This article continues from It takes some getting used to. Rough and Rowdy Ways Part 1
by Stephen Scobie
The words of the song are always disclaimers, in the negative – “I ain’t no false prophet” – but the title remains obstinately affirmative, in the positive – “false prophet.” Is the singer saying that he is a prophet, but not a false one? Or is he saying that he’s no prophet of any kind, false or otherwise? Which double negative takes precedence: “ain’t no” or “no false”? Remember the very early Dylan song “Long Time Gone,” with its evocation of the Prophet Amos: “I know I ain’t no prophet / And I ain’t no prophet’s son” (for a detailed exploration of that early song, see my book Always Other Voices).
And while we’re on the topic of ambiguous claims to authority and authorship, let’s acknowledge the wholesale appropriation of the musical arrangement (which is wonderful) from Billy (the Kid) Emerson, 1954. Love and Theft. Billy, you’re so far away from home.
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in
When I first listened to the album, I heard this as “the world caved in.” I have since seen at least one internet posting with the same mistake. I’m not at all sure I don’t prefer it.
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
“Fleet footed” is a classic poetic epithet, often apped to Hermes/Mercury, messenger and trickster. But it is also, of course, self-quotation. In 1965 “Maggie comes fleet foot” in the underworld Subterranean homesick blues.
I’m first among equals, second to none The last of the best, you can bury the rest Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold
OK, this is a tricky one. I see an odd string of references here, but I acknowledge that I may be letting my fancy run away with me. These links may exist more in my imagination than in any legitimate reading of the text. But I can’t resist them.
To begin with, “first among equals,” or in its Latin form, “primus inter pares,” is an equivocal concept, both self-aggrandizing (first) and modest (among equals). It’s not a stable condition: many or even most “first among equals” relationships have ended up in civil strife and the attempted dominance of the one. One example would be the Roman triumvirate of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Lucinius Crassus. Dylan’s keen interest in Caesar is evident throughout RRW, but for the moment, my interest is in Crassus, the richest man in Rome. (For my generation, the definitive portrait is Laurence Olivier’s towering performance in Stanley Kubrick’s film Spartacus (1960).)
But before I get back to Crassus, what about Dylan? If the narrator of this song regards himself as first among equals, who are “the rest”? If he is “the last of the best,” then who remains to be buried? And one possible answer, though I feel rather queasy advancing it, is “them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.” That use of “bad boys” seems rather condescending, more part of the Stones’ early-60s publicity image than of their mature accomplishment. But there is the unavoidable fact that both Dylan and the Stones lay claim to the use of the proverb (not to mention Muddy Waters; not to mention Jann Wenner). If Dylan is “the last of the best,” last left standing of the rock gods of the 60s, can he finally “bury” them bad boys with their “silver and gold”? After all, the Stones did in 1969 release a song called “You got the silver, you got the gold” (notable in that the lead vocal is by Keith, not Mick).
And here is where these two stray threads of association I have been uneasily following suddenly loop back together. In the early 1960s, the Rolling Stones are “them British bad boys.” In 1965, Dylan records “Like a Rolling Stone.” In 1969, the Rolling Stones record “You got the gold.” In 1960, Olivier defines Crassus. The film, however, does not include Crassus’ death. In legend, after (let us hope, after) Crassus was killed in battle, his victorious enemies mocked his status as the richest man in Rome by pouring molten gold into his mouth. On RRW, Dylan sings “Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold,” and then, just two verses later, he adds:
Open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold.
Which just leaves second to none, which will reappear, startlingly, at the very end of the album.
I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head
Somebody’s. Could be anybody’s. Blood Feuds aren’t particularly discriminating.
The city of God is there on the hill
Conflation of several texts:
- City of God, 5th century AD treatise by Saint Augustine of Hippo (I dreamed I saw… )
- “A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5.14)
- sermon on this text by John Winthrop, preached in Boston in 1630, widely quoted (and, arguably, misinterpreted) by Ronald Reagan, and by all of his successors. For its connections to Dylan’s Basement Tapes, see Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic.
Dylan himself wrote a song called “City of Gold” (1980), which was performed on the Gospel tours, and released on “Trouble No More” (2017).
I’m nobody’s bride
Hard to see Bob as a bride, even in the context of time running backward, or waiting at the altar. But stranger things have happened – see another strange wedding in “Key West.”
