Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues II: The Thoughts Of Mary Jane

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1965) part I: Thin Air

by Jochen Markhorst

II          The Thoughts Of Mary Jane

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don’t pull you through
Don’t put on any airs
When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
And they really make a mess outta you

 

 Easter Day falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, and can therefore only fall between 22 March and 25 April. Precisely the two months that it is driest in Juarez, which already is so dry as it is; the average rainfall in both months is 0.2 inches (5 mm). That is virtually nothing. Meaning, you really must have quite a serious form of water phobia to feel lost in those few droplets of virtually nothing.

In short, we can assume that the poet here is not trying to communicate his travel impressions from a holiday trip. The less critical minds who see drug references in every sixties song do seem to have a point this time; a poetic reference to marijuana use is more obvious than a clinical travel review with weather reports, indeed. “Rain” as a metaphor for marijuana is perhaps not too common, but at least since “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35” (“Everybody must get stoned”) it has acquired that nudge-nudge-wink-wink-angle. The Beatles’ “Rain” doesn’t escape that interpretation (“It’s just a state of mind”) either, and the brilliant Nick Drake, a recognised pothead, writes in his ode to marijuana “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane” (1969):

Who can know
The thoughts of Mary Jane
Why she flies
Or goes out in the rain
Where she’s been
And who she’s seen
In her journey to the stars

Despite Dylan’s denials that Rainy Day Women is a drug song, by the way. The same Dylan who has been quoted stating: “Marijuana isn’t a drug like the others” (Philip Adler interview, 1978).

Still, the song is not necessarily an impression of Dylan’s own drug use, obviously. As in many places on Highway 61 Revisited, traces of Jack Kerouac also do appear in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. Dylan has just devoured Desolation Angels, and impressions thereof descend into “Desolation Row”. “Her sin is her lifelessness” comes almost literally from Kerouac’s work, for example, just like “the perfect image of a priest”.

In Tom Thumb we come across the literal quote Housing Project Hill, but before that, in these opening lines, Kerouac’s Desolation Angels already echoes through. Kerouac, or rather his alter ego Jack Duluoz, is also in Juarez, marijuana fumes throughout the book, even at Easter; “When we got to the top of the Pyramid I lit up a marijuana cigarette so we could all examine our instincts about the place. Not to mention your Easter bunny” (and later on, in Paris, it is Eastertime again). And gravity is apparently a thing for Kerouac as well (“Here I sit upside-down on the surface of the planet earth, held by gravity, scribbling a story,” to quote just one of the examples).

On Blonde On Blonde, Dylan’s next album, Desolation Angels resounds too. We come across the rainman from “Stuck Inside Of Mobile” in the last chapter of Part I (“Desolation In Solitude”), for example, as well as the peculiarity of identifying drugs as medicine. Dylan’s travelling companion Allen Ginsberg plays a fairly prominent supporting role in the book (as “Irwin Garden”), which probably triggered Dylan’s receptiveness to the work.

The lock to the stream of consciousness is now open. The poet Dylan freely allows fragments, paraphrases and half quotes from high and low culture to flow in. Rue Morgue Avenue comes of course from Edgar Allan Poe, from The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1841), the first modern detective story, the hungry women there paraphrases “Kansas City” and don’t put on any airs is perhaps an echo of Fiddler On The Roof (from the highlight “If I Were A Rich Man”; I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock). The musical premiered a few months before Tom Thumb’s conception, has already conquered Broadway and just won a Tony Award; the hit is inescapable in the days when Dylan writes his song. Incidentally, based on the story Tevye And His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem, the father of Dylan’s art teacher in 1974, Norman Raeben.

The comments often refer to Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under The Volcano. Which is mainly triggered by something as elusive as a similar atmosphere, a similar mood – this protagonist is lost, too. Although the work is set in Mexico, Juarez is not a decor, nor are marijuana, rain or Easter mentioned, let alone a Melinda or a Saint Annie.

Content does not seem to be too important – the lyricism all the more so. The poet apparently wants to convey a sense of detachment, desolation, loss, and apart from otherwise unrelated images – instinctively, presumably – opts for a particularly unusual, very fitting metrum: the five-footed anapest (da da dum times five).

As is often the case, the layout of Dylan’s lyrics in official publications (on the site and in Lyrics, for example) hides the “actual” form. Officially the song consists of six eight-line verses, but rhyme scheme, Dylan’s recitation, chord scheme and the metre reveal: four-line verses, rhyme scheme aaaa, anapestic pentameter:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through
Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there and they really make a mess outta you

The musician Dylan does feel when he has to break the rhythm with, for example, a spondee (two stressed syllables, like put-on) or an inserted third unstressed syllable (they got some), but the basis, that five-fold da da dum, is unmistakable.

It is a brilliant way of making slow-flowing time tangible, and rather unusual in the art of song. Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” (Oh the Sisters of Mercy, they are not departed or gone) comes to mind, but there are not many more examples. Eminem sometimes resorts to the anapest (“The Way I Am”, for instance; I sit back with this pack of Zig-Zags and this bag), but his verses have the more usual four-footed metre – as do many of Dr. Seuss’ nursery rhymes, by the way.

Dylan will not extend it throughout the whole song either – the trap – sedating, monotonous droning – is almost inescapable. But it does set the tone. The gravity fails.

To be continued. Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part III: Annie & Melinda

———

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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