By Paul Thomas & Kim E. Hatton For Koheloth
The following is the fruit of two very different approaches to the songs performed and recorded by Dylan and The Band in the period June to October/November 1967, after a year of ‘public silence’ from Dylan following his ‘Motorcycle Accident’. This effectively gave him time to reappraise his life during the ‘retirement’ he had been talking about at the time of the 1966 tour. It is our belief that the songs which appear on The Genuine Basement Tapes give a unique insight into the way Dylan perceived of the madness of his fame, the toll it took and the lifestyle it had led him into. In the case of one of us, we heard many of the songs as containing sexually explicit lyrics, veiled by innuendo, slang and metaphor, and referring to sexual deviations as diverse as male homosexuality, lesbianism, anal intercourse, transvestitism and fellatio. This suggested one reason why Dylan had shown so little interest in releasing The Tapes as an album which would bridge the change in his work from Blonde On Blonde to John Wesley Hardin’, of which the latter suggested, to some, that Dylan had undergone what Clinton Heylin reports as ‘a personality change’ (Note 1) – a rather radical expression for achieving maturity. But, while one of us was working on questioning the songs sexual content, the other was concerned with the overall feel of this wealth of songs. Some were no more than warm-ups, although the choice of material pointed to the wide range of Dylan’s repertoire, harking back to country and blues by little known artists. Then there were pastiches of the emerging ‘teen music’ of the fifties and, most importantly, there was also a wealth of songs which seem preoccupied with doubt, judgement and apocalypse, and so the possibility suggested itself of there being a narrative revealing a time of spiritual crisis following the touring of 1965 & 1966, captured so well on the films Don’t Look Back and Eat The Document.
Whilst confirming our comments here to the songs included in Lyrics we took account of the material available on The Genuine Basement Tapes. What evolved, as both of us worked separately on an exploration of The Tapes, only discussing our work by phone or the occasional letter, was a shared conviction that The Basement Tapes can be interpreted as having a unifying theme which reveals itself as an eschatological conceit, as we ‘wind back the clock and turn back the page to reveal a book which nobody can write’ – but which Dylan has sought to embody the spirit of in the performances of the last thirty years, and comes close to succeeding with on The Basement Tapes alone. But who knows. A song is a modest thing and interpretation illimitable. Dylan has become an ‘Archetype’ carrying the projections and fantasies of followers as they impose their own preoccupations and interests on to him. To Stephen Pickering, a Devout Jew, Dylan is a Hassidim, a mystic and Prophet working through The Kabbalah (Note 2). To Jenny Ledeen, Dylan single-handedly created the Peace Movement through teaching a Christian ethic via his music, specifically in the composition of Blowin’ In The Wind, and through the songs of the first five years of his career (Note 3). Pickering and Leedeen have their ‘blind spots’ but their work should be taken seriously. Born Again Christians, whose doctrines require them to believe, a priori, that Dylan is and always will be a Christian, since his conversion in 78, find such a position difficult to reconcile with his ‘amoral lifestyle’ (Note 4), and fans of no apparent belief system seem to suspend any critical judgement when they assert in the person of Larry (Lambchop) Eden, that “Bob Dylan is the most important person in the universe today” (Note 5). Our position undoubtedly has its own lunacies – and will doubtless upset some people. We do not wish to enter into debate but perhaps the editor would welcome an article challenging our conclusions. We accept that what follows isn’t definitive. But, what the hell, Greil Marcus’s book The Basement Tapes is due out in a year or so – till then you’ve got us – and, more to the point, the tapes.
Both of us began with a distrust of a lot of Dylan interpretation. It seemed either marred by an obsessive Webermanesque quality or a deficit of humour and balance to say the least. Often we related more to the songs out of a gut reaction, and an admiration for Dylan’s genius in fusing language and music, than to dry academic ramblings comparing Dylan to Blake, Yeats or D. H. Lawrence. The whole point of listening to Dylan we argued, was to respond to the feelings he invokes, setting the mind free to allow images and associations to rise from the unconscious and to ‘forget about today until tomorrow’. The songs might be played over and over again, but to crouch over the C.D. player or tape machine and zap the ‘pause button’ to dissect and scribble down the ‘meaning’, line by line, word by word, and to trace these to films or poems or books Dylan might or might not have seen or read seemed absurd. “What does it all mean?” “What does he sing/write ‘table’ there?” “Who is the Italian poet from the 13th century blah blah blah?”
Put on Like A Rolling Stone, turn up the volume and feel the venom coursing through the lyric as Dylan, by his performance, sets up a chain of responses, memories and insights which identify ourselves at once with the poet/narrator, then with his victim. If you want to feel this song at its most searing, then listen to him scream it out in Manchester 1966, and if you believe any version can be carried by the words alone, listen to his indifferent Isle of Wight performance, or the song in embryo on The Bootleg Series. Same words, a fine poem, but in both cases robbed of all its glory and provoking a disappointment no amount of analysis can relieve. We didn’t want to know why he did it that way, “what he was really saying”, we felt let down, “almost betrayed.” was the response voiced by one of us.
Continually seeing Dylan’s works somberly dissected on the pages of The Telegraph or in Dignity’, as interesting as some of the opinions of such ‘self-ordained professors’ might be, gave rise to an even deeper sense of betrayal than Dylan at his worst. Did these critics ever stop to put heart and mind together? It’s possible. Read Paul Williams. However, what some of those articles, and works by Gray, Heylin, and some of the contributors to anthologies and the ‘Wanted Man’ series make clear is that Dylan is as much a plagiariser as any other artist. That he works within a tradition. And they have sent us looking for the sources of Dylan’s inspiration and artistic ventures and ‘opened many a door’.
