by Jochen Markhorst
VI The cowpuncher and the Golden Calf
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 ____
It’s August 1756 and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the genial and appalling protagonist of Patrick Süskind’s brilliant, filmed million-seller The Perfume (1985), leaves Paris for the first time in his eighteen-year life. His goal is Grasse, the perfume metropolis in the south, but he soon forgets his goal. For the first time in his eighteen years he breathes air, no, smells air without the scent of people. He is ecstatic. He takes ever greater detours around cities, avoiding villages, oncoming travellers, farmers in the fields… his nose leads him further and further away from people, towards ever cleaner air. Finally, he stands on the top of the Plomb du Cantal, in the Auvergne mountains. He cannot get any further from civilisation. He hesitates.
“Everywhere, in every direction, there was the same distance from people, and at the same time, every step in every direction would have meant greater proximity to people. The compass circled. It no longer gave any orientation. Grenouille had reached his destination.”
Süskind uses the compass metaphor in the same way that poets, literators and songwriters usually use it: to express how an infatuation, or any other state of mind, guides the actions of the protagonist. David Crosby in “Compass”, for example;
But like a compass seeking North There lives in me a still sure spirit part Clouds of doubt are cut asunder By the lightning and the thunder Shining from the compass of my heart
… or REM in “Green Grow The Rushes Go” (The compass points the workers home), or like Cliff Richard in “Miss You Nights” (Looking moonward for my compass), but of course Dylan enjoys singing along with his hero George Jones the most:
There's a shore of happiness that somehow we have missed And now you've drifted off to someone new But I haunt the lonely sea with a crew of memories For the compass of my heart still points to you. ("Sea Between Our Hearts", 1965)
And just as often, the compass metaphor serves to express the opposite; wildly spinning compass needles that represent how much the narrator is confused, how much he is stuck, or searching for the Way of Life. As in Süskind’s example, as Kerouac in Desolation Angels (“I closed down all my shutters to all four points of the compass”), Poe in Eleonora (‘They penetrate, however, rudderless or compassless into the vast ocean of the ‘light ineffable’”), as Kipling in The Ballad Of Bolivar (“Watched the compass chase its tail like a cat at play”).
Dylan shakes off rather original variant thereof. His compass blade does not point in the right direction, nor does it spin desperately, but points rigidly, time-rusted, in the wrong direction. The inspiration to choose the unusual blade, by the way, instead of the more common needle, is probably due to the poetic instinct that (still) wants to maintain the fourteener, the fourteen syllables of this verse. Although it is noticeable that only singer/songwriters who are in Dylan’s corner sometimes choose “blade” instead of “needle”. The phenomenon Joe Henry links it to songwriting, in an interview with the LA Times (6 June 2014):
“Sometimes songs want a bigger parade and more confetti in the air. Sometimes they want to be much more minimal and intimate. I try to treat a batch of songs like a compass blade and just walk in the direction they point me”
… and the only other song to feature that unusual compass blade is Billy Bragg’s “Your Name On My Tongue” (2013):
Grief was my companion It pushed me like a sea Compass blade at my throat Pointing up to the sun
None of it not too relevant, all in all, regarding the turn the poet Dylan seems to have taken from the third verse onwards; away from something as topical as nuclear misery, towards universal, timeless themes, towards an “It’s Alright, Ma”-like confetti mosaic painting a condition humaine.
As in the previous stanzas, this one too has a leitmotif – and still it seems very much as if the young poet is creating such a poetic inner structure purely by intuition. After “metal” in the second stanza and “predator” in the third stanza, we now see something like “Eldorado” as the leitmotiv. Aladdin’s lamp, Utopia, the Golden Calf, promise of paradise… and in the chorus line, all that is laughed at by an entity that is actually in that Eldorado, by something or someone who actually is inside the Gates Of Eden.
For the analysts who like to celebrate Dylan as Prince of Protest, as Spokesman of a Generation, it is not so difficult to discern in this something like social criticism, something like commentary on political structures. “Those in power who so falsely prophecy a better world are otherworldly hermit monks, guided by outdated values and ideas, sailing on a fixed compass, telling fairy tales and comfortable sitting on the Golden Calf, on big money.” Something like that, anyway.
But them again; just as conclusive are interpretations that want to understand such a stanza as – for example – an attack on church institutions, on the fake preachers who promise paradise but in the meantime are riding the golden calf themselves. Or, why not, a reckoning with the dogmatic part of the folk community, with the misguided and unworldly part of it. Metaphors like “Aladdin”, “Utopian hermit monks” and even “Golden Calf” are, in the song catalogue, and in poetry at all, quite fresh and not yet burdened with inescapable connotations (like “mushroom cloud” or “pied piper”), and are thus available for a wide range of interpretations.
For what it’s worth: the author’s intentions do not point towards social criticism. In the interviews of these months, Dylan already opposes with increasing assertiveness the “voice-of-a-generation” label, and decades later, in his autobiography Chronicles (2004), he repeats his unease with similar weariness and indignation as he recalls the words with which he was awarded his honorary doctorate at Princeton (1970). To his horror, the speaker calls him the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America;
“Oh Sweet Jesus! It was like a jolt. I shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless. The disturbed conscience of Young America! There it was again. I couldn’t believe it! Tricked once more.”
It is not the only place in the book where Dylan expresses his displeasure. Most poetically in Chapter 2, New Morning:
“The big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. […] Being true to yourself, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.”
His compass, says the poet, points to himself.
To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part VII:
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
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
In case you missed it:
Bob Dylan Master Harpist – the most in depth series of articles of Dylan’s harmonica playing or all time.
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