Tombstone Blues (1965) part IX You must leave now

Tombstone Blues (1965) part IX You must leave now

by Jochen Markhorst


Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after

Millions of people who have never read or even heard of William Burroughs can easily quote from The Nova Trilogy:

Here comes Johnny Yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He’s gonna do another striptease,

and the hypnotizing chickens, the modern guy and the gimmick… Iggy Pop’s world hit from 1977, “Lust For Life”, draws exuberantly from The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and turns Burroughs’ side-kick Johnny Yen, “the striptease God of sexual frustration”, into a main character. In the same novel, by the way, the author of Junkie also introduces the concept of heavy metal, of which the boundaries have been stretched quite a bit by The Godfather Of Punk with his first band, The Stooges.


Iggy Pop is a fan, that should be obvious. Partly for this reason, the BBC invites him to participate in, or rather to co-host a radio programme on Burroughs in 2014, on the occasion of the hundredth birthday of the Beat Poet. Iggy happily accepts, confirms in the programme the tribute in “Lust For Life” and adds:

“This is coming out of some Lust for Life, all right. He’s not just in my music. Burroughs is everywhere. He’s in Dylan’s Tombstone Blues. He’s on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s two rows behind Paul, right next to Marilyn Monroe. He inspired band names like the Soft Machine, a great band, and Steely Dan, which is named after a strap-on dildo in Naked Lunch. I didn’t know that.”    

Burroughs’ presence in Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues”, Iggy explains, is officially confirmed by the supporting role for Brother Bill, one of The Priest’s nicknames, as another nickname says. Which, by the way, also draws a line to “Desolation Row”, to a perfect image of a priest, from the verse in which, as in “Tombstone Blues”, there are more Burrough references, paraphrases and winks.

In terms of content (expressing the wish to satisfy the Beat Poet), the opening line reflects Dylan’s artistic and cultural admiration for the – at the time – 51-year-old nestor. In these days the only meeting between the two word artists takes place, in a cafe in Greenwich Village. Dylan is impressed, and also charmed by Burroughs’ cut-up technique, an admiration he professes in a few interviews in 1965. “I thinks he’s a great man,” he says in the late summer of ’65 interview with Edmiston and Ephron, following his expressed awe for the cut-up technique.

The cut-up technique, which Dylan seems to want to imitate in both “Tombstone Blues” and “Desolation Row”, is still relatively new in 1965. Burroughs’ first books, Junkie and Queer are still quite straightforward. The writing process for Naked Lunch already approaches the technique; the basis for that legendary work consists of seemingly randomly pasted pieces from Burroughs’ so-called Word Hoard, from paragraphs, sentences and fragments of sentences from the pile of paper (about a thousand sheets) that Brother Bill, with the help of among others Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac typed away in Tangier, spring 1957.

For The Nova Trilogy, or The Cut-Up Trilogy, as he also called it, Burroughs then uses the same Word Hoard (especially for The Soft Machine, but in The Ticket That Exploded and in Nova Express we see the same fragments, names and weird attributes again) – this time in a conscious attempt to “rearrange”, as a conscious attempt to develop a new writing technique.

Dylan’s approach, however, seems different. Burroughs sees language as a virus, as a weapon that is used to keep us under control – and which, in turn, can also be used as a weapon against it. “The word, of course, is one of the most powerful instruments of control… Now if you start cutting these up and rearranging them you are breaking down the control system,” as he explains in an interview with Daniel Odiers for The Job.

Dylan takes a more playful approach, seems to use cut-ups mainly to surprise, without further text-transcending intentions. More old-fashioned than Burroughs in fact – Dylan’s lyrics call to mind sooner the collage-like effect of the surrealists, rather than the deliberately destructive force of the Beat Poets. Nor would a Ginsberg or a Kerouac hardly allow themselves to be tempted into a relatively simple, cabaretesque wordplay like die happily ever after, with which surrealists like Duchamp or Margritte, on the other hand, would not have the slightest problem.

The same applies to the apparent need to maintain at least some order in the chaos. In this Brother Bill quatrain, for example, the Samson & Delilah story is still the silver thread, to which now the greeting to William Burroughs is attached.

After Samson’s weapon and enemies in the seventh quatrain, the jawbone and the philistines, and his femme fatale Delilah in the ninth quatrain, a fitting farewell is now being said to the legendary long-haired judge; after all, the pillars are indeed the suicide instrument;

And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.
And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.
(Judges 16:29-30)

Cecil B. DeMille’s film adaptation (Samson and Delilah, 1949) is much more forgiving of Delilah. With DeMille she is not worthlessly at home, with tears on her cheeks from laughing. In the film, Delilah (an irresistible Hedy Lamarr) really loves her Nazirite and, tormented by remorse, helps him in his final moments. During the public humiliation by the Philistines, she beats a whip around the waist of the blind Samson and then leads him up the stairs to the pillars. The roaring audience expects that up there, as an ultimate humiliation, she will make Samson kneel and make him renounce his God. “Are these the pillars on which the temple rests?” he asks her when they are upstairs, and when she confirms:

“Go Delila, into the courtyard. Death will come into this temple. The hand of the Lord will strike.”
“I will not be afraid.”
“You must leave now. Wherever you are, my love is with you. Go!”

But Delilah decides to die with her beloved and stays, hiding only a few steps away. “Delilah! Have you gone?” Samson shouts, but the silently weeping Philistine beauty does not answer.

The tears on her cheeks are of deep sorrow.

To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part X


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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  1. So we reached IX in the Tombstone Blues saga ….this the previous ones have been interesting but sadly I’d like to know more about the Tombstone Blues – Newport, July 1965 download that features on YouTube and wonder why it didn’t make the DVD compilation The Other Side of the Mirror …. how did the cameramen miss this gathering, clearly attended by a large crowd who applaud loudly at the end and laugh at jokes they hear …. Puzzled and seeking answers. Cheers for now ….

  2. I don’t know Canute. My guess would be that it is for quality reasons – at 4’56”, as Dylan starts singing the last quatrain, the vocal microphone seems to drop out (maybe one of those fluttering rags is covering it?). The sound quality of the other recordings is better, in any case.

  3. Thanks Jochen…. kind of you to take time to answer me. The sound quality on my download does not displease me!! Glad to have it and enjoy it, too. Cheers and thanks again.

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