aspect of Shakespeare’s play is the conviction that bodily appearance reveals moral character. Thus, Richard III is hunchbacked, has a withered arm and a limp, the last of which may have been Shakespeare’s invention (Siemon 2009: 3). Richard himself declares that his body will not allow him to enjoy the current time of peace and so he must be a villain (1.1.14-31). Throughout the play, characters draw attention to Richard’s body, as when his future wife, Anne, calls him “thou foul lump of deformity” (1.2.57). Thus, if we connect the mysterious and bodiless speaker of “I and I” with Richard III, it is important to keep in mind the appearance of Shakespeare’s character.
The song “I and I” might seem like a simple exploration of private vs. public persona, or of the words that one says in public vs. the reality of one’s true self within. This reading might be made especially clear in the line, “Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart.” Yet the connection I have been trying to establish between this song and King Richard III troubles any simple expression of pure internal self that remains hidden behind public words. Richard III’s famous soliloquies represent a “sinister interiority” (Maus 1995: 40) that displays his desire for power, mastery of rhetoric, hypocrisy, ruthless violence, and self-referential dark humor. Richard’s dramatic self-reference and self-reliance can be traced back to Roman drama, both comedy and tragedy. Terence’s comedy Andria has a speaker declare “I myself am nearest to myself” (proxumus sum egomet mihi, 635). A closer parallel to King Richard III can be found in Seneca’s tragedies, which also contain examples of similar declarations of self-reliance as well as self-division. For example, in order to punish Jason for his faithlessness, Seneca’s Medea takes her own self as a model, but also is afflicted with visions of the Furies and of her murdered brother (893-977).
As his soliloquy continues, Richard brings himself before his own internal court and speaks the opposing arguments:
I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty, guilty!”
Richard’s “court of the self” can be traced back to the ancient philosophical practice of submitting one’s conscience before a judge each evening in order to investigate and correct the wrongs one has committed throughout the day. Here again Seneca, this time in his philosophical work, On Anger, provides the paradigmatic example: “Anger will stop and become more moderate if it knows that it must come before a judge each day.” Seneca notes that he uses this technique of self-judgment each night after his wife has fallen asleep. The sleep that follows is “tranquil . . . deep and free” (On Anger 3.36.2-3).
Dylan’s song explores this idea of self-dialogue and self-judgment. In addition to the violent exchange between “I and I” (“one says to the other, no man sees my face and lives”), the chorus of Dylan’s song focuses on justice: “I and I / In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.” The third stanza points out the centrality of the lex talionis: “Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face / And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” On one level, we can note an echo of Dylan’s earlier playful interest in the homophony between “I” and “eye.” On another level, the vision of justice in the song can be traced back to the Law Code of Hammurabi. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” also appears numerous times in the Pentateuch (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 19:21). Dylan’s song makes a significant change, however. While the ancient law codes enjoined retaliation against another, the phrase “I and I” suggests a mode of self-judgment and self-punishment.
There remains, however, a major objection to my argument. If you look at the most accessible version of the play at Shakespeare.mit.edu, you come to the line under investigation and read, “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.” If you pull a copy of the play off your shelf or from your local library, it is likely that you will read the same phrase: not “I and I,” but “I am I.” And so it would seem that my entire argument about the key connection between the song and the Shakespearean soliloquy “stands on brittle glass” (4.2.61). In order to address this issue, at times this exploration must enter upon the arcana of textual variants in Shakespeare’s plays that are reminiscent of those explored by Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The reading “I and I” is found only in the first Quarto (Q1) of the play, which was printed in 1597. When the second Quarto (Q2) was printed in the following year, the passage read “I am I.” Every subsequent Quarto (Q3-Q8) and the Folios of the complete works adopted “I am I,” and so it was for modern editions until the late twentieth century. At this point, some scholars began to believe that the reading of Q1 was correct. In 1976, G. Blakemore Evans argued that the reading was mistakenly changed in Q2 due to a typesetter’s “eye skip” (Evans 1976: 46). In other words, Evans surmised that while assembling the type for the end of line 184 (“I and I”) the setter’s eye “skipped” down to the similar end of the next line (“I am” 185) and erroneously changed the “and” to “am.” And so the error remained for centuries until the reading of Q1 was adopted with a lengthy note of justification by Antony Hammond in his second series Arden edition of 1981 (Hammond 1981: 340). Thus the then-new, standard scholarly edition of Richard III was published right around the time that Dylan wrote “I and I” for 1983’s Infidels. Is it too much to think that Dylan got a hold of this text soon after it was released? Was Dylan reading the then-new scholarly edition of King Richard III while writing his “Caribbean songs,” and was he struck by the return of Shakespeare’s startlingly bold description of the self as “I and I”? Admittedly, these possibilities are a stretch. Nevertheless, it is striking that this song shares this phrase.
But what if Shakespeare “really” wrote “I am I”? The scholarly debate concerning these three words from King Richard III continues today. Hammond’s restoration of the reading of Q1 was subsequently adopted by John Jowett in his edition of the play for the Oxford series (2000). Nevertheless, the reading of the later Quartos and the Folios has been adopted by James Siemon in the third series of the Arden edition of King Richard III (2009). In his note (Siemon 2009: 397), Siemon acknowledges the reading of Q1 and of his predecessors, but he does not accept the theory that “I and I” is correct and that the error possibly originated in an eye skip down to the end of the next line (“I am”) by the typesetter of Q2. He dutifully draws attention to other passages that are similar to “I am I” in the Shakespearean corpus, as well as God’s self-definition “I am that I am” in the Bible (Exodus 3.14).
A crucial parallel passage for Siemon is Richard’s earlier “claim to singularity” at the conclusion of Henry VI, Part Three: “I am myself alone” (5.6.83). Yet Siemon misses a key point in the development of Richard from his murder of King Henry VI to his final impending death in his eponymous play. Richard may have fulfilled his determination “to prove a villain,” but in doing so, he eventually realizes that he cannot live up to the declaration of undivided “singularity” that he made at the conclusion of Henry VI, Part 3. Richard’s “I and I” deconstructs the divine ideal of tautological unity (“I am I”) implied by his earlier declaration “I am myself alone” to reveal the self-division and self-judgment that lies at the core of humanity. At the end of his play, Richard is not himself alone, as is implied by the reading “I am I.” Rather, in addition to being joined and judged by the ghosts of his victims, including King Henry VI, Richard is feeling the division inside of him produced by his guilty conscience. This recognition of self-division is best expressed by “I and I.” The tenets of contemporary scholarship and the often unquestioned expectation that print books offer the definitive text may make us feel that we have to choose one version over the other as being correct and genuinely authored by Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Dylan’s own composition and performance method reminds us that we need not accept one version as authoritative to the exclusion of the other.
In his acceptance speech for the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan compared his method of composition to that of Shakespeare (See analysis of Thomas 2017: 304-10). Questions of meter, music, rhythm, how a passage or line might work when performed matter more to both authors than questions of whether they were composing “literature.” The printed corpus of Dylan’s works is nevertheless very different from that of Shakespeare. We have his notebooks, we have his archives, and we can go to his website to find the copyrighted texts of his songs. We do not have any autograph copies of Shakespeare’s works. The earliest surviving print texts are individual Quarto editions of several of his plays. King Richard III has a particularly long history of eight Quarto editions, which continued to be published even after the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. There are often great differences in the texts of the Quartos and that of the First Folio. These printed editions were likely in part put together from actors’ memories of their performances. Herein lies the problem with relying on one text as providing the “definitive” version of Shakespeare’s plays. They first lived multiple times in performance. Lines and entire scenes were added and removed from performance to performance. Sometimes we can gain a faint view of this practice when we compare different early print editions. Yet we cannot discount the fact that in some early performances the actor playing Richard III said “I and I” and in others said “I am I.” Judging from the number of Quartos produced, King Richard III was a very popular play. Performances could have varied drastically from night to night. Despite the time and effort I have spent researching and writing this piece, I find it doubtful that Shakespeare himself would have cared much whether his actor said “I and I” one night and “I am I” another. He might not have decided which version to use and might have reveled in the richness of both possibilities. In delivering the line in the middle of such a heightened and emotional soliloquy, Shakespeare’s actors themselves might not have been able to remember what exactly they said after their performance. Different members of the audience may have heard different versions during the same performance, if they were able to accurately hear the actors’ words at all. The difference of a couple of consonants likely would not have concerned Shakespeare as much as the overall effect of the play—and how full the theater was.
Herein lies the connection between Shakespeare and Dylan. While we may have the official versions of Dylan’s lyrics, this does not stop Dylan the performer from changing them in concert, either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes, these changes are major but “authorized,” such as the versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” from Blood on the Tracks and from Real Live and More Blood, More Tracks, or of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” from Nashville Skyline and from the live version during the Rolling Thunder Revue. In some cases I feel that the printed version of a Dylan song does not match what he sings on the album. The controversy over “I and I” further shows how Shakespeare and Dylan are closely related when it comes to scholarly questions of performance and printed text.
It serves as testament to Dylan’s songwriting artistry that a brief song from a largely overlooked period can take us on such a wide-ranging intellectual journey. According to my reading of “I and I,” this journey takes us not only to Shakespeare’s King Richard III, but also to scholarly debates about the text of the play, to themes that run through Dylan’s oeuvre, to questions about his reading and song-writing process while in the Caribbean, to Rastafarianism, as well as to the Bible, and ancient drama and philosophy. The themes of self-division and self-judgment in the song are reminiscent of Richard III’s (or Rimbaud’s) realization that the self is an other. “I and I” contains multitudes.
Cashmore, E. 1979. Rastaman: The Rastafarian Movement in England. London.
Dylan, B. 1983. “I and I.” Infidels. Columbia 38819, released November, 1983.
_____. 2004. Chronicles Volume 1. New York.
Evans, G. B. 1976. “Shakespeare Restored – once again!” in A. Lancashire, ed. Editing Renaissance Dramatic Texts. New York. 39-56.
Hammond, A. 1981. King Richard III. London.
Love, D. 2021. Liner notes to Bob Dylan. Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985. Columbia/Legacy19439865802.
