by Jochen Markhorst
I Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the early Roman Kings in their sharkskin suits Bowties and buttons, high top boots Driving the spikes in, blazing the rails Nailed in their coffins in top hats and tails Fly away little bird, fly away, flap your wings Fly by night like the early Roman Kings
The brilliant opening line immediately sets the tone. It winks at Humpty Dumpty (“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again”) and at Watergate (All The President’s Men), it offers intriguing alienation, and it seems to have a fascinating intertextual reference;
It turned up again in America, breeding in-a-compost of greed and uselessness and murder, in those places where statesmen and generals stash the bodies of the forever young. The plague ran in the blood of men in sharkskin suits, who ran for President promising life and delivering death.
… from Peter Hamill’s award-winning liner notes for Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks (1975).
An ancient children’s song, a reference to antique history, and a fearfully hissing, alliterating (sharkskin suits) anachronism. And we are only one line, nine words, on the move. The style, this opening line promises, shall be eclectic, the tone menacing.
That promise is fulfilled right away. The next three verses evoke a confusing carousel of a high society wedding, street violence and a moody funeral, which after that opening line with Roman Kings in sharkskin suits pushes the associations not so much to Four Weddings And A Funeral, but much more towards The Godfather part I. In accordance with the promised eclectic character, the poet grasps left and right through his cultural baggage for the description of that carousel. Through Alan Lomax’s American Ballads and Folk Songs, for example, where Dylan seems to be touched by Song 8, “Mike”;
Mike he come from Tipperary, his name's O'Burke. Fought like he was stewed, but didn't fight to work. A-levelin' up the road bed ain't no fun, Nor a-drivin' down the spikes in the boilin' sun. Heat boils down, and shakes along the blazing rails, Hangs around your head until your mind nearly fails.
“Top hat and tails” echoes Irving Berlin’s “Top Hat, White Tie And Tails” from 1935, made famous by Fred Astaire (in Top Hat, 1935) and in Dylan’s record cabinet you’ll probably find Tony Bennet’s version, or Louis Armstrong’s or Ella Fitgerald’s (but the best is of course Gonzo’s version, who tries to sing it while tap-dancing in a vat of oatmeal).
The somewhat unusual expression “nailed in their coffins” may have entered Dylan’s baggage from a variety of sources, but one attractive option is the oldest, from the Canterbury Tale “The Clerk’s Tale”. The clerk chooses these words when he introduces his story with a tribute to the recently deceased “Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete” (the Italian poet from the fourteenth century, Francis Petrarc, the laureate poet): He is now dead and nailed in his coffin.
The same goes for “high top boots”; not too common, neither in songs nor in literature, but when it is used, it is almost always to describe the appearance of an unsympathetic persona. Chekhov consistently has this association, as for instance in one of his most oppressive stories, Ward No. 6 (1892), in chapter 15:
Hobotov thought it his duty to look in on his sick colleague from time to time. Everything about him was revolting to Andrey Yefimitch — his well-fed face and vulgar, condescending tone, and his use of the word “colleague,” and his high top-boots.
Lloyd Cole seems to be lovingly describing a nice girl when he introduces her with I love to see you in your jumper girl / I love you in your high top boots, but a little later she turns out to be an annoying bitch (“I Hate To See You Doing That Stuff”, 1990), and back in the seventeenth century, the ancient folk song “The Oak and the Ash” (also known as “The North Country Maid”) warned how to recognise him, the smooth talking asshole who gets you pregnant and then runs off:
She jumped into bed without the least alarm, Never thinking that the sailor boy would do her any harm, Oh, he huddled her and cuddled her all the night long, And many a time they wished it had been ten times as long. Now if it be a girl she'd have to wear a ring, And if it be a boy he must fight for his king, With his high top boots and jackets all in blue, He must walk the quarter deck as his daddy used to do.
In short, you’d better avoid them, those people in their high-top boots.
And the alienating, nursery rhyme-like closing lines of the first stanza, finally, do make an appearance in the exceptional song “Bye Bye Blackbird” but only in the last verse, which is hardly ever sung. A bluegrass source like Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird” is more obvious;
Fly away little pretty bird Fly fly away Fly away little pretty bird And pretty you'll always stay
… although the words are too common to attribute to any source at all, of course. More important is the film noir trick the poet employs here; embedding something as pure, lovely and innocent as “Fly away little bird, fly away, flap your wings” in a dark, ominous context. Few scenes are as terrifying as Jack Nicholson singing “Three Little Pigs” just before he attacks the door to his family with an axe (The Shining, 1980). Or as oppressive as the use of “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” in Nightmare On Elm Street. Which is the effect of that sweet little bird here in “Early Roman Kings”, where, at the very last moment, the poet also leaves open the possibility that it is not a sweet birdie after all, but a bat: fly by night.
A bat, a bowtie, a top hat and tail, nailed in the coffin… are we really talking about Roman Kings? Or could it perhaps be about a Romanian count? From Transylvania, to be more precise?
It is truly a spectacular, eclectic, wild opening couplet.
To be continued. Next up: Early Roman Kings part II: Anything goes
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
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
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