Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream part 7: I’ve never been able to read the damned thing

by Jochen Markhorst

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

XII        I’ve never been able to read the damned thing

Well, the last I heard of Arab, he was stuck on a whale
That was married to the deputy sheriff of the jail

 It is an image that is engraved in the collective memory: Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, stuck on Moby Dick. Peck himself, though, was hardly satisfied with his role in John Huston’s classic (1956). He did not quite understand why director Huston did not take on the role – partly because he thought himself too young to play the old, bitter Ahab. He still thinks so twenty years later, when Spielberg asks permission to use some scenes in Jaws. Robert Shaw is intended to watch the film and laugh at the inaccuracies. But Peck obstructs it; he is still “uncomfortable with his performance”. Huston thinks differently. A quarter of a century later, looking back in the long interview in American Film (September 1980), he is still full of praise:

“I liked him and I liked the film. Still do. I just saw it again the other day. As a matter of fact, I think that Greg is quite remarkable. He’s not the ranting, raving psychotic of the book.”

We owe the chilling, dramatic death scene to scriptwriter Ray Bradbury. And then probably to his troubles with Melville’s undisputed masterpiece. Moby Dick is his first screenplay, written just before his breakthrough with his pièce de résistance Fahrenheit 451, the immortal dystopia that paved the way for modern science fiction into the literary mainstream, the work that predicts ATMs, earbuds and bluetooth and that has since been filmed three times, rewritten for the stage and made into one of the first interactive computer games (1984).

But John Huston is not yet familiar with that work when he asks Bradbury for his film;

“It all came about because I gave him a copy of The Golden Apples of the Sun in early 1953, little realizing that one story, “The Fog Horn,” read by Huston, would cause him to call me to his hotel in August of that year.”

Bradbury reveals this in his wonderful, semi-autobiographical novel Green Shadows, White Whale (subtitle: “A novel of Ray Bradbury’s adventures making Moby Dick with John Huston in Ireland”, 2002). He wrote it, as he claims, partly because Katherine Hepburn in her autobiographical account of her experiences with John Huston, The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind (1987), is so reticent, talks so little about Huston’s ugly sides:

“They said that they had asked Hepburn to provide more material, but she had refused. Faced with this, after many years I said to myself: Well, I think I know Huston as well as anyone and I will try and do a book which is fair, which presents the Huston that I loved along with the one that I began to fear on occasion.”

Bradbury occasionally clashes with Huston, if his book is to be believed, but both he and the legendary director can appreciate that. In any case, the first encounter is already unorthodox:

“When I arrived at his hotel he put a drink in my hand, sat me down, stood over me, and said, “How would you like to come live in Ireland and write the screenplay for Moby Dick?”

I was stunned. My response was, “I’ve never been able to read the damned thing.”
Huston, in turn, was stunned. He’d never heard anything like that from any screenwriter.”

Huston can appreciate the frankness, gives Bradbury homework, and the young writer struggles through the monumental tome that night. “I read as much as I could and went back the next day and took the job.” This superficial knowledge probably also explains the most impressive scene in the film, Ahab’s death. The oppressive image of the vengeful captain, entangled in the lines, stuck on the whale, does not appear in the book. Well, it does, but in a different context, and not with Ahab:

“Lashed round and round to the fish’s back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon old Ahab.”
(Chapter 135. The Chase.—Third Day.)

So, the corpse of Parsee, Ahab’s unlucky harpooner, that is. Ahab himself basically just disappears into the depths without much ado;

“The flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.”

Bradbury actually uses the portrayal of Parsee’s death for Ahab’s film death, and successfully so – in the collective memory, that is what Ahab’s death is; entangled in the lines, stuck on the whale. And, as the opening of the last verse of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” reveals, Dylan too has Ahab’s film death in mind, not the “actual” Melville-death. Presumably, the then 23-year-old Dylan has not yet read the damned thing either. As late as in 1985, when Scott Cohen interviews him extensively for Spin Magazine, he still seems to have the film version, and not the book version, in mind:

“Then you got someone like Herman Melville who writes out of experience–Moby Dick or Confidence Man. I think there’s a certain amount of fantasy in what he wrote. Can you see him riding on the back of a whale? I don’t know.”

… apparently unswervingly convinced that there is an Ahab-on-the-back-of-Moby scene in the book.

Thirty years after that interview, and fifty years after 115th Dream, when he delivers his Nobel Prize speech, Dylan finally has done his homework, with the help of SparkNotes: “Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave.” Alright, Ahab is not really “thrown out of his boat”, but pulled out, “shot out of the boat”, as Melville says through Ishmael, but the thrust is right.

“That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs,” Dylan says a little later in the same speech about Melville’s Moby-Dick, by which he obviously means more than a single name-dropping like in “Lo And Behold” from The Basement Tapes (“What’s it to ya, Moby Dick? This is chicken town”). And it’s probably true that themes from the book permeate his songs. But on the other hand: Murders In The Rue Morgue, Juarez, Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle and of course Moby Dick … John Huston’s filmography has left more than one mark on the oeuvre of cinephile Dylan as well. And so did Gregory Peck, for that matter; Dylan extensively pays tribute to his Gunfighter in 1985’s “Brownsville Girl”. That damned thing he has seen more than once, obviously.

To be continued. Next up: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream part 8: The historians’ delight


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. Regardless, the humorous song lyrics stand on their own…..

    Arab (not Ahab) is stuck on the jailer’s fat wife who is very like a whale

  2. Biblical Ahab, king of Northern Israel, be married to Jezebel who worships the Golden Cafe rather than Jehovah.

    God has His vengence on both of them.

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