Tombstone Blues (1965) part VIII       Ninety Nine Years

Tombstone Blues:

by Jochen Markhorst


VIII       Ninety Nine Years

The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who sits worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter

 In 2012 Monty Norman explains one more time, in the BBC’s The One Show, how he came up with the legendary theme tune for the James Bond films, probably the most recognisable tune in cinema history. Producer Cubby Broccoli happened to hear his music for the flop musical Belle or The Ballad Of Dr. Crippen (1961), is impressed and remembers Monty’s name when he has bought the film rights of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels shortly afterwards. Monty is actually too busy with two stage shows at the time, but Broccoli makes him an offer he can’t refuse: a paid holiday for him and his wife in Jamaica, where the filming takes place, “to find inspiration”.

“Well, that was the clincher for me! I thought, even if Dr. No turns out to be a stinker at least we’d have sun, sea and sand to show for it!”

He finds inspiration indeed. Not so much for the theme music, but still for all the other music. “Underneath The Mango Tree”, for example, the song Honey Rider sings, Ursula Andress in her unforgettable opening scene, like an Aphrodite rising from the sea.

Monty finds the well-known motif (dum diddy dum dum dum) in, as he puts it himself, his bottom drawer; it is an re-working of a piece he had recently written for a musical adaptation of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. The musical was shelved, but the song “Good Sign, Bad Sign”, an Indian-inspired song with sitar accompaniment, is too good to leave in the drawer.

“I thought: what would happen if I split the notes. So I went … [plays the same notes ‘split’]… and immediately, the moment I did that, I realized that this was what I was looking for. His sexiness, his mystery, his ruthlessness – it’s all there in a few notes.”

The young John Barry is recruited as arranger, which has some consequences. Barry provides the rather thin motif not only with a jazz arrangement, but also with countermelodies and ostinati, and thinks, rightly or wrongly, that the music should at least partly be in his name. Monty thinks otherwise, and the judge agrees with him, twice even (most recently in 2001).

Barry’s claim does have some ground, though (the chord progression of the opening is at least as well known and distinctive as the guitar motif), but his point loses weight when listening to “Softly”, a piece Henry Mancini wrote two years earlier for the TV series Mr. Lucky (1959) with an identical chord progression. And Mancini, in turn, copies it from Guy Mitchell’s hit “Ninety Nine Years (Dead Or Alive)” from 1956 – the simple, ominous chord progression is apparently very inspiring.

Apart from being a primal model for the James Bond theme, “Ninety Nine Years (Dead Or Alive)” has a second merit, of which we hear an echo in Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues”. Mitchell’s song (written by regular purveyor to his majesty Elvis, by Sid Wayne) is the first lyric with this rather recent expression:

Now today I’m thinking ’bout that courtroom trial
I was so sad, baby, saw you weepin’ like a child
Ah, the jury found me guilty, wouldn't listen to my plea
And the judge said Mercy, threw the book at me


“Throwing the book at someone”, as a metaphor for sentencing to the maximum sentence, is an expression that has, oddly enough, only existed since 1932. The few songs that use the expression after Guy Mitchell’s hit do safely stick to the same legal connotation (Oscar Browns hilarious “But I Was Cool”, 2Pacs “When I Get Free”). But a playful Dylan in top form – of course – freely and merrily misuses it: Galileo’s book, probably Il Saggiatore from 1623, or else Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche from 1638, gets thrown at Delilah – the lawbook is turned into a mathematics book and is thrown not metaphorically, but really, physically, at a notorious nasty lass.

The image offers an inexhaustible number of possibilities for interpretation, which are gratefully used. Polizotti suspects something like an unholy alliance of the scientific and the spiritual, Andrew Brown discovers something with God’s justice and his mercy and the beauty of “perfectly arranged and balanced fixed forces” (in The Independent, 4 October 1997), and actually only Robert Shelton in his No Direction Home has an eye for the poetry:

“One impudent image reminds us that Dylan’s control of language was absolute: The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone/Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown.”

But there it is a little awkward that Shelton quotes exactly that one line with a spelling error as an example of “Dylan’s control of language”. Both in the studio and on stage, Dylan sings quite clearly “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone”, which has indeed been spelled out erroneously as innocence since the first edition of the lyrics up to and including the official site. And Shelton has apparently also missed the wordplay with the expression throwing the book at someone. The thrust of his compliment, however, is to the point; this verse demonstrates the skill of a language artist.

Throwing the book may indeed trigger associations with Law, natural laws, mathematical laws, with Galileo, but the choice for that name nevertheless seems more a result of sound, of Dylan’s receptivity to the sound of the surrounding words rather than the meaning – the poet here dances with a succession of “e-o” sounds (geometry, innocent, flesh-on, the-bone, get-thrown) and in between a name like Galileo fits perfectly. Cleopatra could have done the same trick, but then it might have become too much of an extract of Burroughs’ Nova Express (in which Cleopatra passes by a few times). Napoleon has been used a few times too much already (in “Hero Blues”, in “On The Road Again” and in “Like A Rolling Stone”). And Romeo is reserved for “Desolation Row”, so: Galileo it shall be.

In that corner, in the corner of sound and rhythm rather than rhyme and reason, Delilah’s enigmatic, absurd “sitting worthlessly alone” should probably be placed too. After all, content-wise the unusual combination of words would imply that there is also such a thing as “sitting worthwhile alone” or “sitting valuably alone”, and that this darn, unruly girl cannot even show the decency of sitting worthfully.

No, “it’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it,” as Dylan later tries to explain to interviewer Ron Rosenbaum (Playboy interview 1978).

In the meantime, James Bond throws knives, cushions, grenades, villains, shoes, snakes, punches, bowler hats, flames and attractive ladies all through the sixties and beyond, but never a book. Least of all a math book.

To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part IX


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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