Cold Irons Bound (1997) part 4: Little Boy Lost

by Jochen Markhorst

IV         Little Boy Lost

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

I found my world, found my world in you
But your love just hasn’t proved true
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

 Dylan remains in Villon mode for a while, in Où sont les neiges d’antan spheres. Or, to stay close to Paris, in the Georges Moustaki mode. More precisely: in the theme and colour of one of Moustaki’s loveliest songs, “L’Homme Au Coeur Blessé” from 1971, the formidable translation of a song by the Greek legend Mikis Theodorakis. Also, like “Not Dark Yet”, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, Rilke’s “Herbsttag” and this “Cold Irons Bound”, the dismal retrospective of a man in the autumn of his life, disillusioned and melancholy. With, as in “Cold Irons Bound”, the depressing image of the man who wonders where the friends of the past have gone;

Les quatre murs de sa maison
N'abritent que l'absence
Où sont partis les compagnons
Avec leurs rires et leurs chansons ?

The four walls of his home
Contain nothing but absence
Where have the companions gone
With their laughter and their songs?


… and whose heart-breaking opening line alone, Jour après jour, les jours s’en vont, laissant la vie à l’abandon (“Day after day, the days go by, leaving life behind”), already has such a strong Time Out Of Mind-vibe, of course.

Just as conventional as the image of the friends dissolved in the mists of time is the subsequent rocky road on which the beaten narrator finds himself – but then the fast-rhyming artist finds his inspiration again. A muddy hillside is already a fresh inversion of the cliché. For centuries, in songs, novels and poems, hillsides have been the backdrop of blooming flowers, of carefree summers in love, the background of a rising or a setting sun, and wild roses often grow there too. Or, quite on the contrary, the sad location of the grave of a loved one – in which case it is usually misty.

Dylan chooses the conventional setting for an unconventional scene: to reinforce the protagonist’s Sisyphean state of being. Not only does he trudge along in cold irons bound, but the road is rocky and the hill he climbs muddy – he is truly not te be envied, this mirror image of Jeff Beck’s insufferably optimistic Hi-Ho Silver Liner (“Going down a bumpy hillside, in your hippy hat”). To be fair, songwriter Scott English later confessed having tried to write “the most unusable, stupid lyric he could think up, about flies in pea soup and beach umbrellas” to scare off Beck’s producer Mickey Most; Scott actually wanted to keep the song himself.


The pitiful scene is spanned by clouds of blood. Like hillside, not necessarily an original décor, but like hillside, alienating here – this time, however, mainly through the choice of words. Red skies in themselves are not all that uncommon in the Arts.

In painting, it is already so commonplace that any artist who paints the sky red risks getting the label “kitsch”. And in songs, it has been around long enough. Usually to express menace. Like in Ry Cooder’s “Poor Man’s Shangri-La” (It’s a red cloud over Chavez Ravine), in “Johnny, Kick A Hole In The Sky” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (The red cloud rains and the black horse rides), in Fisher-Z’s “Red Skies Over Paradise”. Or to frame idyllic scenes, like Tom Petty’s “California” (Sundown, red skies), U2 in “Even Better Than the Real Thing” (We’re free to fly the crimson sky) and like in “Galbraith Street”, Ron Sexsmith’s nostalgic childhood memory.

There are many more examples, and Dylan himself has been using the expressionistic value of a red sky at least once in every decade of his career. The corpse of Emmett Till is disrespectfully rolled away amidst a bloody red rain, the narrator from “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart” has just returned from a city of flaming red skies, the little boy and the little girl live “under the red sky”, the clouds are turnin’ crimson in “Moonlight”, the protagonist from “Things Have Changed” is looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies, and idyllically meant as well is ‘neath crimson skies in “Beyond The Horizon”. So, in itself not too remarkable, a red sky. But the choice of words is: clouds of blood.

Clouds of blood has an inescapable, lugubrious connotation that seems rather out of place in this song. The overall tenor evokes the image of a washed-out, faded-out man who, like a grey old tusker, is heavily and lonely making his last journey to the elephant graveyard. The fields have turned brown, beginning to hear voices, heart torn away, the fat’s in the fire, torn to shreds… the song lyrics offer an accumulation of images that are ambiguous enough to associate with a farewell to life. None, however, with the fatal, violent implication of clouds of blood, an image that seems to have imposed itself via William Blake.

In interviews during the nineties, Dylan often mentions his renewed fascination with William Blake, even unsolicited. “My latest thing of just reading was back into reading the William Blake poems again,” he says in a telephone interview with Stuart Coupe. “In the last couple of lines, it might just open a door for another song. William Blake could have written that,” he tells Gary Hill in San Diego in October ’93 (on “Love Henry”). Often enough, in any case, to guess that three years later, Dylan, sitting with his draft inspired next to the drumming David Kemper, is incorporating echoes of Blake lecture; The Divine Vision dimly appear’d in clouds of blood weeping, for instance (from “Jerusalem”, in which the bloody clouds drift by every few pages anyway). Or The sound of a trumpet the heavens / Awoke & vast clouds of blood roll’d, from “The Book of Urizen”(1794) – William Blake did like grand, apocalyptic settings. And iron. Iron whips, iron thorns, iron rocks, iron tears, iron arms of love, you name it. And iron chains, obviously. Lots of them. Like on the Little Boy Lost;

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain

… bound him in a cold iron chain, no doubt. Far from his friends with their laughter and their songs.

To be continued. Next up: Cold Irons Bound part 5: A very ornate, beautiful box


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. And there’s Shelley too

    Writing of “beauty and decay” in Adonais

    And of ‘sapphire-tinted skies” in Euganean Hills

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