Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 8

by Jochen Markhorst

VIII       And let his children be fatherless

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
Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon
I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon

The sudden change from gentleness to fury is not the only remarkable thing about the fourth verse. Each verse of this exceptional song has an inner tension, a clash of colours, a collision of culture carriers or conflicting associations. Like the clash in the first stanza of the very American, nineteenth-century painted my wagon with the fourteenth-century, old European abandoned all hope. Or the clash in the second stanza of the carnal (I kissed the girls) with the spiritual (I prayed to the cross). Which, for an important part, colours the fascinating, eclectic power of “Crossing The Rubicon”.

This fourth verse takes the crown, as far as that is concerned. The opening line, I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage, leads to R.L. Stevenson’s immortal masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Not only through its transcendent, substantive clash with the preceding stanza, the clash of two personas, but also through its specific image. After all, the first words that the disconcerted Dr. Jekyll chooses to describe his transformation into the enraged Mr. Hyde are:

“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness.”

… the first thing worth mentioning is apparently, just as with the transformation of the “I” in “Crossing The Rubicon”, a disturbing osteological shivering; a grinding respectively trembling in the bones. Dylan’s specific choice of words, however, brings to mind, remarkably enough, for the second time in Dylan’s oeuvre a fairly recent song (1993) by the Counting Crows;

I got bones beneath my skin, and mister...
There's a skeleton in every man's house
Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hangs on everybody
There's a dead man trying to get out
Please help me stay awake, I'm falling...

From “Perfect Blue Buildings”, from the successful debut album August And Everything After. “Bones beneath my skin” is perhaps a bit unusual in itself, but still too generic to be considered appropriation. However, elsewhere in the song we come across the beautiful line “Try to keep myself away from me”, a line that Dylan word-for-word copies to “Dirt Road Blues” (Time Out Of Mind, 1997) – which at the very least suggests that the Counting Crows song has been buzzing around the back of Dylan’s mind for almost a quarter of a century.

After this introductory, worldly opening line, the verse takes a turn towards evangelical horizons – specifically Psalm 109, the famous/infamous “Judas Psalm”, so often misused for political bullying thanks to verse 8; Let his days be few; and let another take his office. It is a psalm that celebrates its heyday among Republican politicians when Obama is president, but immediately afterwards, with the advent of Trump, becomes just as popular among Democratic colleagues. The poet Dylan does not turn off the radio, after verse 8, and also hears verse 9: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow”.

At least, it is beginning to look that way. Psalm 109 is a peculiar, rather double-hearted psalm, written by David. Moving back and forth between grovelling praise of God and quite cruel, unreasonable curses of an unnamed enemy (10: “Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places”, for example), between tame and aggressive – it is understandable that the Catholic Church finds the psalm so offensive that in 1970 it was removed from the Liturgy of the Hours.

So, it has the same schizophrenic character as Dylan’s “Crossing The Rubicon”, with on the one hand the humble requests for personal happiness (Dylan’s “Put my heart upon the hill where some happiness I’ll find” versus David’s “because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me”, for example), and on the other hand the harsh, vengeful passages directed at an anonymous enemy (David’s “so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones” versus Dylan’s “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife”, to quote just one random example). But Dylanesque, poetic beauty is just as well to be found in Psalm 109. Verse 23, for example: I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust – a verse that would fit without a hitch on Time Out Of Mind or on Rough And Rowdy Ways.

Fitting also with the biblical connotation of Dylan’s third verse, Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon. On its own this classical, grim demand would lead first of all to Diogenes, of course, the peculiar Greek philosopher († 323 B.C.) who, in broad daylight in the market square, was looking with a lantern for a “man” – a good man in sight that the sun shines down upon, as it were.

But the line does not stand alone; the tone of the preceding line pushes the associations to biblical distances, and so this search for “one good man” rather recalls that weird haggling of Abraham, when he tries to stop God from destroying Sodom. Genesis 18; when Abraham argues that God should not destroy the city if there are fifty righteous, but then neither should there be forty-five, forty, thirty, and so on until finally there is only one good man in sight, Lot, who will then be spared. A biblical connotation reinforced by the biblical choice of words; the tautological show me someone in sight and the scriptural sun shining down upon.

Nevertheless, despite that attractive biblical colouring, Dylan seems to feel some unease. The site of “dylyricus”, a seasoned fan who has taken on the praiseworthy task of keeping track of lyric variations in performances (and also letting us hear them), mentions the first recurring text change of “Crossing The Rubicon” at exactly this verse. In Phoenix, 3 March ’22, at the live debut of the song, Dylan sings instead of the one good man-line: “The summer turned to gold, and the winter chill is gone”, and similar are the words the next day, 4 March in Tucson: “The summer meadows turned to gold, well, and the winter chill was gone”, and in Albuquerque (6 March) the golden meadows seem to be internalised – there Dylan sings them again, and that’s how he keeps on singing this verse line the rest of the tour.

A remarkable change; not only are the words different, the emotional content has changed as well. The one good man line, especially in this context, breathes pessimism, the new line is pure optimism. Cheerful even, weirdly enough. Although the evangelical connotation is maintained, albeit less strong. It has a gospel colour to it. It could have been a line on Hank Snow’s religion album Gospel Train (1966), anyway. Something like “How Big Is God?”;

As winter chill may cause the tiny seed to fall
To lie asleep till wake by summer’s rain
The heart grown cold will warm
And trod with life anew
The Master’s touch will bring the glow again

But as of yet, Dylan’s lyrics have not been officially sanctioned: the official publication, on the site, still reads Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon.

And to complete the mosaic-like character of this fourth verse, Dylan fills the closing line, the refrain line, the next link in the chain of accumulatio, with an anachronistic image: I pawned my watch. Motivated, presumably, by a poetic need to achieve some kind of unity via mirroring with the previous verse, with

How can I redeem the time - the time so idly spent
How much longer can it last - how long can this go on

… and borrowed, no doubt, from Elizabeth Cotten’s immortal classic, “Shake Sugaree” (Pawn my watch, pawn my chain, pawn everything that was in my name). Or, perhaps a better candidate, Skip James’s wonderful “Drunken Spree” from 1931;

I pawned my watch, pawned my chain
Pawned my diamond ring
And if that don't settle all my drunken spree
Lord, I'll never get drunk again

But the main by-catch of that quirky I pawned my watch is that it contributes to the eclectic nature of this wonderful stanza. Which, to top it off, gets a final extra facet with the closing I paid my debts, words we have been associating with Last Words since the death of Socrates (“Crito, we owe a cock to Asklepios; pay him, don’t forget,” 399 B.C.).

David, The Counting Crows, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Socrates and Hank Snow… in one verse, four lines, Dylan spans thirty centuries, Bible and nineteenth-century literature, gospel and rock, Socrates and Skip James. The song sure crosses many a river.


To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 9: For a moment they fell back


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. Hank Snow also sings “Down At The Pawn Shop”…’they got my watch’ ….

    Of course, you must realize by now that almost every song that Dylan does is merely an expansion on a song performed by a Maritimer

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