Two Easy Pieces

by Mark Carter


I've nothing of any great importance to write about this month (so no change there, then), but a couple of unrelated thoughts have brushed past me during the last few days, and so I thought I'd share them here with y'all. You'll probably leave these pages in five or ten minutes time decidedly underwhelmed but, you know, I seem to have little to say nowadays (and what I do want to say I can normally do through "20 Pounds") and it's sleepy time down South. 

So, I'm no great fan of those analytical "what Bob really meant here is......" articles. Never have been and never will.

Sorry, but there it is. 

God knows, I've bought my fair share of the books by the so-called "experts" throughout the years, but I've yet to see one that beckons me in and entices me to read it from cover to cover, and, in these slimmed-down days, most of them have long been consigned to the dustbin of history (my current rationale being that, if I've owned a book for twenty-odd years and have barely made it past the contents page in all that time, then there's a fair chance that I don't really want to read it, and it's little more than a space-taking, dust-collecting hunk of pulped tree). 

That's not to say that I think every theory ever put forward is wrong, or that I've never read an analytical piece that makes me stop and think, if only for a minute. I can even recall one memorable theory that was universally ridiculed and hounded out of the Royal Court of Dylanology for all time, and, although I was not one of the loudest nay-sayers, I have to admit to my own little snigger behind my hand, whilst still firmly believing in the author's right to say what he or she feels, even if I wholeheartedly disagree with it. 

Can you guess what I'm talking about yet? Yes, that's right; our very own JRS putting forward a theory that "Series Of Dreams" was a thinly veiled lament to Dylan's late-1980s bout of "brewer's droop". Indeed, if JRS was to be taken seriously, it was as raw and emotional an ode to the breakdown of relationships between his head and his penis as, say, "Idiot Wind" was about the breakdown of relationships between him and Sara. Now, for the life of me, I simply cannot think why as private and secretive a person as Dylan would even want to write a song about not being able to get it up, let alone release it to the general public. As far as I'm concerned, while tearing open the still-fresh wounds of a failed marriage may make for riveting - if at times uncomfortable - listening (and I suspect that Dylan probably even regrets that one brief moment of exposing his tormented soul to the harsh light of day, having spent much of the past thirty years denying that "Blood On The Tracks" is autobiographical - and as recently as last year insisting that it was based on a collection of Chekhov short stories), an artist's private anguish about his nether regions should remain just that - private. 

So, the idea that, at some point between 1987 and 1989, Dylan suddenly thought, Blimey, I think the booze has made me impotent, I must write a song about it! is, to my mind at least, pretty preposterous

And yet.

And yet, for all of that, during the early 1990s, an ex-girlfriend suddenly decides that Bob is never going to make a decent woman out of her and so she sells her story to the tabloids instead. Now, whilst I normally afford these "kiss 'n' tell" stories as much attention and credibility as they deserve (i.e none whatsoever), the fact that she mentioned that, during the late 80s and early 90s Dylan was indeed firing on no cylinders in the trouser department due to his excessive drinking habits, makes you at least stop and think and go "Ooooohh!", if only for a moment. I'm still not convinced that "Series Of Dreams" is about Bob's particular little soldier refusing to stand to attention, but, it seems, JRS was at least partly right all those years ago without realising it, and so who among us will stand up and state categorically that he can't be completely right?

All of which proves, I suppose, that if you want to tell me that "Series Of Dreams" is actually the fevered combination of a real-life trip to Las Vegas that Dylan undertook in 1972 plus a chapter entitled "Climbing Up Lots Of Stairs" in a long-forgotten book by that equally long-forgotten philosopher J.R. Hartley, then all you'll get from me will be a stifled yawn and a glassy-eyed thousand-yard stare. If, on the other hand, you want to tell me that it's about what is or isn't happening with Bob's dangly bits, then you have my full attention.

What that says about me, I dare not consider. 