Most recently, in following Dylan through his ‘roots’ albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong and then listening to some of the artists he covers (and mentions in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong) he has revealed artists long forgotten or never heard of. The feelings these old songsters fill you with are where their value lies, along with the history they preserve. (Can anyone send me a tape of the Mississippi Sheiks version of World Gone Wrong? PT) When you can pull yourself away from the never-ending tape collection put on some Mance Lipscombe, Big Bill Broonzy or Blind Willie Johnson and… Enjoy! But, ‘The life which is unexamined’ wrote Plato in his Apology ‘is not worth living’. Dylan seems to have taken this to heart throughout his career, so putting aside prejudices we tried some analysis of our own. As collaboration the views we offer are often held by only one of us but for the sake of unity, they appear under our joint authorship.
To begin with we asked why the release of any of the songs from the tapes (as performed by Dylan and The Band) were delayed for so long and then released in such a partial/bastardized form. Why were so many of the songs cast aside or suppressed’? Dylan had made it known that he would never have released The Basement Tapes, and the record put out under that title, in 1975, by Robbie (Jamie) Robinson did not please him. (Although we seem to remember that he made an ironic remark about the records success by commenting ‘I thought everybody already had them’). Listening now to the Genuine Basement Tapes, with 108 of the recorded songs presented, we hazard a guess at why Dylan wanted these songs held back from release. For some of these songs contain some of the most sexually explicit material he ever recorded, often funny, sometimes distasteful, lacking any subtlety, occasionally disturbing. But the collection doesn’t begin and end there. Other songs tip a hat towards Dylan’s and The Band’s influences rooted in a wide musical heritage of Burlesque, Protestant Hymnody, Honky-Tonk, Folk and Blues, ‘Race Music and standard commercial Pop Music. And yet others reveal feelings of alienation and dread, remorse, and a struggle to find
meaning and faith of a personal and global nature looking beyond the present to a time of transcendence and salvation, most notably in I Shall be Released, which is sung in American churches today (Note 6).
Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-1985 displaces the songs of the tapes from the time they were recorded (around June – October 1967) to the release date of Robertson’s selection (75). This might mislead some from immediately recognising a link with the previous album Blonde On Blonde especially if they’re new to Dylan. (B.O.B might be seen as suggesting an album of songs featuring ‘autobiographical’ material – a ‘self portrait’ penned after the grueling and debauched ’66 tour.) The Basement Tapes are, we suggest, a continuation of this ‘reflective’ and autobiographical strain which is present more or less in all of Dylan’s material (Note 7)
At the time Blonde On Blonde came out it was very much a ‘hip scene’ album reflecting, amongst other things, the world of Andy Warhol and The Factory, of 15 minute superstars like Candy Darling; a world of sleaze and sexual experimentation, drag addicts and drug addicts, the blurring of sexual boundaries and the cynical dismissal of any morality. The interpretations below, of only some of the songs from The Basement Tapes, suggest that Dylan was aware of and caught up in a similar world, and that may explain why he wasn’t keen to release the ‘evidence’. What follows are the ‘gut reactions’ of one of us to songs that do not seem to be that difficult to ‘decode’ as dealing with sexual excess and experimentation. But these will be followed by a wider look at the material on The Basement Tapes, and the suggestion made that they comprise a particular work which might be called Epic in the literary sense.
The first song to look at, Odds and End~, contains the following lines:
“You promised to love me,
but what do l see
Just youcomin’ and spillin’ juice over me”
“Now you take your file and you bend my head”
“You’re always spillin’ juice like you’ve got somewhere to go”
“Now I’ve had enough my box is clean
You know what I’m saying and you know what I mean”
‘From now on you’d best get on someone else”
“While you’re doing it keep that juice to yourself’
(The words underlined indicate where Dylan places particular stress.)
In this song Dylan could either be speaking through the persona of a woman complaining about his, or some other man’s sexual inadequacies or describing homosexual encounters. It might just as easily be read as a put down of a particularly persistent but unwanted lover. The first verse quoted suggests – ‘you promised to love me’ – but you come too soon, or ‘you promised to love me’ but all you offer is carnal love. The next verse might be interpreted as a reference to fellatio (file=penis) and either a woman is being forced to ‘give head’ or a man is being forced to perform oral sex. However, in ‘Now I’ve had enough, my box is clean’ the narrator seems to be moving from oral sex to a request for anal sex (though box can refer to vagina according to dictionaries of slang) which is considered more prevalent among Gays. Or does ‘box’ refer to ‘body’ (as ‘house’ may?) But soon Dylan’s protagonist, male or female, is refusing to cooperate – ‘you’d best get on someone else’. Because the other always comes too soon? Because the narrator is being pestered or because the ‘love’ is too shallow? “Lost time is not found again”. Finally the last line quoted above might be the narrator insisting that the subject transcend a merely carnal lust in their definition of love. But ‘juice’ may be slang for lust, sexual fluids, or another deviant sexual practice ‘golden showers’ or ‘watersports’. Confused? Juice = Urine (Note 8).
Don’t Ya Tell Henry opens with the following:
“I went down to the river on a Saturday morn,
A~lookin’ around just to see who’s born
I found a little chicken down on his knees,
I went up and yelled to him,
‘Please, please please!’
He said Don’t ya Tell Henry,
Don’t ya tell Henry,
Don’t ya tell Henry,
Apple’s got your fly”.
