Gates Of Eden (1965) part IX: I’m The Greatest

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by Jochen Markhorst

IX         I’m The Greatest

The Kingdoms of experience / in the precious wind they rot
while paupers change possessions / each wishing for what the other’s got
An the princess an the prince discuss what is real an what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden  ____

After the break-up of The Beatles, Ringo merrily produces an immense pile of carefree, saltless rubbish, albums that sometimes end up in the trash cans of oblivion faster than in the sell-out bins. But every now and then there is a big surprise. Unthreatened at the top of Ringo’s Best Albums list is 1973’s Ringo, the record that features all-stars like The Band, Jim Keltner, Billy Preston and Marc Bolan, as well as all the Beatles, who generously donate five excellent new songs to their old drummer. McCartney presents the solid gem “Six O’Clock”. George Harrison comes through with three great songs: the brilliant “Photograph”, the irresistible “Sunshine Life For Me (Sail Away Raymond)”, which would have fitted right in on Music From The Big Pink and was indeed recorded with The Band, and the song with the album’s best intro, “You And Me (Babe)”. Lennon’s contribution is the shortest, but undeniably the greatest: the monumental “I’m The Greatest” – rightfully chosen as the opener.

“I’m The Greatest” is the only post-Beatles song to feature more than two ex-Beatles, both lyrically and musically one of the most Beatlesque solo songs ever written and a rare highlight in Ringo’s catalogue – one that brings together the best of Harrison and the best of Lennon. And both bassist Klaus Voormann and keyboardist Billy Preston, each a sort of Fifth Beatle anyway, excellently compensate Paul McCartney’s absence.

Five years later, in 1978, when Ringo plays himself in a trivial made-for-television comedy for NBC, again called Ringo, this is the song that introduces the protagonist, with a firm wink. Ringo, sitting blasé in the backseat of a limousine, surrounded by four beautiful ladies competing for his attention.  Like Ringo’s solo albums, the short film (45 minutes, still available in its entirety on YouTube) is filled to the brim with all-stars. Carrie Fischer, John Ritter, George Harrison, Angie Dickinson, to name but a few. Trivial, perhaps even a bit cheesy – Starr’s acting skills are on a par with his singing skills – but yet: somehow charming and entertaining. The script is set up as a frame story, and the first frame is a hectic press conference in which George Harrison tells us what happened today:

“Let me start Ringo’s story at the beginning. It seems two babies were born, the very same moment, the very same second in the very same country – England. Remarkably, both children, though born from different parents, looked exactly alike. One of the infants was taken to America, the other became quite well-known in certain circles.”

… immediately giving away the basis for this otherwise thin narrative. The same source that forms the basis for Garfield’s A Tail Of Two Kitties (2006), Netflix’s The Princess Switch (2018), Monte Carlo with Selena Gomez, Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd (1983), The Prisoner Of Zenda (1893), and dozens of other films, books, plays, TV series and even a video game (Beggar Prince, 1996): all adaptations of Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper from 1881.

This seventh verse is, apart from the last, the odd duck out in “Gates Of Eden”. “Kingdom”, “prince” “change possessions”, “pauper” and “each wishing for what the other’s got” is all little disguised – that refers straight to Mark Twain’s classic. Dylan stirs up the plot a little and adds a princess, but the association is inescapable – mainly thanks to the word choice “pauper”, of course. Dylan only uses the word pauper twice in his entire catalogue, and both times in a “Prince And The Pauper” setting: in this song and in “Song To Woody” (Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings).

Still, the opening line is alienating. The “Kingdoms of experience” (in the manuscript Dylan writes Kingdoms with a capital letter, later in the official Writings & Drawings and in Lyrics with a small letter, but then Experience with a capital letter) evokes, obviously, mind-expanding psychedelica, and may reveal some chemical influence. Which in itself does not affect the lyrics’ expressiveness, of course. The word combination kingdoms of experience, capitalized or not, pushes the listener’s expectation towards William Blake either way.

As it is, Blake’s The Gates Of Paradise and The Keys Of The Gates float throughout the song at all, also because of the thread Eden, but now there also seems to be a bridge to Songs Of Experience, which Dylan will namecheck 55 years later on Rough And Rowdy Ways. On the other hand: after that half association with Jewish mysticism by the appearance of a “lonesome sparrow” in the previous verse, “Kingdoms of Experience” leads, rather straight as well, to Jewish mysticism again. To the four “realms of experience” of the Kabbalah; the realms, or worlds, that embody the four dimensions of consciousness within human experience (our ability to think, to imagine, to sense, and to will, which together constitute our image of God).

It is a bit vague and certainly a bit far-fetched, but the poet seems to be floating on a stream of consciousness – indeed, the wildest associations might surface. It is not entirely unrelated though; after all, the Kabbalah tries to explain the relationship between the infinite God and the mortal, finite Creation. And both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the trees of Eden from the first verse, are the designated keys to unravelling that mystery.  

Dylan’s sequel, in the precious wind they rot, does, however, lead to the despondent conclusion that all our experience is meaningless; all those abilities don’t help us either, we still can’t distinguish what is real and what is not, we can’t know what is Good and what is Evil – but fortunately none of that matters inside the gates of Eden.

And well; tree, wind, rot… perhaps the unleashed poet is incorporating, in addition to Mark Twain, the Kabbalah and William Blake, unrelated echoes of one of the greatest songs of the twentieth century, Billie Holiday’s magnum opus “Strange Fruit” (1939);

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

… awarded one of the 100 “Best Songs of the Century” by Time Magazine on 31 December 1999. Dylan contributes just one song. According to Time, only Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is one of  the “songs of enduring beauty, power and inventiveness”.

But then again. “I’m The Greatest” did not even make that list. So there’s that.  

 To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part X: Domus ad orientem solem

 

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:

 

 

 

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1 Response to Gates Of Eden (1965) part IX: I’m The Greatest

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    As Twain says, religion follows man even into the grave, and onward into an afterlife:

    Life was not a valuable gift, but death was ….When man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free (Letters From Earth X)

    In the words of Dylan:

    Leaving man wholly, totally free
    To do anything they wish to do but die (Gates of Eden)

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