I used to even have my own doubts that Bob was the best interpreter of his own material, mainly because his own descriptions used to seem to be so.....ordinary. Consider, if you will, the song "Under The Red Sky", possibly the only redeeming feature of the album that took its name. It's a nice little image-laden nursery rhyme about ecology and climate change and - perhaps - how the devil tempts us to destroy our own environment (turning it into a version of hell, if you will) by offering us - figuratively, if not literally - diamonds as big as our shoe. The red sky is the burning sky of the apocalypse, right? Raining fire and brimstone down onto our sinful and unworthy heads. The little boy and the little girl represent the innocence (or innocents) in all of us, and the man in the moon/devil will come down and ultimately corrupt them. A thought-provoking and ominous little parable all wrapped up in three minutes of pretty tune, yes?, not if you believe Bob. It's about being stuck in small-town America and wanting to escape while you still can. 

And "Mr. Tambourine Man"; an image-laden homage to drugs, if ever I heard one. The Tambourine Man in question is obviously a veiled reference to either Dylan's then-current drug of choice or the guy who delivered said drugs, yes? Obvious, really, considering the surreal images and pictures that must have been swirling around Dylan's stoned brain at that time. But, again, no. In 1985 Bob informed us that it was inspired by an oversized tambourine that Bruce Langhorne used to play, and I thought, Sure it is, Bob, and "Blood On The Tracks" is really all about Some Other Couple. But, late last year, the EMP Exhibition went live and there in all its glory for all to see is Bruce Langhorne's oversized tambourine on display (and on page 2 of Isis vol 118, too).

So perhaps it's best if Dylan keeps quiet about where his inspiration comes from and what the songs really mean; the truth, it seems, is just so.....ordinary. 

Anyway, I digress a little. Why I don't like playing (or reading) the analytical game is that (a) the best theories are still just wild stabs in the dark, just guesses (good guesses, perhaps, but a guess is a guess is a guess) and (b) the truth is apt to be disappointing and perhaps "Series Of Dreams" really is about a dream he had in 1988 where he climbed a lot of stairs and, at the top, found nothing but a furled umbrella waiting for him. 

Still, I'll have a go myself from time to time, though it only works for me if I don't force it. I dimly remember one old Freewheelin' Theme Issue in which we were asked to analyse "Love Minus Zero" and I listened to the song and stared at the lyrics and then decided that Dylan was not so much singing to a woman as he was his own feminine side (the ying to his yang). It seemed sound enough and no dafter than leafing through Poe's poems, looking for more connections beyond the obvious one, and so I typed it up and sent it off and it only occasionally comes back to haunt me, should I ever accidentally turn that particular piece of writing up (this was in the days before public issues and online issues, thank God). But it was, I think you'll agree (if you're ever unlucky enough to come across it yourself), a third-rate theory written in fourth-rate English by a tenth-rate Dylanologist. 

One of those rare occurrences in which I got a flash of an idea of what a song might actually be about came to me way back in 1989 when I heard "Man In The Long Black Coat" from "Oh Mercy" for the very first time. 

I think it was the image of the cotton dress hanging forlornly on the line, abandoned and forgotten that started it for me. There was more than a hint of Marie Celeste in that one picture, a sense that all normal life had suddenly been discarded in a split-second of madness. "She" - whoever she is/was - has gone away and left behind the trappings of her ordinary mundane life but no clue as to her destination. Meanwhile, there are other clues that something unnatural - something supernatural -  is happening; trees that have withstood a thousand years of all that the elements could throw at them have been uprooted, a preacher is ranting that man - his conscience, at least - is vile and depraved and, somewhere in the cold distance, someone is beating on a dead horse. Not flogging a dead horse, which is a tired and overused cliché, but beating on a dead horse, which is an altogether more unnatural and unsettling image. So, to me, the man in the long black coat represents Death, and the woman in question had left with him (either willingly or not) so suddenly that she didn't even have time to take in her washing or leave a note and a forwarding address. Further on, we learn that the man in the long black coat has a face like a mask (perhaps we only see his true face when he comes for us) and that there is the dust of the road on his clothes because, presumably, his work is never done and it takes him down many a dry and dusty highway. 

