by Jochen Markhorst
I The closer I get, the farther away I feel
“I knew I should have taken that left toin at Albukoykee,” Bugs Bunny usually says, when he has gone a million miles off course again and consults the map. Which tells us that Bugs certainly didn’t intend to follow Route 66 – that one goes straight through Albuquerque and on to Los Angeles. A second claim to fame is the exceptionally successful TV series Breaking Bad, the saga about chemistry teacher Walter White who, in order to pay his hospital bills, becomes the most powerful drug dealer in the US Southwest. The success of the series seems to have given tourism to the city an enormous boost. And in Dylan circles, the city gets a third tick because of Scott Warmuth.
Goon Talk is the name of the wonderful blogspot of the admirable Scott Warmuth from Albuquerque. The site publishes results with academic quality of Warmuth’s search for sources of Dylan’s work and sparks for Dylan’s inspiration, and describes those results in clear prose, always down to earth, avoiding sensationalism. Beyond this site, the New Mexican continues his work on Twitter; to this day Warmuth finds and publishes sources of verse fragments, of passages from Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles, and templates of Dylan’s paintings (almost always film stills). These sources are as colourful as Dylan’s oeuvre: a 1961 Time magazine, Baudelaire, revue texts from the nineteenth century, Coen Brothers films, Jack London, non-fiction travel guides and historical studies, Doc Pomus and Willie Dixon.
Warmuth’s groundbreaking work is not everywhere received with the same enthusiasm. There is a whole cohort of devout fans for whom it is intolerable that Dylan is not a divine genius who steadily manages to create something out of nothing. And then post unintelligent reactions to give vent to their indignation. With ‘counter-arguments’ like “C’mon!” and “This is all a bit silly” and “idiotic”, and for some reason these displeased fans also have a tendency to write in capitals. Fortunately, it does not deter Warmuth.
A special chapter in Goon Talk‘s fascinating series of articles concerns the remarkable multi-talent Henry Rollins. The all-round workaholic Rollins became famous as a punk rock singer, he is a successful and good actor, a regular columnist for Rolling Stone Australia and LA Weekly, wins a Grammy Award for his autobiographical Get in the Van (1994) and publishes remarkable collections of poems or diary-like short stories. In these, in books such as Black Coffee Blues and See a Grown Man Cry: Collected Work, Warmuth finds a wealth of paraphrases, whole and half quotes, and sparks of inspiration for Dylan songs, mainly from the period 1997-2001, as well as for Chronicles.
Especially for Time Out Of Mind, Rollins seems to be a purveyor, as Warmuth demonstrates quite convincingly. Rollins traces can be found in no less than eight of the eleven songs, as well as in the outtakes “Mississippi” and “Dreamin’ Of You”. The only songs that seem to be Rollins-free (as far as we know) are “Love Sick”, “Not Dark Yet” and “Make You Feel My Love”. All other songs contain similarities that transcend coincidence. Copied fragments of verse like You can’t come back, not all the way and I have nothing for you, I don’t even have a self for myself anymore (transferred almost unchanged to “Mississippi”), or “I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat / Somebody just asked me if I registered to vote” from “Highlands”, a sum of two parts found by Warmuth in two Rollins books. Or the sentences Now if you think you lost it all, you’re wrong. You can always lose a little more, which Dylan slightly reworks for “Tryin’ to Get To Heaven”. I hear voices when no one is around that becomes the opening line for “Cold Irons Bound”…
These are just a few examples. There are dozens, which is too many to be attributed to coincidence anyway, but usually also so idiosyncratic that any doubt about Rollin’s significance as a source of inspiration can be ruled out. This also applies to the fragments Warmuth recognises from “Million Miles”. In Black Coffee Blues, he first ticks off I love dreamless sleep. Dreams tell me too much, which takes him to the opening of the third verse:
I’m drifting in and out of dreamless sleep Throwing all my memories in a ditch so deep
… which in itself is not too specific. But on the same page we also read: Slowly I am forgetting them and their mind polluting words. And that is quite specific;
Well, there’s voices in the night trying to be heard I’m sitting here listening to every mind-polluting word,
… far too specific, in any case, to ignore the connection with the opening of Dylan’s last stanza – which, in retrospect, also elevates that dreamless sleep on the same page to “borrowing”.
Fascinating, but ultimately these are merely idiomatic details. More serious is Warmuth’s more daring observation. In that same Black Coffee Blues, he finds, twenty pages before that dreamless sleep and the mind-polluting words:
“The next song I wrote was about the distance I felt when I thought about that girl. The song centered around the lines, “The closer I get, the farther away I feel.” I was thinking that all the time I was with her, I worked hard to put that out of my mind. Romance passes the time.”
Warmuth goes searching and does indeed find the song whose genesis Rollins describes here: “Down And Away”, a trashy, riff-driven metal song on the Rollins Band’s second album, Hard Volume from 1989. Rollins does indeed incorporate those key lines, in the second verse:
There's an ego followin' the way I feel The closer I get, the farther away I feel I can't get in and I can't get out Why don't you touch me so I can feel it
Further on, that one line The closer I get, the farther away I feel, like a refrain, is repeated four times, then the band switches back to half-speed, and heavy and droning, mantra-like, Rollins shouts the line four more times. He is, apparently, quite content with its dramatic power. And Dylan might be too, Warmuth speculates. After all, the chorus line of “Million Miles”, I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you, expresses exactly the same thing in a similar idiom. Dylan chooses a poetic exaggeration (farther away becomes a million miles), but still: the sentiment is the same.
“I suspect,” Warmuth writes, “that Dylan read that passage and considered that to be a good theme for a song, and that that passage very well may have been one of the sparks that led to Million Miles”. And that is a proposition more exciting than all the paraphrases, quotations and borrowings put together; the proposition that one single sentence in Rollins’ work can be the spark for an entire Dylan song suggests that we can see the workings of the creative mind of a Nobel Prize-winning poet. Which may actually lead us to hope for the answer to the Mother of All Questions: What’s up, Doc?
To be continued. Next up Million Miles part 2: They kind of write themselves
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