Key West and Budapest: what exactly does Bob Dylan mean?

by Peter Krauth and Tony Attwood

Peter Krauth translated Key West into Hungarian, (quite a task to undertake) but found a few troubling phrases in Dylan’s original that caused him a few difficulties.  Tony wrote a review in which he too picked up certain phrases that puzzled him – finding in fact that sometimes American English, doesn’t easily translate into English English.

Peter and Tony then had this exchange of thoughts by email, on some of the phrases.  With Peter’s permission, Tony has taken that email exchange to create the article below, in the hope that one or two readers on Untold might find this exploration of meaning interesting…

Throughout, please do remember that Peter’s first language is not English, and that for Tony, American English is often quite different from English English.

Peter: In the song, there is a reference to “Budapest” on which you commented as “I am not familiar with the history of pirate radio in Hungary;  maybe it’s just that Budapest rhymes with Key West.”

I agree with the latter sentence, and unfortunately I do not know of any pirate radio in Budapest either, although I have been living in Budapest for 66 years. However, I have an idea what the meaning of this reference could be.

In 1974, one of the most famous Hungarian rock groups (Locomotiv GT – or LGT) made a tour in US and recorded an album under the direction of Jimmy Miller (Rolling Stones’ production manager on some of their albums). I think it was the first rock group from Eastern Europe to make a tour in US. In 1974, Locomotiv GT‘s Locomotiv GT (Dunhill Records 811) album was released with the slogan “Radio Budapest Loves You!”.   A couple of articles appeared in rock magazines lamenting that “the next.wave of rock n roll might come from the Eastern block” which could lead to the singer saying at concerts in the USA,  “… you know guys, we travelled ten thousand miles away, to play some fuckin’ communist rock n roll to you!”

Gabor Presser who was a songwriter with the group and played synthetizer, is the only member of the group still alive. The other three members were: Tamas Barta – guitar (shot dead years later in US), Joseph Laux – drums (became a music producer/manager in the USA, died 2-3 years ago)  and Tamas Somlo – (bass and trumpet, also died 2-3 years ago).

I have no information why this slogan was used in marketing the album and what its real meaning is. Gabor Presser can still be contacted to get information on this, but I guess that the slogan and magazine articles might have reached Dylan, and at that time (or in retrospective) it might have been considered by him as potential source of “inspiration”. It is also interesting that the word “love” is in the slogan and this word appears also in the verse containing the reference of “Budapest”.

Tony: I’ve got two other theories about Radio Budapest.  One is irony, the other is that there may be no meaning here at all.

We all know of Radio Luxembourg which broadcast from the principality to England, when England had no popular music stations.  During the 2nd world war the long wave transmitter was taken over by Germany for broadcasting propaganda by William Joyce, while post-war the medium wave transmitter broadcast in German and Dutch through the day and played English and American pop music at night.

Radio Luxembourg always aimed to be a lively upbeat station; in wartime William Joyce’s use of swear words and his commentaries in general were not only anti-UK but also utterly different from the stiff middle class language generally heard on the BBC, which is one reason why he gained such an audience.  After the war there were no commercial stations in England, and the radio programmes (apart from a few comedy series) generally remained very formal.  Radio Luxembourg played the latest pop and rock records – which could not be heard on British radio.

So Radio Luxembourg was lively and teenager base, and I think Radio Budapest being under communist control was found to be anything but that.  So the notion that Radio Budapest could be a hip, exciting station was ironic.  It would be a bit like calling the House of Lords (the very formal upper chamber of the British parliament) a hip swinging joint where the honourable members let it all hang out.

The other point comes back to an issue I’ve raised a few times – that not every line Dylan writes has a meaning.   So the reference to “Radio Budapest”  perhaps was indeed basically selected because of the rhyme with “Key West,” and nothing more than that.

Peter: What are boondocks?

Tony: This is where American readers are going  to fall about laughing.  Of course people from England and the USA understand each other, but we do have a lot of words that exist only in one of those countries not the other.   So with questions like this I am going to guess, and hope that American readers might help clarify points, as there will be a lot of other people who don’t understand.  I think it is an isolated or remote area,

Peter: Philosopher pirate?

Tony: I would guess he is a thinker whose thoughts are radical enough to mean that applying them would take one outside the law.  Or  maybe a law breaker who is also a deep thinker.  Or again, just two words that when put together are fun because they are so unexpected.  In short, an oxymoron.  Indeed if we accept that Dylan enjoys oxymorons, lots of phrases suddenly become easier to understand.

Peter: “Under the radar under the gun.”

Tony: “Under the gun” is not a phrase I’m familiar with in English English, but I think in America it refers to being under pressure.  As in Trump was under pressure to condemn the demonstrators at the Capitol.  “Under the radar” means arriving unnoticed.  Here I suspect Bob may have just liked the two phrases that start “under the” and used them together, without any specific meaning.

Peter: “China blossoms”

Tony: I think they are cherry blossoms that grow in China, but horticulture is not my subject!

Peter: Does “You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right” refer to the approach to Key West from the mainland?