I'm probably wrong about all of this, and I'm sure Dylan's own explanation would be mundane in the extreme, but it's a theory that has lasted now for - what? - well over fifteen years. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I was given one of those double CD compilations of some of 2004's more rarer (and interesting) live numbers and one of the tracks was "Man In The Long Black Coat". He'd slightly rewritten one of the verses - possibly on the spot, who knows? - and it went something like this; "I went down to the river, but I'd missed the boat, she'd gone with the man in the long black coat." Now, the picture I immediately got was of Dylan standing by the edge of the River Styx, hoping against hope that he'd be in time to save her, to pull her from the boat and gather her up in his arms, but he was too late; she'd been taken across by the ferryman to whatever lies on the other side. She had, in other words, gone with the man in the long black coat and she wasn't coming back.

But he would be. The man in the long black coat would be back, quoting from the Bible with his face like a mask, acquiring more dust on his clothes as he once again takes to the road to plunder.

People don't live or die, people just float.

And, sooner or later, we must all pay the ferryman and take that final boat trip, floating downriver to whatever waits for us at the end of the journey.

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The other thing I wanted to mention - if for no other reason than I found it to be of interest in these quiet post-"Chronicles" days - is, on the surface, totally unconnected with what I've just written. But, having thought about it, perhaps it does have a link of sorts, given that both subjects deal with seeing something that perhaps isn't really there, or, to be more precise, of seeing only what we want to see. 

You will remember, no doubt, that little piece of text towards the end of "Chronicles" where Dylan discusses Robert Johnson in his usual inimitable style. He goes on to describe eight seconds worth of silent footage purporting to be of Johnson that was "shot in Ruleville, Mississippi on a brightly lit afternoon street by some Germans in the late 30s" which he finally had the chance to see during the 1990s. Although Dylan informs us that there is some doubt as to the validity of the footage, he's pretty confident about who he's watching, claiming that by "slowing the eight seconds down so it was more like 80 seconds, you can see it really is Robert Johnson, has to be - couldn't be anyone else." 

Except that, after a few years of controversy, it has been proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that it isn't Johnson. Someone has noted that the movie theatre behind the bluesman is showing a film called "Blues In The Night", and this particular movie was not made until 1941. What's more, if the location really is Ruleville, then the film didn't show there until early 1942. Whatever, whether it be 1941 or 1942, it doesn't really matter because Johnson died in 1938.

If you visit the website and then select a chapter called "Dylan Debunked", you'll find not only the whole story but also a still from the movie. It is, as to be expected, a pretty grainy photo and the subject's face is partly hidden in shadow, but you can see how people were fooled into thinking that it was Johnson; it could be him. And once you're told that it is him, it's very easy to superimpose his features onto the shadowy face. And, anyway, wouldn't it be nice to think that there exists in the world a few seconds of footage of quite possibly the greatest bluesman who ever lived? Alas, it wasn't to be, but Dylan quite clearly believes differently and I hope he still does. I hope nobody has shattered his illusions by telling him the truth. After all, it's nice to have our fragile dreams left intact wherever possible; life has a habit of steamrollering over most of them. It's interesting to note that the footage was proved to be definitely not Johnson at least two years before "Chronicles" was published (though, of course, not necessarily before it was written) and hopefully his book will continue to perpetuate what is, after all, nothing but a harmless myth. 

As to who the unknown subject of that eight-second movie really is, it really doesn't matter, does it? Is it a good thing that the movie theatre in the background has demystified the enigma or not? I don't know, but I think it's nice to sometimes remain ignorant of the truth. That's why I prefer to think of "The Man In The Long Black Coat" as a mini movie about what happens when Death comes to town and "Under The Red Sky" to be a parable about the corruption of the soul and the environment. And that's why JRS is more than entitled to see a furled umbrella as representative of a tired old drunk's impotence. 

The truth, after all, is usually just so damned.......ordinary.

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It's strange to think that this will be one of the very last things that I ever write for "Freewheelin'". Our little magazine has been part of my life for almost exactly half of my life, and I feel as though I'm preparing to say goodbye to an old friend. Right now, I really don't think that I can say any more, but I do already know that, when it's time to write my name beneath my very final article, there will be a tear in my eye. There will never ever be another magazine like it (especially in these days of internets and websites) and I'm prouder than hell to have been a part of it. 

Won't it be fitting if we can bow out with a "Last Waltz"-style final issue? 

"It started as a magazine. It ended up a celebration".