Can’t remember when I was born and I forget when I died
Definitive statement of being beyond or outside of time. Maybe it comes from some old blues – wouldn’t surprise me – but so what? He knows what to do with it: place it at the end of a song in which he claims that he is/is not a false/not false prophet.
“My Own Version of You”
I have by now read on line several dozen reviews of RRW, and when they come to this song, they invariably mention Frankenstein. Fair enough – but the reference exists only in the cultural intertext, not in the text itself. The name “Frankenstein” is never mentioned in the actual song. I’ll try to stay away from it for as long as I can.
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Compare “Thunder on the Mountain” (2008): “Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches / I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages.” I know it’s a tenuous echo, but hey, any excuse to quote that rhyme! “Brando / commando” is pretty good too.
Lookin’ for the necessary body parts Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
In medieval troubadour poetry, there was a rhetorical convention in which the poet assembled an idealized lady by combining features from several famously beautiful women: one woman’s eyes, another woman’s hair, another woman’s lips. However, it never got down to the anatomical level of livers and hearts. Leave it to Dylan to make the rhetorical conceit literal.
I wanna create my own version of you
It is of course a highly problematic wish, even before it gets literalised into livers and brains. The narrator refuses to accept his lover as she is, but rather regards her as material to be shaped according to his own desires. Later, he phrases it as:
I’ll bring someone to life, someone for real Someone who feels the way that I feel
But how can she be alive or real if her existence depends on replicating his feelings?
It must be the winter of my discontent
Shakespeare again, first line of Richard III. But the original is “our,” not “my”: it expresses (and derides) the collective delight of the victorious York dynasty in deposing its enemies, a delight which Richard does not exactly share. For him, the discontent still exists, and he will follow it through until he himself attains the crown – by way of means of, to switch plays, murder most foul. And Richard’s “discontent” goes deeper than his regal ambition: it is, fundamentally, rooted in his own physical deformity, the hunchback, which is the main topic of the rest of this opening speech. Maybe he should look for repairs in some morgue or monastery.
I pick a number between one and two And I ask myself what would Julius Caesar do?
There is of course no whole number between one and two, so the line expresses a paradox, or an impossibility. Or a preference for fractions. The following phrase is commonly used as “What would Jesus Christ do?” Dylan exchanges one JC for another. And if we again think of the Shakespearean tragedy, note how these references – Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, Julius Caesar — are all plays dealing with the violent overthrow or assassination of a monarch. Lying in waiting for JC is JFK. And William McKinley.
Leon Russell / Liberace / Saint John the Apostle
Another unlikely trio, where the bizarreness of the combination (and the delight of the rhyme) is probably more significant than any precise association for each of the names.
I’ll be at the Black Horse Tavern … Two doors down, not that far to walk
Would a black rider drink in a Black Horse Tavern? Or if he were in Greenwich Village, might he not walk (not that far) to the White Horse Tavern, where in 1953 a certain Welsh poet called Dylan quite literally drank himself to death? Riding a pale horse.
You can bring it to St Peter, you can bring it to Jerome You can … bring it all the way home
A somewhat less incongruous pairing, between the founder of the church and the translator of the Scriptures. So the singer is “bringing it all back home,” to an album title from 1965.
Can you tell me what it means, to be or not to be?
Hamlet again, with a question which remains as inscrutable as Mona Lisa’s smile.
Can you help me walk that moonlight mile?
There are probably dozens of references for “Moonlight Mile,” but my favourite would certainly be the sublime 1971 recording by them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.
I can see the history of the whole human race
Most of which – the crusades, England, America – seems to deal with slavery, and thus with the question of what it means to be “human.” Did Jefferson consider his slaves as “human”? Which is, in turn, the question of Frankenstein: is his creature “human”?
Greek tragedy by Euripides, notable for its focus not on the heroes of war but its victims.
Some of the best known enemies of mankind … Mr Freud with his dreams, Mr Marx with his axe See the rawhide lash rip the skin from their backs
Even by the standards of recent Dylan, this is a remarkably violent, even sadistic image. It’s one thing to disagree with Freud or Marx; it’s quite another thing to conjure up and appear to take relish in such specific and grisly punishment.
Yet the singer immediately does an about-face, evoking an immortal spirit, [which] creeps in your body the day you are born. Or, perhaps, at the moment when some strange creator brings you to life with a blast of electricity?
The whole song is caught up in what Leonard Cohen called “the tangle of matter and ghost.” It longs for the “immortal spirit,” but it keeps on snagging on the crudely material: bodies which can be ideally assembled, or else flogged apart.
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