by Jochen Markhorst
XI A bridge crossing the Avon, Warwickshire
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
Butch (Bruce Willis) needs about forty seconds, in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). He has managed to free himself, knocks out the gimp with one blow, opens the curtain and walks upstairs, through the pawn shop, and opens the shop door to freedom. But down in the basement, gangster boss Marcellus is being raped by hillbilly psychopaths Maynard and Zed. Butch hesitates. Marcellus is an enemy and has a price on his head, but you wouldn’t wish this on even your enemy. Butch pushes the door shut again. He shall help Marcellus. He needs a weapon. Butch looks around behind the counter. Finds a claw hammer. No, not destructive enough. There is a chainsaw. He hesitates for a moment, puts it back. A baseball bat, a large Louisville slugger. And then he sees the perfect weapon: a samurai sword. Butch descends the stairs to the basement again, and cuts Maynard up with his crooked sword.
It was a good choice of weapon, and it took Butch 40 seconds. With Dylan, it takes a little longer, but not much longer. In the fourth verse, at 2’19”, his protagonist comes to his bloodthirsty decision (“I’ll make your wife a widow”), at 3’50” he has chosen his weapon: “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife”.
It is, like with Tarantino, an original choice. Not the choice for a knife as such, of course. Passion seems to be a driving motive here, and thanks to Columbo, Perry Mason and Derrick, by now all of Western civilisation knows the criminalistic rule-of-thumb knife = passion. Which, by the way, is really scientifically confirmed. In their study Homicides and Weapons: Examining the Covariates of Weapon Choice (2018), researchers Pelletier and Pizarro neatly prove, using an enormous mountain of data, that “relative to incidents involving strangers, family/intimate partner (β = 1.290, p < .05) and friend/acquaintance (β = 1.268, p < .001) homicides were more likely to be committed with a knife or blunt object as opposed to a firearm” – there is indeed quite a significant difference.
And we know it from the canon too, of course; Dylan’s record collection is full of knife-wielding murderers. Tom Dooley, Mack the Knife, Pretty Polly, Henry Lee… plenty of stabbers and stabbing victims. The murderers wield switchblade knives, bloody knives and jack knives, occasionally a carving knife or a butcher’s knife (in Manfred Mann’s 1975 murder ballad “Fat Nelly” for instance, the still breathtaking hybrid of lurid nursery rhyme and furious jazz rock exercise). Never a crooked knife, though.
Dylan cannot have come across too many crooked knives, and it is an attractive, if once again confusing option, that he read it with the other Great Bard, and that it then got stuck in his working memory: the last words of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 100”;
And make Time's spoils despised every where. Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life; So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife.
Attractive and confusing, as it opens the gate to a next interpretation option. Shakespeare’s sonnet personifies the Muse and bitterly reproaches her for abandoning him. To add insult to injury, she visits others (“Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song”). But after the reproaches and lamentations in the first part of the sonnet, follow the humble entreaties to return, to give the poet songs:
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem In gentle numbers time so idly spent
… remarkably, Willy the Shake uses the same idiom here as Dylan will choose in verse 3 (How can I redeem the time – the time so idly spent).
Which, combined with the placement of “Crossing The Rubicon” on the album, opens up new vistas. After all, the song follows “Mother Of Muses”, with the opening that both Dylan and Shakespeare borrow from Homer: Mother of muses sing for me, and with the closing couplet that almost organically flows into the opening line of “Crossing The Rubicon”:
Take me to the river, release your charms Let me lay down once in your sweet lovin’ arms Wake me, shake me, free me from sin Make me invisible like the wind Got a mind to ramble, got a mind to roam I’m travelling light, and I’m a-slow coming home
“Take me to the river”, “free me from sin”, “I’m travelling”, “I’m coming home”. And then, after the gap groove, we hear that the I-person “crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year” to find the Muse via the sin-cleansing purgatory… Dylan seems to be writing the introduction to a song in which the Muse is found on the other side of the Rubicon. An interpretation to which the other words of this sixth verse adjust without too much acrobatics. I’ll miss you when you’re gone speaks for itself, and the next metaphor in the accumulatio, in the series of “crossing the Rubicon equivalents”, I stood between heaven and earth, is a beautiful, poetic image for The Zone in which the poet finds himself when he has received divine inspiration.
Attractive, all in all, such a bridge being built between the sixteenth-century Father Of Muses from Stratford-upon-Avon and the Nobel Prize winner in Malibu from the twenty-first century, with that single “crooked knife”. But alas… when Dylan brings the song to the stage, March 2022, the bridge soon collapses. Dylan disposes of the murder weapon. As of March 11 (sixth concert, Sugar Land, Texas), the knife is gone, and it does not return.
However, it is not entirely clear whether literary motives are the deciding factor. Bizarrely, Dylan seems to have singing problems with the line. At the live debut, 3 March 2022 in Phoenix, Dylan stumbles over exactly this third line of the sixth verse:
I’ll rip your heart, cut your heart out with a crooked knife
… in which he probably accidentally sings “rip your heart” (studio version: I’ll cut you up) – and then quickly improvises and corrects to get “cut” in after all. So the next evening, in Tucson, he tries to avoid “crooked”:
Well, I’ll cut your heart out with a broken knife
The third concert, Albuquerque 6 March, “crooked” may return, but then seems to mess up the line after:
I cut your heart out with a crooked knife and I’ll weep on your, over you when you’re gone
… after which, at his fourth attempt, Lubbock 8 March, he is almost entirely successful:
I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife, I’ll weep over you after you’re gone
But it is a last hurrah. Irving 10 March, the fifth time “Crossing The Rubicon” is on the setlist, is the last time we hear “crooked knife” – which again seems to lead to a crumpled follow-up line:
Well, I’ll cut your heart out with a crooked knife and I’ll burn it till it’s gone
The transition to the substitute of the knife is messy. At the sixth concert, Sugar Land, Texas, 11 March, almost the entire verse has been changed. Changed beyond recognition even, replaced by a bloodless, violence-free version that will only be sung on this night in this suburb of Houston, within walking distance of the Sugar Land Prison where Lead Belly wrote his “Midnight Special”:
I bet you got nothing that I want, my good man, should be, should be clear Keep your gifts, you can take ’em all back, I got things that are just as good The evening sun is low, until it’s gone I stood between heaven and earth, and I crossed the Rubicon
… clearly improvised on the spot. No rhyming in the first lines, and forgotten is the murder. Dylan thinks so too afterwards in the bus to San Antonio. For the seventh concert, 13 March in San Antonio, the master has finally got his act together. The verse is rewritten and will remain in this form for the rest of the tour, the remaining 46 concerts:
Right or wrong what can I say, what more needs to be said I’ll spill your brains out on the ground, you’d be better off over there with the dead Seems like ten – maybe 20 – years now that I’ve been gone I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon
“Spill your brains out on the ground”… Dylan apparently put the crooked knife back after all, and went back to the second-to-final choice, the baseball bat, the large Louisville slugger.
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 12: We must find the next little girl
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