The geography and history (mystery) of ‘’When I Paint My Masterpiece’’

Searching for the ‘’song’s capital’’

by mr tambourine

Before I begin, I would like to take a chance to thank Tony Attwood for this amazing opportunity for me to become the first Dylan YouTube channel that is also one of the writers for Untold Dylan. The same way, it’s an honor to be the first anonymous writer of the page, since the ‘’mr tambourine’’ character was created as a mysterious kind, and for that matter, I wish to keep it that way here. I would also like to thank all my subscribers for the amazing support over the years.

After thinking about my channel’s history and potential legacy in the first paragraph, it makes me think of a connection to such a song like ‘’When I Paint My Masterpiece’’. Probably any artist, not just a painter, can feel the glory of this song.   There’s nothing better than when you feel you created your masterpiece.

One of my hobbies is songwriting although when I created my channel, I felt more like a sculptor than a songwriter. Ironically, a sculptor is mentioned in the famous ‘’Your Song’’. ‘’If I was a sculptor, but then again no…’’

And I can definitely see parallels between ‘’Your Song’’ and ‘’When I Paint My Masterpiece’’. Both songs talk about a certain craftsman. In the two songs, the craftsman sees things differently but expresses them the same way. ‘’Your Song’’ has a line ‘’my gift is my song and this one’s for you’,” while Dylan says ‘’everything is gonna be different, when I paint that masterpiece’’. You can definitely see a connection.

But what ‘’Your Song’’ doesn’t have is a geography to it. And I don’t think any other song of Dylan has this kind of geography.

Yes, we’ve seen Dylan over the years expressing his travelling through the world like no one else. This song is no exception. But the irony in the lyrics is very provoking.

The places he has mentioned are Rome, Brussels and ‘’the land of Coca Cola’’.

So I’ll first analyze those places, and then I will analyze where the song was actually performed live the most.

Let’s start with Rome.

I don’t think Bob tries to glorify Rome here although many others would disagree. As we know, Bob once talked in one of his concerts (1997 if I’m not mistaken) about Italy being ‘’the most beautiful country in the world’’. Those are some strong words coming from an often sceptical person like Bobby.

Well, in this song, he shows his true colours with his scepticism, saying how the streets are filled with rubble, how you can think you’re seeing double, as he points out one of the main flaws of being a gladiator in the Coliseum, where you have to waste your time with dodging lions. Typical Bob stuff – you don’t want him to change his approach.

But still, he finds something comforting and quite inspirational in all that ‘’rubble’’ and mess. He sees it as an artistic type of mess. He can probably relate to it because maybe he sees his work like that, and we know Bob was always humble, (perhaps sometimes too humble), when talking about himself or his work.

But, Bob, being the great lyricist and artist, knows how to capture certain emotions. Here, it’s no different. Every great artist has an obsession of creating a masterpiece, a masterpiece in his own eyes, not in the eyes of others, and as a result, he can claim some kind of fulfilment, at least temporarily.   And I think Bob is definitely chasing that here.

I don’t think he ever felt he created that masterpiece. I think that’s why the Never-Ending Tour keeps on going for so long now.

The song feels like it’s written in the 60s, and I honestly originally thought that the song was a Basement Tapes outtake, but actually it was a Self Portrait outtake it seems (based on the Bootleg Series vol. 10 Another Self Portrait, where it appears).

The song was first released in 1971, on the Greatest Hits Volume 2.

And throughout all the years prior to 1971, Bob had never been to Rome.  Or at least he hadn’t performed there up to that point.

So it’s pretty fascinating that he could capture the Spirit Of Rome. But I guess, whenever an artist gets born, certain senses of his body have a natural connection to Rome. It’s impossible not to have at least a little bit of a connection. The pictures that we have of Rome are simply that of an Artistic Land, and no one can deny that.

But Dylan captured the flaws of Rome, and very few artists would actually focus on the flaws of Rome. Rome is never seen as a subject of scepticism. But Bob can find a flaw even somewhere where others can’t see it at all, and he can so easily get away with it and make it work.

Another example can be seen nearly forty years later, in 2012 in the album ‘’Tempest’’ and the song ‘’Early Roman Kings’’. Bob is probably talking about the Italian mafia that emigrated into America in the early 20th century, but with Bob, you never know. I think he was just making a parallel with the Italian mafia and the ancient Romans, trying to compare them to some degree.

Again, he mentions the ancient Rome and its flaws.

So this confirms to me that Bob really wants to take his scepticism to an all-time level. Which I’m fine with, because nothing is perfect and no one can give us flaws of life in such a polite but brutal way like Mr. Dylan can.

