by Jochen Markhorst
IV Red River Shore 2: The Guy Strikes Back
The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows
Redder then your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose
We have, alas, only a finite number of Tolkiens, Mario Puzos, Ian Flemings, Stephen Kings and Stan Lees, a finite number of exceptionally talented storytellers who produce filmable masterpieces. On the other hand, there is an infinite need, a demand that exceeds supply many times over. Hollywood has been solving this discrepancy for decades in an obvious way: the movie companies pay less talented storytellers to milk the master stories. And feed the insatiable market with prequels, sequels, retellings, remakes and adaptations. Which doesn’t always end badly, by the way. The Jungle Book, Apocalypse Now, The Joker, Bram Stoker’s Dracula… there are plenty of remakes and adaptations that surpass or at least match the source.
But much more often, of course, it leads to unsatisfactory, flaccid dilutions – after all, the film scripts are not written by those exceptionally talented storytellers. So the video stores are full of horrors like Around The World In 80 Days, the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur, and embarrassing sequels like Grease 2 and Blues Brothers 2000.
And then there are the failures with a golden edge: the film adaptations that disfigure the original book, but still do have something. A memorable scene, for example, or a starring role, or spectacular special effects, something like that. The Da Vinci Code is a cramped, nervous adaptation from which all the creeping tension of the book has evaporated, but in the meantime offers a breathtaking journey through Rome and its art treasures. The Hobbit is an unbearable stretch of Tolkien’s little masterpiece with added storylines bordering on sacrilege (such as the pathetic subplot involving the impossible love of the dwarf Kili and the elf Tauriel), but also has the brilliant scenes with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). And the gruesome rape of the ancient Beowulf story in 2007 (despite the script by master storyteller Neil Gaiman) has as its golden edge the music of Alan Silvestri, especially the one song sung by actress Robin Wright-Penn:
Lips, ripe as the berries in June Red the rose, red the rose Skin, pale as the light of the moon Gently as she goes
… “Gently As She Goes”, a short song with medieval allure, which perfectly hits the simplicity and elegance that takes us back twelve hundred years, to a throne room full of rough warriors at a meal while a frail damsel with a lute sings her song. With a poetic sheen, of course, through the magical, immaculate elegance of the title line gently as she goes – which apparently also touches Dylan, who then transfers it to his “Crossing The Rubicon” with a minor adjustment: gently as she flows.
It seems to be a formula that always works. Dylan’s mate Jack White scored his first hit with his hobby project The Raconteurs with “Steady, As She Goes” (2006), but the formula has been around since 1961, since songwriter Hal Shaper translated the Italian canzone “Piano” into “Softly, As I Leave You”. After Matt Monro scored his hit with it, the song quickly made its way into the canon. Andy Williams, Bobby Darin, Doris Day, Shirley Bassey… when Sinatra recorded the song in ’64 and named an entire album after it (Softly, As I Leave You, the first album to which Sinatra allowed rock ‘n’ roll, or at least pop), the song was definitely ennobled. Elvis demonstrates the inspirational power of the formula in ’75 when, introducing the song on stage, he makes up an origin story. Written, the King tells us, by a dying songwriter while his wife sat at his deathbed dozing off. He felt he was dying, didn’t want his sleeping wife to see it, and wrote these words down. “And it’s a true story.”
Hogwash, of course. Writer Giorgio Calabrese lived happily ever after writing the song, long enough to work with Charles Aznavour for years (the original of “She”, “Lei”, is also his), long enough to witness the success of “Softly, As I Leave You”, and even to outlive Elvis: Calabrese dies in 2016, at the age of 86, forty years after Elvis declared him dead. In Rome, about 300 km south of the Rubicon.
But the elegance of that gently as she flows is not the most remarkable thing about this opening line of the second stanza. “The Rubicon is the Red River,” Dylan sings, and when we hear the song for the first time, we notice “the”. And when we read the official lyrics (on the site) we also notice: “Red River”, capital letters. So it is a name. But “the” Red River does not exist – there is not one Red River, after all. In the United States alone, there are eleven. All over the world, there are hundreds of Red Rivers, Colorados, Rubicons, Ipirangas, Krasnayas, Llobegrats, and all those other variants that all mean “red river”.
Not to mention all those Red Rivers in Dylan’s jukebox. Woody Guthrie’s “Red River Valley” of course, the ancient Western song sung in the nineteenth century near the Red River of the North, the Red River that flows not so far, some 200 miles, from Dylan’s childhood in Hibbing, the song that Johnny Cash meant when he recorded “Please Don’t Play Red River Valley” in 1966. “Red River Shore” by the Kingston Trio, Guy Clark’s “Red River”, Buck Owens’ “Sweet Rosie Jones” (I met her out in Oklahoma down where the old Red River flows), Porter Wagoner’s “Where the Old Red River Flows”, Charley Patton’s “Hammer Blues” (I went up Red River, crawlin’, on a log, 1929, unfortunately only a well-worn recording exists)… well, the walking music encyclopaedia Dylan undoubtedly shakes off ten more sung-about red rivers effortlessly.
Meaning, we can hardly escape intertextuality – however desirable it may be to regard a work of art as a work in itself. But then: it’s a narrator in a Dylan song who doesn’t say something like “The Rubicon is a red river” or “Rubicon means ‘red river’”, but who says: “The Rubicon is the Red River”… seeing a link to the rejected, dusty, never performed “Red River Shore”, the brilliant Time Out Of Mind outtake from 1997, is almost inevitable. All the more so because the next line, as the only line in “Crossing The Rubicon”, sings of the beauty of a lady (“your ruby lips”), as the whole song “Red River Shore” is steeped in the desire for the girl from the Red River shore (with capitals).
Has “Crossing The Rubicon” been set up as a remake? Or as a prequel or a sequel? Something like “Red River Shore 2: The Guy Strikes Back”? Or: “Return To The Red River Shore”? Nah. Dylan isn’t a less talented storyteller who milks his own master narratives.
But still. “The Rubicon is the Red River”, capital letters….
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 5: One step from the Shadow Kingdom
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