Gates Of Eden part VI: The cowpuncher and the Golden Calf

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:

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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  1. Time for a little tempest in the teapot:

    Chosen to suit the meter might have been compass ‘hand’,….but ‘blade’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘lamp’, and ‘laugh’ match up closely in sound given there is no end-rhyme in that stanza; more importantly, the metonymic ‘blade’ suggests the Grim Reaper.

    The compass needle always points in the same direction; in fact so much so that’ it’s rusted in place – towards Death…. though the utopians try to deny it. to defy it, you gonna drop stone cold dead sooner or later.

    However, according to the ‘afterlifers’, this is not the case …’you can do anything that you wish to do but die” because ‘Heaven’ waits for those who pray, and ‘Hell’ for those who don’t.

  2. As the lines go:

    From their fates try to resign
    Leaving men wholly, totally free
    To do anything they wish to do but die
    (Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

    ~ ‘try’/ ‘die’ above

    And ~ ‘descry’/’die’ below:

    But when once I did descry
    The Immortal Man that cannot die
    Through evening shades I haste away
    (William Blake: The Keys To Paradise)

  3. Marc Carroll’s ‘Gates of Eden’ is on ‘Shazam’ as well if marked ‘unavailable’ in your area

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