Tony: I have no idea.  I interpreted it as a comment about a person who changes his/her mind a lot, as in having left wing (ie tending to socialist) views, but in a discussion then supporting right wing ideas (as in Conservative in England).   But it could be an Elvis single…

Peter: Does”not that far from the convent home” reaffirm his religious commitment?

Tony: I really have no idea!  Please, someone who lives in the USA, help me out!

Peter: “I heard your last request” is potentially a reference back to the opening McKinley scene?

Tony: I guess it could be.  I just heard it as a phrase that sounds good.  Indeed onomatopoeia and alliteration are perfectly respectable devices within poetry.  So a cuckoo is called that because it makes a sound like that (onomatopoeia).  Alliteration also links the sound of words and what they describe (“the buzzing of innumerable bees” when said, sounds  bit like the buzz).   So it is possible to have phrases that in a more abstract way seem to have a meaning, but we don’t know what it is.   (Is there a word that describes such a phrase?  If so will someone please tell me what it is!!!)

Peter: How can we interpret “hot down here, and you can’t be overdressed”? If it is hot then you will be overdressed in any case. I would expect “under-dressed”.

Tony: “Hot” can describe actual temperature, but also in slang describes somewhere that is exciting, a great place to be, or it can be somewhere where trouble is brewing.  A situation which is described as hot, could mean that a crime is being committed and the police are on their way.  The use of hot in that way was later replaced by “cool” which is rather confusing!    Under-dressed means being dressed too informally (wearing a t-shirt at a wedding) – the opposite of overdressed, not meaning too many clothes but actually meaning being too formally attired.   I think Bob is playing again with multiple meanings.  We have no idea which one he is referring to, and that is part of the fun.

Peter: “Playing both sides against the middle”

Tony:  In England (if nowhere else) I think we are more likely to say, “Playing both ends against the middle” meaning trying to get two opposing factions to fight it out, so a third faction can move in and take control.  The third faction positions themselves by implication, as the reasonable, balanced people in the middle, who are not extremists and so not involved in the fighting.

Peter: Would you think that the line “I’m so deep in love that I can hardly see” in the second verse is a forward reference to “Fly around, my pretty little Miss I don’t love nobody, give me a kiss” to the affair with the “friendly” prostitute in the last verse?

Tony: I think that is possible, but I really don’t know.  My view of Bob is that he is very skilled at finding these phrases that can mean many different things, and he doesn’t seem to explain them.

To give one example: where I sit and write each day I look out onto the English countryside, and above and beyond I can see the sky.  Today it is a beautiful blue, which in English romantic literature is associated with warm weather, going out in a t-shirt and shorts, relaxing in the sun.  But in fact I write this in January, the depth of the English winter, and I know that if I want to go out I am going to need a very warm coat, and a hat covering my ears, thick socks…   The exact opposite of how I will dress in July.

So the world is often misleading, just as words are often misleading, just as people are often misleading.

Thus if I had to give one key explanation of Bob’s lyrics it would be that the world is not as it appears.   We have multiple questions all day long, but the obvious answers are often not the right answers.  So “the answers are blowing in the wind” does not mean, the answers are out there if you would only look, but rather that the answers are changing all the while because nothing is clear and nothing is fixed.  The answers are being blown around by the wind and we can’t grab them.

Footnote: Because I (Tony) am responding to Peter’s enquiries, I have had the last word throughout, and have thus constructed the debate around my thoughts.  Peter, if (as I suspect) I have taken your thoughts and questions down a route you did not intend, please forgive me.  As ever, my enthusiasm for words and language has got the better of me, and I have just let my imagination take over.   But I am most grateful for your email, because I found unravelling some of the phrases you mentioned a really interesting and challenging job.

And do remember, I’m English, and Bob is American.   We don’t speak the same language.

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  1. Just because particular words do not apply to an actual existing place outside the song lyrics does not make them meaningless -the context in which they occur does lend them meaning without the listener needing to know whether or not the actual place exists or not.

  2. However, because of the occupation by Soviet pirates, Tony’s ‘ironic’ interpretion of the radio station is a good one.
    A “convent” is a nunnery…perhaps a reference to Hamlet and Ophelia.

  3. America and England are divided by a common language, but as a Canadian, I’d say Tony’s got things quite accurate.

    For stay left and lean right – taken figuratively as toward hell or heaven- see Richard F. Thomas’ “Crossing the Rubicon’ in reference to ‘Key West’.

  4. “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” is a bluegrass song but Doug Murtsch’s modernized rendition says, “You’re the radar … “

  5. There was a pirate station broadcasting from Budapest, Tilos Radio. Van Morrison mentions Radio Luxemburg, and Budapest, in his song In The Days Before Rock’N’Roll, from the album Enlightenment, released in 1990. Another allusion to Van.

  6. When I heard those lyrics in Key West, “You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right” I instinctively thought that what Dylan was referring to is the principal in play when you are sailing and you lean to one side of the boat and it moves in the opposite direction. It’s counter-intuitive, but becomes automatic if you sail much. Lean to starboard, and the boat moves to port. I’ve done some sailing, as I believe Dylan did some sailing too, perhaps off Key West years ago. The second line of that verse backs this up. That’s my take!
    “You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right
    Feel the sunlight on your skin, and the healing virtues of the wind”

  7. This song, to me, is Jeckle and Hyde Dylan. There is the happy location theme, that Dylan loves to use to stage something really awful. That is the McKinley sub-theme. McKinley sent troops into the Spanish-American War from Key West. McKinley was assassinated. Dylan also mentions the Truman Little White House there.

