Dylan’s Day Of The Locusts: the revenge of the grasshopper

by Jochen Markhorst

David Crosby regards himself a friend of Dylan’s and that works because he cracked the code:

“I get along with him pretty well now because I’ve managed to keep him from knowing that I’m impressed (at least, until he reads this). The minute you let him know you’re completely impressed with him, he starts to mess with you. He’ll stir your brain like a spoon.”

The ex-Byrd and accredited marijuana bulk user does not really have the reputation of being an astute analyst, but there are more unexpectedly striking observations in Crosby’s first autobiography Stand And Be Counted – A Revealing (2000). He shows wonderfully well how uncomfortable Dylan can be when he feels cornered, like at the honorary doctorate granting and accompanying speech, Princeton 1970, and he has a well-developed sense for remarkabilities.

“One of the best things I’ve ever heard Bob say about himself was in somebody else’s words. He was quoting Henry Miller, who explains Dylan’s whole life in this one sentence: The role of an artist is to inoculate the world with disillusionment.”

Alright, this particular quote also comes along in a few interviews with Dylan (like in the Playboy interview, 1977), but still, theoretically Crosby may have heard it from Dylan’s mouth. And a nice, thought-provoking quote it is anyway.

The written confession that he secretly admires Dylan did not affect the friendship apparently; in Chronicles, three years after Crosby’s confidence, the Bard writes affectionate, kind words about his hairy friend. He recalls how he took Crosby to the dreaded honorary doctorate award, calling him “colorful and unpredictable”, he can be an obstreperous companion, and he likes him a lot.

That trip to Princeton is a much-discussed, well-documented day in Dylan’s life. First of all by Dylan himself, who dedicates more than six hundred words to the incident in Chronicles. But especially in Dylanology of course. Not only because it is a special event in Dylan’s biography, but also because it is one of those rare events of life that finds a clearly demonstrable, irrefutable reflection in a Dylan song: in “Day Of The Locusts”.

The title is beautiful and has already been taken from some very live place. At least, just about anyway. The insects that, in Dylan’s words, sing such a sweet melody, are not locusts, but cicadas. These are creatures that already have a fairly special life cycle, and this Princeton variant, the magicicada, even more so. The entomologists distinguish between the seven types of so-called broods, clutches. The cicada choir at Dylan’s ceremony is sung by the tenth clutch, Brood X, of the Michigan cicada and this species has the bizarre characteristic that they only come above ground every seventeen years. Then the nymphs are sexually mature, and have a few weeks to reproduce and die.

The second poetic freedom Dylan allows himself, apart from the renaming to locusts, is the “sweet melody” they supposedly sing with a “high whining thrill”. Granted, it is certainly high and vibrant, but already a few dozen cicadas in a tree can reach 100 dB (comparable to a motorcycle) and the monotonous droning is anything but melodic. Washington Post journalist Cameron W. Barr, who lives nearby, writes regularly about the plague and calls it deafening, comparing it to the thundering of an arriving subway train and finds the sound otherworldly – which is not meant admiringly.

It is nevertheless understandable that the poet cannot resist the loaded power of the image of a locust swarm. In addition to the archaic, biblical doom the mere mentioning of locusts evokes (for example, the Egyptian plague in Exodus 10, and especially the prophecy of the fifth angel in Revelation 9), The Day Of The Locust is also the best-known work of Nathanael West, one of Dylan’s literary examples. It is the last novel of West, who dies at an early age, published in 1939, and the theme is tailor-made for Dylan: the gap between appearances and reality.

In The Day Of The Locust, the young painter Tod Hackett goes to Hollywood, makes a living there by painting film sets and discovers the world of disappointment, envy and ugliness behind the beautiful appearance and splendour. West writes in a sometimes grotesque, provocative style, the work is full of symbolism and bizarre metaphors and is initially considered pretty controversial (by now it is in the Modern Library’s List of 100 best English-language books from the twentieth century, ranked 73). Right up Dylan’s street, all in all.

He does show his love for Nathanael West more often, as a matter of fact. For example, in Chapter 4 of Chronicles, when Dylan talks about his despair in the 1980s, about his fear that his talent has come to an end:

The mirror had swung around and I could see the future — an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theatre of past triumphs.

The Bard almost literally picks that from West’s first, rather obscure and not too successful novel The Dream Life Of Balso Snell (1931), in which we can read on page 27:

I’m like an old actor mumbling Macbeth as he fumbles in the garbage can outside the theatre of his past triumphs.

The chorus of Dylan’s song “Day Of The Locusts” is of a deliberate greeting card level, while the introductory couplets have a reporting quality. The reporter Dylan submits meteorological facts, describes the scene, explains the presence of the main character, I stepped to the stage to pick up my degree, and truthfully reports that he and his girl get into the car afterwards and drive off (Sara Dylan is present, indeed).

Poetic he is only in a few asides. The benches are “stained with tears and perspiration”, a poetic reference to the emotions that accompany a graduation ceremony and at the same time a literary nod to the famous blood, toil, tears and sweat speech of fellow Nobel Prize winner Churchill. The poet expresses feelings of discomfort with the stifling image in the second verse: “darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb,” and downright alienating is the image of the man next to me, whose head is about to explode.

Crosby thinks he knows Dylan means him, because he was, once again, high as a kite. He discloses the story, unsolicited, during an interview with Paul Zollo in the Aspen Writers Foundation’s series Lyrically Speaking (2008):

dc: He wrote about me one time

pz: Oh yeah? Which song is that?

dc: I think it’s called “The Locusts”

pz: “Day Of The Locust”?

dc: Yeah

pz: Oh, that’s a great song

dc: Yeah… ‘The guy, the man next to me, his head was exploding…’

pz: Yeah! That’s you?

dc: (nods proudly, though somewhat apologetically, to the hilarity of the audience)

Dylan’s recollection in Chronicles, however, rather points to the speaker who hands out the bull, glorifying Dylan, to his horror, as “the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America,” the kind of label that Dylan would love to get rid of.

Truly poetic and Dylanesque are only the last two lines of the last verse: they leave

Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.

Here the reporter has abandoned the reporting, that much is clear. The Black Hills of South Dakota are about three thousand kilometres away, one does not simply drive there. And it is quite an illogical destination; Dylan’s house is in Woodstock, two and a half hours’ drive just north of Princeton, the other direction.

The poet has taken over here from the reporter, so those black hills of Dakota have a metaphorical meaning. An obvious association of an American listener is: Mount Rushmore. The four portraits of US Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt are carved from the granite of the Black Hills and the monument is the biggest attraction in the Midwestern States, with over two million visitors a year. South Dakota therefore officially presents itself as “The Mount Rushmore State” (even in the flag). Implying, with pleasant irony, that the honorary doctorate grants him monumental, immortal status.

The song is on New Morning, the album that despite the initial enthusiasm (no. 1 in England, gold in the US, cheering reviews) soon sinks back to the gray platoon of Not-Too-Bad Dylan albums. The album is experiencing some revaluation thanks to The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (2013), but that does not lead to a revival. The songs are rarely played, not even by the master himself, and there are hardly any memorable covers from colleagues. “If Not For You” and especially “The Man In Me” still somewhat hide this indifference, but “Day Of The Locusts” remains ignored. Even David Crosby, who may call himself a kind of spiritual godfather (after all, he persuaded Dylan to go and accept that honorary doctorate) and who has a granite, indestructible reputation as a Dylan interpreter, remains far away from it.

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  1. Stand And Be Counted is Crosby’s 2nd autobiography. His first is called Long Time Gone. Both are great reads!

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