by Jochen Markhorst
III A whole lotta woman
Well, she's got Jet Pilot eyes from her hips on down All the bombardiers are trying to force her out of town
From jet pilot to bombardier is indeed a small associative leap, but it still is, of course, a completely unusual word in a rock song, or in song culture at all. Bing Crosby had a hit in 1942 with the propagandistic, martial Lorenz/Hart song “The Bombardier Song”, an unimaginative confection song, which hardly could have made any impression at all on Dylan. It’s an archaic word anyway (bombardiers were the artillerymen who operated the mortars until the nineteenth century). Maybe Dylan has Rudyard Kipling on his bedside table; Kipling uses the word with some regularity (‘Is girl she goes with a bombardier / Before ‘er month is through).
However, the rest of the song fragment, despite the alienating monkey wrench, varies on a much more common theme; on the attraction of a big fat woman.
She's five feet nine and she carries a monkey wrench She weighs more by the foot than she does by the inch
Once upon a time it was a beauty ideal, the Big Fat Woman. Rubens’ (1577-1640) paintings document in great detail the ideal of voluptuous bosoms, flabby flesh and legs like tree trunks. So much so that Rubenesque has become a term in the dictionary, where it is defined as: plump or rounded usually in a pleasing or attractive way; full and shapely; voluptuous.
From the eighteenth century, the Western ideal of beauty shifts to slim and small-waisted, and slowly “fat woman” in the arts descends into a physical quality characteristic to achieve a comic effect – being fat becomes ridiculous.
Rarely vicious, by the way. In most poems and song lyrics in which fat women are sung, the protagonist is indeed in love, he loves his fat wife in spite of, or precisely because of, her impressive size – the comic note is usually good-natured mockery. As in Leadbelly’s straightforward miniature “Big Fat Woman Blues” from 1944, which is skilfully enriched with two extra verses by Tom Rush in ’63 (on Blues, Songs and Ballads):
She's a fine lookin' woman, got great big legs Big Fat Woman got great big legs Ev'ry time she moves, move like a soft boil'd egg
… like Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls”, Mika’s “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)”, Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious”, Status Quo’s “Big Fat Mama”; all of them declarations of love. Only Joe Tex’s 1977 comeback hit, “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)”, is questionable – but then again, that one is still funny. A true renaissance takes place with the rise of rap music; obesity is praised so structurally and passionately that the Rubenesque ideal of beauty seems to be back. The heavy ladies are more often described as “chubby” or “curvy” than as “fat”, though, and the fascinated gentlemen call themselves chubby chasers – a term that, obviously, is considered offensive outside rap circles. But shared still; Quentin Tarantino has a good sense of the zeitgeist, of the revaluation of Rubenesque proportions, and in his breakthrough film Pulp Fiction (1994) he lets Fabienne dream of a pot belly;
fabienne No. Pot bellies make a man look either oafish, or like a gorilla. But on a woman, a pot belly is very sexy. The rest of you is normal. Normal face, normal legs, normal hips, normal ass, but with a big, perfectly round pot belly. If I had one, I'd wear a tee-shirt two sizes too small to accentuate it.
The standard-bearer of all Fat Woman-odes is written in 1977, and is of course AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”. She ain’t exactly pretty, ain’t exactly small (“Fourt’two thirt’ninefiftysix, you could say she’s got it all”) and she’s certainly not a lightweight:
Ain't no skin and bones But you give it all you got Weighin' in at nineteen stone You're a whole lotta woman A whole lotta woman Whole lotta Rosie
Based, as a matter of fact, on a real Rosie, a heavyweight lady from Tasmania (nineteen stone is 266 pounds, 120 kilograms), a one-night stand of singer Bon Scott, according to goofy guitarist and composer Angus Young, in an interview with Vox Magazine, 1998:
We’d been in Tasmania and after the show [Bon Scott] said he was going to check out a few clubs. He said he’d got about 100 yards down the street when he heard this yell: ‘Hey! Bon!’ He looked around and saw this leg and thought: ‘Oh well!’ From what he said, there was this Rosie woman and a friend of hers. They were plying him with drinks and Rosie said to him: ‘This month I’ve slept with 28 famous people,’ and Bon went: ‘Oh yeah?!’ Anyway, in the morning he said he woke up pinned against the wall, he said he opened one eye and saw her lean over to her friend and whisper: ’29!’ There’s very few people who’ll go out and write a song about a big fat lady, but Bon said it was worthy.
Which further suggests that as a rock star, you don’t have to be too witty, ad rem or eloquent (“Oh yeah?”) to find a bed partner.
Dylan does sing them too, every now and then. In “California”, the primal version of “Outlaw Blues”, the narrator goes south, and there some fat momma kissed my mouth one time. The john in “Goin’ To Acapulco” looks forward to goin’ down to see fat gut – goin’ to have some fun and in “High Water” he has found shelter with one Fat Nancy.
In the throwaway “Jet Pilot”, the narrator expresses this specific physical quality with the mercurial, surreal elusiveness which characterises the poet’s output these years: She weighs more by the foot than she does by the inch. A semantic hair-splitter might argue, of course, that this does not necessarily indicate that the “she” is obese, but Occam’s razor has a strong argument; any blues text mentioning the weight of a lady, always depicts a heavy woman. It is unlikely, though, that the poet was inspired by a real Rosie. But if so, then she can be proud that her size inspired something infinitely more poetic and wittier than she’s a whole lotta woman.
Peter Paul Rubens, by the way, was married twice. The first time to Isabella Brant, who died of the plague in 1626 at the age of 34, and four years after Isabella’s death to the then 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Isabella was slim, Hélène at most slightly chubby, according to the portraits. No chubby chaser himself, old Peter Paul.
To be continued. Next up: Jet Pilot part IV: What is the most important thing in your life?
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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