Gates Of Eden part V: A wedding-cake left out in the rain

by Jochen Markhorst

V          A wedding-cake left out in the rain

With a time-rusted compass blade, Alladin and his lamp
Sits with Utopian hermit monks side saddle on the Golden Calf
An on their promises of paradice, you will not hear a laugh
excpt inside the gates of Eden  ____

“One of the greatest torch songs ever written,” says none other than Sinatra about Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” – and Ol’ Blue Eyes should know, of course. It’s no fluke; Jimmy Webb writes a lot of great songs. The classic “Wichita Lineman” for Glen Cambell, Dylan sings “Let’s Begin” with Clydie King in 1981 and the country supergroup The Highwaymen (Cash, Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson) name themselves after Webbs “The Highwayman”.

Towering above them all is one of Jimmy Webb’s most ambitious songs: “MacArthur Park” – a titanic song, indeed. Still, the lyrics are sometimes laughed at. Especially the verse

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again

 

Webb has always maintained that it’s all non-fiction, that the text merely words observations from his surroundings (“The old men playing checkers by the tree, there’s the yellow cotton dress… I’d seen birthday cakes left out in the park. I didn’t have to make anything up”), and, as if to make a point, then stresses that implausible background story by naming both a compilation album, And Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain… (1998) and his autobiography: The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir (2017) after this soaked pie.

It is dubious. The image is just a bit too absurd to be categorised under “everyday observations”, and moreover: it is a bit all too coincidental. Jimmy Webb wrote his song in 1967 in Los Angeles, the same months when W.H. Auden was living in the same city with Christopher Isherwood for a while. And a few weeks before Webb makes that alleged cake observation in the park, W.H. Auden’s brilliant, self-deprecating description of his own appearance is circulating, made at a party in honour of Auden’s sixtieth birthday (21 February 1967) at Isherwood’s home. One of the topics of discussion is Auden’s face.

“His face”, said Isherwood, “really belongs in the British Museum.” Auden’s friends were indeed beginning to compete with each other for ways of describing his face’s extraordinary creases and deep wrinkles. The poet James Merrill called it tunnelled and seamed; the philosopher Hannah Arendt, a New York friend of Auden’s, said it was as though “life itself had delineated a kind of face-scape to make manifest the heart’s invisible tunes’’. But the most graphic description came from Auden himself. “Your cameraman might enjoy himself,” he remarked to a reporter, “because my face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain.”
(Humphrey Carpenter – W.H.Auden A Biography, 1981, p. 463)

The witty one-liner makes the papers, and it is quite likely that the well-read, educated Webb does find the wet cake there. Incidentally, Wystan Hugh Auden’s wit is perhaps equalled by his compatriot, the painter David Hockney, who rivals him in visual power: “If that’s his face, what must his scrotum look like?”

Of course, Webb has absolutely no need to be embarrassed when caught quoting or paraphrasing Auden. Even the greatest succumb to it, as quite a lot places in Dylan’s oeuvre show. Songs on John Wesley Harding (1967) like “As I Went Out One Morning” and “The Wicked Messenger” and poetic weaving on Street-Legal (1978) like “True Love Tends To Forget” at the very least reveal an artistic blood brotherhood, but above all suggest that Dylan regularly uses an Auden poem as a template.

With “Gates Of Eden”, this suspicion arises no later than this fourth verse. And not so much by copying one of Auden’s unique experiments with form (as “The Wicked Messenger” copies Auden’s “In Schrafft’s”), but mainly thematically and in terms of content – and remarkable idioms like “Aladdin”, “Eden” and “Utopian” are the trigger.