The saga continues with the protagonist looking for ‘the one I love’ visiting The beanery and spotting ‘horses’, ‘donkeys’, ‘cows’, who say Don’t ya tell Henry’, and in the fourth verse the action takes place in the ‘pumphouse’, slang for whorehouse – which is what is sung, maybe Gay Whorehouse, (‘1 looked high and low for that big ol tree’= stud/male-whore with a large erection) or, with ‘Horses and Cows’ mentioned earlier, maybe the place is a known pick up joint catering for all sexual preferences. So this song is an old fashioned honky-tonk, about looking for sex in bawdy houses. But if that’s the case the first verse is disturbing
“I found a little chicken down on his knees,
I went up and yelled to him Please please please”
This line has been the cause of hot dispute. ‘Little chicken’ is often an affectionate term for a child but if the whole song deals with sexual encounters this suggests paedophilia. But the line calls to mind an old blues song on the Paul Oliver 4 CD collection, Roots & Blues.
“If you can’t find me a woman I’ll have a cissv boy instead” (circa 1939/45)
(Can anyone identify the song and artist to save me playing through this (taped) seven hour set? KH)
The line presents a precedent for one interpretation of the above lines by Dylan. The subject referred to is male but is promiscuous and knowing enough to say ‘Don’t ya tell Henry’. Is Henry a pimp? In a sexual context, it seems that Dylan’s protagonist could be referring to a ‘rent boy’ that he finds in the ‘give head’ position and begs oral sex from. The ‘Henry’ referred to in the song may or may not be the same as ‘Mrs. Henry’ a name which suggests sexual ambiguity; a gay transvestite man perhaps or a tough ‘masculine woman’. But either way the song persists in the refrain ‘Don’t ya tell Henry’ suggesting fear of disapproval or jealousy. Something has to be hidden.
The title of Get Ya Rocks Off and the way it’s performed hardly needs explanation. Or does it? It’s unambiguously sexual. Or is it? ‘Old maids’ could either be a derogatory reference to a couple of Gay men, or to lesbian sex. Fats Domino immortalized Blueberry Hill in 1954/5 drawling with bovine contentment ‘I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill’ and he wasn’t referring to the scenery!! Now, just over ten years later, Dylan’s narrator pays the place a visit and reports ‘one man turned to the other man and said …. ‘A homosexual encounter is heavily implied, and driven home with reference to ‘Mink Muscle Creek’ in the next verse, which could be Gay slang for arse, or again, straight slang for vagina. But if Get Ya Rocks Off can only ever be interpreted as a sexual command or invitation (there has been some disagreement on this) then it’s now the last line which is disturbing.
“Well, you know, we was cruisin’ down the highway in a Greyhound bus
All kinds-a children in the side road, they was hollerin’ at us sayin’
Get Ya Rocks Off (Get em off!)
Get Ya Rocks Off-a-me (Get em off!)”
Someone has suggested that this is just a reference to the children of southern shantytowns, ragged and dirty, hungry’ and rude. We’ll come back to this at the end of discussing this song. Another suggestion makes them child prostitutes. They are in ‘the side streets’ – on the edges of society, (another possible interpretation of ‘down by the river’ in the verse quoted earlier. They shout out the refrain of the title. Then again the drawing in Lyrics depicts a man throwing rocks from a pile on top of a van. So maybe the ‘Rocks’ are ‘oppressions’, acts of sexual invasion, or rocks of social repressiveness. (The only thing the drawing calls to mind is a scene from a riot). ‘Cruising’ is sexual slang for importuning, seeking out sex. So are these child prostitutes? It was written at a time when The Velvet Underground; Warhol’s Factory and sexual libertarianism were all in the ascendant. The interpretation hinges on the phrase ‘Get Ya Rocks Off’. If Jagger sang it there would be no doubt that it was a sexual invitation. But it can also mean ‘get loose’, drop your reserve, don’t be so oppressive. And each time that the phrase is used, it’s used Personally and negatively, Get Ya Rocks off-a me. (But as John Baldwin has suggested, in recent conversation, Dylan’s grammar is such that he might mean “get ya rocks onto me’.
In conclusion the song is either a demand for sex, a refusal of sexual advances, or a demand for personal freedom and respect. Maybe the song is an archetypal shout for liberty against oppression. An interpretation, which came to one of us, suggests that the song is a montage, cinematic in its imagery, nonlinear in its chronology. Snippets of sexual encounters perhaps heard of or experienced in the craziness of that era fill one frame at a time till, in the final frame, we see what Greil Marcus might call a slice of Americana. The bearded, matted face of the narrator who has been recollecting these scenes looks out through the smeared window of his millionaire’s touring bus, and sees another world, poor, undernourished but spirited. Ragged kids run alongside shouting “Get Ya Rocks Off!”. Suspend your Bacchanalia and Get Real! (Or even applied to interpreters of Dylan, ‘Stop all your intellectual masturbation and get out on the streets.’)
Million Dollar Bash could also be read as a song about sexual frustration/obsession. ‘I’m hittin it too hard my stones won’t take’ sounds like a masturbation reference, and ‘come now sweet cream’ a semenal reference – if you’ll excuse the pun! Listening to it and reading the lyrics it seems to be describing a boozy sex-soaked apocalyptic orgy to one of us. Going out with a bang not a whimper. Dumb blondes, Silly Nelly, (a ‘Nelly’ is archaic slang for a male prostitute) and Turtle all remind us of the freaks on the ‘official’ Basement Tapes cover as well as Warhol’s retinue. But what about the following stanzas?
