Early Roman Kings (2012) part IV: You can ring my bell, ring my bell

by Jochen Markhorst

 

IV         You can ring my bell, ring my bell

I’ll dress up your wounds with a blood clotted rag
I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag
If you see me coming and you’re standing there
Wave your handkerchief in the air
I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings
I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman Kings

 It is number 18 in Billboard’s “The 50 Sexiest Songs Of All Time”, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” from 1979. Which was not exactly the intention of songwriter Frederick Knight. He was so concerned about the image of the 22-year-old elementary school teacher Ward, honestly. “Anita is a very clean-cut person,” Knight tells Billboard Magazine (9 June ’79) without blinking an eye, “I went to great pain being picky about lyric content. We’re trying to build a respectable image for her.”

It works out anyway. One-hit wonder Ward never gets an image like that of sex goddess Donna Summer. She really is a clean-cut person. The oldest of five children in a Baptist family from Memphis has never even been to a disco before her hit single, and the song is definitely not as explicit as “Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi”, or as the No. 1 Sexiest Song, Olvia Newton-John’s “Physical” (There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally), but still… “Ring My Bell” is not No. 18 for nothing;

I'm glad you're home
Now did you really miss me?
I guess you did by the look in your eye
Well lay back and relax
While I put away the dishes 
Then you and me can rock a bell

You can ring my bell, ring my bell

 

… and more unambiguous flirting, like “The night is young, and full of possibilities, well, come on and let yourself be free”. Agreed, not bawdy or unrespectable, but also not really the words a lyricist who is “being picky about lyric content” chooses to use in an attempt to build “a respectable image”. No, Frederick Knight’s pious words notwithstanding: since 1979, ring my bell has meant something like “let’s have sex”.

It lends an ambiguity to Dylan’s “Early Roman Kings” that Dylan is not averse to. In the context, however, it takes on a different connotation. We are in the fourth verse, and the tone has long been set: sinister, dark, menacing. Nailed in their coffins, dragging you back, destroying you and your city, treacherous sluggers… hardly the prelude to a sultry seduction scene with an erotic finale. And certainly not by the somewhat macabre main sentence with which the protagonist introduces the ringing of the bell: “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings”. The evoked atmosphere has already led us to the Victorian, Gothic far horizons, from Roman kings to a Romanian count, to the undead Dracula. “My bell still rings” then pushes the associations to the very nineteenth-century safety coffins.

The cholera epidemics of the 19th century cause a spike in a time-honoured collective fear: the fear of being buried alive – which, incidentally, happens all too often, with “succumbed” cholera patients. One of Dylan’s literary idols, Edgar Allan Poe, floated along with the Zeitgeist – and undoubtedly stirred up the collective fear as well – with stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Cask of Amontillado and with the horror story The Premature Burial (1844). A final scene like the one in the House of Usher, the entry of Madeline, thought dead and buried, does resonate in this verse; “There was blood upon her white dressing gowns, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame” – well, the couleur resonates, in any case.

Anyway – atmosphere and preliminary insinuations push the verse I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings towards good old-fashioned nineteenth-century horror, towards a narrator buried alive in his safety coffin, operating the cord-and-bell system to indicate that he ain’t dead yet. Just as the handkerchief, the blood clotted rag and the dressed-up wounds push the associations to good-old Count Dracula. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, after all, the handkerchief has only one function: “I noticed that Van Helsing tied a soft silk handkerchief round her throat,” for example (Ch. 12) – to dress up Lucy’s bite wounds in the neck. Too late, as we know – Lucy is already an UnDead, gives herself to the Count night after night, has already become his bitch.

It is an attractive, and in this case narratively correct, underlying layer of the scabrous “ring my bell”. After all, also with Bram Stoker the unspoken suggestion is that poor Lucy (and later Mina too) has become the “bride” of Dracula, there is a sexual undertone in the gruesome, phased murder of Lucy and the attempted murder of Mina.

It is not conclusive, however. Dylan is not writing a poetic retelling of the Victorian masterpiece – like many of his best songs, the lyrics of “Early Roman Kings” are a kaleidoscopic, multi-coloured jewel. Impressions from all corners of Dylan’s cultural baggage seem to descend on it. Waving with the handkerchief, for example, does not suit Lucy at all; every time she reports to the count, she is in a trance, moving like a sleepwalker – that handkerchief is really only there to dress up her wounds. Waving a handkerchief in the air at a male counterpart is not uncommon though, in Victorian, nineteenth-century English masterpieces, but much less gruesome:

“You’ll wait and wave your handkerchief when I get to that turn in the road? I think it’ll encourage me, you see.”
“Of course I’ll wait,” said Alice.

… when Alice waves to her Knight, that is, in Through The Looking Glass (1871), the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, and in any case a work from which Dylan repeatedly draws in the twenty-first century (for Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, for instance).

But of course the poet Dylan can take all the freedom he wants to mould his poetic Dracula retelling to his liking. So he can turn a Romanian count into a Roman king and he can turn a sleepwalking UnDead into a handkerchief-waving vampire groupie. Although in that scenario, the last line does introduce a curious plot twist. Does “Lucy” say that? “I’ll keep my fingers crossed”? The sign of the cross? To ward off the vampire?

 

To be continued. Next up: Early Roman Kings part V: I will massacre you

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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