by Jochen Markhorst
V A very ornate, beautiful box
Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds Reality has always had too many heads Some things last longer than you think they will There are some kind of things you can never kill It’s you and you only I been thinking about But you can’t see in and it’s hard lookin’ out I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
It is a beautiful, revealing glimpse behind the scenes that scriptwriter Larry Charles (Masked And Anonymous, 2003) gives us, when he describes one of Dylan’s working methods. It turns out that Dylan keeps hundreds of scraps of paper, in a “very ornate, beautiful box”, and on those scraps are hundreds of one-liners, ideas, short rhymes and aphorisms. He turns the box upside down onto the table, and starts shuffling back and forth – rather like William Burroughs is drawing from his Word Hoard, his collection of paragraphs, sentences and fragments of sentences from the pile of paper (about a thousand sheets) that Brother Bill, with the help of among others Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac typed away in Tangier, spring 1957. Burroughs writes his Nova Trilogy in this way, and ever since “Gates Of Eden”, or “Tombstone Blues” (1965) at any rate, Dylan has occasionally used this cut-up technique for some of his songs.
The witness to the making of “Cold Irons Bound”, drummer David Kemper, does not mention a box, but this fourth verse seems to demonstrate that Dylan can also topple that ornate, beautiful box in his head, sitting with his notepad next to the drum kit. The four stanza lines seem to be sorted together like a painter sorts his crayons; the blues to the shades of blues, the greys to the shades of grey. In terms of content, these lines have no clearly recognisable relationship, no epic quality; only the lyricism, the colour, the grey-blue mood of the protagonist, matches.
They are beautiful opening lines, lines from a Nobel Prize-winning poet. Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds is a skilful anapaestic tetrameter, the four-footed anapaest (da da dum, da da dum, da da dum, da da dum) we know mainly from Dr Seuss, Lord Byron and T.S. Eliot, and for which Dylan also seems to have a soft spot (“Where Are You Tonight?”, for example). And in terms of content, it is a stunningly rich verse that evokes a world in just ten words; it connects the cliché Windy City Chicago with urbane loneliness and despair with an admittedly somewhat showy yet heart-breaking metaphor. With as a bonus the cross-pollination of blues and bluegrass, of a blues cliché like in Bo Diddley’s “Diddley Daddy” (1955), one of the many songs in which a protagonist loses his sweetheart to the temptations of the Windy City;
I got a baby that's oh-so pretty Diddley-diddley-dum, dum, dum-diddley I found her right here in the windy city Diddley-diddley-dum, dum, dum-diddley Somebody kissed my baby last night Diddley-diddley-dum, dum, dum-diddley My pretty baby cried, you know it wasn't right Diddley-diddley-dum, dum, dum-diddley
…combined with a popular bluegrass metaphor, as in the classic “Maybe You Will Change Your Mind” (1959) by banjo legend Don Reno (The tie that binds our love, sweetheart / Was torn to shreds by you).
The continuation, Reality has always had too many heads, has at best a lyrical resemblance to the state of mind of the man being torn to shreds in Chicago, and may even have fallen out of the inner ornate, beautiful box just for the rhyme word. But the emotion fits, regardless, and it is again a wonderful, loaded image to express the dazed lostness of the protagonist. The choice of words itself is perhaps initially reminiscent of the comic scene from the beginning of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael asks the innkeeper where his as yet unknown roommate is, the stranger with whom he has to share his bed tonight. The innkeeper does not know;
“May be, he can’t sell his head.”
“Can’t sell his head?—What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?” getting into a towering rage. “Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?”
“That’s precisely it,” said the landlord, “and I told him he couldn’t sell it here, the market’s overstocked.”
“With what?” shouted I.
“With heads to be sure; ain’t there too many heads in the world?”
“I tell you what it is, landlord,” said I quite calmly, “you’d better stop spinning that yarn to me—I’m not green.”
… the comedy-of-errors-like scene in which the innkeeper fails to reveal that Ishmael’s prospective roommate is a tattoed cannibal who sells his balmed New Zealand heads, “and he’s sold all on ’em but one, and that one he’s trying to sell tonight.”
Of its comic content – obviously – nothing remains in Dylan’s lament, but for the alienating word combination too many heads the poet finds a splendid function in a oneliner that, in just seven words, contains as much richness as the preceding Chicago line. Reality has always had too many heads has an aphoristic depth that suggests that the narrator has had to learn, at the expense of his happiness, that there is never one truth, that truth lies in the eyes of the beholder. In addition, the personification of Reality has the antique elegance of a medieval allegory, and many heads echoes mythological many-headed horrors such as Hydra, Cerberus and Medusa. A richness, in short, which may not add anything to the plot of “Cold Irons Bound”, but does add to its couleur, to its universal, timeless power.
After these two hits, the poet slows down a little. The following distich still is elegant as well, but
Some things last longer than you think they will There are some kind of things you can never kill
… hardly has the Nobel Prize-worthy depth of the preceding verses. It seems to be a not too elaborate, Dylanesque improvisation on Kill Your Darlings, as shown by the weakness of settling for some things – twice even. If we are to believe Kemper, the song was recorded immediately after its conception – presumably Dylan would have sharpened these two lines a bit more, if he had let the song mature another day.
The same goes for the following lines of the verse. It’s you and you only I been thinking about elaborates nicely on the things you can never tell and on the things that last longer than you will, but is otherwise rather lazy poetry. Just like the following But you can’t see in and it’s hard lookin’ out; a dime-a-dozen antithesis from the same drawer as, but without the brilliance of poetic antitheses like in through the outdoor or the playfulness of come all without, come all within or the layered quality of I’ve been in and out of happiness and drifting in and out of dreamless sleep.
But then again: who cares. Surrounding those lesser, throwaway lines are those two shining jewels before them and the brilliance of the indestructible chorus line I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound thereafter.
To be continued. Next up: Cold Irons Bound part 6:
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