by Jochen Markhorst
The story so far
- Tombstone Blues part I: Daddy’s looking for the fragmentation bomb’s fuse
- Tombstone Blues II: Duck back down
- Tombstone Blues III Let’s Go Get Stoned
- Tombstone Blues part IV Medicine Man
- Tombstone Blues part V: he was kiddin’ me, didn’t he?
- Tombstone Blues part VI: Under the Yellow Angel
- Tombstone Blues part VII: Found someone, you have, I would say
- Tombstone Blues (1965) part VIII Ninety Nine Years
- Tombstone Blues (1965) part IX You must leave now
- Tombstone Blues part X: Ludwig Van
XI Mozart’s weather chart
Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college
The release of Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You (2020) is introduced by a kind of documentary of the same name, a making of spiced up with archival material and decorated abundantly with many atmospheric images of a musing Bruce, a philosophising Bruce, a smiling Bruce and many more Bruce, all in moody black and white. It’s perhaps a bit too smug and overly promotional, but what the heck – the fans are happy. And the album is good; strong songs, recorded live in a home-studio by a great band.
All the songs are discussed, and the Dylan fan opens his ears at the excursions into “Song For Orphans”, the most Dylanesque song on the album, and perhaps Springsteen’s most Dylanesque song at all. It is one of the album’s three old, dusted songs, still from 1972, from the pre-E Street period, with lyrics that are indeed stylistically unmistakable written in the vicinity of songs like “Blinded By The Light” and “Spirit In The Night”;
Well the missions are filled with hermits, they're looking for a friend The terraces are filled with cat-men just looking for a way in Those orphans jumped on silver mountains lost in celestial alleyways They wait for that old tramp Dog Man Moses, he takes in all the strays
… to quote just one random verse (out of seven). It is one of the songs, says The Boss, that “hold a very warm place in my heart”. And a song that moves him to look back with the same amazement as the amazement with which an older Dylan looks back on songs like “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. “The songs from 1972… were and remain a mystery to me,” Springsteen says. “They were just the way I wrote back then. A lot of words.” An identical amazement and a similar choice of words as Dylan’s retrospect in the interview for Rolling Stone, November 2004.: “All those early songs were almost magically written. Ah… Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon… Try to sit down and write something like that.”
But even more noteworthy is the anecdote Springsteen tells around this particular song. With a sense of self-mockery he remembers a phone call from Clive Davis:
“Matter of fact, Clive Davis, the man who signed me to Columbia Records with John Hammond, called me briefly after our record Greetings from Asbury Park was released and said someone had called him and told him if I wasn’t careful, I was going to use up the entire English language.
And he said that that was Bob Dylan.
Now, Bob was always my mentor and the brother that I never had, so I took these words quite seriously.”
… Dylan warns Springsteen being too wordy, that he too fast uses up the entire language. At first glance, that seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Demonstrated by the study of the Italian music data company Musixmatch, publishing the findings regarding the wordiest artists. Dylan stands there, towering high above the average songwriter, in fourth place with a vocabulary of 4,883 words, well behind “winner” Eminem with a vocabulary of 8,818 words – the entire Top 3 consists, not surprisingly, of rap artists. But still almost double the average vocabulary of an oeuvre, which is 2,677 words.
It is a bit flawed though, the research method and the resulting fourth place therefrom. The researchers, research engineer Varun Jewalikar and intern Nishant Verma, limited themselves to the “100 densest songs” of the investigated artists, in order to keep it more relevant statistically (until 2020 Dylan has written more than 600 songs, Eminem has released 367 songs). And for copyright reasons, Springsteen’s songs are not in Musixmatch’s database, so The Boss’s oeuvre did not participate. The counter for officially released songs of The Boss is at the end of 2020, including Letter To You, at 340, and he surely would make it to the Top 10. His catalogue has, after all, even more words than he can contain himself; Springsteen has been using a teleprompter on stage since the beginning of the twenty-first century, which he visibly needs for word explosions like “Jungleland”, but bizarrely also for “Born To Run”.
Still, on reflection, Dylan’s message to Springsteen may indeed very well be a well-intentioned tip from a songwriter who has grown wiser through trial and error. This anecdote dates back to somewhere in early 1973 (Greetings From Ashbury Park was released on 5 January 1973), so still in Dylan’s long period of creative emptiness, the years he sits on the waterfront, watching the river flow, waiting for the inspiration to paint his masterpiece. And apparently the world’s best songwriter blames this creative emptiness partly on his lavish, uninhibited use of the English language, during the mercury years.
“Tombstone Blues” is a textbook example of that excessive exuberance. The lyrics have 440 words and consist of 259 different words; that’s a ratio that even Eminem in his most eloquent raps does not reach. Words such as endorse, knits, swagger, barbell and blowtorch are not only new in Dylan’s oeuvre, but also completely unusual in popular music at all.
So far, anyway. Just like Dylan opened the door for Lennon to use “clown” (“Dylan had used it, so I thought it was all right”), and just as geek and freaks only penetrate the rock vocabulary after “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, or like after “Highway 61 Revisited” bloody noses are acceptable, “Tombstone Blues” enriches the rhyme dictionary of the song poets with – for example – blowtorch. Wilco, Glenn Frey, “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” by the extraordinary word and music artist Eno (1973), Elvis Costello’s “Other Side Of Summer” (1991), and Bruce Springsteen of course, although he uses it as a verb, in the beautiful, moody “Silver Palomino” on Devils & Dust (2005):
Summer drought come hard that year Our herd grazed the land so bare Me and my dad had to blowtorch the thorns off the prickly pear And mother, your hand slipped from my hair
In the same text words like sallow, pradera, serrata, scrub pine and riata stand out too – in the 21st century Springsteen no longer deals all too conscientiously with the heartfelt advice of his “mentor and brother that I never had”, not to use up all the words in the dictionary.
But true: “bedroll”, “flagpole”, “Ma Rainey”, “tuba” and “Beethoven” have not yet been used by The Boss. “Mozart” has, though;
Some silicone sister with her manager's mister told me I got what it takes She said, I'll turn you on, sonny, to something strong if you play that song with the funky break And Go-Cart Mozart was checkin' out the weather chart to see if it was safe to go outside And little Early-Pearly came by in her curly-wurly and asked me if I needed a ride ("Blinded By The Light", 1973)
…and quite a lot of other words.
To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part XII: The malicious nightingale
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (German)
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