by Jochen Markhorst
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream Part 1: There’s very little that you can’t imagine not happening
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (1965) part 2 – Blow Boys Blow
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (1965) part 3: Your waitress: Captain America
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (1965) part 4: I knew Thomas Jefferson
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream part 5: Almost like a Buster Keaton or something
X Caput vel cauda
Well, by this time I was fed up at tryin' to make a stab At bringin' back any help for my friends and Captain Arab I decided to flip a coin, like either heads or tails Would let me know if I should go back to ship or back to jail So I hocked my sailor suit and I got a coin to flip It came up tails, it rhymed with sails, so I made it back to the ship
Chapter 90 of Moby-Dick, “Heads or Tails”, is an amusing digression with cynical undertones. The chapter opens with a Latin quote from the books of the Laws of England: De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam. “From the whale, it is sufficient, if the king does have the head, and the queen has the tail.” Cynical, because the whale has no middle part – everything behind the head is tail. “Much like halving an apple,” as Melville explains, “there is no intermediate remainder.”
After eight stanzas full of hit-and-run, time-travelling jumps, exploding kitchens and assaults on body and soul, it’s time for a breather, for a fermate. After all, we are on our way in a narrative song, and it is about time to bring the story back home. The narrator feels that too. He’s fed up, which is understandable, but that doesn’t make his decision to abandon his friends any less nasty. Some self-justification is therefore welcome; it is not he, but fate that will decide that he turns his back on his friends.
Well, fate does have to be manipulated a bit for that. And a small price must be paid; I hocked my sailor suit, so apparently the narrator will finish the story as a nudist (it is unlikely that he was carrying a set of extra clothes with him all along). The proceeds are a coin, and that coin is needed to provide the narrator with his hypocritical justification. Hypocritical, because the outcome is already determined; whatever it will be, the narrator will save his own skin and go to the harbour. Heads or tails, as for a whaler under English law, shall make no difference. Some inventiveness is still required, though. The coin flip yields tails, which, as lines 3 and 4 demonstrate, neatly rhymes with jail. Any suspense, however, has already been torpedoed by the poet; line 5 ends in flip – we already know that the final verse will end with ship.
Well, I got back and took the parkin' ticket off the mast I was ripping it to shreds when this Coast Guard boat went past They asked me my name and I said, "Captain Kidd" They believed me but they wanted to know what exactly that I did I said, for the Pope of Eruke I was employed They let me go right away, they were very paranoid
In the first song of Side 1, in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” the spiritual father does explicitly warn: watch the parking meters. In vain. By the end of Side 1, in the tenth stanza of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, he has already forgotten. Fortunately, he is a notorious lawbreaker, so he can tear up the parking ticket without any further consequences. Even the Coast Guard bows to Captain Kidd’s reputation; this man is so far outside the law that neither enforcement nor fines will do any good.
The name-dropping in this verse is a gift for the diligent exegete. The eventful life story, the alleged hidden treasure and the tragic end of the pirate/privateer William Kidd inspire dozens of books, references and allusions in three centuries of books, musicals, films, video games and songs, and thus just as many side paths to follow in interpreting the single mention of “Captain Kidd” in this Dylan song. Entertaining but a little too overzealous, all these attempts at interpretation. The first-person narrator lives outside the law, as demonstrated by the careless ripping action, and the associative hopscotch of boat – criminal – New York – Captain Kidd is quite obvious. Long John Silver or Henry Morgan or Blackbeard would also have been possible – but the poet needs to rhyme with “that I did”. Hence: Captain Kidd.
“The Pope of Eruke” causes more headaches, for the esteemed ladies and gentlemen of Dylanology. And despair. Assiduous googlers find that eruke is the Middle English word for a “palmerworm”, some kind of caterpillar. Others believe that the official spelling is wrong and that Dylan actually is singing “Uruk”, the capital city of Gilgamesh. Who or what should then be meant by “the Pope of Uruk”, or “the Pope of the palmerworm”, is of course not answered by these finds. “Meant is King Farouk,” thinks a third faction, also keeping open the option of “Baruch”, a notorious Wall Street financier from the 1920s. And most applause goes to the analyst who discovers that “eruke” is Greek for restrain, curb, hold back. Which doesn’t really help either, of course (“The Pope Of Restraint”?), and is also a bit dubious anyway; restrain is αναχαιτίζω, or συγκρατήστε. “Eruke, ερυκε” does not exist. The Old Greek ἐρυκάνω (restrain, indeed) comes close, but has only the first four letters in common.
In short: much enthusiastic digging, little result. Not surprising, of course – given the nature of the song, being one long, cheerful, nonsensical outburst, it makes little sense to expect too much meaning behind name-droppings like “Captain Arab”, “Guernsey cows”, “Captain Kidd” or “Pope of Eruke”. Filler lyrics is more obvious. At the most, with a little tolerance, you can hear a phonetic distortion of “New York” in “Eruke”. Just like the final line shows a certain rhyme-over-reason attitude. Paranoia, after all, has little to do with the emotion that now overwhelms the intimidated Coast Guard members. On the plus side, this is probably the first song ever to use the word “paranoid” – the beginning of an unstoppable rise of song characters plagued by a biased perception of reality, hostile and persecutory beliefs. Culminating in one of the pillars of heavy metal, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. In which, appropriately enough, the word “paranoid” does not appear at all – we only believe that Ozzy sings the word.
To be continued. Next up: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream part 7: I’ve never been able to read the damned thing
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