Maus, K. 1995. Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance. Chicago.
Miola, R. 1994. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence. Oxford.
Muir, A. 2019. Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It. Cornwall, UK.
Perry, C. 2021. Shakespeare and Senecan Tragedy. Cambridge.
Ricks, C. 2004. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. London.
Riley, T. 1992. Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary. New York.
Siemon, J. 2009. King Richard III. London.
Thomas, R. 2007. “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan.” Oral Tradition. 22: 30-56.
 Evans, who along with J. J. M. Tobin, served as general editor of The Riverside Shakespeare. In the second edition (Boston 1997), the line reads “I [am] I.” The New Pelican Text of Shakespeare’s complete works (S. Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller, general editors, London, 2002), prints “I and I.”
 The 1983 BBC production of King Richard III also uses “I and I.”
 Simeon 2009: 397 cites the following Shakespearean parallels in support of Richard’s “I am I”: King John 1.1.175, As You Like It 4.3.134-6, Twelfth Night 3.1.142 and Othello 1.1.64.
 On Dylan’s links with Homeric composition, see Thomas 2007: 48-54.
https://thedylanreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/DR-logo-e1620168950350.png00Nicole Fonthttps://thedylanreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/DR-logo-e1620168950350.pngNicole Font2022-01-15 13:38:032022-01-15 13:38:03“I AND I”: BOB DYLAN AND SHAKESPEARE’S KING RICHARD III – SONG CORNER
Resurrecting Dying Voices in “Every Grain of Sand”
On November 5, 2021, at the end of the third concert of his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, Bob Dylan surprised and delighted the Cleveland audience by closing with “Every Grain of Sand.” He had not played the song since 2013, but from November 5th onward he concluded each show with poignant performances of the album closer from 1981’s Shot of Love. In the midst of the global pandemic, it took a shot of vaccine to get into the venue for Dylan’s first concerts since COVID-19 forced an end to the Never Ending Tour. For many fans lucky enough to nab a ticket, and for thousands more following the shows online through almost instantaneous bootleg recordings, the sublime tour provided the medicine we desperately needed, as did the album Rough and Rowdy Ways (released in summer 2020) which formed the backbone of the concert setlists. For other listeners tuned into a different frequency, “Every Grain of Sand” is a more somber reminder that our individual and collective fates are still very much “hanging in the balance,” as the singer puts it, and the scales could tip either way—toward salvation or damnation. No one knows the ingredients of the skeleton’s syringe on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour poster [see Figure 1 below], but it sure doesn’t look like a shot of love.
“There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere,” sings Dylan in the opening verse of “Every Grain of Sand.” It’s difficult not to hear this line as self-referential in 2021, as if the forty-year-old Dylan who wrote the song half a lifetime ago is speaking again through the medium of the eighty-year-old performer, crossing time and space and reaching out across the footlights to communicate with audiences in a very different historical moment. “Every Grain of Sand” meant one thing (well, several things) in the context of Dylan’s art and spiritual journey in 1981; it assumes additional layers of meaning in the context of 2021, and more specifically within the context of the tour’s setlist. The present article will raise more questions than it answers, but they all stem from two initial curiosities: Why did Dylan resurrect “Every Grain of Sand”? And what impact does it have on listeners in 2021?
Following closely on the heels of Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981) is generally viewed as the final installment in Dylan’s Christian trilogy. The initial reception of Shot of Love was mixed, though its stature has steadily risen over the intervening years.
Figure 1: Poster for Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour
A treasure trove of songs from the recording sessions have since been released, and it now seems that Dylan had a great album in the master tapes even if that’s not what made it into record stores. The one song from Shot of Love that was instantly hailed as a masterpiece was “Every Grain of Sand.” Even Paul Nelson, in his otherwise scathing two-star review for Rolling Stone, paused his evisceration long enough to spare one vital organ: “‘Every Grain of Sand’ is something special: the ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ of Bob Dylan’s Christian period. . . . For a moment or two, he touches you, and the gates of heaven dissolve into a universality that has nothing to do with most of the LP” (Nelson). Wordsmiths like me tend to focus disproportionately on lyrics, but it’s important to note that much of the song’s appeal has always been musical. Nelson was an avowed apostate when it came to Dylan’s born-again songs, but he was sonically enraptured by “Every Grain of Sand”: “Dylan’s beautifully idiosyncratic harmonica playing has metamorphosed into an archetype that pierces the heart and moistens the eye” (Nelson). Likewise, for Paul Williams, the most sensitive and perceptive commentator on Dylan’s Christian music, the magic of “Every Grain of Sand” comes primarily through the music. Unlocking the song’s power in the second volume of his Performing Artist series, Williams writes, “The key to the performance is its motion: it moves like the sea, forth and back and forth and back, filled with a quality of restfulness but never resting” (205). The rhythms of those motions have shifted over time—from the official release on Shot of Love (1981), to the demo on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (1991), to the rehearsal version on Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 (2017), to the most recent live incarnations in 2021. But the musical power of “Every Grain of Sand” to enthrall listeners has continued undiminished for generations. I love the touching story Laura Tenschert tells about “Every Grain of Sand” in the first season of her fantastic Definitely Dylan radio show and podcast. She recalls growing up in Switzerland and singing in a church choir. When she was sixteen her music teacher decided to have the group perform some of Dylan’s Christian songs, so he gave her Shot of Love and recommended she learn “Every Grain of Sand.” She had never heard the song at that point, and she admits to having a general aversion to Christian rock. Nevertheless, she recounts,
I took that cassette tape [. . .] and I listened to it at home—and it completely blew me away! I’m not even sure whether my English was good enough at the time to completely understand all the lyrics. But I remember that I was completely spellbound by the song and its imagery. Who knew that a harmonica could sound like that—you know, like actually good and expressive and melodic, instead of just shrill. I don’t want to be corny and say “the rest is history.” But let’s just say that there is a very direct line that leads from that moment of me hearing “Every Grain of Sand” to me being here on the radio talking about Bob Dylan every week. In the words of “What Can I Do for You?” this song “Every Grain of Sand” “opened up a door that couldn’t be shut and it opened it up so wide.” (Tenschert)
Before playing it on air, she introduces “Every Grain of Sand” as “the song that made me a Dylan fan.” The song has been winning fans and captivating listeners for four decades now, and it is sure to convert more devotees on the 2021 tour.
Apparently the first person caught in the song’s spell was Dylan himself. In a discussion with Bill Flanagan about the craft of songwriting, Dylan singles out “Every Grain of Sand” as a mystery that simply arrived from nowhere. His job was to remain receptive and committed long enough for the song to finish writing itself. He told Flanagan,
Sometimes you’ll write a song where you’ll just stick with it and get it done. You’ll feel that it’s not coming from anyplace, but it’s for you to do. There’s nothing to base it on. You’re in an area where there isn’t anybody there and never was. So you just have to be real sensitive to where you’re walking at the time. Not try to go one way or the other, just stay balanced and finish it. “Every Grain of Sand” is a song like that. Writing that song was like, “This is something that I’m going to have to stay steady with.” Otherwise it could get out of hand. You must keep it balanced. And there’s no footnotes around. It’s the kind of area where there’s no precedent for it. (831)
Dylan doesn’t often praise his own songs in such exalted fashion, so he clearly finds something extraordinary about “Every Grain of Sand.” He stresses the unprecedented nature of the piece, springing from “an area where there isn’t anybody there and never was,” covering a subject for which “there’s no footnotes around.” But critics have traced several footprints behind “Every Grain of Sand” and provided footnotes leading back chiefly to the Bible and William Blake.
In his short but influential book The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan, Bert Cartwright identifies numerous scriptural allusions in “Every Grain of Sand.” Michael Gray builds upon Cartwright’s work and extends well beyond it in Song & Dance Man III, devoting an entire chapter to explicating “Every Grain of Sand” and teasing out the eclectic threads of its rich intertextual tapestry. In the first refrain the singer declares: “In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” The second refrain offers this variation: “That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.” And the final refrain offers a third set of similes: “Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Within the context of Shot of Love, “the Master” unmistakably refers to God, and the imagery comes from the Gospels. Matthew reports Jesus as saying: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore” (10:29-31). The scriptural antecedent for the title image comes from David in Psalms: “How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand” (139:17-18). So far, so good: the song would appear to fit squarely within Dylan’s Christian oeuvre, espousing faith in God’s omnipotence and omniscience.
However, the song owes just as many lyrical debts to William Blake, who uses the scriptures as leaping-off points into the mystic. Blake inspired the Beats with his visionary poetics, and Dylan’s initial exposure probably came from Allen Ginsberg. “Every Grain of Sand” reflects noticeable influence from Blake’s shorter lyrics and self-described “songs.” The most direct echo comes from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” which begins:
To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. (Blake 209)
Blake’s focus is less on divine power than on the powerful potential of human perception. Michael Gray makes a compelling argument that “it is William Blake who, re-writing the Bible in his own unique way, hovers all around Bob Dylan’s song in relation to its themes, its language and the rhythms of that language.” Gray further observes, “Blake’s interest in taking biblical text and flying it to mystical heights is evident everywhere in his work, as is Bob Dylan’s interest in that work by his mystic predecessor; and never more so than around the texts behind ‘Every Grain of Sand’” (412). The song is no mere scriptural pastiche or restatement of pious platitudes. Like Blake, Dylan strains against the boundaries of conventional morality. And unlike Dylan’s earlier proselytizing work, which sometimes pushed listeners away with its judgmental sermonizing or zealous proclamations of righteousness, “Every Grain of Sand” is a humble, vulnerable, conflicted, ambivalent description of spiritual crisis. The singer is haunted by his past, his present strength is flagging, his future pathway is uncertain, and God’s grace and mercy do not seem guaranteed at all.
