Cold Irons Bound (1997) part 2: To live is to be alone

by Jochen Markhorst

II          To live is to be alone

I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

The Fog (1980) is a low-budget horror film by John Carpenter which, despite poor reviews, was well received at the time and has since become something of a cult classic in the twenty-first century. The story is simple enough: exactly one hundred years after a ship has been lured onto the rocks by evil-doers using false light signals, a strange, luminous fog creeps into a Californian coastal town, and this fog brings with it the vengeful spirits of the drowned sailors. Not too imaginative, but Carpenter is a craftsman who impresses with lighting, music and almost poetic tableaux – such as the sheer iconic image of the ghosts, the non-existent, emerging from the fog: waist deep in the mist, almost like they don’t exist.

Apparently Dylan also recognises its poetic power, and he explores its metaphorical potential for the chorus of “Cold Irons Bound”. Inspired, he sits with his yellow pad of paper next to the drumming David Kemper, echoing in his mind are the songs of Stanley series: Vol. 3, no. 4, and presumably he has already fixed the refrain line I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound;

“In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state.”

That’s what Dylan says in 2020 about the creation of “I Contain Multitudes”, with the addition most of my recent songs are like that (New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley). The outpouring seems to apply one-to-one to the creation of “Cold Irons Bound”. The last line, I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound, is probably there before the previous one. Kemper’s drum pattern inspires.

It just so happens that today The Stanley Brothers are buzzing through Dylan’s mind, and via “The Fields Have Turned Brown” and “Handsome Molly” the stream of consciousness flows to “I’ll Fly Away”, to cold iron shackles on my feet, which perhaps awakens in cold irons bound from an obscure variant of “The Banks Of Inverness”.  Strong metaphor, the poet thinks, to express bound-against-your-will, to express the state of mind of his protagonist; an I-person who is love sick, standing  on the doorway, about to hit the dirt road. The musician Dylan’s particular choice of words is then, as so often, sound-driven – not on the road in iron shackles, and not like the worried man in “Worried Man Blues” twenty-one links of chain around my leg on the Rocky Mountain line, but a superior assonant triplet around the ou-sound: out – town – bound.

The bridge to that refrain line is not fixed. The poet is inspired, trusts the richness of the stream-of-consciousness and will choose different images and different words in each of the five refrains to express the loneliness and the quiet desperation of the unhappy protagonist. Here, in this first refrain, is the desolate image of disoriented people wandering through the fog. The symbolic power of this, of course, has been recognised by artists for centuries. Who knows, maybe Dylan has also browsed through the works of fellow Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse:

Seltsam, im Nebel zu wandern!
Leben ist Einsamsein.
Kein Mensch kennt den andern,
Jeder ist allein.
Strange, to wander in the fog,
To live is to be alone.
No man knows the next man,
Each is alone.

(Hesse, Im Nebel, 1911, transl. In the Fog Scott Horton, 2007)

Hesse reading “Im Nebel”:

Although – on a side note – this cinematic image conveying alienation and sadness probably has never been used in such a goosebumps-inducing way as in the most gorgeous “mist-song” ever, in Gene Clark’s “In A Misty Morning” from 1972;

Running through my thoughts
Were the memories of the days that I had left behind
Way down in my soul were the hopes
That better days were always there to find
The fog rolled in and the lights grew dimmer
And the sound of the city streets seemed amplified
In the misty morning when it had just been pouring
Like the clouds above the storm just had to cry

The unusual repetitions in these two chorus lines give some credence to Kempers’ story that Dylan wrote the lyrics in ten minutes. “Ten minutes” is probably more or less true, but it is likely that Dylan, the compulsive scribbler and note-taker, had already got a few one-liners up his sleeve. A refrain line like I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound and a couplet line like My love for her is taking such a long time to die have a polished perfection that suggests they were already a while in the making, the marble elegance of the coming “decaying beauty” aphorism doesn’t seem to have come out of the blue either.

Still, the atypical repetition in these couplet lines (waist deep, waist deep and almost like, almost like) is the stopgap solution of an inspired poet who does not want to lose his flow, who wants to keep the momentum going and quickly fills in the empty syllables with repetition. Atypical for the eloquent Dylan, but a ten-a-penny style characteristic of The Stanley Brothers;

Everybody I met, everybody I met, seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, no mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name, they knew not my name, 
    and I knew not their faces
I found they were all, I found they were all, rank strangers to me

To be continued. Next up: Cold Irons Bound part 3: He who is alone now, will long so remain


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. Also…,30 years earlier….

    We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
    The big fool says to push on

  2. Re: Rank Strangers –

    A much earlier poem (from which a movie takes its title)…..

    Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree
    Doomed from here to eternity …
    God help us, for we knew the worst too young
    (Rudyard Kipling)

  3. Out of the blue, no…..

    Then, if he thrive, and I be cast away
    The worst is this: my love was my decay
    (Sonnet LXXX – Shakespeare)

    It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
    It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away
    (Bob Dylan: Cold Irons Bound)

  4. Thanks Larry,
    but the mere mention of “decay”, in another context too, really seems too thin to me to assume a line to Dylan’s aphorism. After all, every poet since Homer has penned a poetic musing on “decay”. Two minutes flipping through my Oxford Anthology of English Poetry yields: Spenser, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Browning, Brontë (both)… I stopped there. Mostly “love’s decay”, by the way. And otherwise something with Autumn or something with Time.

    The saddening image of “decaying beauty”, which Dylan uses to evoke melancholy, is nowhere to be found. One time with Joan Baez, come to think of it. In “Once I Knew A Pretty Girl”:
    Roots will decay
    And the beauty of a young girl
    Will soon fade away
    Ooh, will soon fade away

    Though surely there are more “beauty-decay” combinations. “Dapple Rose” by Slade comes to mind now. About a horse (But now he’s growing old and his beauty does decay).

    The same applies, to my taste, to the rather irrelevant syllable correspondence in rank strangers – gentlemen rankers.

    Apart from that, I do hope you mean that the book is titled after a Kipling quote. The film is merely a – rather castrated – adaptation of James Jones’ novel. By the way, my old teacher Mrs. Klem, may Satan have her soul, would not forgive you for quoting Kipling all jumbled up;
    Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
    Damned from here to Eternity,
    God ha’ mercy on such as we,
    Baa! Yah! Bah!

    The beautiful, chilling line God help us, for we knew the worst too young! does occur in the poem, but elsewhere.

  5. I’m a-stickin’ to my guns even if I’m damned “From Here To Eternity” where the book and thus the movie both take their titles.

  6. A thing of beauty is a joy forever:


    pride, wide, side
    decay, away


    ride, pride
    away, decay

  7. Dylan alludes to Shelley in “Things Have Changed”

    On the death of Keats, Shelley writes:

    To that high Capitol, where kingly Death
    Keeps his pale court in beauty and decay

    To which Dylan applies his own poetic twist which oft he doth.


  8. Beautiful flowers that will never decay
    Gathered by angels, and carried away
    (Kitty Wells: Gathering Flowers For the Master’s Bouquet ~ Baumgardner)

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