Love Minus Zero/No Limit part VII: Your silent mystery

by Jochen Markhorst

VII        Your silent mystery

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen / Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks / Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

“His name and voice are fake,” says a spiteful Roberta Joan Anderson, the real name of Joni Mitchell, in the famous LA Times interview in 2010. In the interview, Mitchell lashes out. Grace Slick and Janis Joplin are both dismissed as drunken sluts, Madonna is sort of blamed for the fact that “Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980,” but Dylan gets the most pointed uppercuts. “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist,” says Joni and she concludes with a not too authentic antithesis: “Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

It causes a stir, and continues to haunt her, despite her half-hearted denials in a CBC television interview in 2013. In it, she now lashes out at the journalist. “I hate doing interviews with stupid people, and this guy’s a moron.” The moron on duty, Matt Diehl, is said to have “misconstrued” her words, and her disqualification “asshole” is bleeped, but not bleeped too successfully.

Nevertheless, it does fit her profile, such a ferocious, insulting outburst, as in this case aimed at Dylan. In terms of content, it doesn’t, of course – in the forty years prior to this, Mitchell only ever said nice, admiring, deeply respectful things about Dylan. If in her presence a Donovan or a Bruce Springsteen is called a “new Dylan”, she usually snaps: “It’s absurd! Who in their right mind could compare that kind of talent to Bobby’s?”, and her standard answer to the question about her career start is:

“When I heard Positively Fourth Street, I realized that this was a whole new ballgame; now you could make your songs literature. The potential for the song had never occurred to me. But it occurred to Dylan.”

But the impulsiveness is most recognisable; Joni does have the reputation of being a blabbermouth, and especially in her many confessional songs, she is often frank, unashamed and clumsy to the point of embarrassment. Like in her “Dylan confrontation song” “Talk To Me” (1977), in which she again demonstrates self-knowledge in a carefree way;

Oh, I talk too loose
Again, I talk too open and free
I pay a high price for my open talking
Like you do for your silent mystery
Come and talk to me
Please talk to me
Talk to me, talk to me
Mr. Mystery

… Joni begs her mysterious and taciturn travelling companion Dylan, after she shamelessly recalls a drunken memory (“I pissed a tequila anaconda the full length of the parking lot”). In which she also places the beautiful, reproachful one-liner “You spend every sentence as if it was marked currency”. And in which she does not seem to consider authenticity very important:

That mind picks up all these pictures
It still gets my feet up to dance
Even though it's covered with keloids
From the "slings and arrows of outrageous romance"
I stole that from Willy the Shake
You know, "neither a borrower nor a lender be"
Romeo, Romeo, talk to me

A second “confrontation song” seems to be the duet with Michael McDonald “Good Friends”, the opening track of one of her very weak albums, the 80s misfire Dog Eat Dog. The content is vague enough; the good friend could refer to any of the men in Joni’s life, romantic or not, and is presumably nothing more than an amalgam of experiences with different men. But the third verse at least winks at Dylan:

But now it's cloak and dagger
Walk on eggshells and analyze
Every particle of difference
Ah, gets like mountains in our eyes

… in the canon there is really only one song with the phrase “cloak and dagger”, and Joni Mitchell knows that too, of course.

The cloak and dagger from the opening line of the third verse of “Love Minus Zero” is one of the many Shakespeare triggers, although of course Philip Marlowe is the cloak-and-dagger poet par excellence. But still, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet… the association with Shakespeare is justifiable. Dylan’s use of the expression, however, does not seem too significant.

Stylistically, this third verse marks a turning point. The earthy, “small” observations from the first half of the song – people reading books, people carrying roses – and the earthy, “small” settings – bus stations, dime stores – make room for charged, symbolically heavy scenes in theatrical settings. Apart from those archaic stage props cloak and dagger representing intrigue, betrayal and lust for power, the scene moves to a brothel where a madam has just lit the candles, the narrator suggests a mysterious ritual with “horsemen” and a meaningful collapse of “matchsticks statues”.

Very inviting, and plenty of analysts gratefully accept the invitation. And find biblical references (because Daniel explains a dream of a collapsing statue), or something of social criticism (the simple citizen, who is a “pawn” in the power games of the higher-ups, the “horsemen”), or see something with normative fading and moral decay in the madam of prostitutes who is “the light”… it is only a small selection from the many interpretation possibilities – this stanza is a big house with four and twenty windows.

Within the context of the song and the leitmotif antithesis at all, however, the textual interpretations do not fit so well. Here, the poet seems above all to be taking the next step on the same path; after the smaller antitheses such as ice/fire and success/failure, this verse illustrates, transcendingly, something like “complex, restless outside world” versus “simple, pleasant and quiet intimacy”. In expressing this, the poet is guided more by Rhyme & Rhythm and less by Reason. Hence the choice of the alliterating, rhyming and assonant four-tier dagger-dangles-madams-candles and the similarly melodious statues-made-matchsticks. The suggestive power of these, and the many symbolic charges that can be attached to props such as “matchsticks”, “pawn” and “statues”, is of course also recognised by a master literator like Dylan – but none of them are given the slightest hint of a fulfilment; we have to make do with these few cinematographic stills.

“Are you really exclusive,” as Joni Mitchell asks, “or just miserly?”


To be continued. Next up: Love Minus Zero/No Limit part VIII: A Study Of Provincial Life

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. Louis Renza double-parks his analysis of Dylan songs in the Autobiographical School of Dylonology; others in the Rhyme and Rhythm School.

    Bob Dylan does not shy away from wordings that sound good to the ear, nor does the following poet:
    “The goat and daisy dingles” (Under The Milkwood: Dylan Thomas.

    However, just because the singer/songwriter plays around with words and how they sound does not mean there is no reasoning, no meaning, to be sought within the lyrics.

  2. Nelson omits the ‘cloak and dagger’ reference – perhaps because it darkens the the otherwise pretty love song??

  3. The lines quoted below apparently drawing on the theme from a Puritan poet to humorously parody Dylan:

    But now it’s cloak and dagger
    Walk on eggshells and analyse
    Every particle of difference
    Gets like mountains in your eyes
    (Joni Mitchell: Good Friends)

    That being:

    Turn inside out, and turn your eyes within
    Your sins like motes in the sun do swim: nay, see
    Your mites are moleshills, molehills moutains be
    (Edward Taylor: The Accusation Of The Inward Man)

  4. It’s tough being an eagle that flies over all the Schools of Dylanology, always ready to fall on any unsuspecting prey (lol):

    He watches from his mountain walls
    And like a thunderbolt he falls

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