Love Minus Zero/No Limit part IX: Where little girls say pardon

 

by Jochen Markhorst

IX         Where little girls say pardon

The wind howls like a hammer / The night blows cold and rainy

 “I would seriously give all of Bob Dylan for Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Nothing Rhymed,” tweets Rev. Richard Coles in August 2019. It’s a rather bold statement from the intelligent, colourful Englishman, who after an extremely successful career as a musician (in Bronski Beat and in The Communards, with huge world hits) studies theology, becomes Church of England parish priest and who is now active as a vicar of Finedon in Northamptonshire. And as a writer, a journalist, a radio DJ, a TV panellist (QI, Would I Lie to You? and Have I Got News For You) and whatnot. Generally, understatement is the weapon of choice in all these Coles splits, but every now and then he doesn’t shy away from hyperbole either, as his Gilbert O’Sullivan tweet shows.

Now, “Nothing Rhymed” is indeed a song of the outer category – the point Rev. Coles is trying to make does have some truth to it. It is an extremely attractive song with an addictive melody and lyrics that encompass the Holy Trinity of Rhyme, Rhythm and Reason. Demonstrated, for example, by the bridge;

This feeling inside me could never deny me
The right to be wrong if I choose
And this pleasure I get
From say winning a bet
Is to lose

… a bridge with a high Dylan vibe, as the pop-and-rock savvy Reverend should also be able to see. The right to be wrong is a wonderful antithesis, rhyming technically it is a perfect, antique Spanish sextet with, as it should be, the rhyme scheme AABCCB and Sullivan’s variant of the most famous antithesis, no success like failure, is of a dazzling beauty and simplicity: this pleasure I get from say winning a bet is to lose. “I’m a sucker for good middle eights,” as O’Sullivan himself says.

Still, O’Sullivan himself would never be so immodest as to place “Nothing Rhymed” or any other highlight of his rich oeuvre above Dylan. In all interviews over the years, he continues to pay his respects to his hero, as in Reader’s Digest (August 2018), when he names The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as one of the three Records That Changed My Life (the other two being Please Please Me and Johnny Duncan and His Bluegrass Boys’ Last Train To San Fernando);

“I was hugely into Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan was the one who gave me the feeling that I could achieve something with my voice. I don’t have a great voice, but I always felt it was kind of distinctive and if there’s one thing Bob Dylan had, it was a distinctive voice. And of course, his songwriting sort of moved away from I-love-you-you-love-me and that kind of helped us to be able to write lyrics other than the traditional love songs that were the key at that time. Bob Dylan was a huge influence on me.”

O’Sullivan, who says he is a stickler for words, illustrates the influence on his lyrics with examples inspired by Dylan’s enjoyment of language and playfulness. As he demonstrates in a detailed podcast for Strange Brew with Jason Barnard in 2016, using the same “Nothing Rhymed”;

The line “I’m drinking my Bonaparte shandy”. You know what that is, don’t you?
What’s that?
You don’t? It’s Napoleon brandy. [chortles] So I’m drinking my Napoleon brandy. Not quite. Doesn’t have the ring for me. I kind of like playing with words

… just as he is still a bit proud of the Basement-like nonsense from one of his older juvenilia, the charming “Mr. Moody’s Garden” (1968), from the time when he was still only called “Gilbert”;

I wrote things like “Down among the partridge trees, lives a don who loves his knees, so much so he’s framed them in a jar” [both Jason and Gilbert chuckle] – what was I on when I wrote that? It brings a smile to my face when I hear that.

O’Sullivan could also have quoted the last verse from that song, in which he quite openly salutes his hero Dylan:

Cos every day's a holiday in Mr. Moody's Garden
Where little girls say pardon
And Bill and Ben found stardom
While playing John Wesley Harding
Who looked just like Billy Cardon's
Answer to choo-choo

… and in which, by the way, the garden-pardon-stardom-Harding-Cardon sequence shows the same frenzied enjoyment of rhyme as Dylan’s oeuvre.

Both songs, “Nothing Rhymed” and “Mr. Moody’s Garden”, can be found on the compilation The Berry Vest Of Gilbert O’Sullivan – and that title is another sign of art fraternity: with Dylan, the Irish Englishman also shares a soft spot for spoonerisms.

“The post office has been stolen and the mailbox is closed”, “honky-tonk lagoon”, “round that horn and ride that herd”, “it ain’t my cup of meat”, “I got for good luck my black tooth”… in the mid-60s Dylan develops a taste for a quirky, often nonsensical variant of the time-honoured spoonerisms. Sometimes “classic” indeed, as in the post-office example from “Stuck Inside Of Mobile”, but more often in the more playful variant, where the spoonerism is a sound-driven mix-up. Lagoon instead of saloon, for example, not tea but meat, round instead of sound and not rabbit foot but my black tooth.

Spoonerisms, named after the absent-minded Oxford don William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) who, according to tradition, often mixed up syllables (kinkering congs instead of conquering kings, for example), tend to be rather corny. Aerosmith calling an album Night In The Ruts, or Hairway To Steven by The Butthole Surfers. And The Berry Vest Of Gilbert O’Sullivan, of course. But in the hands of a gifted wordsmith like Dylan, they can still take on a poetic glow; if you don’t take the spoonerism, as here in “Love Minus Zero”, all the way. Thus The wind howls like a hammer / The night blows cold and rainy gets an attractively confusing suggestion of a spoonerism by – obviously – the second part, where the listener “corrects”; no, the aforementioned wind blows cold and rainy. But then, “correcting back”, the listener gets stuck on the wind howls like a hammer. Stylistically a nice alliteration and content-wise a synaesthetic Dylan original (“howling like a hammer”?), but the other half of the spoonerism, of the inverted morphemes gets stranded. The wind may blow, as Dylan already has told us ad nauseam, but the night cannot howl. Let alone “howling like a hammer”.

But then again, maybe Dylan, like O’Sullivan to John Wesley Harding, is winking at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Swannanoa Tunnel”: The wind blowed cold, baby / When you hear my watchdog howling / This old hammer it rings like silver.

To be continued. Next up: Love Minus Zero/No Limit part X:

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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