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
- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part V: Time regards a snarky bacterium
VI Muddy kickin’ in your stall
Time regards a pretty face like time regards a fool You drive off in your Cadillac and leave me with the mule In order to keep up with you I must go back to school I see right through the wicked way you stare And that's more than flesh and blood can bear
Muddy Waters hovers like a spirit on the water over Dylan’s entire oeuvre. Both in the liner notes to Bob Dylan and to The Freewheelin’, Muddy’s influence is acknowledged in so many words, an influence that Dylan keeps stressing in interviews in every decade of his career; he consistently lists him among Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. In Theme Time Radio Hour, the old blues hero is one of the radio broadcaster’s absolute favourites with eight spins, and the Muddy-rip off “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” on Modern Times (2006) is perhaps not the first, but certainly the most overt reverence in Dylan’s catalogue.
In later years, or rather from 1978 on, not only Waters’ music, but also his work ethic is a reference point; Dylan invariably mentions Muddy as an example, when asked why he still performs so much. In 1978 even twice, in quick succession, both times in Australia. The first time in the interview with Craig McGregor, 12 March in Brisbane:
CM: Tell me why you’re getting back on the road again; do you really like it?
BD: It’s not that I like it or dislike it; it’s what I’m destined to do. Muddy Waters is still doing it, and he’s 65.
… and again three weeks later, when Karen Hughes in Sydney asks something similar: “I’ll just be doing this until the fire’s burnt out. Muddy Waters is still playing, he’s 65-66 […] It’s not uncommon to be 65 to 70. Muddy Waters, I keep coming back to Muddy Waters.”
The maximum age seems to move with Dylan’s own age, by the way. In 1986, when he himself starts approaching the Big 5, he says: “People like T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters — these people who played into their sixties. If I’m here at eighty, I’ll be doing the same thing.”
In 1978, when Dylan says he keeps coming back to Muddy Waters, he does demonstrate this on stage. Back in the States, Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready” suddenly appears on the set list. In September, October and November, Dylan performs the song more than twenty times, always as the first or second number of the evening. Actually, it is a Willie Dixon song, but it is one of the few songs Dixon wrote explicitly for Muddy, as biographer Inaba reconstructs (in Preacher Of The Blues, 2011):
The inspiration for “I’m Ready” occurred when Willie Foster, harmonica player for Muddy’s tour band, visited Muddy’s house to leave for a concert tour together. As the story goes, when Foster knocked on the door, Dixon, who was visiting Muddy, answered it because Muddy was busy shaving. From the bathroom, he asked Foster, “Are You Ready?” and then Foster said, “Ready as anybody can be.” Muddy remembers, “[I said,] ‘Willie, are you thinking about what I’m thinking about? Let’s make a song out of it.’… It took [Dixon] three days, I think, to finish it out.”
The first verse immediately demonstrates that the song has been under Dylan’s skin since at least 1965, since Highway 61 Revisited:
I gotta ax handle pistol, on a graveyard frame That shoots tombstone bullets, wearing balls and chain I'm drinkin' TNT, smokin' dynamite I hope some screwball start a fight
… the steps from a graveyard frame to I got this graveyard woman, from smokin’ dynamite to lookin’ for the fuse and from tombstone bullets to tombstone blues are not that big, anyway. And it’s played by one of Dylan’s all-time favourite bands; when Spin Magazine asks him in 1985 to fill out the “Five bands I wish I had been in” list, Dylan puts “Muddy Waters’ Chicago band (with Otis Spann and Little Walter)” in third place.
Helena Springs recalls that she started writing songs with Dylan in Australia at the time. It is then an educated guess that “More Than Flesh And Blood” is being produced in or around these days – in the days when Muddy Waters is apparently haunting Dylan’s mind more prominently again. In this song, that suspicion is raised by this one line:
You drive off in your Cadillac and leave me with the mule
In the entire blues canon, there is probably only one song in which both a Cadillac and a mule are part of the scenery, and that is Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call”;
One of these days I'm going to show you just how nice a man can be I'm going to buy you a brand new Cadillac If you only speak some good words about me Hear my phone ringing, sound like a long distance call When I picked up my receiver, the party said another mule kicking in your stall
Dylan is undoubtedly familiar with the song. It was a big hit in 1951 and is still considered one of Waters’ Greatest Hits – DJ Dylan also plays this song, in 2006.
The use of mule in “More Than Flesh And Blood”, however, leads to a confusing plot twist. In the blues, “another mule” is the metaphor for the bastard who’s doing your girl. We owe that attribution to that same Willie Dixon; apart from in “Long Distance Call”, he also uses it three years later for “Evil (Is Goin’ On)”, which is recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in ’54. Wolf’s re-recording in 1969 even gives him his last hit (and Dylan copies the stomp and the sound in songs like “Lonesome Day Blues” and “Cry A While”). Muddy himself uses the phrase for the song he gives to his legendary pianist Otis Spann, who records it just before his death in 1970 and releases it on Cryin’ Time as the closing track: “Mule Kickin’ In My Stall”. There, too, the meaning of the metaphor is hardly puzzling:
I let a mule kicking in my stall Let a mule kicking in my stall I gonna kill that mule Have no trouble at all Woman I'm loving girl she out of sight Woman I'm loving she out of sight The mule let me see the light Another mule kicking in my stall If I found that mule won't be no mule at all
And through Old Crow Medicine Show, the phrase survives into the twenty-first century. On their definite breakthrough, in the four minutes allotted on their debut at The Grand Ole Opry, January 2001, they opt for a high-speed rendition of “Tear It Down”:
Every time I'd hit her she'd holler "Police" Cook them biscuits, cook 'em brown Done talkin' I'll tear it around If you catch another mule kickin' in your stall Then tear it down
The mention of a mule by Dylan and Springs in “More Than Flesh And Blood” would then suddenly insinuate that the female protagonist is adulterous and has just been caught by the antagonist. He takes off in his Cadillac, and she stays behind, with the mule – with her now-not-so-secret-anymore lover.
In itself, a nice, Dylan-worthy inversion of the blues cliché. Instead of bloody fantasies of revenge about what the protagonist will do to his slut wife and that mule (as with Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann and Old Crow Medicine Show), this cuckold says: OK, bye. And, merrily honking goodbye in his Cadillac, just leaves the cheating trollop behind with the mule, with his love rival.
Attractive, but unlikely. This plot twist, or this scenario at all, finds no confirmation in the rest of the text. Just as this one line, like many verse lines in this song, is difficult to fit into the line before and the lines after it. “In order to keep up with you I must go back to school” suggests, alienatingly enough, an otherwise unspecified intellectual superiority of the antagonist, who a stanza ago still had a “feeble mind”. “I see right through the wicked way you stare” is just as empty; didn’t the intellectually superior ex-lover with the feeble mind just drive off in his Cadillac?
Perhaps he is still wickedly staring in his rear-view mirror at her, sultry regarding her pretty face, the fool.
To be continued. Next up: More Than Flesh And Blood part VII: The line dances a jig
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. Series we are currently running include
- The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
- The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
- Bob Dylan and Stephen Crane
- Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
- All Directions at Once
You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site
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