For every female is a Golden Loom. Bob Dylan and William Blake

by Jochen Markhorst

Barely a generation after his death, the work of the unique multi-talent William Blake (1757-1827) is in danger of disappearing on the waters of oblivion.

The zeitgeist of the nineteenth century is not really open to Blake’s own mythology full of visionary, black-romantic images and sexual liberties. However, after his rediscovery and rehabilitation, his influence on art in the twentieth century and beyond, is unstoppable. Traces of Blake can be found in every corner of Western culture, references in films, music, painting, comics and literature are innumerable and his greatness can be considered established by now.

The title of Aldous Huxley’s hallucinatory The Doors Of Perception (1954) comes from The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell and inspires Jim Morrison to call his band The Doors. The painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun (1803) plays a key role in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981) and – of course – in both movie adaptations thereof (Manhunter and Red Dragon). And in the spin-off Hannibal  another Blake can be seen (The Ancient Of Days hangs in that huge Biltmore Estate of the disgusting billionaire Mason Verger).

Blake’s work is cited in the graphic novels V for Vendetta and in Watchmen, in films such as Blade Runner and Mean Streets, by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, in pop music by U2, Van Morrison and Tangerine Dream, classical composers like Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams have set his poems to music (as did Ginsberg, by the way: Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, 1970) and the sets in the EA game Dante’s Inferno (2010) lean on Blake’s illustrations to the Divina Commedia.

And with Dylan, Blake references and quotes have been a constant throughout the decades. “Gates Of Eden” (1965) and “Every Grain Of Sand” (1981) are the best known carriers of Blakean influences, and small Blake snippets such as little boy lost in “Visions Of Johanna” can be found on almost every album. Dylan’s travelling circus The Rolling Thunder Revue also owes its name to the English genius (“Michael contended against Satan in the rolling thunder” from Milton), “Ring Them Bells” (1989) could have been one of Blake’s own Songs Of Experience (1794) and in “Roll On John” (2012) Dylan quotes more literally than ever, including antique spelling: “Tyger, tyger, burning bright” (from The Tyger, 1794).

In the 70s, Dylan writes his arguably most Blakean song, “Golden Loom”. Golden loom is a beloved metaphor at Blake; in Jerusalem alone, the last and longest of his prophetic books, he uses it six times – for instance when he describes the Gates of Eden, by the way. The “immortal shrine” Dylan picks up from the poem Preludium to Europe, the “hungry clouds” from The Argument. This is the only time that Dylan uses the archaic word “dismal” (Blake uses it hundreds of times, in Jerusalem nine times) and the accessible The Book Of Thel (1789) perhaps inspires the emergence of the atypical “lotus” and “perfume”.

The borrowed idiom contributes to the mystical, dream-like style that also characterizes Blake’s prophetic books, but not exclusively; the other images, the content, and especially the anecdotal character thereof, hints at a second influencer: at the Canadian bard and Dylan fan Leonard Cohen, and in particular the well-known, beautiful opening lines of his melancholic farewell song “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”:

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm

“Golden Loom” seems to be an eighteenth-century remake of that famous song anyway. In the liner notes of the Greatest Hits album from 1976, Cohen himself reports about that song:

“This song arises from an over-used bed in the Penn Terminal Hotel in 1966. The room is too hot. I can’t open the windows. I am in the midst of a bitter quarrel with a blonde woman. The song is half-written in pencil but it protects us as we manoeuvre, each of us for unconditional victory. I am in the wrong room. I am with the wrong woman.”

And his spoken intro to the same song at the Montreux concert, 25 June ’76, sounds as if it had been written by Dylan:

“It was a terrible hotel room. The windows wouldn’t close (sic!). The radiator wouldn’t stop hissing. The faucet wouldn’t stop its mythological drip into the destroying porcelain sink. I was with the wrong woman as usual. But as your Eastern physicians, Eastern metaphysicians know, just as from the darkest mud blooms the whitest lotus, so from the brownest hotel room you occasionally get a good song.”

The end of a love affair in a hotel room and the blooming lotus are already lines to Dylan’s “Golden Loom” (which of course was written earlier than Cohen’s words in Montreux), and once on that track there are more hints to be found.