Auden himself was ashamed of his famous “September 1, 1939”, with its touching, much quoted oneliner We must love one another or die and its scathing analysis of the 1930s, “a low dishonest decade”, and soon distanced himself from it. With almost the same words – I loathe that poem – as those with which Paul Simon distances himself from his “59th Street Bridge Song”, by the way. He prevents its inclusion in anthologies and in his own Collected Poetry (1945), and in later life only permits it on rare occasions. Penguin Books, for instance, may eventually include the poem, and four other early works, in an anthology, but must include the commentary: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”

When compiling his Collected Poetry, Auden has instead placed his much less admired but similar “New Year Letter (January 1, 1940)”.  This is a long (1707 lines), three-part work, which attempts to articulate the human condition of Europe in the first months of the Second World War. Auden registers the failure of civilisation, slaloms past all the great poets from Dante to Rilke and from Catullus to Baudelaire, and deduces that, “No words men write / can stop the war”. The long slalom takes him both past personal, “small” observations and past timeless pillars of culture such as Greek mythology, Kipling, Voltaire and Darwin, is full of paraphrases and inimitable associations, presents both archetypes and historical figures with alienating additions (“Blake shouted insults, Rousseau wept”) and lacks anything like an inner logic, a recognisable structure or even the suggestion of composition.

It is, in short, a dizzying kaleidoscopic mosaic like Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma” or like “No Time To Think” – or, indeed, like “Gates Of Eden”.

Especially the idiom in “Gates Of Eden”, however, suggests that Dylan not only has just leafed through Burroughs’’ The Soft Machine, but through Auden’s Collected Poetry as well, and that “New Year Letter” struck a chord. A trigger, of course, is the choice of “Eden”, which Auden uses a couple of times (Shut out of Eden by the bar), after the Dylan bells have already gone off a couple of times before, due to Auden’s preoccupation with “war”, “peace”, “Time” and especially “Truth”. Those Dylan bells are consolidated by dozens of smaller, in itself meaningless parallels (like “the cold serpent on the poisonous tree was l’esprit de géométrie” involuntarily reminds of Dylan’s claim to write “mathematical music”), but it is the many similarities in unusual vocabulary and metaphors that confirm that Auden’s Letter is a source.

“Utopian”, for example, comes up twice, “ownership”, “cowboy”, “angel”, “dwarf”, “experience”, “soldier”, “Madonna”… with Burroughs’ cut-up technique, a patient, precise word clipper could cut three quarters of Dylan’s song from Auden’s poem. Already Dylan’s opening line with the twisting truth is to be found. In Auden’s excursion to Kafka:

The path that twists away from the
Near-distant Castle they can see,
The Truth where they will be denied
Permission ever to reside

… as images from this fourth verse of Dylan’s song come along as well. The image of the jammed compass, for example (Though compasses and stars cannot / Direct to that magnetic spot), and that striking guest role for Aladdin and his lamp:

So, hidden in his hocus-pocus
There lies the gift of double focus,
That magic lamp which looks so dull
And utterly impractical
Yet, if Aladdin use it right
Can be a sesame to light.

Dylan’s spelling error (in the manuscript Alladin) demonstrates that the bard does not have Auden’s work opened on his desk, but that he apparently incorporates echoes from an earlier reading session into his own lyrics. And that the echoes continue into “It’s Alright, Ma”, by the way:

The ruined showering with honors
The blind Christs and the mad Madonnas,
The Gnostics in the brothels treating
The flesh as secular and fleeting 

… one of many examples demonstrating why one is called “the W.H. Auden of the 1960s” and the other “the Dylan of the 1930s”. Never “the Jimmy Webb of the 1930s” though, oddly enough.

 

To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part VI: The cowpuncher and the Golden Calf

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:

Footnotes:

In case you missed it:

Beautiful Obscurity: comparing some of the less well known cover versions of Bob Dylan songs.

If you’d like to write for Untold Dylan, please email Tony@schools.co.uk

 

 

 

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3 Responses to Gates Of Eden part V: A wedding-cake left out in the rain

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    The composer of scattered lyrics still has the foremost, or ‘fore-est”, decision in what words will be kept or left out, and how they will be fooled with or arranged.

    The “Dylanlogy School of No-Sense Lyrics” eats of/f its own tail in frustration since it’s imprisoned in language to analyze the creative use of language –
    there is no escape:

    A sentence uttered makes a world appear
    Where all things happen as it says they do
    We doubt the speaker, not the tongue we hear
    Words have no word for words that are not true

  2. Mark T says:

    This may be your best piece ever.

  3. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Merci Mark – a kind word is always greatly appreciated.

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