1971: When I paint that masterpiece I’ll be ready to tour again

By Tony Attwood

This is episode 19 of “All directions at once”.  The index to previous episodes can be found here.

From 1968 to 1970 Bob Dylan wrote 22 songs.  For most songwriters that would be a pretty decent output over a three year period.   But with Dylan at the time, we looked back to see that in 1962 alone he wrote 36 songs, and this wasn’t a one-off.  In the following year he wrote another 31 songs.

And they weren’t just any old songs, in 1963 for example we were offered ten songs that would be the masterpiece-highlights of any other songwriter’s output, but for Bob they were just another selection from his endless production line of works of genius.    In case you are interested my ten selections for genius status from that year are…

Even if you don’t rate half of these as highly as I do, even if you only find five absolute masterpieces in a year is still pretty good going.  Irving Berlin could do it.  But anyone else?  I don’t think so.

But after just one song composed in 1968 (and that delivered late) Bob’s heart didn’t really seem to be in the old songwriting malarkey.  Yes of course there were still some superb pieces, but there was also the suggestion that Bob didn’t really want to write that much any more.  “JWH was done because his contract said “do it”, “Self Portrait” was decidedly different if not wacky at times, and by “New Morning” he was pretty overt in telling us that getting away from it all (presumably including us fans) was his main interest.  No touring, and as for the writing stuff, that was a strictly contractual matter.  If some great songs popped out, that was good, but it was pure chance.  Win some, lose some.

But the trouble was that although Dylan has through most of his career produced some songs that really don’t stay in the memory too long, they have mostly been overshadowed by the works of genius.  Now that he was just writing enough songs to fill up the LP he was contractually obliged to create, we got pretty much all of it.  The days of finding a missing masterpiece in the studio dustbin were long over.  I’m sure you remember; songs like I’m not there.  Unfinished, unreleased, utterly unbelievable.

Yet for us poor fans, looking back to the masterpieces of the past while endlessly casting our eyes across the street to make sure Johanna was still having her visions, surely after such an extended break, we, the people who put up the money, had the right to expect a rejuvenated Bob to come along, offering us some works that were pretty astounding.  Works to compare with “It’s alright Ma” and “Rolling Stone”…  I mean, we deserved it surely, after these years of dedicated fandom.

But no, Bob didn’t want to know.  He took more time out, and once he had got to the stage of not needing to do another album because of a contract, he just let matters go their own way.  And in a way that was fair.  He’d delivered around 200 songs (and that’s not including all the jokey bits from the Basement or those poems in the notebook.)   That’s more than a lifetime’s work for most song-smiths of note.  What was the matter with us fans?  What did we want?  Blood?

Well, yes, actually if that is what it took.  I mean, we’d been loyal.  We’d kept the memory alive hadn’t we?    We were just waiting for Bob to catch up, to come out of hiding and say, “hey guys, thanks – yeah that version of Johanna that Tony and his band did, that was pretty cool – what were those chords you put in?…”   But the call never came.  Not to me at least, and as far as I know not to any of the fans.

So we had to wait as matters did indeed take their own course.  We had to sit through Peggy Day (“love to spend the day with Peggy Night?”  Really?) and Country Pie (“oh me oh my” oh Bob please), and even Living the blues; I mean Bob Dylan as Guy Mitchell?

My own take on 1971 is that Bob recognised what was going on – or at least if he didn’t then his management did and told him in no uncertain words.  We were still out there, still playing and singing “Baby Blue,” still hoping – and he knew that.   And I say that with some certainty because otherwise how do we explain “When I paint my masterpiece”?

Apart from the fact that it is a great song with super lyrics, take the title.  Clearly a reflection on the point that we hadn’t had a masterpiece for a while.  But not “write my masterpiece” – that would be too obvious.  Besides it would have had to be “write my next masterpiece” and that really would make it too introverted.

And then the opening.  “Oh the streets of Rome…” taking us back to Italy, scene of some of those magical early moments.  (According to Rich Will, Bob has always maintained a love of Italy – and incidentally his article on the subject really is worth reading – once you’ve finished this one.  There’s a link at the end, but please don’t flip there now – I’ve got lots more to say…)

But even without any connection with “Bel Paese” it is just one of those openings that does something for the mind.  It creates in five words an image in the way that “Oh how I love you” doesn’t.  It’s unexpected, it is image making, it is exciting, it demands attention.

And it doesn’t make sense – which is what makes it even more tantalising.  No, actually the streets are not filled with rubble, but yes they are filled with the spirit of Romulus, Brutus, Cato, Pompey, Crassus, Cicero, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula…

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs

But “seeing double”???  Because there are so many of them I guess.  And if not, does it matter?  And we know he’s actually been there because he got the wild geese story which is always a nice touch (more on that anon).