“The louder they come
The harder they crack”
“Well I looked at my watch
I looked at my wrist
Punched myself in the face with my fist”
“I look my potatoes down to be mashed
Then l made it over
To that million dollar bash”
In three of the six verses ‘The Bash’ is in the future. What it is, however isn’t clear. Someone says ‘Orgy’; another says ‘Judgement Day’. But ‘the louder’ they come is a paraphrase of ‘The bigger they are the harder they fall’, a reference to the vanity of pride and self-importance. And ‘Punched myself in the face…’ suggests trying to wake up. Interpret it how you will. If it’s about sexual encounters then they seem pretty futile and vain, ‘Hello/Goodbye, Push/Crash’ ‘But we’re all gonna make it to that Million Dollar Bash’. When ya’ll come to your senses Bob?
In Silent Weekend the woman is the dominant partner, e.g. ‘My baby she gave it to me’ ‘She’s actin tough and hardy’ ‘She’s rockin’ and a reelin’/Head up to the ceiling’ etc. But is ‘she’ a woman? ‘Head’ (Penis) up to the ceiling might refer back to Temporary Like Achilles ‘pointing to the sky and hungry like a man in drag’. Alternatively she could he acting tough and hardy because she’s in the Iine of women like the ‘steam shovel mama’ and ‘junkyard angel’ of Highway 61 Revisited.
You Ain’t Going Nowhere, popularised by The Byrds and neutered by Joan Baez, appeared as a song almost completely rewritten as an up-tempo celebration of the pastoral life but with much more obscure lyrics on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits vol 2. Here it is delivered with a laconic humour with the chorus ‘Whoa-eee ride me high’ sounding like a jaded, cynical request for a good fuck before tomorrow, ‘the day (when) my Bride’s gonna come.’ No double-entendre on ‘come’ here, but who is fucking who in the absence of the ‘bride’? And “we’ll climb that hill no matter how steep, when we get up to it”? We’ll face tomorrow when it comes but, for now, ‘Ride me high’ while we have time. Any sexualisation of this song is wholly dependant on a reading of ‘Ride me high’ = Fuck me hard. So is Dylan’s narrator/persona referring to going back to faithful monogamy? (If so where is he keeping his mistress? Not in the kitchen at this stage). We’ll return to this song with a fuller interpretation later.
The line followed by these songs could be congruent with the tradition they are rooted in – Blues, Burlesque, Jazz and ‘Race Music’, (and of the type of life and characters described in Levon Helm’s story of The Band This Wheel’s On Fire.) The tradition drew a thin veil over sex by describing it in innocuous metaphors or apparently meaningless slang. Listen to Bessie Smith singing ‘I love it when my Daddy takes me for a Buggy Ride’ and try to convince yourself that she’s celebrating the joy of increased mobility!!!! (It seems a good time to mention Bessie Smith because in all this ‘analysis’ maybe we’re not conveying how much deadpan humour and sly ribaldry there is on this vast collection of songs.) But we are aware of many who find that any suggestion of sexual innuendo in Dylan’s songs is anathema to them. But how would they interpret the following:
“Well you can tell everybody’
Down in ol’ Frisco
Tell em Tiny Montgomery says Hello”
“Now ev’ry boy and ev’ry girl’s
Gonna get their bang
Cause Tiny Montgomery’s
Gonna shake that thing
Down in old Frisco
That Tiny Montgomery’s comin’
To say hello”
“Scratch your dad
Do that bird
Suck that pig
And bring it on home’
Pick that drip
And bake that dough
Tell em all
That Tiny says hello”
Michael Gray has written that some interpreters of Dylan have seen ‘Tiny Montgomery’ as about ‘wielding power’. And someone out there will say he’s God or Jesus. We invite interpretations on this song to be sent to DIGNITY. If we’re struggling – help us with our load. That said, it seems like Tiny is a randy little bugger who is happy fucking either sex and when he ‘shakes that thing’ well, People Get Ready there’s more than a-train-coming! ‘Suck that pig’ (Fellatio with a cop’?) ‘Do that Bird’? ‘Bring it on home’? San Francisco, notorious for its sexual licence, Gay population and carnival atmosphere, seems the ideal setting for such debauchery and even Sado-Masochistic acts. (Does the pig want to be greased?). But maybe Tiny Montgomery is just an old forgotten Blues singer, like Little Walter, who Dylan and The Band wanted to pay homage to. Maybe. Maybe. Please Mrs. Henry has been dealt with playfully in one of Michael Gray’s chapters from Song & Dance Man, as fitting the ‘scatology obsession theory’ which, paraphrased, goes something like this:
The male narrator is playing at little boy lost, drunk and with his bladder bursting, he falls to his knees begging Mrs. Henry to take him to his room. His ‘crane’ (penis is gonna leak, his ‘stool’s’ (turd) squeaking, he’s not going to be able to hold on much longer, and hasn’t got a dime to pay to get in to ‘the little boys room’.
Now that’s power play. And Mrs. Henry is doing the wielding. But couldn’t ‘Down on my knees’ suggest a submissive sexual position? And Mrs. Henry? A sadistically powerful woman or, given the juxtaposition of female title with male name, a transvestite/transsexual? But, doesn’t Gray have a point? This sounds ‘Just Like A Man’ who has been hitting the bottle too hard and now wants Mama to take care of the consequences. He breaks just like a little boy. No? As the title of the chapter from Michael Gray’s Song & Dance Man says, however, ‘Theories-Anyone Can Play’. So, put pen to paper.