Now, since I’ve pretty much explained the probably-actual side of this, maybe I can confirm it with showing you the facts of how much Bob has actually played the song live in Rome.

The answer is – just once (as of January 20, 2020).   That one performance happened in 1991.    It was just the 36th live performance of the song, the first since 1987, making it the first ever Never-Ending Tour performance.

I uploaded this some time ago so you can check it in this link here

The very next performance happened on the infamous Stuttgart 1991 show (considered to be Bob’s worst concert ever) and would be played a pretty solid amount of times in 1991, but more often on the American leg of the tour.

Bob has had many chances of playing this song in Rome, but he just didn’t want to do it. I think Bob pretty much respects Rome and denied playing this song there on purpose – just because the song shows the flaws of the ancient Rome in the lyrics.

I’m not saying Bob was afraid to play it there. That’s not something to worry about in the slightest bit.   But what I think did occur is his pride. I don’t think he wanted to play it until he really ‘’painted his masterpiece’’.  As I said, I’m pretty certain Bob doesn’t feel like he still painted that masterpiece, and that could be another reason why he refuses to play it. It’s the kind of approach like ‘’I’m not gonna play this here until I paint my masterpiece’’.

But why did he play it in 1991 then?

Well, there’s so much irony about 1991. We know that it’s considered Bob’s weakest year (some agree with this and some don’t). In my opinion, it can only be two things: Bob was so low on confidence in 1991 that he needed some kind of encouragement, and probably the positive side of the lyrics of this song gave him some well-needed energy back then. Maybe he wanted the song to become a main part of the set in 1991, but it definitely didn’t work.

Another option could be that Dylan was thinking of retiring in 1991. We know that he was willing to retire in 1989 even, but since it was a successful year with Oh Mercy bringing him back on the map, he kept going. But after the disaster with Under The Red Sky (which I like, but the results were poor, unfortunately) it really seemed bad.

The success of Oh Mercy was supposed to cement Bob forever as an important artist, but with Under The Red Sky he once again ruined his legacy. Then the ’91 Tour, then the Grammys Performance in ’91 where he received the Lifetime Achievement award from Jack Nicholson at just 50 years of age, while performing a horrific version of ‘’Masters Of War’’ (which we can also interpret differently, depending on if he purposely wanted to suck in front of ‘’the idiots in suits’’ in the Grammys crowd which he didn’t respect very much?).

So it’s hard to say what the 1991 Rome performance really represented.

The closest Bob ever came to ‘’playing the song’’ in Rome again was in the 2001 Rome press conference. Somewhere in the beginning of the conference, the newspapermen (who might’ve been eating candy, but certainly weren’t held back by big police) asked him in the beginning ‘’you even wrote a song about Rome’’ to which Dylan responded ‘’quite a few’’.

That odd response leaves me thinking what other songs did he write about Rome? Maybe he sees ‘’When I Paint My Masterpiece’’ as more than one song. And that could be true, since it’s had many lyrical revisions along the way.

But we’ll get back to that later.

Here’s the link to the beginning of that Press Conference, which by the way you can watch in full, because it’s all you want from a Dylan ‘’interview’’.


So, to conclude:

Bob performed in Rome in the years (in chronological order, as of January 20, 2020): 1984 (three times), 1987, 1989, 1991, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013 (twice), 2015 and 2018 (three times), making it a total of 17 times.

So the percentage of Masterpiece being played there is 1/17 = 5.88 %

That is such a low number.

Now, let’s take a look at Brussels, capital of Belgium.

I am currently not going to look at the differences between Rome and Brussels, as there are not many similarities but the fact that we’re looking at two famous European cities.

One is a historical juggernaut, while the other is more of a modern-day significant city, since it’s the centre of the European Union. All the decisions are based on the opinions of EU, and they control everything. And Brussels is the main city.

So, Bob probably tried to do that when he compared the cities in 1970 when writing the song – to make a parallel between the ancient city and the modern-day metropolis. I’m not here trying to dismiss anything about Brussels, and Bob is not doing that either I’m sure – but in historical significance – there’s no comparison between the two metropolises.

The lyrics go, ‘’I left Rome, I pulled into Brussels, on a plain ride so bumpy that I almost cried’’.

So Bob does the same for Brussels as he did for Rome – shows its flaws.

Bob has played this song in Brussels – you guessed – only once as well. In 2002.

In 2002, the song was performed only there and in Las Vegas.

It was ‘’a lot’’, because in 1999, 2000 and 2001, the song was performed only once each of those three years (skipped completely in 1998).

But the two 2002 performances were the last in five years, until Bob brought it back in 2007.

The Brussels version is certainly one of the best arrangements of the song.