I am not sure if we really saw “When I paint my masterpiece” as a complete return to form, but I am pretty sure that when we first heard it, quite a few of us stopped commenting on how it was just like the night to play tricks upon one, and instead sat up and listened afresh…  Which was just what Bob intended, and exactly why it also turned up on the 1971 Greatest Hits album.   Hello Bob.  You’re back!  Where you been?  Oh Italy!  Good place to choose.  Have a good time?  Great?  Write any songs?  Yes?  OK, let’s hear it.

Rather like the masterpiece painting where x ray examination can reveal the changes that the genius painter made as he went along – the changes were perhaps not always (from our viewpoint) for the better, but through the recordings made of the song performed on stage, we can see a songwriter who, even if he wasn’t sure yet where he was going, certainly knew it might go somewhere.  And “somewhere” was exactly where we wanted Bob to go.  Not quite anywhere, because that variant upon “Singing the blues” wasn’t really what we wanted, but anyway, good to have you back.

“Filled with rubble” and “Filled with trouble” – whatever you say Bob.   Anything you like.  And for those of us with a spot of classical education it was wonderful because we could pontificate.   The rubble of the fallen monuments of the Republic and the Empire, the trouble from the uprisings of greedy and self-centred men who would put themselves before the extraordinary achievements of the Republic, and destroyed a vibrant democracy allowing an Empire to arise with a god-emperor at its heart, until the Goths came a-knocking on the door.  Oh and the geese.  Nice touch.

So to reiterate, we have in the first verse a masterpiece of reference and change…

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

The Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti (Spanish Steps, Dylan calls the “stairs”) take you (if you have the energy) up the steep hill from the Paizza di Spagna to Trinità dei Monti.  135 steps, not really a climb to do on a cold dark night unless you are chasing shadows and ghosts – which of course can be fun (and dangerous) in itself.  But for much of the year there are no cold dark nights in Rome.  Well, not that cold.

But that’s only the start of the fun, because then we had originally a pretty little girl from Greece who became Botticelli’s niece.  Just a phrase that popped into his head?  Maybe, maybe. But (and you are going to have to stay with me for a moment if you want to get to grips with this idea) here is another explanation.

I doubt that Dylan just looked at the Coliseum, and the Spanish Stairs and said, “hey that’s nice” and walked on.  I don’t mean I think he stayed with a guide book, but this is a guy who knows and enjoys his history and his literature, and (given he is a visual artist too) who knows a lot about art too.

The website Castle Fine Art says of Bob’s artistic work, “His brushstrokes are like his voice: straightforward, rough, occasionally fragile. He’s not after artistic perfection but something larger, a moment, a feeling. The effect is enthralling.”

And that really does relate to this song too – Bob is not after perfection or exactness.  Thus  Botticelli’s niece is not quite right but it gives us a link to the painting The Birth of Venus, which was commissioned by the Medici family.   As the somewhat more exact guidebooks and histories point out Pliny the Elder (the great writer, scientist and philosopher who died while recording his scientific observations on the eruption of Vesuvius) suggested Alexander the Great offered his mistress as the model for the nude Venus to be painted by Apelles.  But then noting that Apelles had fallen in love with the girl, gave her to the artist.  (That’s not very 21st century, but is very Roman).

So the actual model for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was not his niece but Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who it seems had a “relationship” with two of the Medicis.  Linking  Birth of Venus with the great days of the Republic makes the model in the picture a symbol of the continuity of the Republic, the Empire and the Eternal City.

It’s a famous tale for anyone interested in the art of the Republic and the Empire and I think turning Botticelli’s Venus into Botticelli’s niece is a nice piece of fun for Dylan, which gives him a handy rhyme.  And why not?  That’s what he does.  Anyway, it made me smile when I first heard it.

So now we know where we are: we are very much in the world of Dylan the Tourist.  He won’t have seen Birth of Venus in a trip to Rome, but Dylan had Italian connections all the way back from his time with Suze Rotolo and his trip to Italy looking for her.  Indeed the stories around Freewheelin are full of Italy.  And besides “Masterpiece” does have the line Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory.  It’s worth hearing just for that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, 
                      I could hardly stand to see ’em
Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb

I’ve always wondered with that line of the long hard climb, if we are not back to the Spanish Steps!  Or is it the climb back to creativity?  Or both?

But then so much of this song is looking back

Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory
When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece

Oh yes, the geese.  A reference, I think, not quite understood by some reviewers of this song.  The story is that when the Republic of Rome was under attack from the Gauls (which is to say in the fabled origins of the Republic, long before the days of the Empire) Rome seemed about to fall and the Romans were besieged.  Despite low food supplies during the siege the Romans kept their sacred geese fed, and this turned out to be a shrewd idea, because as the Gauls attacked, the geese honked as they do, woke up the guards, who then resolutely defeated the attackers. 1-0 to Rome.

