by Jochen Markhorst
IX And there will be nothing new in it
Gonna walk down that dirt road ’til everything becomes the same
Gonna walk down that dirt road ’til everything becomes the same
I keep on walking ’til I hear her holler out my name
The sung version, remarkably, offers a kind of opposite form of oblivion compared to the published final couplet. “Til everything becomes the same” is a terrifying prospect for the future, although it seems as if a sardonic David Byrne is trying to sell it as Paradise: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens,” says the refrain of one of his most beautiful songs, “Heaven” from one of Talking Heads’ most perfect albums, Fear Of Music (1979). However, it turns out to be a multi-layered wordplay in the category of “My name is Nobody” and “Who’s on first”;
Everyone is trying to get to the bar The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song They play it once again, they play it all night long
No, the place where everything becomes the same is in all cultures and story variants a poetic representation of Hell or else a diabolical punishment. The 49 daughters of Danaos are forever filling the bottomless barrel of the Danaids, Sisyphos has to push a boulder up a mountain in the Tartaros until the end of time, and a bit down the road Tantalos suffers perpetually from hunger and thirst while standing in a pond of crystal-clear water up to his chin. And that is just Greek mythology.
In Dante’s Inferno it is not much different; most of the punished are in a loop of everything is the same, have to undergo an eternal repetition. The greedy and profligate constantly and aimlessly move the heavy stones that symbolise their former earthly possessions, the jealous helplessly suffer in an everlasting cold rain and hail, in the Fifth Circle the aggressive ones fight each other ceaselessly until the End of Time, and so on.
It all inspires Friedrich Nietzsche in August 1881 to write his famous Aphorism 341, “The Greatest Weight”, which he publishes in The Gay Science in 1882:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?
… and which eventually inspires Harold Ramis to film the classic Groundhog Day (1993). Although, strictly speaking, not everything becomes the same there; the cynical weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) does relive the same February 2 in a seemingly endless time loop, but he himself fills each day differently – he learns to play the piano, picks up foreign languages, commits thefts and has one-night stands, learns from his mistakes and becomes a different person. The denouement, however, does have a similarity to Dylan’s plot. It will finally be February 3, Phil is finally redeemed: by the love of a woman.
Apparently, the narrator from “Dirt Road Blues” hopes for a similar redemption. He will keep walking until everything has become the same, and then keep walking ’til I hear her holler out my name. Already quite classic; identical, for instance, to adaptations of The Flying Dutchman, such as Heine’s fictional report in Memoirs of the Herr von Schnabelowopski (1833) and especially Wagner’s opera (1843), in which the Dutchman is indeed cursed to try to round the Cape of Good Hope until the End of Time, but in which he can be redeemed: by a woman’s love to the death. Which Wagner, of course, handles quite dramatically and literally; Senta tears herself loose from the arms of the men who try to stop her and throws herself off the cliff, hollering out:
Preis' deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh' ich, treu dir bis zum Tod! (Praise your angel and his words! Here I am, true to you till death!)
Or the queen who can save her son if she says the name of Rumpelstiltskin, or all those other stories from different cultures that attribute magical powers to the mere knowing or mentioning of a name. Jehovah with the Jews, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named with Harry Potter, the many pseudonyms we invent to avoid having to pronounce the name of the Devil.
The Dark Romantic, Gothic version then suggests that Dylan’s narrator is pursuing a slightly macabre afterlife experience, much like the aggressive climax on The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat (1968), in the trashy garage sale “I Heard Her Call My Name” (produced by Dylan producer Tom Wilson, by the way);
And I know that she's long, dead and gone, Still it ain't the same. When I wake up in the morning, mama, I heard her call my name.
… in other words, the murder-ballad variant, the scenario in which the narrator has murdered his beloved in that one-room country shack, and is now doomed to be on the run forever ’til everything becomes the same.
All in all, then, this final couplet of “Dirt Road Blues” offers an opposite plot to the published version; in Lyrics, the narrator opts for total isolation and oblivion, for a hideaway right beside the sun, a life behind a barrier to keep myself away from everyone. In this sung version, however, he can be rescued from the eternal sameness by communication, by interaction: when the woman he loves also loves him and calls his name.
Richard Wagner would undoubtedly have chosen this variant.
To be continued. Next up: Dirt Road Blues part 10
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
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang