Early Roman Kings (2012) part VI: The beauty of the flames


by Jochen Markhorst

VI         The beauty of the flames

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

Apart from “Desolation Row”, there is probably only one song in the entire Western canon that features both the sinking of the Titanic and Emperor Nero: Harry Chapin’s “Dance Band On The Titanic” from 1977. Just like Dylan’s masterpiece, without too much dramatic depth, by the way. The ninth verse of “Desolation Row” opens with the enigmatic words Praise be to Nero’s Neptune / The Titanic sails at dawn, where, as often, euphony seems to have been a decisive argument for the choice of words. As we all know, the Titanic did not sail at dawn, but at noon, and indeed: the soundscape of be to – Nero – Neptune is a supple, very musical triplet.

In Chapin’s case, Nero is given some more substance, as a famous mythical lie about Nero is used as a comparison for the protagonist’s actions:

Jesus Christ can walk on the water
But a music man will drown
They say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned up
Well, I was strummin' as the ship go down

History really has not been too kind to Nero, and we owe the most persistent and popular story about him to the Roman historian Suetonius, who does like to spice up his De Vita Caesarum (The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, AD 121) with juicy, rancid and exaggerated details anyway;

“He set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates with tow and fire-brands […]. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. […]Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in ‘the beauty of the flames,’ he sang the whole of the Sack of Ilium, in his regular stage costume.”
(The Life Of Nero, Ch. 38)

More serious historians think that Nero was not even in the city at the time of the Great Fire (AD 64), and they also justifiably question all the stories about Nero’s orgies, atrocities and murders, but the image is ineradicable. In fact, the image only becomes more theatrical as the centuries go by. Whereas Suetonius only mentions that Nero sings (“The Sack of Illium” is lost, and presumably one of his own compositions), later generations soon thrust a lute into his hand, and still later generations find a fiddle an even better detail to illustrate Nero’s cruel insanity. Cartoonesque, of course (fiddles are not invented until 1000 years later), but admittedly, visually strong.

So strong, in fact, that a verse such as Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings, spoken by such a bloodthirsty narrator as in “Early Roman Kings”, irrevocably evokes associations with Nero. Especially with a narrator who already is compared to a city-destroying Roman king. Which works both ways, presumably; a poet like Dylan, who can shake songtexts out of his sleeve while associating, will probably end up with Nero via Roman king -destroyed your city, and thus with that cartoonish image of a fiddle-playing maniac. The by-catch is that this leads the lyrics somewhat back on track.

The opening of this fifth verse, after all, keeps building on that Dracula trail for a while. After the blood and the handkerchief from the previous verse, the sinister narrator speaks ominous texts, which all sound perfectly coming from the mouth of the bloodthirsty count; apart from the death threats I’ll strip you of life and I’ll strip you of breath also the substantively correct relocation announcement: the UnDead truly do live in a crypt, in a house of death, during the day. And then there’s the prediction One day you will ask for me / There’ll be no one else that you’ll want to see – Dracula’s female victims do indeed become zombie-like groupies, completely under the spell of their killer.

The turn, then, to an evil genius playing the fiddle abruptly derails that train of thought. The noble vampire has many qualities and skills, but musically adept he is neither in Bram Stoker’s original nor in any adaptation of the material (though in Van Helsing, 2004, he is quite a dancer). That one fiddle, in short, moves the setting from Transylvania back to Rome.

It is tempting to think that this intuitive intervention leads the poet via the Nero associations with his own “Desolation Row” then two songs further to the album’s key song, the monumental title song “Tempest” – Dylan’s own “When That Great Ship Went Down”, Dylan’s own contribution to the long line of folk songs recounting the sinking of the Titanic. The legendary shipwreck has preoccupied him throughout his career as it is. In his autobiography Chronicles, Dylan himself acknowledges this:

“The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight. I wasn’t seduced by it. What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking.”

Sometimes sideways, as in “Desolation Row”, sometimes aphoristic, as in Tarantula (“live before you board your Titanic”), sometimes straightforward, as in “Tempest”, and sometimes cryptic. Or so it seems to be the case, anyway, in 2020 on Rough & Rowdy Ways. The opening of the powerful song “Crossing The Rubicon” does raise questions and points more to the Titanic than to the early Roman king Julius Caesar;

I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day
Of the most dangerous month of the year

Caesar crossed the Rubicon on the 10th day of January, so he can hardly be the “I”. The Titanic, on the other hand, did in fact sink on the 14th day – the fourteenth of the month of April. Which, according to T.S. Eliot, also present on the Titanic (in the captain’s tower, as Dylan reveals in “Desolation Row”), is the most dangerous month. Or rather: April is cruellest month (“The Waste Land”, opening line).

But that’s another sad, sad story.

To be continued. Next up: Early Roman Kings part VII: Ding Dong Daddy


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:

There are indexes to some of our series on the home page and under the picture above.





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