Love is just a four letter word Part VI: You been double-dealing

Previously in this series…

by Jochen Markhorst

Part VI: You been double-dealing

Both in the final pages of the graphic novel, and in the final minutes of the film version, Rorschach, as the only one of the remaining Watchmen, refuses to join Adrian’s gruesome, bloody plot to save the world. Without saying goodbye, he leaves the geodesic dome at the South Pole. He goes back to civilisation. “People must be told.” Outside, Jon, Dr. Manhattan, stops him. “Rorschach… you know I can’t let you do that.”

Rorschach knows. And also that this will be his death. Which comes, and it’s quick and painless. Complete evaporation to the core.

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed towards things in my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core

The creator of Watchmen, British master storyteller Alan Moore, is a seasoned Dylan fan. His masterpiece is – quite literally – framed by and larded with Dylan songs. Just as the successful and respectful film adaptation by Zack Snyder (2009) opens with “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (stretched, with Dylan’s permission, to over five minutes) and closes, under the credits, with My Chemical Romance’s cover of “Desolation Row”. The dramatic denouement is introduced, again as in Moore’s graphic novel, with “All Along The Watchtower” (in the film Hendrix’s version).

Illustrator Dave Gibbons writes the foreword to the Deluxe Edition in 2013 and explicitly articulates Dylan’s influence:

“It began with Bob Dylan.   For me, a couplet from his 1966 masterpiece Desolation Row was the spark that one day would ignite Watchmen.

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

It was a glimpse, a mere fragment of something; something ominous, paranoid and threatening. But something that showed that comics, like poetry or rock and roll or Bob Dylan himself, might feasibly become part of the greater cultural continuum. The lines must have also lodged in Alan’s consciousness for, nearly twenty years later, Dylan’s words eventually provided the title of the first issue of our comic book series Watchmen.”

… so, in addition to the title for the first episode, Dylan also provides inspiration for plot, background and scenes up to and including the final episode.

And, perhaps somewhat far-fetched, even the bizarre death of Rorschach seems a literal interpretation of Dylan’s beautiful metaphor from that wonderful third verse of “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” – an execution method that is later copied again in a slightly less literary, much more exuberant superhero film, in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). With an identical, paradoxical motivation, by the way; Thanos commits mass murder, evaporating humans to the core, to save mankind.

The farewell couplet is a poetic highlight of the song. The opening words I said goodbye unnoticed are already of a rare, thoroughly melancholic beauty, and the following lines are no less successful.

The narrator sneaks away, or at least tries to disappear completely, while in the adjoining room a – presumably – marital quarrel rages, the quarrel in which the woman speaks those memorable words love is just a four-letter word, the words that make such a crushing impression on the narrator. His state of mind is stormy. He may not be the reason for the impending marital break-up, but he is not entirely innocent. Ten years later, he will find the words:

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force

… but for the moment he stands at a crossroads, confused. He does not know which exit to take. He feels pushed towards things, and also understands that he owes this to his own games, the games that make him drift in and out of lifetimes. Bingo again for the biographical interpreters: thanks to Joan Baez’s autobiography And A Voice To Sing With, we know that Dylan writes this song during a phase when he is yo-yoing back and forth between Sara and Joan;

“Twelve years later, when I finally met and became friends with Sara, we talked for hours about those days when the Original Vagabond was two-timing us.”

In the next paragraph, Baez recalls how the two-timing Original Vagabond Dylan, after a few romantic days with Sara in Woodstock, reports back to Carmel Valley:

“You stood at the big kitchen windows with your typewriter perched on top of a waist-high adobe structure and faced the hills. You wrote “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” among other things.”

These are, in any case, confusing times on Lover’s Lane, but the added bonus is that our songwriter is able to empathise with the relational whirlpool into which he throws his poor protagonist. What is striking is that he is looking for an anchor point, is trying to decide who his True Love is, looking for the woman who actually could be his double (“Searching for my double”).

It is the first time that the poet Dylan chooses this image to express something like the One True Love. At the end of 1965 he chooses “entwined” (Just Louise and her lover so entwined, “Visions Of Johanna”), and ten years later, when the poet himself is going through a divorce, he chooses “twin”. First in “Simple Twist Of Fate” (I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring) and again a couple of years later, after the divorce is finalised, in “Where Are You Tonight?” (I fought with my twin, that enemy within) – though there it is less clear whether the narrator means his Own True Love.

This narrator is still far from that point. He does not yet know who his double is, and here, at this crossroads, he cannot even find a door that might lead to her;

Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more
Absurd than that love is just a four-letter word

Well, there must be some way out of here.

To be continued. Next up: Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word part VII: Now I understand

———

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:

 

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

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
  • Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
  • All Directions at Once

You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down

 

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