The dramatic conflict in “Every Grain of Sand” hinges upon a tension between looking back and moving forward. The singer begins with his eyes fixed toward the past and filled with tears of shame and regret: “In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need / When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed.” What a vivid image! The singer has much to confess, and the memory of his prodigious sins makes him cry so much it’s as if he’s standing in a puddle of his own tears. He invokes familiar Christian imagery and tenets of belief, but he applies them in unorthodox ways. Pools typically have positive Christian associations with baptism, but a pool of tears troubles the waters. Similarly, confession and repentance are supposed to be crucial first steps in moving forward on the righteous path toward God. In this song, however, confession seems oriented backwards, functioning more as an impediment than a catalyst for personal progress. The singer’s excessive tears threaten to wash away his seeds along with his sins, inhibiting his growth by making rejuvenation impossible. He concedes as much in the second verse: “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake.” Don’t look back. The song suggests that dwelling too long or obsessively upon the past prevents one from moving forward. The time of confession, it would seem, is coming to an end. In retrospect, Dylan appears to be signaling a pivot in his spiritual and artistic journey. “Every Grain of Sand” was the last song on the last album of his Christian trilogy. Before recording Shot of Love in spring 1981, he had already embarked upon “A Musical Retrospective Tour” in fall 1980, where he began reintegrating secular music into his setlists. Religious themes, imagery, and warnings continued to preoccupy him on Infidels (1983) and have periodically resurfaced ever since, but this song seems to mark an important milestone and turning point in Dylan’s road.
“Every Grain of Sand” is not a metaphysical battle with God so much as a civil war between opposed selves. The singer reports, “There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere / Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.” Dylan the Gemini has made numerous references over the years to his struggle with adversarial alter-egos. For instance, the line “I fought with my twin, that enemy within” in “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat)”; or “Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within” in “Jokerman”; or “I and I / One says to the other no man sees my face and lives” in “I and I.” Given the theme of dueling dual selves, and given the knowing games Dylan sometimes plays with acronyms (cf. BOB, JWH, TOOM), I wonder if he was conscious of the fact that the initials for “Every Grain of Sand” is EGOS. I and I indeed! “Every Grain of Sand” stages an internal battle for the soul of the singer, a “psychomachia” where the singer’s Good Angel struggles against his Bad Angel. It is not clear which of these figures is represented by the “dying voice within me.” The song raises a slew of essential questions with life-altering stakes: Does the dying voice emanate from the “good” self or the “bad,” from Cain or Abel? Will he confess and dwell upon his former sins? Will he backslide and return to committing those sins [cf. “I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame / And every time I pass that way I always hear my name”]? Is the dying voice better left for dead? Or is the dead voice in need of resuscitation, heeding the vocation of his true calling? “Every Grain of Sand” implies so many fundamental questions, but definitive answers elude the listener and interpreter just as surely as they elude the singer himself. Yet the singer must pursue them. Everything hinges upon the decisions he makes at this pivotal moment and the pathway he chooses. The fate of his soul hangs in the balance.
For a song poised upon a fulcrum point, it seems telling that Dylan has been torn over how to end the song. On Shot of Love he sings, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” I’m frankly not sure what that first line is supposed to mean, but it is the copyrighted lyric posted on his official website. The sentiment is clearer in the demo version of the song released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, as well as the rehearsal version on Trouble No More, where he sings, “I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan.” He retains this lyrical variation for the 2021 tour. The invocation of “a perfect finished plan” is more readily recognizable as an expression of faith in God’s divine plan, the belief that, no matter how bad things get, everything happens for a reason and ultimately serves a higher holy purpose. That said, we should not pay so much attention to the affirmative “perfect finished plan” that we forget the outcome is still irresolutely “hanging in the balance.” Gray wisely guides us back to the full context of that sparrow reference in Matthew. In this passage Jesus commands confession and obedience—or else:
Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword. (10:31-34).
Gray comments, “Far from throwing God’s infinite care over every tiny creature in his universe, as the early part of his speech might imply, it’s a severe and conditional vision: it mentions the sparrows only to devalue them in the comparison with men and it excludes from God’s care all but true Christian believers” (405). In “Every Grain of Sand” the singer may be trying to obey God’s commandments, at least some of the time, and he pledges faith in the Master’s “perfect finished plan.” He just doesn’t know if that plan will end up with him on the saved or damned side of the ledger sheet. It could still go either way, for the singer and by extension for his listeners, in 1981 and in 2021.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the deliberate dramaturgy of Dylan’s setlists. The prompting came first from Erin Callahan and Court Carney, who are editing a forthcoming collection of essays on the subject. There have also been a lot of discussions on this topic led by Laura Tenschert on Definitely Dylan and her affiliated Patreon group. In particular, her treatment of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Baby Blue” as bookends for Shadow Kingdom (listen to the podcast “Shadow Kingdom: A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) has helped to clarify my thoughts about Dylan’s setlists on the fall 2021 leg of Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour. The reintroduction of “Every Grain of Sand” is no coincidence. The song is highly compatible with the Rough and Rowdy Ways-centric setlist, and it serves a pivotal function as culmination of and release from the theatrical experience Dylan and crew deliver each night.
Figure 2: Title Page for Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake (1826 edition)
What summoned the song up from the depths of Dylan’s deep back catalogue? In part it must have been auguries of experience from William Blake. After decades of unnamed influence, and following a direct allusion to Blake’s “The Tyger’” in Tempest’s closing song “Roll on John,” Blake finally earns a public shout-out by name in “I Contain Multitudes,” the opening track on Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the first song from the album played in each of the 2021 concerts. The title “I Contain Multitudes” is taken from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and a number of other influences across the cultural spectrum get named in the song. He numbers Blake among the multitudes: “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake / I have no apologies to make.” Two things are interesting about this allusion. The first is that he hacks off half of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience [see Figure 2 above]. Dylan is long past innocence at this point, and so are his audiences. In fact, Rough and Rowdy Ways might just as well have been titled Songs of Experience. The other interesting thing is that second line: “I have no apologies to make.” This might seem at first like a non sequitur, but it is not. “I have no apologies to make” is a paradoxical echo of the opening of Dylan’s most Blakean song, “Every Grain of Sand”: “In the time of my confession.” From confession in 1981 to no apologies in 2021. Except that Dylan’s dramaturgical sequencing of the setlist actually reverses the trajectory, going from the braggadocio of “I have no apologies to make” early in the show to the contrite “In the time of my confession” by the end. Dylan’s individual songs function as scenes within the dramatic arc of his live performances. The songs build upon and respond to one another—reinforcing and refuting, complementing and complicating—working in tandem to create a holistic theatrical experience for each show. “Every Grain of Sand” means one thing considered in isolation, it means something different reconsidered in context with the other songs on Shot of Love, and it sends new and distinct signals in live performance as epilogue for the 2021 concerts.
In “Thunder on the Mountain” (a staple of Dylan’s tours in recent years, but absent from the 2021 shows) he declares, “I’ve already confessed—no need to confess again.” But the hour of his (and our) deepest need seems to have returned with a vengeance since 2020, and accordingly an impulse for confession has crept back into Dylan’s most recent work. Two other Rough and Rowdy Ways songs in the setlist explicitly use the word. The magisterial “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”—the anchor of the 2021 shows—foregrounds confession from the start: “McKinley hollered—McKinley squalled / Doctor said McKinley—death is on the wall / Say it to me if you got something to confess.” The setlist moves from deathbed confession to a raunchier roadhouse variation in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the song that immediately precedes “Every Grain of Sand” in concert. There the singer leers at a “Transparent woman in a transparent dress / It suits you well—I must confess.” Feeling an urge to confess again, the time is ripe for a revival of “Every Grain of Sand.”
Dylan could have placed “Every Grain of Sand” anywhere in the setlist, so why give it pride of place as the concert’s closer? He probably doesn’t overthink these things. It felt right: good enough for him. Ah, the hours we readers and contributors to the Dylan Review could save if that were simply good enough for us! But it’s not, obviously, and it never will be. Dylan creates; Dylanologists review. His intuitive calculus may have been primarily musical. He described the song as a “mood piece” to Flanagan (832), so maybe it simply fit the mood he wanted to end the show with. Whether he arrived at this decision intellectually or instinctively (one assumes the latter), he must have sensed what a compatible bookend “Every Grain of Sand” as closer makes with the tour’s regular opener, “Watching the River Flow.”
Many common lyrical elements run through both songs. First let’s dig into the sand. Alongside associations with God’s particularized knowledge discussed earlier, sand is also associated very closely with time, as measured by sand falling through an hour-glass. The most overt reference to time in “Every Grain of Sand” comes in the line: “The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way.” Really, though, the entire song is a meditation upon the ravages of time, and the competing impulses to return to the past or move ahead into the future. The sands of time play a crucial part in “Watching the River Flow,” too. This song also features a singer who is stuck between his current life and his next life. He dreams of returning to the city and reuniting with his distant love. The song is rollicking and upbeat, and the lyrics contain lots of movement: trucks roll, birds fly, winds blow, and the river ceaselessly flows. But not the singer. He is a stone gathering moss. He makes his way from a café to the riverside, but that’s as much get-up-and-go as he’s got. Instead, as he repeatedly declares, “I’ll sit down on this bank of sand / And watch the river flow.” This water song is no “Proud Mary” “rollin’ down the river,” but rather “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” resituated on a sandy riverbank. In a sense the concert travels a great distance only to return full circle where it began: from the sandy riverbank of “Watching the River Flow” to the sandy seashore of “Every Grain of Sand.” No dancing beneath a diamond sky on circus sands here. These bookend songs feature characters whose hour-glasses are clogged.
Yet “Every Grain of Sand” has more forward momentum than “Watching the River Flow,” even if moving forward does not necessarily equate to hopeful progress. Lines like “every time I pass that way” and “onward in my journey” suggest a character who has gotten off his knees and has begun to walk again, even if he’s not yet sure where he’s going. The final verse of “Every Grain of Sand” begins, “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea / Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Many listeners, myself included, immediately think of the kitschy poem “Footprints in the Sand” when hearing these lines. Such an association presupposes that the entity following the singer is a supportive Lord. However, given the moral ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding the singer’s fate, listeners shouldn’t take salvation for granted. Those ancient footsteps behind him might just as well be hellhounds on his trail. Or is time catching up with him? At this point in the concert, maybe we should hear an echo in the “ancient footsteps” of “Every Grain of Sand” back to the “ancient footprints” in an earlier song (and exact contemporary with “Watching the River Flow”), “When I Paint My Masterpiece”: “Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble / Ancient footprints are everywhere.” Time eventually reduces all human constructions to rubble; give it some more time and the rubble will erode into sand (ask Ozymandias). Or maybe those foreboding footfalls come from time’s enforcer, the Man in the Long Black Coat, the Grim Reaper himself; better known in this concert as Black Rider: “Black Rider Black Rider all dressed in black / I’m walking away and you try to make me look back.” [Hint: don’t look back]. This reading resonates with the tour poster, which adapts the cover for The Shadow #96, featuring dapper Death calling to collect his next victim [see Figure 3 below]. In 2020 this same modified image was used for the cover of the “False Prophet” single, another song filled with Blakean references as Bob Jope shows in his piece for the website Untold Dylan.
