Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 4: Gross as beetles

by Jochen Markhorst

IV         Gross as beetles

Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
’Til there’s nothing left to see, 
   ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed

Apart from the very thin link some eccentrics try to see in “Paperback Writer”’s based on a novel by a man named Lear, The Beatles only once encounter King Lear, and that really is just a happy accident. In the chaotic final phase of “I Am The Walrus”, we hear, with some difficulty, a dialogue from Act 4, Scene 5:

“If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body and give the letters which thou find’st about me to Edmund, Earl of Gloucester: seek him out upon the English party. O, untimely death! Death!”
“I know thee well: a serviceable villain, as duteous to the vices of thy mistress as badness would desire.”
“What, is he dead?”
“Sit you down, father: rest you.”

 

… and not “Paul is dead”, which is, by the way, one of the weakest arguments that the conspiracy clowns put forward as “proof” of McCartney’s death on 9 November 1966. By now we know for sure that there is no deep, hidden meaning behind the King Lear fragment. Studio engineer Geoff Emerick revealed that he and Lennon added some random radio chatter to the mix – and coincidentally, Emerick says, there was an integral King Lear broadcast on the BBC. Lennon confirms this in the famous radio interview with New York DJ Dennis Elsas, September 1974, and also reveals that he didn’t even have a clue what it was:

“I just heard a radio in the room that was tuned to some BBC channel all the time. We did about, oh I don’t know, half a dozen mixes and I just used whatever was coming through at the time. I never knew it was King Lear until somebody told me, years later. ’Cause I could hardly make out what he was saying.”

To what extent Dylan consciously incorporates his admiration for King Lear, or for Shakespeare at all, into his oeuvre is debatable. Associations are more common than in Beatles songs, in any case. From the Basement songs “Tears Of Rage” and “This Wheel’s On Fire”, lines to King Lear can be drawn, coincidentally or not, in the same scene Lear uses the expression handy dandy, the name of the protagonist of Dylan’s nursery rhyme “Handy Dandy”, coincidentally or not, and “time out of mind” is a Romeo And Juliet quote, coincidentally or not. And this third verse of “Dirt Road Blues” is, coincidentally or not, very similar to the dramatic low point in the dismantling of the poor Earl of Gloucester from King Lear. Gloucester, who after having his eyes gouged out, with bleeding eye sockets asks his son to lead him to a cliff so that he will find freedom in a leap to his death.

Coincidence probably, but still, it is a remarkable and gruesome image, bleeding eyes. Usually used to freak out the audience, in horror films and films with supernatural stuff. And occasionally poetically – as at the end of Alfredson’s magisterial 2011 adaptation of Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. When, from a distance, Jim Prideaux shoots his close friend the traitor Bill Haydon in the head with a small calibre bullet just below the eye, a single drop of blood runs like a tear down the cheek of the dying Haydon – mirroring the one single tear running down the cheek of assassin Prideaux.

In the art of song, the image is less common. Alright, since the rise of trash metal and gothic punk, of bands with names like Anthrax and Primal Scream, eyes start to bleed a bit more often, but there the image seems to be derived from, and have the same function as in horror movies; to gross out the listener. “Tears of blood” or similar word combinations to express the horror of bleeding eyes are actually rarely used in the art of song, and, moreover, hardly unambiguous. Like in Sandy Denny’s somewhat pathetic “Here In Silence”;

Morning leaves a bed of echoes,
Tears of blood in weeping meadows,
Can you see me, can you hear me,
Can you leave me here in silence?

… and even when the grandmaster John Prine uses the image (in “The Hobo Song”, 1978), he balances dangerously close to the edge of unbearable sentimentality. No, actually only the 1931 Mississippi Sheiks song “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You” expresses approximately what Dylan also seems to want to express here;

I was out this mo'nin, feelin' blue
I said-a, 'Good-lookin' girl can I make love with you?'
Hey-hey-hey, babe
I've got blood in my eyes for you

Dylan’s admiration for the Mississippi Sheiks is unquestioned. He records their “The World Is Going Wrong”, “Sitting On Top The World” and “I’ve Got Blood in My Eyes For You”, the DJ Dylan plays them three times on Theme Time Radio Hour, and in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong he is clear enough:

“BLOOD IN MY EYES is one of two songs done by the Mississippi Sheiks, a little known de facto group whom in their former glory must’ve been something to behold. rebellion against routine seems to be their strong theme. all their songs are raw in the bone & are faultlessly made for these modern times (the New Dark Ages) nothing effete about the Mississippi Sheiks.”

“I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You” is a heart-breaking song about a despondent, lonely john who in his misery tries to buy an emotional bond with a hooker but is rejected. The chorus line I’ve got blood in my eyes for you here seems to express either something like “extreme desire”, “consuming yearning” or “extreme disappointment”. Not a one-to-one congruence with Dylan’s use of bleeding eyes, but at least in the same quadrant of the emotional colour scale; utter despair caused by love suffering. In “Dirt Road Blues”, however, Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed and its continuation have the somewhat uncomfortable connotation that the protagonist doesn’t want to see something or someone anymore. The postscript, after all, reveals that “blindness” will set him free, has the unsettling implication that the narrator is unbearably haunted by images of her in his mind’s eye.

On a side note: in hindsight, it is a pity that Lennon and Geoff Emerick did not turn on the radio one minute earlier:

“The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles”

Now, that would have given the Paul-is-dead-conspiracists a field day.

To be continued. Next up: Dirt Road Blues part 5

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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:

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5 Responses to Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 4: Gross as beetles

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Oh how full of briers is the working-day world. I’m not even acquainted with my own desires” (As You Like It)

    And I’m walking on briers. I’m not even acquainted with my own desires
    (Bye And Bye)

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    **should be:
    ……..Or have acquaintance with my own desires (As You Like It )

  3. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    Gloucester’s leap of death in Lear (Dover cliff scene) is a product of the imagination. Gloucester is so blind that he can not recognise his own son, Edgar, who is able to mask his real identity in the form of ‘poor Tom’. Identity and clear sightedness (sound moral values), role reversal: clown/ madman and King/ nobility, are prevalent in Lear and the ambiguity of character and speech would have certainly been something that appealed to Dylan.
    Gloucester jumps but he cannot kill himself, which is always evident to the audience which has the same level of knowledge of the reality as Edgar. A scene which could have been comic becomes intrinsically moving as the audience are able to empathise with Edgar and his reasons for the charade. Gloucester although blind becomes genuinely aware of the intrigue which is happening around him.
    I am sure Dylan was conscious of this ambiguity and attracted to such texts. In the case of the Beatles, I am sometimes suspicious that they were just attracted to the sounds of the words.

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan may add his own twists to Shakespeare’s words that he puts in a song that can be considered a mini-play, but, yes, I agree he is aware of what he is doing.

    But there are “Dylanologists” who assert that the singer/songwriter just does the Shakespearean shuffle because it sounds good.

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    “As You Like It” is a comedy, “King Lear” a tragedy – but they have motifs in common nevertheless.

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