by Jochen Markhorst
Previously in this series…
- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part I: Lousy poetry
- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part II: Johnnie, that’s called songwriting
- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part III: Do right man
- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part IV: Exquisite corpse
V Time regards a snarky bacterium
You have an inflated sense of your importance. To a thing like me, a thing like you, well… Think about how you’d feel if a bacterium sat at your table and started to get snarky. This is one little planet, one tiny solar system, in a galaxy that’s barely out of its diapers.
I’m old, Dean, very old, so I invite you to contemplate how insignificant I find you.
– Death to Dean in Two Minutes To Midnight
In March 2019, the makers of the American hit series Supernatural announce that the upcoming, fifteenth season will be the last. Perhaps a little too late; the plot developments did get a little all too crazy from about the twelfth season onwards. Anyway, the series is a huge success, has an enormous cult following and high ratings. The strongest assets are the two main characters, brothers Dean and Sam Winchester, two handsome guys, and the script: a well-balanced mix of soft-horror, mystique, humour and detective. The writers plunder from the Bible, from just about every known religion, they use urban legends, mystical literature and superstition, and let the two heroes hunt and fight demons, vampires, witches, ghosts, angels, creatures from other dimensions, mythical monsters and whatnot.
American folklore is also respected by the makers on the soundtrack. The unofficial theme song is a rock song, Kansas’ 1977 classic “Carry On Wayward Son”, and rock songs in the AOR category of Styx, Boston and Bob Seger colour about 90% of the soundtrack anyway, but in between, “God” surprises with a jaw-dropping rendition of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”, and blues monuments such as Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”, Little Walter’s “Key To The Highway.” B.B. King can be heard too.
A highlight, both in terms of artistic realization and narrative dramatic power, is the introduction of Death. Death arrives in a stormy Chicago, which he will destroy today. In slow motion, he walks towards a pizzeria. A chilling, heart-breaking version of the ancient “O Death” has been started up on the soundtrack;
O, Death Won't you spare me over 'til another year Well what is this that I can't see With icy hands takin' hold of me
“My name is Death and the end is here.” It is an exceptionally beautiful introduction to the confrontation of protagonist Dean with Death, in which the above monologue is the next highlight. The song is on a pedestal with Dylan anyway, and then of course especially the version by The Stanley Brothers, the version he plays as a radio DJ in his Theme Time Radio Hour (episode 49, “Death & Taxes”);
“Here’s a song you may have heard before. It’s kind of a roots music greatest hit ever since its appearance in the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother Where Art Thou. In that movie, it was sung by Ralph Stanley. But I can’t help but have a soft spot for Ralph when he’s singing with his brother Carter. Here they are, The Stanley Brothers: Oh Death.”
Dylan is referring to the blood-curdling a cappella version, for which Ralph Stanley received a Grammy Award in 2002, for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Apart from the accompanying music in the episode “Two Minutes To Midnight” from the fifth season of Supernatural, Dylan will feel drawn to the unspoken but unmissable philosophical undercurrent of Death’s monologue: Time is the great equaliser, time relativises everything to insignificance. “I’m old, Dean, very old.”
That also seems to be the indifferent thrust of this one Dylan-worthy gem in “More Than Flesh And Blood”:
Time regards a pretty face like time regards a fool
Time is a recurring theme, or at least a motif, throughout Dylan’s sixty-year oeuvre anyway. Beginning with “Don’t Think Twice” in 1963, and still fascinating the poet in 2020 – the opening words of Rough & Rowdy Ways are “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too” (and the closing line of “False Prophet” is “Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died”). And in between, in dozens of songs, more than once on each album, the bard professes his acknowledgement of Time’s omnipotence and indifference.
It is mostly amusing, and it seems ironic, but there is a deep truth in the commercial for IBM, for which Dylan lent himself in 2015, the video in which the talking computer Watson declares to have analysed all Dylan’s songs: “Your main themes are Time Passes and Love Fades.” And Dylan replies amused: “That sounds about right.”
Every now and then, the poet does cast a bit more explicitly a more philosophical eye on the phenomenon of time, as in 1967, in “Odds And Ends”; Lost time is not found again, though rarely with the poetic brilliance and depth as in this one line in a throwaway song from 1978, as in Time regards a pretty face like time regards a fool from “More Than Flesh And Blood”. It echoes reflections of ancient philosophers and great poets on Time, Natural Forces and Morality, and enriches those reflections with its own twist. Usually, the poets and philosophers before Dylan also come to a point that is so elegantly expressed by Death: I invite you to contemplate how insignificant you are. Statelier, for example, by Goethe in 1783, in “The Divine”:
Because nature Is insensitive: The sun is shining On bad and good, The moon and the stars. It shines on the evil As on the best of us
… and a quarter of a century later Goethe nuances that not only Nature, but even more abstractly, Time itself is amoral: Die Zeit rückt fort und in ihr Gesinnungen, Meinungen, Vorurteile und Liebhabereien (“Time moves on and in it attitudes, opinions, prejudices and loves,” Elective Affinities, 1809). In the Middle Ages, Augustine resolved this terrible immorality by placing God “outside of Time” – too terrible is the thought that anything or anyone could be untouched by God’s omnipotence.
The beauty of Dylan’s reflection lies in what he does not do; Dylan avoids the antithesis, does not juxtapose two opposing concepts to illustrate how insensitive Time is, as Nietzsche, Kant and Goethe all do, and, in variants, even Plato does. Dylan plays with this expectation, but then places beauty and folly, an aesthetic qualification and an intellectual one, opposite each other. Both human and both culture-bound, and both undoubtedly applicable to the antagonist Dylan and Springs have in mind in this song – but above all qualities that impress Time as much as the appearance and mental capacities of a snarky bacterium do.
On a side note: Dylan sounds one single time in Supernatural, again in a beautiful, moving scene. Main character Dean wakes up in his car, on a deserted country road at night. The car radio softly plays “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. When Dean gets out of the car, it is silent. There comes his brother Sam, with a box of fireworks, excited for the upcoming fireworks show that he will secretly light up together with his big brother. Only: it’s his brother as an eight-year-old boy, more than twenty years ago. “Weird dream,” Dean thinks. When both Dean and the viewer start to realise that Dean is dead, that this is his afterlife, Dylan’s song swells again.
Cheap? Why, certainly. Effective? Very.
To be continued. Next up: More Than Flesh And Blood part VI: Muddy kickin’ in your stall
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, 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 (only German)
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.
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