Figure 3: Cover for The Shadow #96 (July 15, 1942) by Maxwell Grant
Speaking of shadows, those footprints in the sand might just as well come from the adversarial shadow self, since doppelgängers always crave to track down their doubles. After all, the precise phrasing in “Every Grain of Sand” is “Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Is the dying voice within now externalized in the form of a stalking alter-ego, shadowing the singer and gaining on him from behind? “You could almost think that you’re seeing double.” Rob Reginio drew my attention to another Blake allusion from “My Spectre,” encompassing the shadow self as well as the dying voice and pool of tears:
My Spectre around me night & day
Like a Wild beast guards my way
My Emanation far within
Weeps incessantly for my Sin. (Blake 195)
The spectral shadow self also intermingles suggestively with the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour poster, where the creepy skeleton in the foreground is rendered even more menacing by his silhouette shaped like a hanged man [see Figure 1]. How’s that for hanging in the balance? Musically, even without Dylan’s beautiful harmonica in 2021, “Every Grain of Sand” is so serene, viscerally imparting a sense of calm tranquility. Lyrically, however, it elicits starkly different sensations, dramatizing a singer who might be escaping on the run or might be stumbling into an ambush.
Confession: I think too much about Dylan’s words. If this is a sin, my punishment is that I couldn’t be content with my initial elation as I walked out of the Aronoff Center into downtown Cincinnati after seeing Dylan in concert on November 9, 2021. I felt what others felt—what a gift! My immediate sensation after hearing the final song was like I had just received a fast-acting inoculation against danger, bitterness, despair, and loneliness. I walked away feeling healed by “Every Grain of Sand,” which is exactly the power Paul Williams ascribes to the song: “‘Healing’ is an appropriate word. The song is intensely personal, for listener and singer both; the intimacy of confession, the honest sharing of a sense of sinfulness and despair, creates a possibility of genuine assurance. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ cuts through doctrine and proselytizing and speaks directly to the listener’s need” (205). The listener’s need: I suppose I heard what I needed to hear. As we’re all learning, however, vaccines (including shots of love?) begin to lose some of their efficacy over time. I haven’t lost the magic of that night’s performance; if anything, in listening to subsequent concerts I have become increasingly awed by the time-defying, life-renewing power of Bob Dylan as a live performer. Nevertheless, my understanding of “Every Grain of Sand” has become more complicated and shaded the longer and deeper I’ve contemplated what it says, and what it doesn’t say.
“Every Grain of Sand” actually doesn’t say that everything is going to be okay, certainly not for everyone. Describing the effect of “Every Grain of Sand” on the first night at the Beacon Theatre (November 19, 2021), Anne Margaret Daniel writes, “His performance of it now is something beyond, and above, elegy: a goodbye that has its original meaning of God be with you” (Daniel). God will certainly be with us, according to the song, but we might not like what God does with us. Dylan evidently believes firmly in God, believes in a divine plan, and believes that individual and collective fates are governed by the Master’s hand. But that Master has a right hand and a left: he has a plan that saves some and damns others. One doesn’t have to interpret the song within the strict Christian framework in which it was written to hear its contemporary relevance. Things might be all right. They might be getting better. Or they might be getting worse. As Andrew Muir recently reminded me, “Every Grain of Sand” echoes not only the Bible and Blake, but also Hamlet’s moment of acceptance, when he recognizes he can neither predict nor fully control his destiny: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now; yet it will come. The readiness is all” (Shakespeare 5.2.197-200).
A full appreciation of “Every Grain of Sand” means acknowledging both its exquisite, uplifting beauty and its irresolute, unsettling uncertainty. These same Janus-faced qualities and animating tensions are on forceful display throughout Dylan’s recent recordings and live performances. The title Rough and Rowdy Ways sounds to me like a road sign at another Dylan crossroads: the rough road of righteousness heading one direction, the rowdy road of iniquity heading the other. It’s the location and condition of some of Dylan’s greatest work, including “Every Grain of Sand,” in both its nascent form from the evangelical period and its resurrected form by an octogenarian who has apparently been gulping from the fountain of youth. Listeners may or may not share Dylan’s theological framing of the problem, but by this point in the pandemic—to name only the most immediate and pervasive of our shared threats—we all know what life lived “hanging in the balance” feels like. We know the steady accumulation of troubles like grains of sand into a heap, as Clov describes it at the beginning of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause.] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. [Pause.] I can’t be punished any more” (93). Dylan cannot cure all that troubles us, but he sure has been a welcome, reliable, generous, sure-footed guide “in the sorrow of the night.”
Those dangers still await audiences as they exit the auditorium and return to the world outside. But inside the world he crafts for us in the theater, Dylan gives us a light to take with us back out into the darkness. Ultimately, I find myself as a listener thinking about “Every Grain of Sand” in much the same way Dylan described it as the songwriter: “‘What’s this like?’ Well, it’s not like anything. ‘What does it represent?’ Well, you don’t even know. All you know is that it’s a mood piece, and you try to hold onto the mood and finish. Or not even finish, but just get it to a place where you can let it go” (Flanagan 832). Dylan conjures the mood, finishes the performance, then lets us go, leaving us to meditate upon what we’ve experienced, and releasing him to rev up the tour bus and head down the road to dispense his musical potions again.
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett. Faber and Faber, 1986, pp. 89-134.
Blake, William. “Auguries of Innocence.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, W. W. Norton, 1979, pp. 209-12.
—. “My Spectre.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, W. W. Norton, 1979, pp. 195-96.
Cartwright, Bert. The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. Wanted Man, 1985.
https://thedylanreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/DR-logo-e1620168950350.png00Nicole Fonthttps://thedylanreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/DR-logo-e1620168950350.pngNicole Font2022-01-15 13:38:012022-01-15 13:38:01RESURRECTING DYING VOICES IN “EVERY GRAIN OF SAND” – SONG CORNER
SONG CORNER BY Sarah Gates, St. Lawrence University
“The Truth Just Twists”: Psychedelic Irony in “The Gates of Eden”
“The Gates of Eden” must be one of Bob Dylan’s more opaque songs, since there is so little commentary on it, and that little only addresses the lyrics—and not all of those. For example, Michael Gray discusses only two of the song’s nine verses to claim that it is about “balances of opposites” (62-63), while Nick Smart and Steven Heine look only at its refrain, calling its Eden “a vision of paradise” (186) and “the locus of non-dual truths” (126), respectively. To me, such readings do not capture the haunting, ominous quality of the song, when it is apprehended as a whole. Here, I will explore all the verses and the music, the whole song, in order to describe a tone and mode that Dylan uses so effectively in works throughout his career, but which he honed especially well in this early period. I like to call this mode “psychedelic irony” for its blend of imagery that invites and escapes rational analysis with an accompaniment built on an ironic musical sleight of hand.
The Kingdoms of Experience: Psychedelia
When I use the term “psychedelic” as a way to describe the particularly cryptic effect created by lyrics of songs like “The Gates of Eden,” I mean first that Dylan does verbally something akin to the sensory effects brought on by ingesting a psychedelic substance. The images and vignettes in these songs seem to me to perform a swirling, shape-shifting intertwinement not just of visual phenomena, but also of phenomena from the other senses, of ideas, figures, scenes, and of phrases from other songs and literary works. Other commentators have noticed Dylan’s intertextuality. Rona Cran calls his style “collagesque” and connects his work to that of modernist poets and visual artists (187), while Alex Ross refers to his “magpie mode of writing” (309). Christophe LeBold sums it up when he writes, “Basically, Dylan does to the great American Songbook what T. S. Eliot did to the Western literary canon” (133). These characterizations very smartly get at the way Dylan layers his songs with bits from all over the blues masters, ballads from the British Isles and Appalachia, cowboy songs, sea shanties, American standards — roots music, as we now call these forms — and those who identify them enlighten us helpfully about where the contents of these song-conglomerates come from. However, with the term “psychedelic,” I want to get at effect as well as content.
For a brief example of what I mean by this psychedelic effect, I’d like to consider one of my favorite lines from another song, and another kind of song, “Visions of Johanna”: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” Now, I don’t know what that means. I am not sure I even know what it might represent metaphorically. What is the “ghost of electricity”? And whatever it is or represents, what does “howling” mean that it’s doing “in the bones of her face”? However, I do know how vivid the image is: I know what it looks like, what it sounds like, how it feels. That bony, hollow face glows and pulses and aches; it’s starkly lit and shadowed; she’s inspired, or angry, or agonized, or ecstatic — or all of these — or the singer sees all of these in a projection onto her face of his own feeling. The full couplet suggests such an entanglement of identities: “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face / Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.” So, while I may not know what it means, I believe pinning it down to a specific meaning is not the point. We do not need to know what it “means”; we can see it, hear it, feel it. This flickering of an image among referents and sensations, like an optical illusion, is what I mean by the “psychedelic” aesthetic effect.
In 1965, too, important psychological and spiritual dimensions accompanied the perceptual dimension of psychedelic experiences. The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s not by Timothy Leary or Aldous Huxley, but by British psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond, who was at the time researching the treatment of schizophrenia. He noticed a similarity between adrenaline and mescaline molecules, which led him to theorize that schizophrenia might primarily be caused by distortions of perception from “intoxication caused by one’s own body” (“Humphry”). Since some alcoholics seemed able to give up drinking only after experiencing delirium tremens, he observed, perhaps inducing a similar condition with hallucinogens would lead to a cure. His ensuing experiments with hallucinogens on himself and as treatment for schizophrenic patients revealed to him the mind-expanding and mystical experiences such substances could induce, and it was he who guided Aldous Huxley through the mescaline trip that led to Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception.
Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” from two Greek words: “psyche” (which the Oxford English Dictionary tells us means “mind” and anima mundi, the animating principle of the universe) and “delon” (which the OED translates as “make manifest, reveal”). So literally, “to reveal the mind,” “to make manifest the mind of the cosmos.” In correspondence with Dr. Osmond, Aldous Huxley proposed his own coinage in a rhyme: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (from thymos: “spirited”). Osmond retorted with his own rhyme, in better rhythm and fuller understanding of hallucinatory range: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic” (qtd. in “Humphry”). As I use this term, then, I want to suggest an aesthetic influence that includes this metaphysical suggestion. And I think it is safe to say that the psychedelic effect of “The Gates of Eden” is not one of “soaring angelic” (despite its cowboy angel) but rather one of “fathom[ing] Hell.”
The song unfolds a ghastly world of absurdity, neglect, decadence, torment — and longing gazes toward “Eden.” In the seventh verse, we see the abdication of responsibility, as “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not” with rotting “precious” windiness, while paupers scrabble for each other’s possessions, “each one wishing for what the other has got.” The third verse shows a “savage soldier,” head in the sand, complaining to a “shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf” — two figures that seem to have withdrawn from the world and their roles in it (blinded, head in the sand, deaf to complaint). The same might be said for the wish-purveyors of the fourth verse, “Aladdin and his lamp” and the “utopian hermit monks,” who make “promises of paradise” from their “side-saddle” perch on that false idol “the Golden Calf,” pointing the way with a “time-rusted compass blade.” The fifth verse shows “those who are condemned to act” according to “relationships of ownership” that “whisper in the wings” — enslavement from behind the scene.
Still, the most hellishly haunting psychedelia come in the two verses whose figures that entangle human with machine or human with beast and object perpetrate the most horrifying abuses. In verse two, an iron-clawed lamp-post cop with his “shadowed metal badge” and forbiddingly “folded arms” looms over “holes where babies wail” in a frightening display of state power over the most helpless victims of urban decay. The sixth verse brings us the part-woman, part-machine “motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen” and “silver-studded phantom,” figures that shift among Madonna with Holy Spirit, gypsy queen with spirit familiar, and two-wheeled dominatrix in black silver-studded Phantom motorcycle jacket. She/they torment a softly helpless “gray flannel dwarf” with his “bread-crumb sins” who “screams” and “weeps.”
Both Michael Gray and Seth Rogovoy consider these bread-crumb sins an allusion to the tashlich atonement ritual of Rosh Hashana in which the sinners cast the bread-crumbs that have accumulated in their pockets into a body of water in order symbolically to shed their sins—a ritual that responds to Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread forth upon the waters, for after many days you will find it” (Gray 482, Rogovoy 84). Like his tormenters, however, the gray flannel dwarf also appears as a shifting composite figure. He is as much the innocent Hansel as he is the guilty sinner. In the tale, Hansel leaves a trail of bread-crumbs in order to find the way home, but the birds eat them, leaving him and Gretel lost in the forest. Here, “wicked birds of prey” “pick up on” (that is, notice and reveal), “pick up” (that is, retrieve), and “pick upon” (that is, tear at) the bread-crumb sins in a nightmare of humiliation, lost-ness, and predation such as Prometheus endures, chained on the mountain, his liver eaten over and over by the eagle.
Yet, every vignette concludes with a pronouncement about “Eden,” the songworld’s lost paradise. Sometimes ills plaguing the songworld are said to have no place in Eden (kings, sins, trials); sometimes desired things lacking in the songworld appear there (trees, a laugh, the truth). Yet for all the confidence with which such conditions are projected into this paradise, the performance of the refrains feels as unsettling as the verses they close. In his reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Christopher Ricks notes in passing that “The trees of Eden are haunting, frightening trees” (144), and Nelson Hilton claims that Dylan’s Eden owes a debt to eighteenth-century poet William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (110). (I would note that it could as easily have come via Huxley’s book: “the doors of perception” is a phrase taken from this Blake text.) However, we do not need to know William Blake to feel what’s “haunting and frightening” about the songworld’s Eden. Dylan performs it in the music.
You Will Not Hear a Laugh: Irony
Certainly, local ironies appear in the individual scenes: the soldier may be “savage,” but he is also plaintive and cowardly; the deaf “shoeless hunter” can hear neither his companion’s complaints nor his prey; the “time-rusted compass blade” will not point in the needful direction; “friends” are “other strangers.” These local ironic twists contribute to the ways the scenes and figures invite and resist interpretation and so intensify the phantasmagoric feeling of the songworld. But the song’s main structural irony plays out in its harmonic movements.
How do we perceive irony in the non-semantic language of music, whose “meaning” resides in pure sound and the feelings it provokes? Harmonic music creates feeling by establishing a “home” (or “root” or “key”) and then moving away from and back to this “home.” In more complex music, the harmony can lead away from one home and establish a new one—or move into and out of several such homes. Such movements create the patterns of tension and resolution that constitute the “meaning” of music.
The simplest folk and rock songs play out a home-away-home gesture in their three or four chords, sounding some variation of tonic-subdominant-dominant-tonic. In “The Gates of Eden,” G major is the established tonic home, but the chords that lead away from and back to it are not always the ones we expect to hear in that key. Instead, Dylan colors or inflects that journey with sonorities from the Dorian mode — a scale and family of chords that fall between major and minor keys. Minor keys have three flatted notes, which gives them their somber sound. Major keys have no flatted notes and so feel brighter. However, Dorian mode has two flatted notes, which is why it is “between” major and minor, although it is closer to the “somberness” of minor. It thus produces a scale that sounds unresolved, even uncanny, to our modern harmonically-trained ears because it does not follow the patterns of whole- and half-steps found in the major and minor scales that we are so used to hearing. The Dorian scale sounds like it ends on the second degree of the scale instead of the first; it feels unresolved and uncanny, as though it is hovering in mid-air. To us — or to me, at any rate — it is an unsettled and unsettling mode.
This Dorian coloration provides the unheimlich sonority established in the first two lines of the verses in “The Gates of Eden.” The first four chords (G major – D minor – F major – C major), as they are voiced on the guitar, outline in their highest pitches a descending Dorian scale: G – F natural – F natural – E natural, or do – te – te – la. The chord progression itself also gets Dorian coloration from the use of a minor dominant (d minor, or v) leading to two major subdominants (F major—a bVII instead of the usual vii—and C major, or IV), which return home to the tonic via plagal cadence. The sequence we are used to hearing (tonic to subdominant of various kinds to dominant to tonic) is reversed: the dominant gives way to the subdominants, which then shift directly back to the tonic in a plagal cadence. On top of this unsettling progression, Dylan sings a pentatonic melody whose highest note sounds in repeated emphasis, as peak moments in the melodic shape, the flatted seventh-degree te: “Of war and peace the truth just twists.” Put all this together, and we get a combination of sonorities that creates the uncanny, portentous sound characterizing the songworld.
However, the third melodic line, the one that leads into the refrain about Eden, feels different. Its harmony moves comfortingly toward resolution as it approaches the refrain through a standard progression from tonic through subdominants to the major dominant: G major (I) – B minor (iii) – A minor (ii) – G major (I) – A minor (ii) – C major (IV) – D major (V). That D major chord jumps into prominence after the lyrics of the line have finished, as a full-measure fill in the guitar, so its bright F#, or ti, sounding at the top of the texture, provides the strongest possible leading tone towards resolution, like a promise to take us not just home but Home—to Paradise. Then, during the refrain itself, when for example the “ships with tattooed sails” are “heading for the gates of Eden” in a melody that pushes through an insistent repetition of the “home” note G, the harmony shifts behind those notes, beginning with a brief, disquieting Dorian inflection in the transitional chord that comes halfway through that line. I want to call it a Bb7sus4, but whatever it is, it includes all three notes, the F natural (te), Bb (me), and E natural (la), of the Dorian scale. It sounds only briefly, but it takes us not to the D major chord that promised to take us Home via authentic cadence, as in the third line, but back to the C major subdominant (IV) that has been circling us around in the songworld in the first two lines. With the harmony shifting the ground below them in this way, those repeated G notes in the melody draw us unrelentingly to a place where the first syllable of the very word “Eden” is sung on that same flatted te (in the lower octave): “Heading for the gates of Eden”: te do. It is like waking from a bad dream only to find that you are still dreaming. This is the irony sounded in the music: Eden is not a better Other Place but in fact is part of the songworld and its nightmares.
In this kind of irony, one thought — the acknowledgement of a reality — is clothed in another thought — a wish expressed in the surface utterance. It is the voicing of disillusionment: the ironic utterance banishes the wish in the very act of saying it, even as the wish’s sweetness makes acknowledging the reality bitter. Oedipus wishes to be the righteous king who restores the fertility of his people and their lands and cattle by punishing the criminal whose unnatural actions have caused their desolation. But the unnatural criminal he seeks is in fact himself. The words in the refrains voice a wish: Eden holds original innocence and the Tree of Life—no sins, no kings, no trials, no crashing but meaningless blows. The compass will point the way, the ships will reach the gates, we will laugh in joy when we return. But the music hollows laughter into derision: “And on their promises of paradise you will not hear a laugh / All except inside the gates of Eden [te–do],” where they know better than to listen to promises of paradise (or make them). The “curfew gull” and “cowboy angel,” wafting up from Eden’s trees on “four-legged forest clouds” with “candle lit into the sun,” bear a wish: the time has come to return where truth glows bright. But the curfew gull “just glides,” the glow is “waxed in black.” Within the wish comes bitter reality: Eden also holds that other Tree, the one with the forbidden fruit, the knowledge of good and evil: we have always already fallen. The song turns on this irony, just as it turns on the refrain that wishfully cycles around at the end of each verse: Eden world is songworld.
