by Jochen Markhorst
- Gates Of Eden part I: The Lady In The Water
- Gates Of Eden part II: As if he was just taking dictation
- Gates Of Eden part III: Hello lamppost, nice to see ya
- Gates Of Eden part IV: Out of the depths have I cried
- Gates Of Eden part V: A wedding-cake left out in the rain
- Gates Of Eden part VI: The cowpuncher and the Golden Calf
VII She-devils and wild angels
The motorcycle black Madonna / two wheeled gypsy queen An her silver studded phantom cause the grey flannel dwarf t scream As he weeps t wicked birds of prey, who pick up his bread crumb sins There are no sins once in the gates of Eden ____
Granted, Dylan seems to have a more stable mindset, but in a bleak scenario, without the motorbike accident and Woodstock retreat, his career would have turned out like Skip Spence’s tragic life.
Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence did not have the luck of such an emergency stop, soon hit the harder stuff and lost himself and his talent in heroin, LSD and cocaine. After splintering a hotel door with an axe in Greenwich Village 1968, at the Hotel Albert, and threatening fellow Moby Grapes Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson, the decline is complete. He is admitted to Bellevue Hospital, comes out again six months later in pyjamas, records his own John Wesley Harding in Nashville, the psychedelic folk gem Oar (with the uncanny “Broken Heart”, Skype’s country shuffle adaptation of “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”), and drifts off again into clouds of intoxication under marmalade skies. He lives on Desolation Row for another thirty years and dies in 1999, aged 52, of lung cancer; the American version of crazy diamond Syd Barrett, all in all.
Still, his contributions to Moby Grape, though few in number, are irresistible highlights. “Omaha”, “Seeing”, “Indifference”… beautiful songs. As is one of the cheerful highlights of Moby Grape’s second record, Wow (1968): “Motorcycle Irene”. Dylan’s influence is unmistakable in the lyrics anyway;
The Hunchback, the Cripple, the Horseman and the Fool Prayer books and candles and carpets, cloaks and jewels Knowing all the answers, breaking all the rules Stark naked, unsacred Motorcycle Irene
…in that parade of supporting characters, set pieces and one-liners plucked straight from “Desolation Row”, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, from Highway 61 Revisited altogether. But the influence is most apparent in the choice of protagonist. The Motorcycle Mama does not make an appearance in pop music until 1965, here in Dylan’s “Gates Of Eden” (fifth verse of the manuscript, sixth verse of the final album version). Maybe inspired by Alberto Vargas’ biker girl pin-ups, maybe by the original Batwoman Kathy Kane, who swings into Detective Comics #233 on a motorbike in 1956, but female bikers are still completely uncommon in 1964, when Dylan introduces his motorcycle black Madonna.
Allen Ginsberg, by the way, connects these very lines to Kerouac:
“(Dylan) pulled Mexico City Blues from my hand and started reading it and I said, ‘What do you know about that?’ He said, ‘Somebody handed it to me in ’59 in St. Paul and it blew my mind.’ So I said ‘Why?’ He said, ‘It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own language.’ So those chains of flashing images you get in Dylan, like the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver studded phantom lover, they’re influenced by Kerouac’s chains of flashing images and spontaneous writing, and that spreads out into the people”.
Michael Schumacher – First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg (2017).
Ginsberg’s quotation is not entirely correct (he adds this lover), but his point is clear – and can be followed. In this verse Dylan seems to let go of the suggestion of unity, both stylistically and in terms of content; the rhyme (queen – scream – sins) is no longer pure, only the opening line is a fourteener, and a candidate for a leitmotiv (motorbike – phantom) is abandoned after the second line. From the third line onwards, it indeed seems to be a chain of flashing, hardly related images, which Ginsberg thus attributes to the overwhelming impact of Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues.
The Beat Poet is, of course, both a Kerouac and a Dylan connoisseur of the first category, and moreover a long-standing intimate friend of both, so he has a right to speak. But here he seems to have missed the many echoes from Burroughs’ The Soft Machine; “phantom rider’, “grey flannel”, “silver” and even “dwarf” are terms and word combinations from Brother Bill, but are nowhere to be found in Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues.
Not too important, obviously. More remarkable is the echo that Dylan’s song itself seems to generate – most strikingly, the introduction of a Motorcycle Mama into pop culture.
Coincidence, perhaps, but within a year of the release of “Gates Of Eden” with the motorcycle black Madonna, the female motorbike angels do thunder into the cinema. Leading the way is The Wild Angels (1966) with Peter Fonda and a very tough Nancy Sinatra (as “Mike”), but especially with the wicked Momma Monahan (Joan Shawlee).
The cult film opens the gates to a subgenre. The Hellcats, The Mini-Skirt Mob with the infernal shrew Diane McBain and with Harry Dean Stanton, She-Devils On Wheels, and the most beautiful of all: The Girl On A Motorcycle (1968) with a spectacular Marianne Faithfull in leather jumpsuit, who leaves her solid husband during honeymoon, jumps on her chopper and rushes to her lover Alain Delon. Many psychedelic and soft-erotic scenes, but basically a cinematographic representation of the age-old folk classic “Black Jack Davey”.
The appearance of all those she-bikers and black Madonnas in songs after Bringing It All Back Home will be less of a coincidence. The devout Dylan disciples of the Grateful Dead sing a black Madonna in “New Potato Caboose” (1968), one-hit wonder Sailcat scores with “Motorcycle Mama”, on Neil Young’s Comes A Time a song of the same name is a much-covered highlight and in “Unknown Legend” (1992) Neil again puts a wild lady on a Harley, The choice of a silver-black phantom bike in Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell” is no surprise either, but the most straightforward Dylan reverence comes from old brother in arms Robbie Robertson:
Benedictine, sister to Isis and the black Madonna Mistress of magic, mm, and goddess of the Nile She could read the stars, knew the secrets of the dead And could see what kind of madness Was stirring around in your head
The opening lines of “How To Become Clairvoyant”, the title track of Robertson’s 2011 musical memoir of sorts, or self-analysis. Where he looks back on the break-up with The Band in “This Is Where I Get Off”, on the ideals of his youth in “When The Night Was Young” and on the struggle with – presumably – his own addiction in “He Don’t Live Here No More”. And where he seems to be addressing old travelling companions in this “How To Become Clairvoyant”. Addressing Dylan, after that opening stanza, a second time:
King poet the holy fool Apostle of self-destruction I tried it your way but I couldn't sleep There's too much construction
… although without too much wriggling it could also be understood as being about Richard Manuel or Syd Barrett. Or Skip Spence, of course.
Robbie Robertson – How To Become Clairvoyant:
To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part VIII: When everyone’s super… no one will be
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: Dylan Reimagined
This series takes live performances of Bob Dylan, in which he has re-worked one of his songs to give it a new direction or new meaning, or simply a new sound or feel.
Each article normally covers three songs with links to a video of each new performance that is highlighted, with notes on why we think it is of particular interest