by Jochen Markhorst
II A benevolent appearance
The Father of a Murderer is the last book the successful German author Alfred Andersch (1914-1980) completed, just before his death. It is a short, autobiographical story (96 pages) that masterfully recounts the last lesson of Andersch’s alter ego Franz Kien at the Wittelsbacher Gymnasium in Munich.
In May 1928, the start of a Greek class is startled by the entry of “the Rex”, rector Himmler, who comes to “inspect” the class. Himmler, indeed the father of Heinrich Himmler, is a massive, terrifying presence who soon takes over the class. His secret agenda becomes clear halfway through the lesson; not so much class inspection, as clean-up. And one of the victims is the poorly performing Franz. Andersch knows how compellingly to evoke the oppression that descends on the pupils – they know that Himmler will soon call someone to the blackboard to be gutted in front of the entire class. And Himmler knows that they know – and plays with the rising fear like a cat with its mouse.
When Franz is finally called up, Himmler tells him to write down the sentence “It is deserving to praise Franz Kien” in Greek on the blackboard. Franz, a lazy and uninterested pupil comes, of course, to nothing. Himmler must help him with every letter.
“You,” judges the Rex after ten torturous minutes, “you will not qualify for the Upper Secondary.”
Franz shrugs his shoulders.
“The good thing about that is that he will then stop examining me and call someone else to the blackboard. If I’m going to fail anyway, he doesn’t need to examine me anymore.
“It is not deserving to praise Franz Kien,” said the Rex.
Cheap, thought Franz, this had to come. Only because he can invert the sentence and throw back at me he picked it out in the first place.”
It did in fact more or less play out like this with Alfred Andersch. Andersch really was a pupil at that Wittelsbacher Gymnasium as a fourteen-year-old boy and was actually expelled from school by Himmler’s father, Joseph Gebhard Himmler. But Alfred/Franz is lazy, not stupid. He is a keen observer, sees through character flaws in both his teacher and Himmler, and thinks quickly. Like he does here: “Cheap. Only because he can invert the sentence and throwback at me he picked it out in the first place.”
Franz Kien would undoubtedly think exactly the same if he heard the second verse of “Peggy Day”:
Peggy night makes my future look so bright Man, that girl is out of sight Love to spend the day with Peggy night
… the reversal from love to spend the night with Peggy Day to love to spend the day with Peggy night is, after all, as corny as you can get. Well, cheap even. “Only because he can invert the name he picked it out in the first place.”
Although it could also be a by-catch; in choosing the name for his protagonist, Dylan seems to be driven by the ambition to be as kitschy as possible. And then he comes up with a rather unimaginative combination of Doris Day and Peggy Lee, something like that. Not unfathomable; Peggy Lee is a 40s/50s icon anyway, having just returned to the spotlight with a Grammy for “Is That All There Is?” (1969), and the star of Doris Day, that other 40s/50s icon, is suddenly shining again thanks to the successful television series The Doris Day Show.
As in the opening couplet, however, the easy-going lyricist still adds some irony. Just as Dylan inserted the anachronistic “by golly” before this, he now chooses the equally alienating “out of sight”. In 1969, this is a rather fresh, hip metaphor to express something like “awesome”, ill-suited to the conservative Peggy Lee/Doris Day cut of the surrounding lines. After all, up to and including the 1950s, “out of sight” literally meant “too far to be seen, not visible”. But presumably only since 1963, since James Brown’s “Out Of Sight” (You’re more than alright / You know you’re out of sight) has it been used to describe the physical attractiveness of a lady or awesomeness in general.
Stevie Wonder then takes it outside soul circles in 1965 with the mega hit “Uptight” (Baby, everything is all right, uptight, out of sight). Admittedly, at first hearing a little awkward and unintentionally ironic when sung by the blind Stevie Wonder (who also sings “I’m the apple of my girl’s eye” a little further on), but he did not write this part of the lyrics himself. Stevie had the riff, the music and the opening words “everything is all right, uptight”, Sylvia Moy completed the lyrics.
And the Easybeats eventually spread the new, hip metaphor all over the planet with their 1967 world hit, “Friday On My Mind”;
Gonna have fun in the city Be with my girl, she's so pretty She looks fine tonight She is out of sight to me
Alienating in a very conservative country-shuffle like “Peggy Day” pretends to be, but on the other hand: Dylan also seems to be aiming for a cringe-factor, for the awkwardness that the adolescent experiences when his mother uses the wrong abbreviations in her apps and his father starts replying with memes. And Dylan succeeds, too; first the stale “by golly”, and now the hip, youthful “Man, that girl is out of sight”… a harmless dork, you’d think. But then again, so does the old Himmler appear;
“There was something sparkling, lively and now benevolent, apparently warmly affectionate in the brightly reddened face under smooth white hair, but Franz immediately had the impression that the Rex, although he could give himself a benevolent appearance, was not harmless; his friendliness was certainly not to be trusted, not even now, when he looked, jovially and portly, at the pupils sitting in three double rows in front of him.”
Franz has a keen eye. And we also know by now, since Shadow Kingdom in 2021, what horrors Dylan hid under “To Be Alone With You”, under another seemingly harmless ditty on Nashville Skyline. Who knows what will happen when Dylan reanimates “Peggy Day”.
“His tone was no longer affable. The father of the school, looking benignly after one of his classes – that was now definitely over; up there, behind the desk as if on a perch, now sat a hunter.”
To be continued. Next up: Peggy Day part 3
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