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.
You might also enjoy
- Dylan’s Christian Anthology 5; Key West and that most foul murder
- Rough and Rowdy Ways Part 4: The Rubicon to Key West
- Bob Dylan: Aeneas Visits Key West
- Bob Dylan: Keats West
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