by Jochen Markhorst
II That day I’ll always remember
I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year
It is a popular way to open a story, or – as in Dylan’s case – to merely suggest an epic writing: the exposition, the opening according to the classic formula who-where-when. Not only for fairy tales, but also for films, novels and short stories. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York,” as Sylvia Plath in 1963 opens her The Bell Jar. Kafka’s “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” (Metamorphosis, 1915) and Don Quichote opens in 1605 with “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago.” And the best, the most wonderful of them all: “Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders,” although that is not actually the very first opening line of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), of course.
In sung narratives, in ballads, it is even more common – time and space are simply much more limited than in other art forms, so the writers often choose to get the necessary exposition, the who-where-when, over with as quickly as possible so that they can start with the what, how & why, with the story itself. After all, suggesting authenticity increases the attraction and tension, and can be achieved through detailed geolocation, for example, whether fictional or not. “Twelfth Street and Vine”, “56th and Wabasha”, “Rue Morgue Avenue”, “where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog”, “Bagby and Lamar”… Dylan himself has also felt the special power of precise location for over half a century.
The same applies, even more so, to the when. The choice of a date, then, not only works more authentically than, say, “once upon a time”, but has also, for all its factuality, a poetic, almost mysterious power. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” is, of course, by itself an off-category song, but its brilliance would have been less without the magical opening “It was the third of September”. The same goes for remarkable songs like Arlo Guthrie’s “Darkest Hour” (It’s the tenth of January) or the Bee Gees’ “Odessa” (Fourteenth of February , eighteen ninety nine), and monuments like “Isis” (I married Isis on the fifth day of May) and “Ode to Billie Joe” (It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day)… all extraordinary songs that gain poetic lustre by opening with something as dry as a date.
But Dylan is Dylan, the poet that Joan Baez so aptly defined back in the 70s with “You who are so good with words and at keeping things vague” (“Diamond And Rust”), and he once again confirms Joan’s analysis with the brilliant opening line of “Crossing The Rubicon”: I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year.
The beauty of the verse line is mainly due to the embedded duality, of course. Ostensibly, the opening line offers a classic exposition, yet it gives nothing away. We do not know who the “I” is, the “where” is only a metaphor and the “when” is agonisingly unclear in its suggested clarity; no one knows which month is the “most dangerous month”. Or rather, depending on your perspective, any month qualifies for “most dangerous month” – sailors between Micronesia and Japan dread September (an average of four typhoons); health insurance companies see a pneumonia spike in March every year; the California traffic police know that August is the most dangerous month. In short: just as in his Very Great Songs, songs like “Shelter From The Storm” or “Visions Of Johanna”, the poet, through word choice, only suggests a narrative, only insinuates an epic – but in fact reports nothing more than that some anonymous I-person in an undisclosed place at an unclear moment has made an unknown, but apparently far-reaching decision.
Presumably, the by-catch amuses the elderly, playful poet Dylan. Predictably enough, all analysts, reviewers, professional Dylanologists and amateur interpreters bite. A disappointing large faction of them clicks through to Wikipedia, soon finds the historical source of the phrase to cross the Rubicon, and reports, usually with some misplaced triumphalism, the finding that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon not on a fourteenth day, but on January 10. Even such a highly respected and intelligent Dylan interpreter as the author of the brilliant Dylan book Why Dylan Matters, Professor Richard F. Thomas, in his wonderful, very readworthy essay “And I Crossed the Rubicon”: Another Classical Dylan (Dylan Review, 2020), devotes a great many words (some 900, almost half of the entire essay) to solving the date puzzle. For, “As always with detail in Dylan, there is a reason, here making us confront the puzzle.” Unfortunately, Prof. Thomas then allows himself to be partly led by the somewhat naive starting point of taking “Rubicon” literally, of seeing “Rubicon” as a concrete, historical and geographical indication. And then keeps on meandering around Julius Caesar again:
“But the 14th was also the eve of what for Julius Caesar was emphatically the most dangerous month, March, whose Ides of course fell on the next day, his death day.”
Why it should be relevant that 14 March is the eve of Caesar’s death on 15 March is completely unclear, apart from the fact that “most dangerous” would be a very poor, Dylan-unworthy choice of words to describe someone’s death month. And apart from the peculiar reflex to take a metaphor literally – that’s like poring over old weather reports in the archives to locate when and where a hard rain has a-fallen or trying to find Desolation Row in the New York street directory.
Anyway, the professor is certainly not the only one who gets carried away by the historical background of “Rubicon”. In the apparent belief that Dylan would have a childlike tendency to hide some secret meaning behind cryptic clues, which can be solved with the help of the chapter on code-cracking in the Junior Woodchuckers’ Guidebook, or something like that. Which, by the way, is a very popular belief; after all, cryptanalytic interpretation has been the most flourishing faculty of Dylanological studies worldwide for sixty years.
More obvious, and also less spectacular, however, is the observation that the expression crossing the Rubicon is used in the way we have all been using it for twenty centuries now: metaphorically. The premise that the lyrics are lyrical, not epic, is not too bold either. The song seems mainly to want to express the state of mind of a distressed protagonist who has just made an existential decision. An epic-suggesting exposition such as this opening line enhances the couleur and, moreover, is a strong attention grabber – it is quite unlikely to be a cryptic masking of some biographical fact.
And well, if you insist on finding a month to go with this “14th day of the most dangerous month”: in Dylan’s inner jukebox, there are two records with a “14th day”. Both quite prominent. Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Storm Disaster” is furthest in front, the song that was etched in Dylan’s memoria musica sixty years ago;
On the 14th day of April of 1935, There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
And somewhere near there is undoubtedly Blind Willie Johnson with his “God Moves On The Water” from 1929;
Year of nineteen hundred and twelve, April the fourteenth day Great Titanic struck an iceberg, people had to run and pray
… both opening lines, as it should be. Both marking a most dangerous event, the latter on the same day that Dylan himself has already named in his own Titanic song, in “Tempest” from 2012 (‘Twas the fourteen day of April / Over the waves she rode). For the Titanic sank on the fourteenth day of the month which, if not the most dangerous, is at least, as we all know, the cruellest month.
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 3: So many things that we never will undo
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
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master