Dylan by A. Fortier
Portrait  by  A. Fortier


by Michael Crimmins


‘Tales From The Outlaw Hideout’


Ain’t it hard to stumble and land in some funny lagoon?
Ain’t it hard to stumble and land in some muddy lagoon?
Especially when it’s nine below zero

And it’s three o’clock in the afternoon

Aware of the rising storm, the soon to be labelled ‘Judas’ from behind his dark glasses, asks this question: 

Ain’t it hard to stumble? 

There is a somewhat biblical significance attached to Dylan’s use of the word ‘stumble’ from the first line of his song ‘Outlaw Blues’. That is, if like me you derive a special meaning from the last two lines from the first stanza. The ‘nine below zero’ is tempting in the direction of Rice Miller I admit, but I feel that it is more important as the actual temperature at the actual time which is all importantly, three o’clock in the afternoon! My wild imagination, for surely that is all it can be, hears another question…

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

                                                                                 Outlaw Blues indeed!

If ever there was a song/lyric as wolf in sheep’s clothing, then this is that article!

Sandwiched between such classics as “She Belongs To Me” “Maggie’s Farm” “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Gates Of Eden” etc on the ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ album, it is perhaps understandable that “Outlaw Blues” has been a little neglected, although it is unforgivable that it has been called filler! “Outlaw Blues” is a timely song. 

There are of course, only a few certain parallels between Jesus Christ and Jesse James that Dylan’s song could make use of. Both were outlaws. Both were, most importantly, betrayed from close by. Dylan is the third outlaw figure in the song. One is named and the other two are only suggested. Dylan identifies himself in the fourth stanza with his dark sunglasses. The act of betrayal that links all three outlaws is the whole point of the song. Dylan by simply following his muse is in an astute awareness and readiness for his, seen to be, role of traitor, yet he wisely uses the Jesse James allegory, and gives us “I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James” Obviously he can more safely identify and empathise with the named outlaw of the second stanza than he can with the unnamed one of the first. 

Dylan is acutely aware of his place in history. Just as Presidents enter into the annals, so do likewise religious figures, famous villains and pop stars. More than anything, Dylan is aware of his responsibility in the way that history will recall him. He is manipulatively aware of that responsibility! And is, as I see it, quite responsibly influential of the way others will recall him and, if only up to a certain degree, of the things people will say about him. 

The album ‘Bringing it All Back Home’ is full of Dylan aphorisms. These of course can serve to protect or attack their creator. In the case particular of “Outlaw Blues” Dylan’s artistic vulnerability of within is expressed with a protective exterior. He gives us the memorable, and you better believe that memorable is the way he wants it,

”Don’t ask me nuthin’ about nuthin’ I just might tell you the truth”. 

Just as Dylan’s 1983 impromptu version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) “Don’t Start Me Talking” on the Lettermen show reminded us that he was hardly likely to be answering any questions, even if it was a chat show! The “Outlaw Blues” line warned off any brave attempt that may be made to draw Dylan out into any explanation of his lyrics. This of course had the double effect of creating intrigue alongside of artistic freedom.  Dylan has been severely criticised for this soldier’s stance, and yet that stance and reasoning for, lets say, the vitriolic put downs in such songs as “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively Fourth Street” have been eloquently laid before us in the poems such as:

‘Advice for Geraldine on her Miscellaneous Birthday’. 

The aphorisms in Bob Dylan’s work, and they are there in an abundance, have been used up to the hilt by the Dylan scribes. Dylan astutely aware of the various connotations that would be placed on them, by creating them in the first place consciously put into motion a kind of collective perspective of his work, and although Dylan says that he hates to be called the spokesperson for his generation, or whatever, he can hardly complain, can he? After all a song like “The Times They Are A Changin’” seen by most at the height of its popularity as a clarion call, the title an aphorism in itself, with a direct call to Senators, Congressmen, Mothers and Fathers and a plea to “please heed the call” was bound to set him apart as some kind of leader. 

In ‘Advice for Geraldine’ Dylan makes his case. He is not for standing still, even if others are! 

“Stay in line. Stay in step. People are afraid of someone who not in step with them” 

He realises the fickleness of people, particularly groups of people, who see themselves as this or that. “Do not run nor cross the red line. If you go too far out in any direction, they will lose sight of you” Incidentally Dylan places ‘Advice for Geraldine’ in Lyrics 1962-1985 edition, just behind the page that announces ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’. Dylan’s unusually positive identification of himself in “Outlaw Blues” as the third outlaw, tells us that Dylan anticipates the coming public perception of him as that of traitor. On the later ‘Blonde on Blonde’ song “Absolutely Sweet Marie” where he placed one of his most famous aphorisms “To live outside the law you must be honest” Dylan seemed, beside creating a kind of safety net, to have consoled himself to the fact that he would always be crossing the red line. 

Anybody of the opinion that Dylan does not care one jot about public perception of him, should listen again to the disappointment and disgust that registered in his voice as he replied to that call of ‘Judas!’ at Manchester Free Trade Hall, England 1966. Dylan replied “I don’t believe you-you’re a liar!”  Dylan’s allegorical reference in Robert Ford is, is it not, irony in itself? 

The outlaw returned home after this, where he stayed for a very long time! Yes it is hard to stumble.



For information on Michael's band "Dylanesque", including a gigs guide, go to his website.