The Mississippi-series, part 5: Frost in the room, fire in the sky

The Mississippi series

by Jochen Markhorst

Like earlier songs such as “Desolation Row” and “Where Are You Tonight?”, “Mississippi” can’t really be dealt with in one article. Too grand, too majestic, too monumental. And, of course, such an extraordinary masterpiece deserves more than one paltry article. As the master says (not about “Mississippi”, but about bluegrass, in the New York Times interview of June 2020): Its’s mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. […] It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood.

V          Frost in the room, fire in the sky

Got nothin' for you, I had nothin' before
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down
Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around

In 2007 DVD Talk interviews Henry Rollins on the occasion of his forthcoming concert registration Shock And Awe. The interview is largely about Rollins’ musical heroes, with Rollins acknowledging that he, too, is only a product of his time: “I’m not saying everything now sucks, but a record that I think is as awesome as Exile On Main Street or Houses Of The Holy? Noooo.

Recognizable; the impact of music on a receptive individual in his formative years (Rollins is from ’61, so about twelve years when those records are released) is never equalled in later years. Yesteryear’s music is always better. For, as the German poet Theodor Storm says, “der Jugend Zauber hängt doch an dir – the magic of your youth is clung to it”.

He actually only knows one exception, Rollins says: the last record by Nick Cave (Abattoir Blues, 2004).

“His new collection is extraordinary, it blows the last album away. I wrote him a letter after I played it and said, “you and Dylan are like the only guys writing songs right now.” I think the last two Dylan records have just been incredible – Time Out Of Mind and Love And Theft. Those were just amazing.”

But a little further on he can explain in a more substantive way what repels him in a lot of recent music, and what he misses:

“But with music, in the 90’s something happened to the production where the Pro Tools started coming in, pitch correction started coming in – on rock music. All of a sudden it started to sound contained to me, quantized and contained, and that’s just not really what I want from my rock and roll. Where you listen to an older record and you say “yeah those are people in a room, really, really playing”. (…) I miss the space, I miss the sound of a guitar in a room where you can hear the air around it. Who makes records like that still? Tom Waits does, Bob Dylan does.”

Henry Rollins is an exceptional, tireless multi-talent with an enviable talent for finding the right words, as evidenced by his intelligent, sharp and often witty columns in LA Weekly. And as this interview excerpt shows – a “contained sound” is a clever formulation to express the increasingly sterile sound of rock music. Missing space, “the sound of a guitar in a room where you can hear the air around it” is a perfect, poetic description of the sound Dylan so emphatically seeks when he produces his own records as “Jack Frost”.

It’s surprisingly close to what Dylan’s employees say about the production of Time Out Of Mind and “Love And Theft”, the sessions that produced “Mississippi”. Pianist Jim Dickinson, session musician on Time Out Of Mind, remembers:

“One thing that really struck me during those sessions, Dylan, he was standing singing four feet from the microphone, with no earphones on. He was listening to the sound in the room.”

And even more right to speak has engineer Chris Shaw, from “Love And Theft” to Trouble No More Dylan’s recording engineer. In the same highly entertaining and informative interview series for Uncut, the “Tell Tales Special” on the occasion of the 2008 Bootleg Series 8 of the same name, Shaw discusses his experiences with Dylan in detail in the studio. “His idea was just, basically”, he explains, “get the whole band in the room and get them playing.”

Which creates specific problems for a recording engineer, but also explains the “room” sound as Henry Rollins so aptly calls it:

“And I’d say about 85 per cent of the sound of that record is the band spilling into Bob’s microphone, because he’d sing live in the room with the band. Most of the time without headphones. That’s why the record has this big, I think, almost kind of swampy sound to it, and he loves it, he really goes for that sound.”

But the groundbreaking Dylan researcher Scott Warmuth has an even better explanation for Henry Rollins’ outspoken love for particularly those two Dylan records: Rollins hears himself. Or rather: he hears his own words.

Warmuth, who admirably succeeds in tracing sources of Dylan’s songs, discovers four fragments in “Mississippi” that Dylan has lifted from Rollins’ work. The first one, your days are numbered, is arguably somewhat dubious, but the other three are obvious.

In See A Grown Man Cry, Warmuth finds:

I don't want to know you
I have nothing for you
I don't even have a self for myself anymore
People pick at your body like crows
You want a friend, go hang out with a big rock
It's not me you want
No matter what you think

See A Grown Man Cry (1992) is an overwhelming work. It consists, like other Rollins works too, of a long series of diary-like notes made by the poet during his many travels, and reveals an extremely sharp observing, eloquent and intelligent mind. Many of the notes express the thoughts of a tormented man who can barely contain his aggression, his frustrations and his senseless hatred, such as:

Nijamegan Holland
Forgotten thrown away
Cold raining outside
Hendrix blasting this bar
An asshole in the corner hands pounding the bar off time
I was here five years ago
Watched these guys beat each other up
It was more interesting than the set
Soon the hash bar will open

…others are philosophical reflections and yet others are actually little more than a situation report, like:

Germany
My body is covered with road stench
Diesel, tobacco, sweat, grease and dirt
Men‘s room, rasthaus, no sleep
I don‘t want to wash it off
It’s a second skin
Keeps my back straight
It insulates me from disease
Tonight I will sleep with it on

…lyrical in the true sense of the word – expressing feelings – and every note is poetic through and through. The whole (See A Grown Man Cry consists of more than a hundred pages filled with this kind of short, pointy notes) is strongly reminiscent of what Dylan reported in the Fiddler interview with Martin Bronstein, February 1966, about the creation of his own “Like A Rolling Stone”:

“I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before.”

And to Jules Siegel a month later about the same process of creation:

“It was ten pages long,” he says. “It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word.”

Vomit, steady hatred, revenge… it sounds like a pointy summary of Rollins’ See A Grown Man Cry.

The subsequent Old Testament-like verse “Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down” tempts interviewer Gilmore (Rolling Stone, 2001) to inquire about Dylan’s prophetic qualities. After all, the album “Love And Theft” is unfortunately released on 9/11, the day of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

Gilmore: For my part, I’ve kept circling around a line from “Mississippi”: “Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down.” Is there anything you would like to say about your reaction to the events of that day?

Dylan: One of those Rudyard Kipling poems, “Gentlemen-Rankers,” comes to my mind:
We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!

A beautiful, poetic answer, in which Dylan – rightly so – completely fails to address the somewhat embarrassing implication that he would have predictive powers. After all, the choice of words for that ominous verse line is dictated mainly by the sound; two alliterations, inner rhyme and the pleasant rhythm of an anapaest – this truly is a lieder poet’s verse line.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part VI: Charades

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

 

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2 Responses to The Mississippi-series, part 5: Frost in the room, fire in the sky

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan’s just taking some things back:

    Don’t touch me
    I’ll feel too good
    I’ll fall apart
    The only thing holding me together is my pain
    (Henry Rollins: Grown Men Don’t Cry)

    Referencing:

    Don’t wanna touch nobody
    Don’t wanna be touched
    Don’t wanna hurt nobody
    Don’t wanna be hurt
    (Bob Dylan: Do Right To Me Baby)

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Nonetheless, I wouldn’t under-estimate the meaning of the words: See- Untold – “Bob Dylan And Rudyard Kipling.”

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