Here’s your chance to hear it on my channel again (ironically, with pictures of Rome in the video)


Bob has performed in Brussels in his career so far in the years (in chronological order, as of January 20, 2020):

1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2015. A total of 15 times. The percentage of Masterpiece played here is 1/15 = 6.667% – a little better than Rome.

What’s also fascinating, is that Bob performed in both of these two cities many times in the same years. So definitely a connection exists between the two metropolises.

So, in these two cities combined, the percentage of Masterpiece being played is 2/32 = 6.25%.   So there’s not even a 10% chance that Bob can play this song in these two cities.

Thus, as I said, Bob doesn’t want to show the flaws of these two cities in front of their crowds.

So, now, it’s time to analyze ‘’the land of Coca Cola’’.   As you know, Coca Cola was founded in Atlanta, Georgia.  So let’s take a look at that.

Masterpiece was played in Atlanta only twice. In back to back years 1996 and 1997.

The percentage of it being played in Atlanta is also miserable.    Bob only performed once in Atlanta before Masterpiece was even written. That was in 1965.

After that he performed there from 1974 to 2015 a dozen times.

So, maybe it’s not Atlanta as the this song’s ‘’capital’’.

What is the ‘’Land Of Coca Cola’’ anyway?

As a non-American and with English not being my mother language, I never heard of any slang ‘’Land Of Coca Cola.’’ It probably doesn’t even exist. Dylan made it up probably, although it could be a joke about the World of Coca Cola museum in Atlanta run by the Coca Cola Company.

But, I would like to close with the lyrical revisions over the years, which are quite interesting indeed.

The original version had ‘’a date with Botticelli’s niece’’ in it.  Later, that became ‘’a date with a pretty little girl from Greece’’ and was used throughout the Never-Ending Tour.

So, now we get another geographical location.

Why Greece?

Maybe he’s trying to say that along with being fascinated by the ancient Rome, he is fascinated with the ancient Greeks?

And the original lines that stayed (even after Botticelli’s niece came out of the way) ‘’she promised she’d be right there with me’’ are quite interesting as well. I think Dylan here is trying to say that when you take a look at history, there’s no way you can miss out on both the ancient Rome and the ancient Greece and also I think he’s trying to say here that the two can’t exist without each other. There’s constant comparison going on between Rome and Greece in ancient times. Those two simply go hand in hand. And that’s what Dylan is trying to say. No matter how times change, the two will always be linked to each other. And as Dylan has proven many times, some things never change.

‘’Masterpiece’’ was never played in Greece. So, it has nothing to do with that either. We still search for the ‘’song’s capital’’.

It was confirmed in the new 2018 and 2019 arrangements of the song, when ‘’Masterpiece’’ was brought to another level and the lyrics changed to ‘’gonna wash off my clothes, scrape off all of the grease’’.

So what I think he’s trying to do is finally stop comparing Rome to Greece. And ‘’Greece’’ just became ‘’grease’’ he’s trying to ‘’scrape off’’ or get rid off. Or, it can be another reference. If the ‘’pretty little girl from Greece’’ was indeed a ‘’date’’, then Bob simply wants to show here that he’s not focused on that anymore and has moved on (from thinking or caring about his ‘’love life’’).

Also, in the new 2018 and 2019 versions, the ‘’Land Of Coca Cola’’ disappeared.

From the original lyrics ‘’Sailing ‘round the world in a dirty gondola, oh to be back in the land of Coca Cola!’’ came the new ‘’Sailing ‘round the world full of crimson and clover, oh sometimes I feel that my copy’s running over’’.

So I think I have just come to a conclusion here, sort of..

Bob never wanted to play this song in the places he mentioned in the song’s lyrics. He played it pretty much always in the US (except Atlanta) and very few times in Europe in general (especially before 2018).

I think what Bob referred to as the ‘’land of Coca Cola’’ was indeed the United States.

He loves Rome and its history, he loves Brussels despite the bad plane ride – he loves travelling around the world, even with a dirty gondola – Bob was always a travelling soul and he loves to travel and play his songs to the world – but he loves the States (probably more than anything). Oh, to be back in the land of Coca Cola (he loves his home I guess, whatever he sees as his home).

Oh, to be back in the States; I think that’s the message.

But right now, it turned into ‘’I feel like my copy’s running over’’.

Ever since Bob played Masterpiece in Seoul 2018, for the first time since 2011, I don’t think there was a show throughout 2018 and 2019 after that where he didn’t play the song.

