- Crossing The Rubicon part 1: A hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-fighting guy
- Crossing The Rubicon part 2: That day I’ll always remember
- Crossing The Rubicon part 3: So many things that we never will undo
- Crossing The Rubicon part 4: Red River Shore 2: The Guy Strikes Back
- Crossing The Rubicon part 5: One step from the shadow kingdom
- Crossing the Rubicon part 6: I got my head on straight
- Crossing The Rubicon part 7: Je est un autre.
- Crossing The Rubicon part 8: And let his children be fatherless
- Crossing The Rubicon part 9: For a moment they fell back
by Jochen Markhorst
X They’re written on plastic
You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood Others can be tolerant - others can be good I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon
“They’re songs. They’re not written in stone. They’re on plastic,” declares Dylan in 1991 in the SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo. He says so elaborating on his own statement that a song like “Precious Angel” is never finished. Interviewer Zollo sputters:
Zollo: “To us though they are written in stone, because Bob Dylan wrote them. I’ve been amazed by the way you’ve changed some of your great songs.”
Dylan: “Right. Somebody told me that Tennyson often wanted to rewrite his poems once he saw them in print.”
Which is true, by the way. Tennyson did indeed rewrite poems after their first publication. Greatest hits such as “The Lotos-Eaters” and “Mariana in the South”, for example, were revised, rewritten, given extra verses and whatnot ten years later, in the second edition of the collection Poems in 1842.
Dylan not only recognises the reflex; he also acts upon it. Although rarely to the extreme of revising the lyrics in the official publications (in Lyrics and on the site) – that is rather exceptional. And if he does, he sometimes even chooses to print both the original and the new lyrics (both “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” and “Down Along The Cove” are published together with an “Alternate Version”).
It is a fate that also seems to await “Crossing The Rubicon”. This sixth verse and the seventh verse are not going to last. Which perhaps explains why it takes such a suspiciously long time before the song is performed at all. On the first post-Corona tour, the 2021 US Fall Tour (2 November – 2 December, 21 concerts), “Crossing The Rubicon” is the only Rough And Rowdy Ways song not to be included in the setlist (not counting “Murder Most Foul”, for obvious reasons) – all eight other songs are played every night. When the song’s live debut finally takes place, Phoenix 3 March 2022, the first two lines of this sixth stanza are gone, replaced by the peculiar lines
Well, you foxy man, you’re the talk of the town you’ve been suckin’ off all of the younger men I trusted you once and that was more than enough, I’ll never trust another person again
The intervention changes the tenor of the song rather radically. The original opening line, You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood, confirms a scenario that was created earlier, in the second verse, with the line the blood that flows from the rose; a rape or deflowering scene. But apparently, the master dislikes it; somewhere between the recording of the song, in the beginning of 2020, and the first performance in March ’22, the defiled flower is deleted – Dylan has never sung the line on stage. After two years’ time for reflection, eight years less than Tennyson needed for his revisions.
Still too little time to think it over, evidently, as it soon transpires. The revision to the alienating, aggressive, homoerotic Well, you foxy man, you’re the talk of the town you’ve been suckin’ off all of the younger men lasts only four concerts (3, 4, 6 and 8 March), and then it is dropped as well. The last time, in Buddy Holly’s hometown Lubbock, Texas, it is toned down to You foxy man, you’re the talk of the town, you been (going) down for other men, but it is still the last time the homosexual foxy man is brought to the stage. Somewhat understandable. It smells of homophobic mockery of effeminate fag behaviour, after all. The qualifier “foxy” has, after all, been reserved for ladies for some decades now, probably since Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“Person To Person”, 1958, Bring your own fine foxy self home), and institutionalised at the latest since Jimi Hendrix’ “Foxy Lady”. Only the unforgettable Marc Bolan dared to deviate from the gender-specific format, in “Mad Donna” (1973);
I`m a foxy man, don`t you understand, Would take a rocket ship, to let me get my thighs on you. I`m gonna change Mad Donna, l`m gonna change Mad Donna, I`m gonna change Mad Donna, for you.
But then again, Marc Bolan’s trademark was a cross-sexual image, with his androgynous stage presence and the ambiguous lyrics. And it’s 1973. Anyway, Dylan does not feel comfortable with his own intervention and changes the opening line again after Lubbock. First into the more neutral Well, there’s nothin’ you got, my good man and that ought to be understood (Irving, 10 March), and then into the equally meaningless Right or wrong what can I say, what more needs to be said, which with slight deviations becomes the standard for the time being. So, in the course of the first tour with this song on the setlist, Dylan revises this one line four times:
studio, January/February 2020:
You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood
live debut 3 march 2022:
Well, you foxy man, you’re the talk of the town you’ve been suckin’ off all of the younger men
fourth performance, 8 March:
You foxy man, you’re the talk of the town, you been (going) down for other men
fifth performance, 10 March:
Well, there’s nothin’ you got, my good man and that ought to be understood
from San Antonio, the 7th concert up until the last, 53rd of the US tour, Denver 6 July 2022:
Right or wrong what can I say, what really needs to be said?
… with which the song has tilted back “safely”, to more ambiguous distances. In the “defiled flower” version, the focus tends towards a rape scenario. The turn to the foxy man who so diligently sucks off younger men opens up very bizarre vistas. And the – for the time being – definitive restructuring to the rather vacuous, but at least an ethical dilemma expressing right or wrong-wording still mirrors Take the high road – take the low, take the one you’re on from the previous verse.
At the same time, the equally unequivocal Others can be tolerant – others can be good, the next line, has been deleted. “Too unambiguous” could also be the reason why its first alternative (I trusted you once and that was more than enough, I’ll never trust another person again) has been deleted. Again a line that almost inevitably pushes the associations towards a rape scenario and, on closer inspection, has an unwelcome “defenceless victim” tone. The words do suggest, anyway, a traumatic event that profoundly changes the victim’s character, and the tone is plaintive. Not the tone Dylan is looking for, presumably.
“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.”
… engineer Malcolm Burn probably would know how to explain Dylan’s interventions. It all goes to show: they’re songs. They’re not written in stone. They’re on plastic.
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 11: A bridge crossing the Avon, Warwickshire
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