The Basement Tapes can be plumbed over and over again for meaning and often, in sharing this article, the authors have violently but creatively disagreed. Is ‘mound’ in Lo and Behold a reference to an erection, what is meant by ‘chicken town’? Another interpretation of chicken, according to American slang, is a young or fresh, (virginal) young woman. Read Charles Bukowski’s short story, Life In A Texas Whorehouse. The phrase never appears there but all is not what it seems. The whole town is a whorehouse except for the pimps, portrayed by various liars, hypocrites and rednecks. Further, an American at SussexUniversity has confirmed that ‘ChickenTown’ has been used in reference to parts of America, or ‘Red Light’ districts Given these interpretations of ‘chickens’, is this a song of sexual excess?
“Get me out of here my dear man!”
And exhaustion? And ‘dear man’? Effete? Or a pastiche of Anglo/Southern States courtesy? In the process of each of us working on our own ‘angle’, then sharing our ideas we began to form a larger picture, and a theme seemed to be emerging. If such songs as those above, and others which space hasn’t permitted us to treat in enough depth, could be viewed as ‘songs of debauchery’ what of the others, Sign On The Cross, Too Much of Nothing, I Shall Be Released’?
Many have commented extensively and persuasively on the sexual imagery in Dylan’s songs and it is there in many of them. But is sex and excess always viewed positively? Goin’ to Acapulco features a whore (Rose Marie) but the debauchery’ begins to lose its amoral tone. Unease can be detected
“It’s a wicked life but what the hell
The stars ain’t falling down.
I’m standing outside the Taj Mahal
I don’t see no one around”.
‘It’s a wicked life’ might be read as It’s a sinful life – I’m listening as I write, to the way it’s sung and I’m not convinced by the bravado, vis. it’s ‘wrong’ but ‘what the hell the stars ain’t fallin’ down’…. memories of being a kid and testing the validitv of what I’d been told about ‘GOD’, and saying/praying …. ‘I don’t believe you exist’ and being relieved/disappointed when the ‘stars didn’t fall down’. In the song, Dylan seems to be saying ‘it’s a wicked life but’… it’s only sex, a bit of fun, but he doesn’t sing it as though he believes it. The song is performed as a dirge, a lament, carnality offers none of the comfort which is craved. Rose Marie is out for what she can get, ‘likes to go to big places,’ dependent on Dylan to pay. Love stands alone, abandoned. The Taj Mahal, a Tomb/Memorial, was built by a heartbroken Indian Prince to immortalise the love he felt for a young wife who died in childbirth It is a paradigm of unconditional, ‘agape’, love. Dylan suggests nobody is interested in such love.
Maybe this explains why, later, he would change his way of thinking and rant against the Bath Houses in San Francisco (Note 9). Guilt? Self-loathing? (Neville Symington has pointed out that Jesus’s attacks against the pharisees was an attack on his own ‘Shadow’, the part of himself he couldn’t own) (Note 10). As a convert to Fundamentalist Christianity, Dylan would undoubtedly have made a public confession of everything ‘sinful’ to The Church (Vineyard Fellowship) – but in this song a particular moral slant is absent:- ‘I try to tell it like it is’. And in Lo and Behold the stanza, ‘He asked me for my name I gave it to him right away’, which might be interpreted as a rash giving away of the narrator’s sex, integrity or self is followed by a line of remorse ‘I hung my head in shame’ (I associate this with the line in I dreamed I Saw St Augustine ‘I bowed my head and cried’.)
So, while the above songs (including Acapulo‘ and the unexplored Clothes Line Saga, could or could not have sexual references it’s just as possible to read or hear them differently. Art works through its multiplicity of ‘meanings’. Clothes Line Saga, for example, may be heard as a dig at small-town Middle America (Minneapolis?) or a pastiche off Ode To Billy Joe, as Clinton Heylin suggests (Note 9). But many of the songs stand out as being songs of debauchery because, as well as their language and the way the songs are performed, they are in stark contrast to many other songs of the collection. They suggest a tension, a conflict, so that the whole collection begins to make sense in the context of Dylan’s life prior to recording them following a long period of self examination.
If we deal solely with the sexual imagery in The Basement Tapes the atmosphere imposed upon them by Greil Marcus’s liner notes on the ‘official album’ is inadequate. Only a small part of the narrative The Tapes contain is being emphasised, suggesting a catalogue of sexual encounters, and ‘locker room humour’ at the expense of a deeper understanding or interpretation of the whole work. For The Basement Tapes could be seen as an odyssey in the epic tradition. A Rock ‘N Roll story of loss, alienation, spiritual conflict and homecoming – Redemption.
“Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease”
Too Much of Nothing will be taken as a song in which the abandonment and licence begins to play. Too much of nothing sure can make a fella mean – and desperate. (Read King Lear)
“In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control”
The waters of oblivion are rising alarmingly and a reckoning must be faced. In a nihilistic search for pleasure everything loses value, nothing is sacred.
“Too much of nothing.
Can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most
But he wouldn’t know’ a thing
Now it’s all been done before,
It’s all been written in a book,
But when there’s too much of nothing
Nobody’ should look”.
This song arrives like a moment of sanity; and insight – and dread. The past has all been recorded but who has the courage to look back after living out the orgiastic abandonment of the songs we’ve been discussing. The possible consequence is outlined in Down In The Flood
“Oh Mama you’re gonna miss your best friend now
You ‘re gonna have to find yourself
another best friend somehow”
The Flood is an archetypal image, open to many interpretations but here Dylan uses it Biblically, as it appears in Genesis and in The Psalms. The waters of oblivion burst their banks and there’s no middle ground, no compromise.
“Wow don’t you try to move me
You’re just gonna lose
There’s a crash on the levee
And, mama, you’ve been refused”.
