Crossing the Rubicon part 6: I got my head on straight

by Jochen Markhorst

What are these dark days I see in this world so badly bent
How can I redeem the time - the time so idly spent
How much longer can it last - how long can this go on
I embraced my love put down my head and I crossed the Rubicon

In early 2007, certified Dylan fan and one of the world’s most widely read authors, Stephen King, writes a column for Entertainment Weekly in which he announces and explains his ten Top Music Picks for 2006. It’s a nice list that shows a preference for rock, “straight puke-on-your-Dingo-boots rock & roll,” as King says, for sentimentality (“If that makes you want to call me a sap, I can take it”) and country. And Stephen King also appears to have a good feeling for songs that stand the test of time. At least: “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol we still play today, just like Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, number 2 in King’s Top 10, commented on with words that still ring true:

“You could argue that Cash saved the best for last and get no disagreement from me. This is the voice of an Old Testament prophet on his deathbed, eerie and persuasive, full of power and dust and experience. The entire album (American V: A Hundred Highways) is a masterpiece, but this and ”Like the 309” are the ones I keep coming back to.”

King’s number one of 2006 is the only one on the list that is not a single song, but an entire album: The Animal Years, Josh Ritter’s masterpiece. “An amazing accomplishment,” says the Master of Horror, and he even equates an album highlight, the strange and gorgeous “Thin Blue Flame”, with Dylan: “This is the most exuberant outburst of imagery since Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” And the other song that King singles out is the perfect opening track:

“Mysterious, melancholy, melodic…and those are only the M’s. Songs like “Girl in the War” simply do not leave the consciousness once they’re heard.”

King is not the only one who in 2006 has a soft spot for Josh Ritter. In the same year, the versatile Idaho native was chosen by Paste magazine as one of the “100 Greatest Living Songwriters”. Which is already an understandable choice for the song “Bright Smile” alone (Hello Starling, 2003), but Paste has also heard “Girl In The War”, with its wonderful opening words:

Peter said to Paul
"All those words that we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go"

Also an example of that “exuberant outburst of imagery”. A reference to the Letters of Paul is not only unusual in rock music, but even in gospel. After all, these are not the most exciting books of the Bible, Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians and all those others. Many exhortations, many tiresome do’s and don’ts, a few painful slips here and there smelling penetratingly of anti-Semitism (1 Thess 2:15: “[The Jews] are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men”), a lot of redundancy (“Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good”, Rom 12:9) and little action. No, the Pauline epistles are no Ezekiel or Revelation.

But Dylan seems to have retained a few things anyway – perhaps thanks to the Bible study lessons at the time, the three-month discipleship course run by the Association of Vineyard Churches in 1979. As evidenced by this third verse, which does seem to echo the otherwise not very exciting Epistles to the Ephesians, in particular chapter 5. Therein, especially Great Truths can be found (such as the profound truth “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife,” 5:22), but in Dylan’s Rubicon of consciousness, echoes from the “Children Of Light” paragraph (5:8-21) are now apparently flooding in:

“Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. […] See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

The rather evangelical concept of “redeem” is, of course, found often enough in the Bible, and in psalms and in gospel music in general, but the combination with “time”, “evil days” and “darkness” is only found here… and in the third verse of “Crossing The Rubicon”, of course.

The verse gives a fascinating glimpse into that meandering flow in the creative part of Dylan’s brain. The song depicts the state of mind of an emotional storyteller at a crossroads in his life, and Dylan’s point of departure is probably that Little Walter riff over which he lays his lyrics. Where those echoes from Paul’s letters come from is impossible to pinpoint, but it is likely that the peculiar phrase in the opening line, this world so badly bent, comes via Little Walter, via “Dead Presidents”, the Willie Dixon song that Dylan plays in Little Walter’s version in his Theme Time Radio Hour (episode 68, Presidents’ Day);

Them dead presidents
Them dead presidents
Well I ain't broke but I'm badly bent
Everybody loves them dead presidents

Well, somewhat likely anyway. Although it is more appealing to think that Dylan is winking at the enchanting Angaleena Presley, who, in between her work with the successful country trio Pistol Annies, recorded two solo albums. The second, 2017’s Wrangled, stands out for its collaboration with greats like Guy Clark, with whom she writes “Cheer Up Little Darling”. A heartbreaking, sentimental song with an irresistible Tex-Mex flavour and the goosebumps moment when Guy Clark reports to the microphone, at the second verse:

You can't fix the world, girl, it's so badly bent
But you can help it along if you save your own skin
The first thing you do, honey, is make you a list
Of the things that you've done and the things that you've missed

It is one of the highlights of Angaleena’s Wrangled. Another is “Good Girl Down”, which Angaleena wrote with living legend Wanda Jackson. Great song, but its main merit is that, against all odds, it animates Wanda Jackson into a final burst of her impressive career. “Right around the time I retired from performing and what I thought was the end of my career, I found myself back to writing songs with some of the great writers in Nashville,” as Wanda says on the occasion of that unexpected bonus, the wonderful and moving album Encore (2021). “Good Girl Down” is track 4, a re-recording now with Wanda as lead singer and co-author Angaleena Presley on backing vocals.

I'm not just a pretty face
Not a flower in a vase
It's a man's world, and I'm a lady
And they'll never appreciate me
They don't take the time to get to know who I am
Frankly, boys, I don't give a damn
I got my head on straight

… Wanda does not let her head hang down as she crosses the Rubicon.


To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 7: Je est un autre


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:


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One comment

  1. Pilate labels Jesus ‘King of the Jews’ though no indication is given anywhere as to where this accusation comes from.

    As a secular ruler, Pilate considers Christ designated as a ‘King’ a potential political threat to Roman authority, so it’s thumbs down.

    Dylan sings, in a gospel-like manner, “that old sign on the cross worries me” …a song Tony oddly says makes no sense to him.

    Paul blames the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ.

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