So what I feel the message is – Bob is finally ready to play the song absolutely anywhere now, without hesitation. The only thing he cares about now is that his copy doesn’t run over. He’s willing to travel even on ‘’a plane ride so bumpy that it makes him ill’’ (another new 2018/19 lyrical revision compared to the original ‘’so bumpy that I almost cried’’).

Another interesting lyrical revision in the 2018/19 period: the “dodging lions and wasting time, those mighty kings of the jungle, I can hardly stand to see ‘em, it sure has been a long hard climb’’ became the ‘”dodging lions with that mean and hungry look, those mighty kings of the jungle, I can hardly stand to see ‘em, I can see them comin’, I can read their faces like a book’’.

The lyrics that are also added are ‘’gonna lock the doors and turn my back on the world for a while, gonna stay right there when I paint my masterpiece’’ and ‘’someday everything is gonna be beautiful, when I paint…’’.

This, I think, along with saying that he might play it in both Rome and Brussels and even Atlanta the very next time he visits, he tries to say that he is in the process of recording a new album. Chasing that ‘’masterpiece’’ so he can get some kind of fulfilment.

That’s my view.

What else is on the site

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  1. Very interesting ….

    Indeed, Atlanta is the headquarters of the Coca-Cola company, it’s label often employed by artists as a symbol of American commercialism …. in the movie
    ‘Dr. Strangelove’, for example.

    And Botticelli’s niece gets us back to Greece and ‘Aphrodite’ (known to the Romans as ‘Venus’)… her uncle painted the famous masterpiece “The Birth of Venus”.

  2. And who can ever forget hearing ‘Mr. Tangerine Man’ – ‘Tommy James And The Shonedells” – singing:
    “Crimsom and clover, over and over”

    Or watching the movie “Grease”!

  3. Thank you for an interesting article.

    ’Sailing ‘round the world full of crimson and clover, oh sometimes I feel that my copy’s running over’

    I think it’s ‘cup is running over’, – quite clear in this performance – which suggests that, even though the ultimate fulfillment may always elude them, there are times when the protagonist is satisfied with a life that is brimming (overflowing!) with plenty, leading a privileged life of ease among the crimson & clover.

    To be human includes the never-ending search for perfection, but we can also be at peace sometimes and feel what we have is more than enough (and if we refer to Dylan specifically, well, obviously, materially at least that is the case).

  4. An interesting article and an intersting song “When I paint my masterpiece”. To start with what I think might be a missunderstanding is what you make out of Dylans description of his experiences of Rome (and that might turn the meaning of the song into quite another direction than intended). Dylan does not use the words “mess”or “flaws” (those are your words, Mr. Tambourine Man), just “rubble” and that is not the contrary of a glorification of the singers experience of the “eternal” city. The streets who are filled with rubble reminds me for example of the stones of the Forum Romanum, of what is left of the great history. It can almost make you seeing double because of all the impressions of the past. And that makes him think and reflect of the masterpiece he once wants to “paint” (but probably not as a painter). But then also the land of Coca Cola comes into mind, let`s say the prose after the poetry. Also prose has its place in art. But the stones, the rubble of Rome is the poetry after my opinion, otherwise the meaning of the whole song would fall apart, in a way.
    The fact that Dylan gave us probably the greatest version of the song ever some months ago is maybe first of all the best of all short portraits or selfportraits of the artist. He does never stop to think of the masterpiece. And without that intention a masterpiece probably does appear very very seldom.

  5. Wonderful Article here and I think that Bob Dylan having, travelled the globe perhaps more than any other musician, he would definitely have certain people and venues that would spark a desire for him to provide certain songs in these places.
    Thanks so much Untold Dylan and mr. tambourine!

  6. To me it was simply a rambling stream of consciousness dream of making it famous. Describes a trip (real or imagined) on his journey. It seems much like to me the story of Jim Carey writing himself a check for $10M and putting it in his wallet telling himself one day he will have enough money to cash it.

    To me he is just fantasizing about the journey and having fun with it and being in the company of great people (or their nieces). What would a young man in the sixties do if he traveled to the coliseum. I imagine if he was with friends he might dodge imaginary lions a bit and maybe just sit around a bit (wasting time) but otherwise having fun before going off on his date with Botticelli’s niece.

    Seems like a fantasy as well of landing in Brussels and the press being there to welcome him. It’s part of his fantasy of “yeah, one day I’m going to be famous.”

    I know I haven’t spent a great deal of time backing any of this up or going into great detail but It is what the song means to me. Listen to stories of people such as athletes fantasizing about being an Olympic Gold Medalist long before they actually do it. I know of folks writing in their journals “I am an Olympic Gold Medalist” or drawing pics of medals with their name engraved on the side of the medal all before actually having done it.

    I would be interested in thoughts on this idea.

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