“Where the wildflowers bloom” is a nod to the very first recording of “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, by Judy Collins, blooming on her LP Wildflower (and as B-side of her single “Both Sides Now”, 1967), probably also Dylan’s first introduction to the song and in “the trembling lion” one could suspect a hint to the name Leonard (“Leonard” means “powerful lion”).

However: too far-fetched, and quite unlikely. Dylan quotes, paraphrases and borrows enough, as he does with the work of William Blake in this song, but arcane, laborious encryptions on this Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook level – very unlike him. Subconsciously, maybe. The lines without Blake references do have an undeniable Leonard Cohen fragrance; “I see the sailing boats across the bay”, “And then our shadows meet and we drink the wine”, “And then I kiss your lips as I lift your veil” … all of them verses that could have been lifted from “Suzanne” or “So Long Marianne” or “Sisters Of Mercy”.

Well alright then, a wildflower and a trembling lion subsequently emerging from Dylan’s freely associating mind – it is not that inconceivable.

“Golden Loom” is an outtake of those hectic, crowded Desire sessions, but fortunately recorded at the quietest moment. The restless, chaotic Dylan has packed the sessions with musicians, experienced and inexperienced, the culmination being the July 28 session, when twenty-two musicians walk in and out of the studio. A day later, when people like Eric Clapton have chosen to stay far away from that madness, “only” twelve are left and on July 30, the day of “Golden Loom”, there is ultimately a manageable, workable club of seven people left. Consequently, this day will be the most productive recording day; the final versions of “Oh, Sister”, “One More Cup Of Coffee”, “Black Diamond Bay”, “Mozambique” and “Rita May” will also be realized on this 30 July.

Saxophonist Mel Collins has not arrived yet, does not participate in this song, so at “Golden Loom”, which is the first on the program, there are only six musicians present.

It results in a beautiful, dreamy, pleasantly casual exercise that is completed quickly; the first full take is technically not perfect (the pace is accelerating, for example), but it does have the perfect imperfection of Dylan’s best work. Eventually, this take will be released on The Bootleg Series 1-3 (1991). Why Dylan dismisses the recording for the album is – as usual – unclear. Both in terms of performance and thematically (desire, after all), the song fits well with Desire, but the master lets it drift away on a summer’s day and graciously grants Roger McGuinn “Golden Loom”.

The ex-Byrd is an acclaimed member of the Rolling Thunder Revue and records shortly after the tour with revue colleagues Mick Ronson, drummer Howie Wyeth and bassist Rob Stoner (also Desire‘s rhythm section) the beautiful album Cardiff Rose (1976), on which the Blood On The Tracks outtake “Up To Me” is a highlight. For his next album he brings together a new band with the obvious and well-chosen name Thunderbyrd. The eponymous album is produced by Desire producer Don DeVito and is less successful, but it also contains a couple of gems: particularly “Golden Loom”. The band is great live, as they demonstrate on the first Rockpalast night (in the night of 23 to 24 July 1977, in the Grugahalle in Essen). There, in Germany, McGuinn proclaims it to be his song:

“Bob Dylan wrote a song and he gave me… he gave me the song and he didn’t even record it himself. And the song is called Golden Loom.”

Not entirely accurate (as Dylan did record it), but what the heck; Thunderbyrd’s performance of the song is wonderful. The concert is rightly released on video and in 2012 on DVD. On Amazon it still sells quite well. This version is also by far the most exciting cover of “Golden Loom”.

Noteworthy furthermore are Maria Muldaur (on the tribute album Heart Of Mine, 2006) with a lazy, lounge blues rendition and Icelandic veteran Björn Thoroddsen, who records the lovely album Bjössi – Introducing Anna in Nashville in 2016 with the phenomenon Robben Ford. Thoroddsen has proven himself mainly in jazz, Ford is a bluesman, but surprisingly their “Golden Loom” is a very attractive folky interpretation. Beautifully sung by the Icelandic Anna Þuríður Sigurðardóttir, who by the way is less succesful with the other Dylan cover on the album, the otherwise fine, equally folky orchestrated “Seven Days”. Again a throwaway, from the aftermath of Desire. And again with a Blakean flavour; the little boy is and remains lost, but the little girl Lyca is found – after Seven Days of searching, the trembling woman is told where Lyca can be found by a couching lion:

On his head a crown,
On his shoulders down
Flowed his golden hair.
Gone was all their care

(“Little Girl Found”, Songs Of Experience, 1794).

Thunderbyrd at Rockpalast:

 

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