By Jochen Markhorst
Up on Housing Project Hill It’s either fortune or fame You must pick up one or the other Though neither of them are to be what they claim If you’re lookin’ to get silly You better go back to from where you came Because the cops don’t need you And man they expect the same
In its April 2003 issue, Spin Magazine publishes an amusing Top 5: “Top Five Unintelligible Sentences From Books Written by Rock Stars”. Henry Rollins, Jim Morrison, Jewel and Nick Cave, respectively, are number five through two, and the list is proudly headed by a line from Dylan’s prose debut Tarantula:
“Now’s not the time to get silly, so wear your big boots and jump on the garbage clowns.”
A totally random choice, of course. Tarantula has at least ten phrases on every page that are exactly the same in terms of “intelligibility”. Spin Magazine went no further than page 3 and – again, completely at random – highlighted a random phrase. At least, it is unlikely that anyone will think that an equally random phrase on, say, page 82,
“i, who am holding a glass of sand in one hand & a calf’s head in the other – i look up & say “are you hungry?”
… or on, say, page 128,
“she is not going on any goodwill tours this year – there is a false eyelash in her transmission… there is not many places she can taste”,
… is more or less intelligible than the chosen phrase.
It is a bit ironic, though. Spin Magazine manages to select one of the very few sections of text with a fairly unambiguous sneer; by garbage clowns, the young, hounded poet is no doubt referring to the relentless, sensation-seeking journalists. Also, just as ironically, this is the only sentence in that Top Five Unintelligible Sentences From Books Written by Rock Stars that is misquoted (in Tarantula on page 3 it says to act silly, not to get silly). And the dozens of magazines, newspapers and websites that report on Spin‘s amusing list all unerringly copy that incorrect quotation.
The experimental prose poem Tarantula (written ’65/’66, published in 1971), which is signed “Homer the slut”, is not really a highlight of Dylan’s output. In fact, it seems mainly an attempt to copy Burroughs’ cut-up technique, as well as a half-hearted attempt to cash in on Dylan’s then emerging literary status. Dylan himself turns his back on it, after its publication. He insinuates that it is more manager Grossman’s idea than his own, and demonstrates little pride:
“That was an opportunity for me to write a book rather than a book I wanted to write. I just put down all these words and sent them off to my publishers and they’d send back the galleys, and I’d be so embarrassed at the nonsense I’d written I’d change the whole thing. […] The trouble with it, it had no story. I’d been reading all these trash books, works suffering from sex and excitement and foolish things which only happen in a man’s mind.”
(Hubert Saal interview for Newsweek, 1968)
But on another level, it is fascinating indeed; Tarantula offers some insight into the meandering, poetic part of Dylan’s creativity during the mercurial 500 days, the days from Bringing It All Back Home to Blonde On Blonde. Almost all the supporting characters from “Desolation Row”, for example, appear in Tarantula as well. Noah, Einstein, Romeo, Robin Hood, the hunchback and the good Samaritan, Neptune, and Ezra Pound, just like the scenery (the Titanic, beauty parlor)… and like this, every page offers aha moments, remarkable idioms, striking scenery and exceptional supporting characters we meet again in the mercurial songs.
This starts already on Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965). The closing line of the opening track “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (the vandals took the handles) is also the title of a Tarantula chapter, three chapters after the Subterranean Homesick Blues & The Blonde Waltz chapter, by the way. Another chapter echoes “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Sacred Cracked Voice & the Jingle Jangle Morning), three quarters of the nouns from “On The Road Again” can be found (Napoleon, Santa Claus, milkman, hot dog, mailman, cane), and so on.
The next album, the Highway 61 Revisited-album with “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Desolation Row” and this “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, again offers dozens of intersections. And similar echoes of likely sources of inspiration; Tarantula, too, is a gathering place of legendary, fictional folk characters as well as blues artists and historical figures. The song character Willie Moore, traces of whom we hear in Sweet Melinda and Saint Annie, is mentioned on page 87, in the same breath as Willie’s colleagues Lord Randall, Sir James Fanny Blair, Matty Groves and Barbara Allen – mainly protagonists of murder ballads, by the way, that resonate somewhere in Dylan’s sixty-year song catalogue. And likewise, names like Bo Diddley, Delilah, Gypsy Davy, the pretty things and Galileo come along both on Highway 61 Revisited and in Tarantula.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” bubbles up from a chapter like Hopeless & Maria Nowhere, apparently set in Mexico, in which a “Maria” says that the narrator is a foreigner and in which the protagonist admits: “ok. so i shoot dope once in a while.” Apart from that we find, like in most mercurial songs, in Tom Thumb almost all words that can also be found in Tarantula. Peasants, gloom, howling, cops, silly… and if we can’t find it in Tarantula, we’ll find it in Dylan’s bookcase or in Dylan’s record collection. Like the aforementioned Housing Project Hill in Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (although the unusual housing is also found in Dylan’s novel; “from the pay phones to the housing developments,” p. 6) and Poe’s Rue Morgue.
The unspectacular fame or fortune in this fourth verse could be a rare Smokey Robinson reverberation. Less far-fetched than it seems; when Dylan is asked in 1965 about his favourite poets, he mentions Smokey Robinson in the same line-up as Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg. And at the time of Tom Thumb’s conception, Robinson has just written one of his greatest hits, “My Girl”;
I don't need no money, fortune or fame I've got all the riches baby That one man can claim
… from which both that fortune or fame and the rhyme with claim do descend in this Tom Thumb verse.
Four years later though, in the Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner, November ’69, Dylan distances himself from his admiration for Smokey Robinson’s poetry:
JW: What about the poets? You once said something about Smokey Robinson…
BD: I didn’t mean Smokey Robinson. I meant Arthur Rimbaud. I don’t know how I could have got Smokey Robinson mixed up with Arthur Rimbaud. [laughter] But I did.
… which is verifiable hogwash. In 1965 Dylan said:
What poets do you dig?
BD: Oh, Rimbaud, I guess. W. C. Fields. The Family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson, Allen Ginsberg, Charlie Rich… he’s a good poet.
So, there is most certainly no question of a “mix-up” with Rimbaud. On the other hand, we don’t have to take him too seriously here. Dylan surely is a fan of Charlie Rich, and as a radio broadcaster (he plays the Silver Fox four times in Theme Time Radio Hour) he carries his admiration out into the twenty-first century – but even a commercial and artistic highlight like “Lonely Weekends” does poetically not offer much more than
You said you'd be (ooh-wah) good to me (ooh-wah-wah) You said our love (ooh-wah) would never die (ooh-wah-wah) You said you'd be (ooh-wah) good to me (ooh-wah-wah) But baby, you didn't even try.
No, Smokey Robinson, W.C. Fields and Charlie Rich are, with all due respect, not poets who can be nominated for membership of the Pantheon with any chance of success.
Unless you’re lookin’ to get silly.
To be continued. Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part V: The ghosts of our people
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)
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
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