- Early Roman Kings (2012) part I: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part II: Anything goes
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part III: He had a left like Henry’s hammer
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part IV: You can ring my bell, ring my bell
by Jochen Markhorst
V I will massacre you
I’ll strip you of life, strip you of breath Ship you down to the house of death One day you will ask for me There’ll be no one else that you’ll want to see Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings Gonna break it wide open like the early Roman Kings
A sensational side-step in Tom Cruise’s steep career is the role he plays in the freaky 2005 film Tropical Thunder, a film that has since achieved some cult status. This cult status is largely due to Cruise; his scenes are, to put it mildly, memorable. The film is driven by overacting anyway, and action hero Cruise stretches that freedom to the limit. He plays the role he created for himself after reading the script and concluding that the story needed another villain: the greedy studio exec Les Grossman, “who represents the gross part of Hollywood”. The name is probably a play on words (“gross man”), the character is modelled on Harvey Weinstein, rather than being inspired by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, but Cruise’s Grossman is also fat, has remarkably large hands – thanks to prosthetics – and is an absurd extrapolation of the harsh, ruthless image that, rightly or wrongly, has been attributed to Albert Grossman.
A highlight is the raunchy, weirdly inappropriate dance that Les Grossman performs in the closing minutes of the film, between the credits, over Ludacris’ vulgar rap hit “Get Back”.
And the other pillar of the cult status are the rants, the tasteless stream of insults, threats and obscenities that Grossman pours out on his opponents. A whole generation of Tropic Thunder fans knows by heart Grossman’s rant at a baffled Asian crimelord who has kidnapped one of Grossman’s actors and is demanding a ransom:
“First, take a big step back… And literally, FUCK YOUR OWN FACE! I don’t know what kind of pan-pacific bullshit power play you’re trying to pull here, but Asia Jack is my territory. So whatever you’re thinking, you’d better think again! Otherwise I’m gonna have to head down there and I will rain down in a Godly fucking firestorm upon you! You’re gonna have to call the fucking United Nations and get a fucking binding resolution to keep me from fucking destroying you. I’m talking about a scorched earth, motherfucker! I will massacre you! I WILL FUCK YOU UP!”
The look on the criminal’s face on the other side of the line, on the other side of the world, is priceless.
Fortunately, Dylan does not resort to similar x-rated banalities, but since the twenty-first century he has shown a noticeable preference for – somewhat more eloquent – Les Grossmans as protagonists. It is a change. From Oh Mercy (1989) and on Time Out Of Mind (1997) and on «Love And Theft» (2001), the weary, beaten protagonists, Io-personas like the jaded protagonists in “Most Of The Time”, “Love Sick”, “Floater”, “Not Dark Yet” and “Mississippi”, for example, predominate. All “lowdown, sorry old men,” as Tweedle-dee Dee is characterised.
But from «Love And Theft», from that same “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”, we see the shift from passive, despondent protagonists to assertive, intimidating characters. The other will stab you where you stand, “I’ve had too much of your company,” says Tweedle-dee Dum. “Gonna break into the roof, set fire to the place as a parting gift,” says the protagonist in “Summer Days”. “I always said you’d be sorry and today could be the day,” says another, after revealing that he feels like a fighting rooster (“Cry A While”). “I’m gonna ring your neck,” “Gonna raise me an army,” “I’ll just slaughter my opponents”… on Modern Times (2006) Dylan continues the line and the tone gets grimmer. And the – hopefully interim – culmination offers Rough & Rowdy Ways (2020); “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head,” “I’ll make your wife a widow,” “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife” – it is just a selection of the powertalk on Dylan’s most recent album.
In between, on this Tempest from 2012, the blood is sloshing around as well. Nash Edgerton, the director of the music video for “Duquesne Whistle,” has a good feel for the atmosphere. The clip, released before the album’s release, is “bloody, Tarantino-ish” (according to Spin Magazine) and “brutally violent” (Music Feeds, August 2012). With Dylan’s full agreement, apparently; Edgerton had already directed the clip for “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”, for which the label “extremely violent” is not out of place. Edgerton made that first clip in complete freedom, without any interference from Dylan. Which was rather surprising to him as well, as he tells Pitchfork (4 June 2009):
Pitchfork: Did you have any contact with Dylan for this video?
Nash Edgerton: Not that I know of. It’s kind of strange. Normally, I sit down with the artist and suss things out. Dylan is in the video though – no one has spotted him yet. I’ll let you try and find it.
And what Dylan ultimately thinks of it, Edgerton still does not know (“I know his manager and his record company are really into it. But I don’t know whether the man himself has seen it or not”). In the meantime, however, he can be assured of Dylan’s satisfaction with it: Edgerton is asked for three more clips (apart from “Duquesne Whistle”, “Must Be Santa”, and “The Night We Called It A Day” too).
For the time being, Dylan’s inflamed obsession with violence is not as graphic as in the video clips and as on Rough & Rowdy Ways. Sinister and fatal, certainly, but for now packaged in veiled, poetic imagery. I’ll strip you of life even has a somewhat stately, nineteenth-century sound – something that Poe or Baudelaire could have written (quite literally even: your muscles stripped of skin, “Skeleton with a Spade”, Baudelaire).
In fact the phrase is, paradoxically, both ancient and modern. Dylan borrowed the first two lines of this stanza from a 1996 Homer translation; from Professor Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey. At the end of Book IX, Odysseus threatens the Cyclops, and over the centuries most translators have translated that into something like I were as sure to rob thee of soul and life, and send thee within the house of Hades (Lang, 1883) or dislodge thy bloody mind, and send thee howling to the realms of night (Pope, 1715), but at the end of the twentieth century the academic poet Fagles turns it into:
Would to god I could strip you of life and breath and ship you down to the House of Death as surely as no one will ever heal your eye, not even your earthquake god himself!
And it does seem to make some waves; a month after Tempest is released, the American painter Tim Biskup is interviewed by Wall Street International Magazine, on the occasion of his exhibition “Excavation” in Milan. By his own admission, Biskup has long been “obsessed with the image of the human skull,” but this is the first time he has put it in such words:
“Perhaps it is the complex and elegant geometry and pure aesthetic balance of the object. More likely our attraction comes from our guts and not our eyes. The skull is ourselves stripped of life. It is a clear reminder of our mortality. It can be a brutal and unnerving signpost that stares us down and fills us with dread, but at best it brings us into the present and reminds us to appreciate our lives.”
Beautifully phrased, and Biskup paints and draws beautiful, colourful skulls, stripped of life. But maybe the unusual expression is just hanging in the air, there on the Californian coast in late summer 2012 – Tim Biskup is from Santa Monica, just around the corner from Dylan’s home in Malibu (20 minutes, just follow the Pacific Coast Highway).
To be continued. Next up: Early Roman Kings part VI: The beauty of the flames
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