Excess always leads to sober reflection, as epitomised in Too Much Of Nothing, to wisdom, through a reappraisal of personal history and belief suggested in Sign On The Cross
‘Wow when I was just a bawlin’ child,
I saw what I wanted to be
And it’s all for the sake
Of that picture I see
But I was lost on the moon
As I heard that front door slam,
And that old sign on the cross
Still worries me.
The tune is reminiscent, in structure, to Amazing Grace but in contrast to the hymn it emphasises spiritual uncertainty. These are fearsome songs in the context of the whole collection and amplify and compliment each other. As for You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – at this point Dylan wasn’t and by all accounts he didn’t care about C.B.S or touring or obligations to his manager or publishers. According to Dylan it was about the time that he recorded the songs of The Basement Tapes that he had begun to realise how much change he had been through, couldn’t avoid.
“I didn’t sense the importance of that accident until at least a year after that. I realised (then) that it was a real accident. I mean I thought I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before…. but I couldn’t dolt any more”. (Note 11) (Dylan 1969)
“The turning point was Woodstock. A little after the accident. … I looked out into the bleak woods and I said ‘something’s gotta change.’ There was some business that had to be taken care of”. (Note l1) (Dy1an 1974)
This song now appears to reflect the relief and freedom he felt, and could be read as charting his feelings from the period straight after the accident (or just prior to it), to the days when he began to work again. The song begins in present tense with an image of instability, storm. The clouds aren’t ‘heavy’ but ‘swift’, the weather (of the psyche) changeable. But the rain is constant, and the stanza ‘Railings froze’ suggests both stasis and the possibility that the narrator has moved from present to past tense,
“Clouds so swift
Rain won’t lift
something which is reinforced by the fourth and fifth stanzas
“Get your mind off wintertime
You ain’t going nowhere”.
‘Winter’ must be put aside and faith placed in the future. Then follows the line (chorus) already treated. What we suggest now is that the song deals in the first verse with the depression prior to, or immediately following the accident, the second a refusal to respond to ‘obligations’
“I don’t care how many letters they sent’
Morning came and morning went
Pick up your money
Pack up your tent
You ain’t going nowhere”.
In the third verse the nomadic life is rejected, the tent swapped for a ‘tree with roots’. Like the author of The Psalms, Dylan emerges from a period of darkness and calls for a flute, and strengthens his defences against intruders by creating a newfound life committed to family and music. The final verse may be interpreted as Dylan refusing the role of Genghis Khan, a conqueror/leader without equal, no longer willing to supply his fans with ‘sleep’ (escape or dreams through dionysian music.). Each verse ends in a chorus of liberation. Dylan has swapped his throne for an easy chair, in which he and his ‘bride’, Sara, his muse, or God are free to ‘fly’; transcending the past and the mundane present. If there are sexual references, then they seem undoubtedly concerned with Sara. However it seems more likely that they refer to the imminence of union, between Dylan and Sara, Dylan and God or Dylan and his muse. Secure, rooted, Dylan awaits renewal. ‘Ride me high’ might be heard as a phrase similar in meaning to ‘Sit tall in the saddle’. An expression of self-worth and healthy pride.
If you deal with The Basement Tapes (on their own or together with the four albums which followed), they could be read as an Odyssey about the ’66 tour. The excesses of that period, and the cost, and after, a period of regeneration. You Ain’t Going Nowhere, minor as it may seem at first glance, is a pivotal song marking a change of direction. The cynicism mentioned initially may now be heard as a flat determination to put down roots and refuse compromise. A hope he would later express with less certainty in Sign On The Window,
“Build me a cabin in Utah,
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me’Pa’,
That must be what it’s all’ about
That must be what it’s all ‘about
Sometimes, listening to Sign On The Window, it seems that a note of pure desperation enters Dylan’s voice as he sings the final stanza with its parallelism, a device which occurs regularly in Hebrew poetry and most famously in The Psalms. It is a device to imply resoluteness or crisis; to amplify a feeling:
Yet their voice goes out through all the earth
And their words to all the world Psalms. 19
They are like a lion eager to tear
like a young lion lurking in ambush Psalms. 17
The effect of this device in Sign On The Window betrays Dylan’s uncertainty. It’s as though he wanted to believe the sentiments of the verse especially as it finishes the song and comes after a description of capricious love and impending storm. ‘Looks like nothing but rain … hope that it don’t sleet’. This verse, the way it’s sung, betrays an underlying desperation which is, as I have already suggested, present at the point Dylan appears to be committing himself to Home and Family. However coming back to the tapes, and to the song Open The Door Homer (Richard), we meet Dylan acting on his conviction that ‘something’s gotta change’. A series of characters act as guides or advisors (reminiscent of line 300 of Job) to the narrator of the song. Jim’s advice is ambiguous, if “there’s a certain way that a man must swim/ If he expects to live off the fat of the land” suggests compromising oneself for material reward. But it might mean putting one’s personal integrity first, in the certainty that this will be rewarded. In one performance the line is sung
“There’s a certain way we all must swim
If we expect to live of the fat of the land”
This either suggests a universal principle to achieve ‘the good life’ in material terms or an admission that all have to compromise. In different moods we might receive one or the other message listening to the song. Interpretation is always subjective. In the second verse ‘House’ appears and the lesson he presents is that,
“everyone must always first flush out his house If he don’t expect to be housing flushes”.