No Words but These to Tell What’s True
Lyrics and music are of course delivered in a performance, and this song is performed for and addressed to listeners by a first-person singer/speaker. This singer has enough in common with the cowboy angel that I’m tempted to consider that angel his Eden-world avatar. Both bring portentous news, both come accompanied by birds — the “curfew gull,” the “lonesome sparrow” — both have what seems an alienated relation to the “foreign sun,” which “waxes” the cowboy angel’s candle-glow “in black” and “squints upon” the singer’s bed that is never his own.
However, the cowboy angel bears “the truth,” and in this song, whether the bearer of “the truth” is Eden’s cowboy angel, the state’s lamp-post cop, the church’s motorcycle black Madonna, the capitalist’s whisperer in the wings, or philosophy’s arbiters of what is real and what is not, “the truth just twists.” How can our singer bring us a true message and how can we hear it in such a world? The final verse gives us a “glimpse”:
At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true
Telling the dreams provides the words that tell what’s true. Attempts to shovel these glimpses “into the ditch of what each one means” just twist their truth.
We so often approach poems as though what a poem “means” is something other than what it “tells.” But with dreams and much poetry and certainly songs composed in this psychedelic-ironic mode, we need to listen in the state of receptivity that poet John Keats calls “Negative Capability”: the capacity to rest in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (109). Our singer, keeping himself (like his lover) in this state of negative capability, speaks through art, not exegesis. If we attend to what he tells instead of irritably reaching after what he means, at times we might see and hear and feel what’s true, especially in a world where the truth just twists.
Cran, Rona. Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Ebook.
Dylan, Bob. “The Gates of Eden.” Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965.
——-. “Visions of Johanna.” Blonde on Blonde, Columbia Records, 1966.
Gray, Michael. Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. 2nd ed. Continuum, 2000.
Hartman, Charles O. “Dylan’s Bridges.” New Literary History, vol. 46, no. 3, 2015, pp. 737-57.
Heine, Steven. Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, a Zen Master? Continuum, 2009.
Hilton, Nelson. “Waxed in Blake.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 2009-10, pp. 110-11.
Rob Stoner thinks the handwringing and conjecture over Bob Dylan’s decision to sell his publishing catalog is nothing more than mixed-up confusion.
Too many people, all too hard to please.
“This is strictly a business deal. This is all about the numbers, cut and dry. It’s not surprising, and I don’t understand the controversy,” said Stoner, who played bass and was bandleader during the Rolling Thunder Revue, and toured and recorded with Dylan later. “Bob is no dummy. Do you think he is going to make a stupid deal? He’s always had his ducks in a row. He’s always had the best advice, the best lawyers, the best accountants that money can buy.”
Stoner’s advice to fans: Calm down. Everything is going to be okay.
Dylan’s decision to sell his entire publishing catalog of more than six hundred songs, up through Rough and Rowdy Ways, to Universal Music Publishing Group for what Billboard now says is between $375 million and $400 million reflects the unprecedented value of Dylan’s catalog because of the near-ubiquitous nature of music streaming. It’s the right deal at the right time, observers say, the confluence of opportunity and convenience for both sides in the landmark deal.
For fans, the sale likely means a lot more Dylan music will begin appearing in commercials and across mass media, as Universal recoups its investment by licensing as many songs as often as possible—and we can only hope with respect to the integrity of the collection. More significantly, it does not mean Dylan will stop recording, stop touring, or begin concentrating only on making paintings and sculpture. If he does, it almost certainly will be for reasons unrelated to the publishing deal.
Indeed, within a few days of the report of the sale to Universal in the New York Times, the Dylan camp announced the upcoming release of the new Dylan/George Harrison box set, following up a limited release of a special-edition collection issued primarily to extend copyrights. Both products suggest it will be business as usual in terms of curated, bootleg-style releases.
For Dylan, the Universal deal is about cashing out at high value and walking away with the ability to continue to do whatever he wants to do, still with control of his masters but without the headache of administering a song catalog that grows more complicated with time, shielding his heirs from the hassles and complexities of evolving entertainment and business law.
“Now Universal will do all the administration, and Bob doesn’t have to deal with it,” Stoner said.
For Universal, it’s about gaining control over the most valuable and culturally significant collection of contemporary songs ever written, the jewel-in-the-crown of twentieth-century American art.
Dylan’s deal is the latest and most intriguing among the so-called evergreen generation of songwriters and recording artists, who generate huge revenue on streaming services because of the size, popularity, and sustaining nature of their song catalogs. Each time a Dylan song is sold, broadcast, or streamed—or placed in an ad, movie, or TV show—Universal will earn back its investment.
In addition to signing over his publishing royalties, Dylan also sold the copyrights to his songs, according to multiple reports. That means Universal will earn money each time a Dylan song is covered by another artist, and Dylan will have no say in how his previously recorded songs are used or how much Universal can charge to license them.
George Howard, an associate professor of music business at Berklee College of Music, said the sale of the underlying copyright (“the whole kit and caboodle,” he told Business Insider) “almost never happens,” which makes this deal unique. “That explains the valuation.”
It’s a safe investment for Universal because streaming services have made music revenue predictable, which makes music catalogs attractive to investors. That is why so many artists have sold their catalogs, from Stevie Nicks to Taylor Swift. “The way streaming services are growing, this will be the gift that keeps on giving, in terms of royalties,” Howard said of the Dylan deal.
Tim Riley, a longtime Dylan observer, music critic, and associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, called the deal a slam-dunk for Universal and said the initial report in The New York Times of the sale being worth $300 million “struck me as a small number.” He said Universal would earn back its investment in a few years’ time.
He wasn’t surprised by the news—nothing about Dylan surprises him anymore—but he was surprised how much attention the sale received and how much Dylan was criticized. It’s easy to criticize wealthy rock stars, Riley said, “but we will never understand the air they breathe. They make a lot of decisions that may seem weird to us.”
He agreed with Stoner that this deal is about timing and convenience. “The idea that you could sell it for a lump sum and never deal with it again—‘just get it off my plate’—that becomes very attractive after you have had to manage it all these years,” Riley said. “If he spends four hours a week administering his catalog on the phone with his team, it’s probably the worst four hours of his week.”
People who are upset with Dylan for making his music available for commercial purposes have had plenty of time to resolve those conflicts. Dylan has licensed his music for ads for more than a quarter-century, sometimes successfully and with artistic flair, sometimes less so. He filmed an ad for the “ladies’ garments” company Victoria’s Secret in 2007, using his song “Love Sick,” and appeared without music in another for IBM. “Forever Young,” it seems has ageless appeal among advertisers. The list is long. As Dylan himself said, money doesn’t talk, it swears.
“There is punditry that you now will start to see Bob’s songs everywhere, and you might,” Howard said. “But he’s not like Radiohead or Neil Young, who have never licensed their work. Maybe you’ll notice a bit more, maybe a bit less, but the average consumer probably won’t notice much. Dylan already licenses his music for such weird things. Not much he does would surprise me.”
I’ve been listening to Dylan since the ‘60s, I’ve been a fan since the ‘70s, and I’ve attended eighty-plus shows all across the country. This year, 2020, will be the first since 1986 that I have not seen at least one Dylan concert. And yet, I have never appreciated his music more, with a tantalizing new record and the convenience of streaming music during my walks in the Maine woods that have carried me through the pandemic. When people ask what I did during the pandemic, I will tell them I listened to a lot of Dylan.
The use of his songs in TV ads in no way diminishes my connection to his music or my desire to see him again in concert. I sometimes wish he hadn’t sold this or sold that, but who am I to judge his motives?
As Tim Riley said, we will never understand the air he breathes.
I appreciate the ads for their quirky mystery. I see the Chrysler Super Bowl ad, with “Things Have Changed” lingering in the background, as an extension of one of his road songs, a travelogue, and an homage to American adventure with at least one great line: “Because we believe in the zoom, the roar, and the thrust.”
Richard Thomas, the Harvard classics professor who wrote the book Why Bob Dylan Matters, said the worst-case scenario of the Universal deal is that Dylan’s music shows up in ads we don’t approve of, that perhaps degrade the integrity of the song. But he’s not too worried. “I don’t buy Victoria’s Secret, and that didn’t bother me. I quite liked that ad. I thought the Cadillac ad was pretty good too,” he said.
As a researcher who has worked with Dylan’s team to secure permission to reproduce song lyrics, Thomas understands the work involved in dealing with those requests. He called it “a level of micromanaging” that Dylan and his management “are not enamored of.” He said Dylan’s team has always been cooperative, and he hopes Universal is equally responsive and open to allowing writers to quote Dylan’s lyrics.
Further, Thomas said he does not read anything into the deal as the end of one phase or the beginning of another. It’s nothing more than a business deal, timed to coincide with the high value of Dylan’s catalog at this historic moment in the music business.
“Any new material is not included in the deal, so the implication is there could be new material, new song material as well as other things he is working on,” Thomas said. “I sure hope he is writing another album, since the last one we got is so terrific. Dylan will keep doing what Dylan is doing, which is continuing to produce his songs, paintings, and sculpture. And I think he will tour again. I sure hope he does. I think touring is something that means a lot to him, and it means a lot to us.”
Stoner said Dylan became savvy in business from fighting with Albert Grossman, his early manager who suffered an inglorious separation from Dylan in 1970. “Bob didn’t want to let Grossman have a penny for his songs, so he retained his own rights and administered his own publishing through his own employees,” Stoner said. “The people who ran his business office back in the 1970s were the people he poached from Grossman’s office. When Bob split with Grossman, he replicated the same operation with the same employees a few blocks away.”
The deal with Universal is the same kind of thing, only this time civil, and with higher stakes and rewards. With Dylan turning eighty in the spring, who can blame him?
“It’s a huge chunk of change,” Stoner said, “and now his heirs don’t have to fight about it.”
He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”
I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
— Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free,” 1962
In November 1863, as the Civil War blazed on, an eighteen-year-old Baltimorean named David Bachrach traveled in a buggy to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to photograph President Abraham Lincoln as he delivered what would be known as the Gettysburg Address. The young man quickly made a name for himself as a prominent portraitist in the relatively new medium. Almost a century later, in 1959, David’s grandson Fabian Bachrach was hired to photograph his Harvard contemporary, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Fabian’s portrait of Jack would become President Kennedy’s official White House photograph.
