Early Roman Kings (2012) part II: Anything goes

Early Roman Kings (2012) part I: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

by Jochen Markhorst


II          Anything goes

All the early Roman Kings in the early, early morn’
Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn
Speeding through the forest, racing down the track
You try to get away, they drag you back
Tomorrow is Friday, we’ll see what it brings
Everybody’s talking ’bout the early Roman Kings

“It’s not the album I wanted to make, though. I had another one in mind. I wanted to make something more religious. That takes a lot more concentration – to pull that off 10 times with the same thread – than it does with a record like I ended up with, where anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense.”

In the peculiar Rolling Stone interview with Mikael Gilmore (September 2012), it’s a rather remarkable but still credible revelation, the confession that he actually wanted to make “something more religious”. A little further on, the surprising beauty of the interview is suddenly marred by muddled, embarrassing talk of transfiguration and Dylan’s childish fascination with something as ordinary as a name. Dylan waves an autobiographical book about the life and times of Sonny Barger, the Hell’s Angel, and, awkwardly, sees mystic depths and supernatural meaning behind the unremarkable fact that some Hell’s Angel named Bobby Zimmerman died in a motorbike accident in 1964.

It is tempting to think that Dylan is here performing a mildly vile parody of Donovan’s confused autobiography (The Hurdy Gurdy Man, 2005), a painful work that shows Donovan convinced to be at the centre of an endless series of cosmic interventions and mystical fatalities. But it’s to be feared that Dylan is serious – journalist Gilmore questions the topic for a time, and Dylan persistently suggests deep, hidden knowledge (but unfortunately demonstrates naive, horoscope-like wisdom);

That’s who you have in mind? What could the connection to that Bobby Zimmerman be other than name?

“I don’t have it in mind. I didn’t write that book. I didn’t make it up. I didn’t dream that. I’m not telling you I had a dream last night. Remember the song, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”? I didn’t write that, either.
“I’m showing you a book that’s been written and published. I mean, look at all the connecting things: motorcycles, Bobby Zimmerman, Keith and Kent Zimmerman, 1964, 1966. And there’s more to it than even that. If you went to find this guy’s family, you’d find a whole bunch more that connected. I’m just explaining it to you. Go to the grave site.”

Uncomfortable, but prevailing is the candid nature of the interview and its revealing quality. And: it puts entire songs of Tempest into perspective – like this second verse of “Early Roman Kings”.

The Biblical borrowings are unmistakable, of course. Joseph distributing the corn (Genesis 41), Moses coming down the mountain (Exodus 34), and Friday must, in this context, be triggered by the dying day of Jesus, Good Friday. These unrelated Bible references are larded with anachronistic, twentieth-century embellishments. That weird Hell’s Angels preoccupation from the interview opens the gateway to understanding speeding through the forest, racing down the track as a reference to Bobby Zimmerman’s death, and a stream-of-consciousness seems to lead him further to The Godfather III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990). At least, it does seem to do; the line you try to get away, they drag you back seems to paraphrase Michael Corleone’s embittered “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”, one of the few iconic quotes from that weirdly half-failed ending to the Godfather trilogy.

A narrative, or even one single all-encompassing lyrical impression is not to be found. Which is not the intention either, Dylan’s analysis suggests: “Anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense.” In line with the mosaic-like character of dozens of great Dylan songs, of songs like “Shelter From The Storm”, “No Time To Think”, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and “Mississippi”, of the masterpieces, in short, on which already a third generation of Dylanologists is breaking the teeth in the attempt to formulate a comprehensive interpretation. Driven by, as Dylan says, the belief that it makes sense.

“Early Roman Kings” seems to fit into that tradition. Just like those great masterpieces, coherence is mainly suggested by a recurring line. The big difference is the lack of an unambiguous charge, or at least: of a guiding portent. Refrain lines such as “I’ll give you a shelter from the storm”, “there’s no time to think”, “can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile” and “only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” have a connecting, overarching quality – they direct the emotional charge of the images in the preceding lines. Apparently, the protagonist is going through something that evokes in the “she” the need to offer him shelter. An accumulation of setbacks causes despondency, so much so that the narrator fears to be stuck in Mobile.

Dylan offers no such handle in “Early Roman Kings”. Not only is “early Roman Kings” not a loaded term, as “Mobile”, “shelter” or “Mississippi” are, it is not even a term with an actual, overarching quality; nobody has any knowledge of the seven historical early Roman Kings (the first rulers of Rome, 753-510 BCE). At best, there are some associations with the very first early King, with Romulus. Raised by wolves, he – like Cain – killed his brother, Remus, abducted the Sabine Virgins and became the first King of Rome. Sort of, anyway… Romulus and his six successors called themselves Rex, King, but were elected as presidents are elected and had to answer to the Senate.

Our knowledge of the six remaining early Roman Kings is even more sketchy and apocryphal. We don’t know much more than that they all seem to have worn sharkskin suits. And we only know that since Dylan told us in 2012.

In short: the choice of “early Roman Kings” as protagonists has at best an as yet unexplored metaphorical quality. The same value as, for example, Jimmy Reed, and Jezebel the nun, and Blind Willie McTell, and Tom Paine, and all those other loaded names in Dylan’s songs; names that in the song itself clearly have no relation to the historical Jezebel, McTell, Paine or Reed, but that do evoke, as a free bonus, images or characters in the listener – images and character traits that will differ from listener to listener.

“Early Roman Kings” then, vaguely and unsubstantiatedly, has something threatening, something fateful.  Rather like the Nine Ancient Kings in The Lord Of The Rings, after their deaths turned into Nazgûl, cursed, invisible Ringwraiths, introduced by Tolkien as Black Riders… another loaded moniker Dylan will pick up (for “Black Rider” on Rough & Rowdy Ways, 2020).

Yeah well. Anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense.

Dylan live (2016)

To be continued. Next up: Early Roman Kings part III: He had a left like Henry’s hammer


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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