The ‘house’ could be interpreted as the body, which must he made a fit place for the soul, or it could be the soul itself. In the past people didn’t define the one from the other. But the name Mouse, suggests timidity. His blushes, (he appears flushed) indicate he has trouble following his own advice. But it’s good advice. Mick alone seems to have grasped that the important part of the healing process is in making peace with the past and recognising one’s own limitations.
“Take care of all of your memories
Said my friend Mick
For you cannot relive them
And remember when you’re out there
Tryin’ to heal the sick,
That you must always
First forgive them”‘
Don’t deny where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced. You can’t relive the past, but a wise man remembers and ponders it.’ Out of the acceptance of our own mistakes, and through forgiveness, of ourselves and others, we can keep the experience and the meaning of that experience. It is crucial to ‘salvation’. But most people ‘have the experience and miss the meaning’. T.S. Eliot said something like that. ‘Memory’ is central to the meaning of this collection and makes it comparable to such work as The Odyssey of Homer or The Divine Comedy of Dante. The material on The Basement Tapes begins to suggest a ‘Song Cycle’ in the epic tradition of Homer and Dante, but have a closer affinity to Une Saison En Enfer (A season In Hell) and Illuminations, by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Further, when Enid Starkie, Rimbaud’s biographer introduces her work on the poet she uncannily echoes what many feel about Dylan –
“All those who study Rimbaud soon reach a gulf of mystery which their imagination and intuition seem unable to bridge . … Can a correct picture of the poet be painted from the incalculable contradictions and complexities with which the critic is confronted, a picture which will make him recognizable as a human being, and not merely a collection of abstractions loosely strung together?” ” (Note 12).
Like Dylan Rimbaud was unpredictable, anti-rationalist, torn by conflicting forces and, without a doubt, a genius. And like Dylan, he created the work he is most celebrated for in a prodigious burst of activity before falling silent. Rimbaud’s importance to Dylan has been quoted many, many times and the following, put alongside the years when Dylan was at the height of his powers, makes it clear why.
It was Rimbaud’s own conviction, expressed in letters, that “the poet, to become Seer must give himself over to a complete disordering of the senses, he must not shrink from anything, nothing is too degenerate, the poet doesn’t risk madness, he embraces it”.
Rimbaud’s work Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell) begins –
“Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast at which all hearts opened and all wines flowed. One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her…..I managed to erase from my mind all human hope. Upon every joy, in order to strangle it, I made the muffled bound of the wild beast. I called up executioners in order to bite their gun butts as I died And I played some fine tricks on madness”.
The poem ends:
“Yes; the latest hour is, to say the least, very’ severe All the filthy memories are disappearing. My last regrets take to their heels – jealousies of beggars, brigands, friends of death, all kinds of backwards creatures – Damned, too if I took vengeance’ I have seen the hell of women down there – and it will now be permitted me to possess truth in one soul and one body”. (Note 13) (Rimbaud’s emphasis)
Rimbaud’s goal was nothing less than to create a new poetic, to re-invent language by the rules of Alchemy, which has made his work difficult for French readers, and almost impossible for his translators (Note 14). Dylan, in his work from his fourth album to Blonde on Blonde appeared to be trying something similar, but unconsciously. The striking similarity between Rimbaud’s imagery, and that of Dylan’s work of that period, presents more of a case for a serious comparative study of the two poets (Does anyone want to try?), than the books which attempt to trace a line between Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. Unlike Rimbaud Dylan’s silence (retirement) did not last but, after 1967 he never again produced work of such power and transcendence as that composed and performed before the accident. Finally, like Rimbaud, he changed direction upon completing his greatest work. The Basement Tapes (and John Wesley Hardin’), like Une Saison En Enfer, give more than a hint of what occasioned this change. And The Tapes have an affinity with more distant figures, as mentioned above. Like Dante and Homer, The Basement Tapes are Epic, a modern Odyssey charting the journey of the soul.
What The Tapes, Rimbaud and Homer have in common is the charting of a quest for meaning. Homer’s Odyssey reads like a Rock ‘N Roll Circus – if you’re inclined to read it that way – and has plenty of sexual perversion, dominant women, vice and debauchery. It could be seen as a model for The Basement Tapes. (And maybe Sara is Penelope, (Odysseus’ wife) waiting for her own Odysseus by spinning, unravelling and spinning again to keep her husband’s enemies at bay. A very strong determined woman, Penelope, who didn’t see anything denigrating in cooking and sewing). But back to the songs.
Long Distance Operator might be seen as preceding You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Open The Door Homer charting the desperate feelings of trying to ‘connect’ get back from the edge, vulnerable and paranoid.
“Everybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get higher”.
The second stanza is not likely to contain a drug reference – Dylan is talking about moral/spiritual height here. And Nothing Was Delivered might be an elegy for the whole experience of touring, addressed to himself as much as to the sycophants and parasites which crowd the frames of Don’t Look Back, the ruthless management of Albert Grossman and C.B.S., which preceded Dylan’s withdrawal from public life and ‘change of personality’.
But the problem with the whole ‘Basement Tapes Odyssey’ is that, like Homer’s masterpiece, we don’t know when the songs were composed, in what order, whether they changed with performance, if there is a ‘definitive’ version of any song, etc. It seems unlikely that these problems will ever be solved, and it is surprising that such scant attention has been paid to The Basement Tapes, whilst anticipating Greil Marcus’ book published to coincide, we presume, with the 30th Anniversary of their recording.
In conclusion we would say that The Basement Tapes are Dylan’s Odyssey, an epic. Like the works of Homer, Dante and Rimbaud, which all contain scenes of debauchery, licence, and despair, in these, as in Dylan’s work there are ‘songs of redemption’ and of warning:- This wheel’s On Fire, Down In The Flood, Too Much Of Nothing, Sign On The Cross, and I Shall Be Released the song of Dylan’s home coming, his testament of faith.