Bob Dylan released his first original song in eight years on March 27, 2020, just after midnight. “Murder Most Foul,” which centers on and circles around Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, uses the Bachrach Studios portrait as its associated image. It’s a crop of the portrait, sepia-toned, what one would normally but cannot in this case call a headshot without cringing. The song’s title appears in Gothic sans, in gold, right under Kennedy’s chin. The song is one second short of being seventeen minutes long. Staring into the young president’s clear eyes, with the care lines to come not yet present, looking at his perfectly combed thick hair and smooth half-Windsor knot to his tie and what you know to be a Brooks Brothers two-button pinstripe suit, becomes overwhelming quickly if you know the history of which Dylan sings. If you’re just learning it, you’ll be overwhelmed by the end, too.
Once upon a time, a very young, nervous, and intoxicated Bob Dylan was roundly booed at the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s Bill of Rights dinner. The committee was giving him the Tom Paine Award at the Americana Hotel in New York, with a writer he much admired, James Baldwin, in attendance. The night was December 13, 1963, and in closing his short speech Dylan babbled out, “I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where—what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too—I saw some of myself in him.” This Everyman attempt utterly failed, particularly before a liberal audience deep in mourning for JFK, not yet a month dead.
Dylan tried to explain himself to Nat Hentoff in June 1964 by pleading that both he and Oswald were “up tight” and that was what he’d meant. In 1977, he hypothesized to Jonathan Cott about things forever-mysterious: “It’s something you can only feel but never really know. . . . Any more than you can know who killed Kennedy for sure.” In his autobiography, Chronicles, Volume 1 (2004), Dylan speaks of Kennedy with praising grace.
From that first seventeen minutes to subsequent quarter-hours-plus, one does not so much listen to “Murder Most Foul” as be washed over by it. The song ebbs and flows. It comes at you not in lines or verses, but in ripples and waves. “Tempest” may be his song about the Titanic, but “Murder Most Foul” is titanic, oceanic. You stand not on a smooth beach but a rocky shore, nowhere to sit or to safely set your feet, and the song comes at you like the sea. The litany of the long ending—all the lines beginning with the word “play”—comes at you with a beating rhythm, incessant, insistent, really more a catechism than a litany, for what you’re being told is didactic and instructive, and meant to be repeated: the last line of the song is the directive to replay it.
The instrumental opening is quiet, baritone, and very like the instrumentals backing Dylan’s Nobel Lecture in Literature, recorded in Los Angeles on June 4, 2017. Tony Garnier’s big bass bow (or is it Donnie Herron playing a low cello?) resounds. And then come delicate keyboards, multiple keyboards, in a manner not unlike Dylan’s, but with a far lighter, brighter touch. His flat-fingered jazzy, sometimes boogie-woogie style is different. Fiona Apple and Alan Pasqua play piano on “Murder Most Foul,” while Benmont Tench mans the Hammond organ. Dylan’s statement, coincident with its release, that the song was recorded “a while back” could have meant anything, but evidently “a while back” meant early 2020.
The tune, a stately grazioso suited to the gravity of the matter, is pleasing but unremarkable, neither memorable nor danceable. The import, and importance, of “Murder Most Foul” is in the lyrics. Its words are short, easy to understand, and land with great force, particularly when describing Kennedy’s murder. Ann Wilson of Heart recently termed them “Hemingwayesque.” In the past, Dylan’s official website has not released the official words of new songs for months or even years. The lyrics to “Murder Most Foul” were posted there within days. This swiftness emphasizes the importance of knowing what he’s saying, of reading the lines and rhymes, and remembering them.
“Murder Most Foul” is composed in rhyming couplets, which Dylan has reveled in for decades, and an intermittent anapestic tetrameter. Dylan has an ear for rhyme as keen as Lord Byron’s or Alexander Pope’s, and he knows well the rhythms of scansion and the power of prosody. The song starts with two quotations, altered and combined:
‘Twas a dark day in Dallas—November ‘63
The day that will live on in infamy
Tommy Durden’s 1967 song “Dark Day in Dallas” begins: “‘Twas a dark day in Dallas, a dark day indeed / When death walked the streets of big D and then reaped the fruit of the Devil’s seed.” Kennedy’s most popular Democratic predecessor of the 20th century was a president also known by his initials: FDR. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy” in his Pearl Harbor declaration of war address. November 1963 brought America another infamous day, also inflicted on its own soil, and as catastrophic in its consequences as the attack that finally brought America into the second World War. Dylan has borrowed Durden’s start, with the archaic and therefore eternal-sounding “’Twas,” and made of Kennedy’s assassination day not “a date” but “the day” of infamy.
To treat the entire song as I’ve just done the first two lines not only would take many pages, but would also be a disservice to Dylan’s song. He is not composing a poem to be parsed, but a song to be listened to and taken in in its entirety. This essay will accordingly continue to be about “Murder Most Foul” and the connections that both compose it and hold it together, discussing it as a mosaic whole, instead of zooming in on the fragments of which the art is made. I do think of Dylan’s songs as mosaics, as collages, akin to those tactile arts but composed of words and music. “Murder Most Foul” is a mosaic like those made by Antoni Gaudí that now are synonymous with Barcelona, like those by Squire Vickers and Eric Fischl, Yoko Ono, and Willie Birch that greet New Yorkers in MTA stations. It is an American mosaic made of cultural, historical, and musical references. “Murder Most Foul” could be a quilt, in the windmill or double wedding ring patterns for the way it rolls in circles and returns to concepts as it unfolds, but a quilt is comforting and warm. The song is neither. Though it sometimes reassures with familiarity, it leaves you unsettled, sad, and thoughtful.
Pay very close attention to not just the words, but their linguistic forms, in “Murder Most Foul,” this song whose title leads off with a word that can be a noun or a verb. From its opening, the ongoing act on a “good day” of “to be living” ends hard, with the imperative stating that is ultimately a good day “to die.” Dylan’s pronouns, as ever, refuse to be nailed down. A line reads “Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?” and it’s shocking: Dylan is ventriloquizing a man about to be “shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” When the “I” returns, it slips and slides, from the singer / narrator (“I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age”) to the dying President (“Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear / I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier”). Who are the “we” and the “they,” styled as a collective of killers? Dylan deploys “they” to intense effect in his songs, and it generally stands for whoever the ominous opposition might be: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / They’re painting the passports brown” or “They’ll hang you in the morning and sing ya a song” or “They’ll be drownded in the tide / And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.” Is he saying, here in “Murder Most Foul,” that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone? Dylan always engenders more questions than he’ll ever answer. Even when answers come, if they come in this song it is usually from the “they.” Don’t trust them. Flee and condemn their actions and words.
Can a murder be a “perfectly executed” magic trick? The execution is in the phrase itself. The foul murder of old King Hamlet looks like a trick; someone pouring poison in the porches of the ears. Like killing words it enters, in a gross parody of one of the most common artistic constructions of the Virgin Mary receiving the Annunciation. Dylan takes the song’s title from Act I Scene 5 of Hamlet, in which the father’s ghost informs his horrorstruck son that his death was a murder “most foul, strange and unnatural,” a fratricide. His own brother Claudius, young Prince Hamlet’s uncle—and now married to his former sister-in-law, old Hamlet’s widow and young Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude—has killed the king. Dylan knows his Shakespeare as well as any leading actor; I’d have given a lot to see him enact the title role in Hamlet, when he was suited most to it, for my money, in his wild spring season of 1966. Now in the older years of a Lear or Prospero, Dylan continues to find in Shakespeare, as well as in classical and contemporary literature, ageless fire that he uses for his own purposes.
Like James Joyce, however, Dylan will never use a word or phrase that means one thing, when he can use a word or phrase that means two things, or more, or has a homonym meaning something completely different. Yes, “murder most foul” is a phrase from Hamlet. It is also the name of a wacky 1964 movie starring Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. The (very loose) plot of Murder Most Foul concerns a repertory acting company putting on murder mysteries in which real murders occur. Shards of the unlikeliest literary works crop up in the film, including Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Were Service’s poem, in spectacular rhyming couplets, or his widely popular volume Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912), works Dylan has known well for a long time, ever on his mind as he wrote?
Section 2 of the song, as divided up in the official lyrics, sweeps through the rest of the 1960s from the “English Invasion” and arrival of The Beatles in February 1964, to Woodstock and Altamont. Echoes of lines from Warren Zevon, whom Dylan admired and celebrated by performing his songs live as Zevon was terminally ill in 2002, appear here, and later, in “Murder Most Foul.” The imaginative landscape of this section spreads wider, with quotations from Kennedy and Nellie Connally, the First Lady of Texas in 1963, mixed together with three bums in rags, shooters aiming for the Invisible Man, and Robert Johnson’s crossroads. The line “Black face singer—white face clown” is a reminder not only of minstrel shows and Al Jolson movies, but Dylan’s own Rolling Thunder Revue, and scenes in his 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous. Still, the setting, if that is the right word, of this section remains primarily Dallas: the triple underpass, grassy knoll, Dealey Plaza, Elm Street, Deep Ellum. A concluding mention of “Oswald and Ruby”—killer and killer—as sources for “the truth and where did it go” keep things tied firmly to Kennedy’s assassination.
Section 3 begins to fragment into the musical references, or playlist, that constitute most of the rest of the song. The framing text is still, chillingly, from Kennedy’s point of view. Lyrics from other songs clash against the frames of William Zapruder’s film: I’m ridin’ in a long black Lincoln limousine; I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap. Why is the Zapruder film, if that is the “it” in question in the lyrics, “deceitful”? Because it does not show the truth of who shot Kennedy? Or does that truth not matter, and only the fact of the man’s death that begins the “age of the anti-Christ”? Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One, and a nation threw in the towel. Johnson did, too. A master of the Senate, Kennedy’s vice president was elected easily by the stunned nation he was leading in 1964, after getting the Civil Rights Act passed. However, Johnson hated being president and as the Vietnam War escalated and the Democratic party fragmented, with Robert F. Kennedy running against him, he announced in March 1968 that he would not seek the nomination. After Bobby was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, just after midnight, Johnson refused to change his mind, and Richard M. Nixon was elected.