The Gauls gave up their attack and withdrew, Rome was rebuilt, and the sacred geese were remembered forever with an annual parade in which a golden goose is the heart of the celebration.   You can’t read a guide book without finding a load of geese in there somewhere.

But then strangely he seems to dismiss it all…

Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola
Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!

Suddenly we are out of Rome – and there are (just to be clear about this) no gondolas on the Tiber, it’s Venice where they are to be found.  Indeed going for a sail along the Tiber is just plain dull and really not worth the effort.  And besides, certainly for me, each time I’ve been to Venice there are not dirty gondolas; the competition to get the tourists into gondolas is very strong, and brightness and colour is part of the deal.  (The water buses are cheaper though, and just as much fun; I recommend getting an all-day ticket and going round the islands).

So what is this about?  Leaving the history, the romance, the beauty, the Republic and Empire, for sugar, colour, flavouring and water plus an issue about where the canals are…  What is going on…

In part Dylan was talking about writing the next masterwork that he wanted to write, rather than writing songs he was contractually obliged to write.  In part he was having a laugh, but I wonder, I just wonder, did he even at this moment, have an inkling that there was another masterpiece just around the temporal corner?   And not just one, but masterpiece after masterpiece.  All the Botticelli business was in 1971 and we would still have to wait until 1974 to see the final explosion of utter, gorgeous, total genius-brilliance with “Tangled up in blue” et al, but my goodness wasn’t it worth the wait!

But Bob was, here, showing us once more all that might be.  I mean, what did you think when you realised you were listening to a piece of music that included the couplet,

Newspapermen eating candy
Had to be held down by big police

Dylan is having fun, but also saying he knows it won’t always be like this.  We are getting towards the time to move on.  He is telling us this that is the interregnum.  (From the Latin).  (As spoken in Rome).   “Time passes slowly” he told us, and there is no more wonderful place in the world to appreciate the passing of time in relation to human activities than in Rome.  But now we knew…

Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent
When I paint my masterpiece

There was however a line that appears to have been cut en route which was sad… With a picture of a tall oak tree by my side – the reference to the Zen tradition of using one aspect of nature alone to understand everything.  Cutting the pretty little girl from Greece was, to my mind (and of course all this ruminating is just my reaction to the song) was OK (not that in any seriousness could I tell Dylan what was better or worse in his writing) but losing the oak tree was not so good, at least in my world.  It is an image of a way of contemplating the world – the only thing that is wrong with it is that it is from a totally different culture.

And there is another cross reference that I had completely failed to see, until reminded of it through an excellent review  on Expecting Rain, which if you are seriously interested in this song you really ought to read.

In ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’  written in 1818 by Lord Byron, the poet (and here I quote from the Expecting Rain review)  contemplates the ruins of ancient Rome and finds nothing but chaos – broken dreams and relics of ancient cruelty….

Byron perceives the city as a whole as a space strewn with fragments and debris, visible signs of decayed power testifying to the vanity of human aspirations

The review, written by Christopher Rollason (whose blog is always worth a read) sees the song as coming from a narrator who “has come to Europe and Rome in search of artistic fulfilment, hoping that with ancient scenes around him he will achieve the vision that will enable him finally to ‘paint his masterpiece’.”

That’s a very interesting vision.  I have approached the song seeing this as Dylan himself contemplating Rome and Italy, and the “paint my masterpiece” not being literally “paint” but a metaphor for his return to artistic fulfilment, which he has moved away from in creating albums because of contractual requirements rather than because he had something to say.   And here we see Dylan contemplating his ultimate song or ultimate album as conveyed in the lines “Some day everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody When I paint my masterpiece”.

You can see it either way, just as you can see She promised that she’d be right there with me When I paint my masterpiece as a sexual phrase or as a phrase relating to the person who most artists or all genres have by their sides who support, put up with, and are a sounding board for their ideas.

So, a complex piece, with its own fun and some historical references too.  Difficult to transcribe into music.

But Dylan does it, although in so doing uses a technique that I think is unique within the Dylan repertoire.  He totally changes key between the second and third verse to reflect the change from Rome to Brussels.

We are clearly in A with A and E being the chords that the song for the first two verses, and then we slip up into the completely unrelated B flat.  It’s a different world.

It is not a very subtle technique, but it makes the point of the change of emphasis.  And the plane trip to Brussels wasn’t subtle.

So a turning point.  The wilderness years coming to an end.  Just a while to go before we got one of the most sublime moments in Dylan’s songwriting career.   The point when everything from “Idiot Wind” to “Tangled up in Blue” began to ferment inside.

Bob didn’t return to touring until a 40 gig tour in the early months of 1974.  He then played Masterpiece on stage 182 times from 30 October 1975 through to 2 November 2019.  But he wrote it before the grand second explosion of his talent started.

Did you know that Bob Dylan composed a new Italian national anthem?


12 years of Untold Dylan

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