“I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now
I shall be released”.
Salvation, Individuation, has been won through complete surrender to the Shadow, a journey to the underworld, and thence to the heavens, from whence Wisdom is finally grasped and Meaning preserved in a tradition, in memory. Not the memory or history of one man, but of a people, which explains the worldwide influence of Dylan’s work.
A people without history is not redeemed from time”
Out of this history, experience, and meaning, hope is sustained – to be grasped by
“each unharmful gentle soul misplaced inside a jail” of an increasingly Dark Age.
Through all the excess and corruption, the ‘spiritual warfare’ and confusion, which assault us, Dylan’s songs offer an anchor rooted in Black, Poor White and immigrant experience. The ghosts of the slavery ships pass, and the spirits of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Mance Lipscombe and a cloud of unknowns gain as much immortality as anyone can hope for and what they learnt, their wisdom, can be ours. This is the legacy preserved in The Basement Tapes, and in the whole corpus of Dylan’s work. This is Bob Dylan’s relevance to the present.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Clinton Heylin, Dylan: Behind The Shades, 1991.
2. Stephen Pickering Bob Dylan Approximately’ – A Jewish Poet’ In Search of God. A Midrash. 1974.
3. Jenny Ledeen, Prophecy In The Christian Era, 1995.
4. Protestant Christian Doctrine holds the view that once a person has declared that Jesus Christ is Lord and lives by this faith, accepting Baptism as a sign they cannot lose or forfeit their salvation. This doctrine is rooted in Calvin’s Institutes of Religion and is implicit in Lutheran & Evangelical Theology.
5. Source, Larry Eden being coached for television to ‘express his feelings’ on Bob Dylan – several times. In circulation on video.
6. As is Blowin’ ‘In The Wind. According to Ledeen. As far back as 1978, 1 attended an English Baptist Service and was surprised to hear the organist play Is Your Love In Vain? as a prelude to the service – but then as we left he played Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes.
7. While we accept that the artist uses personae in his art, he usually draws from his own experience to give credibility to the part he plays, as a recent interview with Albert Finney made clear. Thus we use ‘Narrator’ and ‘Dylan’ in discussing the protagonist in the songs.
8. Wherever a contentious interpretation of a word or phrase has been used, reference has been made to Dictionaries of Vernacular English & American language and Sexual Slang What hasn’t been at least heavily suggested has been deleted.
9. Clinton Heylin Bob Dylan Recording Sessions 1960-1995.
10. Neville Symington, Emotion and Spirit Questioning The Claims of Psychoanalysis and Religion, 1994.
11. Christian Williams, Bob Dylan In His Own Words, 1994*.
12. Enid Starkie, Introduction to Rimbaud A Biography, 1961.
13. Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems, Penguin edition. Includes Letters quoted. (The Everyman edition of En Saison En Enfer translates the poem as beginning ‘If My Memory Serves Me Well’!
14. Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations. The Poem in French edited by Dr Nick Osmond, Formerly lecturer in French, SussexUniversity. Pub Athlone French Poets.
Dr Osmond’s edition provides extensive commentary on the Poem, Rimbaud’s Poetic. and ‘code’ and writes in his introduction “Rimbaud’s prose poems combine words in unfamiliar ways, startling us into an awareness of a new possible world…. He took what he needed (for his ‘new language’) from wherever it might be found”. He suggests that as French Academic Criticism has trouble with Rimbaud’s ‘cryptic’ writing any translation is unlikely to provide all that Rimbaud has to say in the way he said it. Dr Osmond also covers Rimbaud’s influences and life in a concise, critical ‘biography’ within his introduction. Dr. Osmond’s help in trying to understand Rimbaud was immeasurable as were others at Sussex in the Department of English & American Studies. K.H.
15. Greil Marcus, The Basement Tapes. Due for publication August 1997. Meanwhile read his essay on Dylan as Historian in his appreciation of Blind Willie Mctell from The Dustbins of History, 1996.
* Whilst the book by Christian Williams is a useful ‘quick guide’ to Dylan’s utterances, anyone wishing for a more thorough work should refer to The Fiddler Now Unspoke Vols. 1-3 (K.H.).
All quotations from T.S.EIiot from Four Quartets, Faber & Faber.
MAIN REFERENCE WORKS
The following works were used, at one time or another, unconsciously or specifically.
Enid Starkie. Rimbaud Oxford A Biography.
Dr N Osmond, Ed. Illuminations, Arthur Rimbaud. Pub: AthIone Press 1976.
Robert Shelton, No Direction Home.
Clinton Heylin, The Recording Sessions.
T.S. Eliot. Tradition and The Individual Talent.
T.S. Eliot. Four Quartets.
Michael Gray, Song and Dance Man.
Anthony Scaduto, Bob Dylan An Intimate Biography, 1972.
The Complete Oxford Etymological Dictionary.
The Penguin. Dictionary of Slang and Venacular, 1984.
Websters Dictionary Of American Slang, 1975
Dictionary of Sexual Slang, Pub 1994, John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began, 1990
Paul Oliver, Blues Off The Record, 1994
Paul Oliver, Booklet from Blues and Roots CD. set.
Gillian Freeman, The Undergrowth of literature, Pan, Out of Print
Anthony Storr, Sexual Deviation, Penguin, Out of Print.
John Money, Gay, Straight and in Between, O.U.P
Anthony Stevens, Archetype, 1991.
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