Early Roman Kings (2012) part V: I will massacre you

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:






  1. Exclusive on ‘Untold’:

    In the violent accompanying video, Dylan’s full face appears on the (tv) screen for a split second just before Amanda smashes into it.

  2. The association of the rather extentialistic song with a video of such physical violence is so out of joint that the video achieves nothing but to distract a listener from the music and lyrics of ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ which, by the way, takes its title from a translation of Ovid.

  3. I’ve honestly never heard of Tropical Thunder but I guess I’ll check it out.

    I find Dylan’s insertion of pledges of violence annoying and distracting. I believe they are as much musicological as anything. I think he is mining /parodying a vein in American popular music around 1900 (when else?) in which black male protagonists made similar threats of violence to their rivals. Oddly, these songs were sometimes most popular when sung by white women. The Bully Song performed by May Irwin is an example thereof that was sufficiently representative to be included in the Library of Congress. You will have a hard time finding the lyrics but I believe the recording can be found on various video sites.
    Of course, modern rap music occasionally contains similarly egregious threats aimed at the rapper’s rivals. I assume this is what has prompted Dylan to craft his own, to convey that such language is part of the tradition he is working in, too. But for me, they fall flat.

  4. The old song befits the video thereof , but not the particular ”Beyond Here Lies Nothing” lyrics:

    When I got through with bully, a doctor and a nurse
    Wasn’t no good for that ni…… so they put him in a hearse
    A cyclone couldn’t have torn him up much worse
    You don’t hear ’bout that ni…..who treated folks so free
    Go down upon the levee, and his face you’ll never see
    There’s only one boss bully, and that one is me

  5. But there’s this:

    Well the chances are against him, and the odds are slim
    That he’ll live by the rules the world makes for him
    ‘Cause there’s a noose at his neck, and a gun at his back
    And a licence to kill him is given to every maniac
    He’s the neighbourhood bully

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