- Crossing The Rubicon part 1: A hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-fighting guy
- Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 2: That day I’ll always remember
- Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 3: So many things that we never will undo
- Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 4: Red River Shore 2: The Guy Strikes Back
- Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 5: One step from the shadow kingdom
- Crossing the Rubicon part 6: I got my head on straight
Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 7
by Jochen Markhorst
VII Je est un autre
I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage
I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age
Recording with Dylan is usually fast, says almost every hands-on expert. Session musicians, guest vocalists, producers and technicians… a refrain in interviews when asked about the experience of a studio session with Dylan is: you don’t get any time. Backing vocals are improvised on the spot (Emmylou Harris on Desire, Jennifer Warnes on “Every Grain Of Sand”), musicians are given no instructions, not even a chord progression or key, and are left to watch the master’s hands and play by ear (and, if they don’t pick it up quickly enough, are immediately sent away, as Eric Weissberg’s band on Blood On The Tracks experienced), and technicians and producers are given no warning; Dylan can start any time. Bob Johnston, the producer of Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, among others, solves this pragmatically: he places microphones everywhere and always lets the tape run.
But there is an exception. A telling, fascinating exception. We know about it thanks to Malcolm Burn, the multi-instrumentalist/engineer alongside Dylan and Lanois on Oh Mercy (1989). “Fixing a vocal part,” Burn tells in Uncut‘s interview series in 2008, following the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs, “took a lot of time getting.” And the reason for that is telling:
“Y’know if he wanted to punch in just a part of a song again. It was never about whether it was in tune or out of tune or anything like that. It would be – let’s say he’s singing a replacement line – he’d sing it and you’d try to mix it into the original track, he’d listen to it and he’d say, “Ah, nah, nah, nah. That’s not the guy.” And I’d say, “The guy?” And he’d say, “Yeah. It’s not the same guy.”
Burn understands. It is just like acting. Dylan has a protagonist, a narrator in mind, and tries to capture his character;
“So when he came to fixing up a vocal, I’d say to him: “Yeah that’s the guy.” And it would be the guy. The guy, the character he had invented for that particular thing.”
It is a more elaborate, but perhaps clearer way of expressing what Dylan has been repeating since the 1960s: je est un autre, the Rimbaud quote with which Dylan tries to make clear that the “I” in his songs is not “I, Bob Dylan” – but rather “I, some guy”. With the bulk of Dylan’s songs, that’s clear enough. “Cold Irons Bound”, “Isis”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”… songs where it’s obvious that Dylan is playing a character. But for songs where it is less clear, Dylan has to explain ad nauseam that they are not about himself. “Is that the kind of woman you’re looking for?” asks Jonathan Cott in 1978 regarding the controversial Street-Legal song “Is Your Love In Vain?”. Dylan acts surprised: “What makes you think I’m looking for any woman?”, well knowing that Cott identifies the “I” in that song with Dylan again, of course. Cott does not give up, hiding behind the transparent, hypocritical “some people think”- statement, behind which every sensation-seeking journalist hides:
JC: You could say that the song isn’t necessarily about you, yet some people think that you’re singing about yourself and your needs.
BD: Yeah, well, I’m everybody anyway.
… with which Dylan expresses that universal themes, feelings and motives can, by definition, be about anyone, including himself. It is the consistent response of the song and dance man. He said it in the 1960s, he said it in 1978, and he’s still saying it in 2020. Interviewer Douglas Brinkley (New York Times, 12 June 2020) also tries again to catch the human Bob Dylan in the songs, in this case in “I Contain Multitudes”, the opening song of Rough And Rowdy Ways. The line “I sleep with life and death in the same bed” has caught Brinkley’s ear, and he slyly asks, “I suppose we all feel that way when we hit a certain age. Do you think about mortality often?” And Dylan explains yet again that the “I” in “I Contain Multitudes” is not “I, Bob Dylan”:
“I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
… explaining, at least in part, the timeless, universal power of Dylan’s best songs, but also underlining once more: it’s not personal. I is another.
It becomes more challenging and fascinating from a dramaturgical point of view when Dylan allows several characters to speak. Sometimes it’s evident, with stage-managed roles, as in “Isis”, “Tin Angel” or “All Along The Watchtower”. But much more often it is debatable, open to interpretation, whether in a song text one or more persons are speaking – whether we are listening to a monologue or an ensemble piece.
That question flares up again here, in the fourth verse of “Crossing The Rubicon”. Until now, we have been listening to a presumably traumatised first-person narrator who seems to be pretending he is determined and bold – but who is above all characterised by, as Thoreau would say, quiet desperation. In the verse before, for instance, he asks himself no less than five questions, in increasing desperation (“how long can this go on” is the last question).
But then… the quiet desperation suddenly gives way to an aggressive, uncivilised bully with psychopathic tendencies. The change is radical. So radical that we have to wonder if this is still the same narrator. The same man who just now meekly mused about “your ruby lips”, and thought something as poetic as “going gently as she flows”, now snarls bloodthirsty things like “I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age”? Either the crossing of the Rubicon is a metaphor for a Jekyll/Hyde scenario, expressing something like “I unleashed my inner beast”, or there has been a change of perspective – the camera is now on a second protagonist, who is also referred to as “I”.
The likelihood that there is more than one antagonist argues in favour of the latter option. In stanza 2, the first-person narrator thinks of “your ruby lips”, which insinuates that the “you” is an attractive lady. In stanza 4, the narrator threatens the “you” with I’ll make your wife a widow – suggesting that the “you” is a male rival. The “I” of the first three stanzas, for example.
Well, whoever it is, it’s not Dylan.
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 8: And let his children be fatherless
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