- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1965) part I: Thin Air
- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues II: The Thoughts Of Mary Jane
- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1965) part III
- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part IV: Charlie Rich… he’s a good poet
- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1965) part V The ghosts of our people
A piece of hop with black coffee and a shot of tequila
By Jochen Markhorst
I started out on burgundy But soon hit the harder stuff Everybody said they’d stand behind me When the game got rough But the joke was on me There was nobody even there to call my bluff I’m going back to New York City I do believe I’ve had enough
When, at the beginning of Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles sets out with Faust, the Devil first takes the old scholar to the pub, to Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig. For, as both Goethe and the Devil know: “Alcohol… because no great story started with a glass of milk.”
The clichéd pub-crawlers’ excuse has long been disproved, of course. First by Anthony Burgess and the film version of his A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), later by Luc Besson’s Léon (1994), the moving contract killer who starts every job with a good glass of milk, and finally by the most spectacular story that starts with a glass of milk: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). Though, to be fair, Alex and his droogs at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange are drinking “moloko-plus” there in the Korova Milk Bar, milk laced with the customer’s drug of choice.
But in 1965, when Dylan is writing his “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, alcohol was still the go-to beverage to get a good story started. Burgundy, in this case, mainly for rhythmic reasons presumably.
The opening of this last verse, I started out on burgundy, but soon hit the harder stuff, retroactively suggests something like a narrative. Similar to the structure of a farcical film like The Hangover (2009), for example.
The Hangover story, after a character- and set-introducing prelude, actually begins with a morning hotel room scene in a bewildering state of decomposition. Alcoholic bodies are scattered haphazardly throughout the suite, a chicken is walking around. One of the main characters sort of wakes up. He barely has the strength to get up. Gravity fails. With the last of his life force, he drags himself into the bathroom to pee, where he is snarled at by a vicious tiger. In a cupboard, they find a baby unknown to everyone present. One of the main characters has disappeared. The rest of the film is a quest to find out what on earth happened last night, in the hope of finding Doug, the missing friend.
We get the solution to the mystery, as we do with Dylan, in the last part. The clumsy Alan wanted to increase the party atmosphere by sneaking xtc pills into the opening toast with Jägermeister, but mistakenly used roofies. After that, the men went crazy. I started out on Rohypnol, but soon hit the harder stuff.
It is a tried and tested narrative structure: first the consequence, to arouse curiosity, and only later, to satisfy that curiosity, the cause. Usually humorous, especially when the cause turns out to be alcohol. Rudyard Kipling already used the trick, in his Departmental Ditties, Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses (1890). Like in the hungover “Cells”, which opens like a Hangover scene:
I've a head like a concertina: I've a tongue like a button-stick: I've a mouth like an old potato, and I'm more than a little sick
… only to reveal the Tom Thumb– and Hangover-like cause a little further on:
i started o' canteen porter, i finished o' canteen beer, but a dose o' gin that a mate slipped in, it was that that brought me here.
And Kipling was not the first, of course – already with the medieval François Villon we find ballads that tell the cycle of events in a rather reverse order, as Dylan puts it. Dylan says this in 1968 in response to John Cohen’s interview question about the songs on John Wesley Harding. Reflecting on the phenomenon of “real ballads”, by which Dylan – rightly – means narrative poems, he takes “All Along The Watchtower” as an example:
“… which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for here we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order.”
So not that strange or different, actually – we’ve been telling “the cycle of events in a rather reverse order” for centuries.
Dylan himself has been doing it since before John Wesley Harding. The last verse of “Desolation Row”, the I received your letter yesterday couplet, opens up the possibility of interpretation that all the previous verses express the contents of that letter. And well, even the embryonic “Ballad For A Friend” (1962) opens with its finale (“Sad I’m a-sittin’ on the railroad track”) and only then reveals the cycle of events that has led to the narrator being so sad on the track.
The last verse of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” offers a similar possibility of interpretation. Now, with this hindsight, we understand why the narrator was walking around so hazily, lost in the rain, in an exotic setting, why he didn’t have the strength to take another shot, why he felt so bad that he asks my best friend the doctor for advice, how he ended up in the room of a lady of questionable repute, and why his deranged senses thought to register “boasting authorities”, “ghost-like Angels” and duty neglecting sergeants-at-arms. Blame the harder stuff.
Details of the plot are, as we have seen, owed to Kerouac, but apparently also to Brother Bill, William Burroughs, who describes a similar decline in his taboo-breaking debut Junky. Especially when he once again tries to kick the habit with the help of alcohol, which requires increasingly harder stuff:
“At first I started drinking at five in the afternoon. After a week, l started drinking at eight in the morning, stayed drunk all day and all night, and woke up drunk the next morning.
Every morning when I woke up, I washed down benzedrine, sanicin, and a piece of hop with black coffee and a shot of tequila.”
And the attempts to get rid of the junk with the help of peyote lead to Tom Thumb-like hallucinations (“I looked in the mirror and my face changed and I began howling”). The book ends with Burroughs’ intention to travel south from Mexico to Colombia in search of the mythical drug yage;
“Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix.”
… but as we know, and as Dylan, sitting at a café table in Greenwich Village with Burroughs in the spring of ’65, knows first hand, Brother Bill is going back to New York City. He did believe he had enough.
In Auerbachs Keller, the devil entertains the clientele by magically making Rhine wine, Champagne and Tokayer (not Burgundy) flow, but Faust is not impressed. Mephisto therefore takes him to one of his servants, who brews the harder stuff in her Hexenküche, in her witch’s kitchen. After that, things get pretty out of hand. Only decades later, at the end of Faust II (1831), Faust returns to his old life.
He’s had enough too.
To be continued. Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part VII
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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