    I would not be surprised if these were veiled references to Pres. Trump, whose summer White House — now permanent residence — is not far from there…

  8. Philosopher pirate that made his name down in Key West was Jimmy Buffett. Dylan has been quoted as saying “ A Pirate Looks At Forty” was the best song ever written. He refers directly to Jimmy and includes him in the company of great writers in the song. Buffett told Rolling Stone that he hung out with Dylan on his yacht there in Key West. He is a very important figure musically and historically in Key West. Dylan was channeling Buffett’s take on the area influenced heavily by the same writers.

  9. Francois:
    If there was a pirate station broadcasting from Budapest, was it received on MW in the western parts of Europe? I don’t remember.
    In the song Van Morrison also alludes to the name of the radio he listens, it’s a Telefunken, in those days a mega radio manufacturer in Germany/Europe.
    Those Telefunkens (all radio’s in Europe) had a glass scale to tune the receiver on the right station, with magical names printed like Beromünster, Budapest and Hilversum.
    Bob Dylan has never listened to or tuned a Telefunken radio, he may even not know who or what this is. Perhaps Bob does not fully understand Van Morrison’s lyrics to the song and misunderstands that Budapest was a pirate radio station, where Van was referring to the radio-scale.
    By the way Luxemburg was not a pirate station. It was a commercial radio organization, the only one in Europe in the 50’s. Pirate Stations like Caroline, Veronica, Wonderful Radio London etc. operated from ships in the North Sea from the mid-sixties onwards.

  10. listener:
    I never said Bob Dylan listened to any pirate station, it’s a song you know and Dylan can tell stories. Maybe he listened to Luxemburg when he was in Europe. I know it wasn’t a pirate station, but as far as I know you weren’t supposed to listen to it in some countries. Anyway I was just saying Dylan listened to that Van Morrison’s song and took from it.

  11. I am from the U.S., and though I’ve never personally been to Key West, a little googling indicates that some of the physical locations in the song probably refer to actual physical locations in Key West. For example, the “convent home” likely refers to the Convent of Mary Immaculate in Key West, which is “the oldest educational institution in south Florida.” And during his presidency, Harry S. Truman did indeed use a former naval officers’ quarters in Key West as a “Winter White House,” making 11 visits for a total of 175 days, according to Wikipedia.

  12. My take on the controversy re- ‘why Budapest’ ?

    At the start of the song Dylan makes a double allusion to ‘wireless radio’ when the 1st word is now almost in desuetude and the combination seems awkward in the extreme.

    Maybe it works as a rhyme or is meant to give emphasis to a now unimportant medium but one which he has often told us played a great role in his own musical education in Hibbing. Political education too, as I shall try to highlight later.

    Dylan’s first trip to England, and thus to Europe, was in very early 1963 to act (!) in a BBC tv play called Madhouse on Castle Street.

    (I seem to recall that he sang a song over the credits called Swan on the River or similar.)

    At that time there was no commercial radio in the UK, only the BBC. Due to an agreement with the UK Musicians Union only a very very limited amount of commercially recorded (pop) music was allowed to be broadcast.

    Consequently the main source of pop music for British teenagers was Radio Luxembourg, broadcasting, in English with English DJs, from that country to the UK, though only in the evenings.

    Dylan would inevitably have been acutely aware of Luxembourg as the only pop music station available in the UK

    Roughly 15 months later, real pirate stations began in (viz legally outside territorial waters of) the UK from ‘pirate’ ships anchored offshore.

    Dylan’s next trip to the UK was for the Dont look back tour in 1965 by which time pirate radio was firmly established, broadcasting round the clock, and was making significant inroads into the audience of Luxembourg.

    The exact legal basis for these broadcasts was a matter of considerable political & public debate for the next few years

    He was back in 1966 for the ‘Judas’ tour.

    Pirate radio was effectively outlawed in the UK in 1967

    So for his first few trips to the UK, a confused belief that Luxembourg was just another offshore pirate radio station is far from unlikely.

    Why Budapest:

    Roll back 7 years from the 1st London trip and in October 1956 Soviet tanks and troops invaded Hungary centred on Budapest.

    Think current Ukraine though with much much much less violence and destruction, though the same incredulity and anger. And with primitive communications by current standards. No i-phones, no tv video, virtually no tv. Only newsreels many days later and some very limited live radio.

    The news came from ‘Radio Budapest’ including a famous final forlorn appeal for help as the Soviets crushed the resistance they did meet.

    Dylan was 15 years old and will no doubt have been greatly affected by the human drama being played out and the distant voices heard even in Hibbing through the medium of ‘wireless radio.’

    So the hugely sentimental song includes this slightly confused homage to the medium which meant os much to him back in hicksville; Hibbing MN

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