Robert Weston Smith of Brooklyn, New York, known from 1963—the year of Kennedy’s death, as if we needed reminding—as Wolfman Jack, one of America’s best known disc jockeys and radio personalities, is called upon to spin the long list of songs, sprinkled with movie, literary, and cultural mentions, that ends “Murder Most Foul.” Although What’s New Pussycat seems at first a throwback to the classic movies Dylan has referred to by mentioning characters without naming them, as in Gone With the Wind and On The Waterfront, to me it is more a recognition of the triviality of pop culture, post-November ’63, in the poppiest of ‘60s movies. What’s New Pussycat?(1965), with a screenplay by Woody Allen and the title track sung by Tom Jones, stars Allen, Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Romy Schneider, Capucine, Paula Prentiss, and a host of famous cameo faces from Ursula Andress to Richard Burton. It centers on psychotherapy and adultery, and it features the silliest of all the silly 60s-movie car chases (go-karts; a rural French village; women in leopardskin catsuits and Valkyrie costumes complete with spear). And Dylan goes and rhymes the mention of this farce with “I said the soul of a nation been torn away.” He’s a king of 18th-century twisted chiasmus, Dylan is, welding the sublime and the ridiculous together like Pope or Jonathan Swift, John Wilmot or John Gay. He has always been good at this in his lyrics, but “Murder Most Foul” astounds. Why is it specifically “thirty-six hours past judgment day”? Perhaps because of 36 Hours, another 1965 movie, starring James Garner and Eva Marie Saint. The film 36 Hours, though set during WWII, runs along the lines of its far more famous 1962 predecessor, The Manchurian Candidate. Its lobby poster tagline was “Give me any American for 36 hours and I’ll give you back a traitor.”
Litanies are part of religious responses, and of children’s rhymes. The rhythm and rhyme and repetition make us remember them. “Murder Most Foul” ends with a litany that, as I’ve said, is more a catechism. It’s didactic and instructive, directing Wolfman Jack and you on what to listen to. It also puts you into a trance. You don’t want to dance. Sit still and listen. You’re not given any other choice.
Dylan eschews the potential triple rhyme of Jack—black—Cadillac for a simple “long Cadillac,” which is, possibly, a line from the dirtiest car song ever recorded, “Mr. Thrill” (1954). Dylan, assuming Wolfman Jack’s seat as dj, played Mildred Jones’s classic version on the “Cadillac” episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour in 2007, and then cracked, “A song that’s kinda like a single entendre.” Every single song mentioned in “Murder Most Foul” will carry with it different connections, different meanings and memories, to every listener. If you’re familiar with the music he’s speaking of—and he wants you to be, saying “write down the names”—it’s a week of music shoehorned into fifteen minutes, filling your head with everything. It’s personal for every listener. For example, “Tom Dooley,” in the Kingston Trio’s 1958 version, was the second ballad I ever learned to sing, after “Barbara Allen,” from my North Carolina mountain grandmother. Dylan has personal connections, too, to the songs he chooses. “St. James Infirmary” has been sung thousands of times by Dave Van Ronk, and, after him, by Rambling Jack Elliott. It’s a cornerstone in Dylan’s own musical history that involves both men.
Actual people always occupy space with Dylan’s lyrical phantasmagorias: think of Einstein and T.S. Eliot sharing the song with Dr. Filth, the superhuman crew, and lovely mermaids in “Desolation Row.” “The Man with the Telepathic Mind” was William McCaffrey, a card magician extraordinaire. McCaffrey, of Cratfon, Pennsylvania, dazzled America in the 1930s and 1940s with his magic tricks. While blindfolded, he could tell mystified people at parties the serial numbers on dollar bills they held. The musicians Dylan names here are real—Carl Wilson, Etta James, Stan Getz, Beethoven, and so many more—but then there are “Mr. Mystery,” “the Lord of the Gods,” a dog with no master, and merchants of death. These names break the flow of the song titles and the playlist, keeping you jumpy, on edge, waiting for the unfamiliar or weird to drop. And Dylan keeps on with his use of portmanteau phrases that contain multitudes. John Lee Hooker’s “Scratch My Back” is actually Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back.” Guitar Slim (New Orleans bluesman Eddie Jones) was dead in New York City when he was just 32. Dylan chooses Slim’s dismal song “Goin’ Down Slow” to be played for “me and for Marilyn Monroe.” It’s suited to a woman some believe to have been destroyed by her association with the Kennedy family. Who, though, is the “me”—the singer of the song? JFK? The listener? Monroe predeceased Kennedy; she died in her Los Angeles home on August 4, 1962. How can she be listening? History is become topsy-turvy in the wake of JFK’s assassination. Nothing is linear anymore. Remember that Dylan once sang “I have no sense of time,” something he shares as an artist with Hamlet (“Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord”). Time is confining. Be not for an age, but for all time.
In two 1965 interviews, Dylan praised Eric Burdon and The Animals and their recording of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which is a song written for Nina Simone. Which version does he want played for the First Lady, who in massive understatement “ain’t feeling that good”? Either? Both? Does it matter? Eric Burdon tells a great story about the song. “Paul McCartney’s wife at the time [Linda Eastman], dragged me to Hunter College” in April 1969 to hear Simone perform. After the show, they waited backstage to meet Simone and her husband, Burdon recalled: “She said, ‘So, you’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I knew I shouldn’t have come here.’” Both performers had a hit with the song; both made it part of music history in the years after Kennedy’s death.
Don Henley and Glenn Frey are here. Randy Meisner, however, who sang lead on “Take It to the Limit” and wrote most of the song, doesn’t make it into “Murder Most Foul” along with his Eagles bandmates. The Eagles make a subtextual connection to the next couple of musicians, Carl Wilson and the unnamed Warren Zevon. “Desperado” is one of the Eagles’ best-known songs. Dylan’s lyric bridges into Carl Wilson’s fade-out on his collaboration with Zevon, “Desperados Under the Eaves”: “Look away down Gower Avenue, look away.”
“Take Me Back to Tulsa” should be its rollicking, jolly self thanks to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. They held court at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa for decades, and still smile down from the walls—along with Dylan, who has also played there. Yet Cain’s is situated on dark and bloody ground. The strip of downtown Tulsa called the Greenwood District was once also called the “Black Wall Street” of America: it was the wealthiest African American community in the country. But over Memorial Day weekend, 1921, nearly 40 blocks of downtown Tulsa were sacked and burned. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured in what Greil Marcus, speaking at the first World of Bob Dylan symposium in Tulsa in 2019, rightly called not the Tulsa race riots but “the Tulsa pogrom.” Scene of the crime, indeed. The new Bob Dylan Center, housing Dylan’s own archives, will be situated in the Greenwood, fronting on what is today called Reconciliation Way.
The succeeding hymn can’t quell the pain, though it’s a good golden standard. “The Old Rugged Cross” is surely something to cling to. But the line ends with “In God We Trust,” the official motto since 1776 of “America,” and what’s been written on our American money since 1864—money, which is the secondary cause, after racism, of the Tulsa pogrom in the first place. Everything circles back in “Murder Most Foul,” lyrics spinning out in what looks like a widening gyre, and then collapsing back into a flashpoint focus on a connected detail. The next spin begins with Ride The Pink Horse, which is a 1946 novel and 1947 film noir with Robert Montgomery, a merry-go-round, and a lot of shady doings down in Mexico. “Long, Lonesome Road” is an unrelated song, but the concept of the lonesome road can’t be confined to just one song. Doc Watson and Frank Sinatra both looked down it, and Paul Robeson sang it best in “Show Boat.” Then, suddenly, when you have no idea at all what will come next, “wait for his head to explode” is a horrific reminder of the Zapruder film. Dylan’s not going to let us forget for one moment the man who is staring at us as we listen to the official video and try to understand why these songs, and why in this order.
“The man who fell down dead, like a rootless tree” ends in an arresting phrase, with its powerful natural image of fallen greatness. It turns out to be a line from the Finnish poet Arvid Genetz, which Alan Lomax learned in Minnesota, translated in full as “When anyone scorns the people / he topples like a rootless tree.” The motley crew of the Reverend, the Pastor, and the dog that’s got no master give way to jazz musicians and the Allman Brothers. Movies and movie stars, Shakespeare and Fleetwood Mac, Nat King Cole are all washing against each other, cultural flotsam and jetsam. Thelonious Monk is here; his name rhymes with junk, the heroin that destroyed the great Charlie Parker, the next musician namechecked by Dylan. The connection of “all that junk” leads to “All That Jazz,” and a swing away from music back to movies, and the Birdman of Alcatraz. Yes, it was an Oscar-nominated movie in 1962, but Robert Stroud, “the Birdman,” was a real person who stayed in prison most of his life for murders—and who died on November 21, 1963. It all comes back to that dark day in Dallas. Bringing it all back home.
The internal circles of the song continue, accumulating, building, layering, pressing you down with the weight. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd should make a moviegoer laugh, but are as apt to make you cry. Gambler Bugsy Siegel and bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, adopted as a Robin-Hood hero in Oklahoma and celebrated by Woody Guthrie in a song Dylan has performed and recorded. The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth appear for a moment, but vanish in the threat from a spooky dialogue about brothers: “Tell ‘em we’re waiting—keep coming—we’ll get ‘em as well[.]” JFK’s death heralds RFK’s, and everyone listening to this song should know it. “Murder Most Foul” shaves off, or spins back into itself, with a final scattershot recitativo of songs and compositions in genres from croon to classical, military marches and love songs, and, in the end, “Murder Most Foul” itself: “Play the Blood Stained Banner—play Murder Most Foul[.]” Sharing space with either an American Civil War flag of the Confederacy, or “l’entard sanglant” of “La Marseillaise”—or both—“Murder Most Foul” wraps in on itself, starting all over again, taking it from the top, da capo al fine. In my end is my beginning.