by Jochen Markhorst
XIII I’m hot as a bull
I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives Keep as far away as possible - it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn I turned the key and I broke it off and I crossed the Rubicon
The turn to peacefulness after the preceding wordless verse (in the revised live versions of “Crossing The Rubicon”) is not a feint; the Rubicon babbles relatively gently towards the end. No more savage eruptions like “I’ll cut you up” and “I’ll spill your brains out”, or vulgar outbursts like “suckin’ off the younger men”. The waves calm down. In the finale, the song takes a turn towards a more conciliatory tone, introduced with the humble and edifying I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives.
Words that we have already seen and heard everywhere, in the Old and New Testaments, in psalms, from Luke the Drifter a.k.a. Hank Williams up to and including Elvis and Mahalia Jackson, but now do bubble up in the poet’s mind presumably thanks to Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. We already heard an earlier echo of that unspectacular Bible book in the third verse (redeeming the time and idly spent in combination with dark days, from Ephesians 5).
In the run-up to that fifth chapter Paul writes four chapters filled with “seeing the light” and “Holy Spirit”, and along the way we also encounter a few times the message from Dylan’s second line; the message that it’s within the reach of every man. Even within the reach of Jews, as Paul conciliatory explains in detail in chapter 2. They no longer need to be “strangers and foreigners”, “for through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Culminating in the same chapter 5, in the “Children of Light” paragraph.
It all ties in peculiarly badly with Dylan’s third verse, “Keep as far away as possible – it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn”. Granted, it’s a very musical verse line, in a sought-after, tight eight-foot trochee. Not the first time Dylan has copied a rhythm from Poe’s “The Raven”, of course (a verse like As of some-one gent-ly rap-ping, rap-ping at my cham-ber door, for instance, has exactly the same, unusual trochaic octameter). But in terms of content, it is alienating; its sombre, pessimistic thrust clashes with the two preceding verse lines, with the evangelically-pleased glad tidings.
Equally strange is that the repetition-hating Dylan for the second time rhymes dawn with Rubicon (just like in stanza 1), and that the repetition-hating Dylan allows “it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn” into the song at all; after all, that’s an almost identical verse fragment as “They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn” from his own “Meet Me In The Morning” (Blood On The Tracks, 1975).
The verse, despite its technical beauty, also seems to bother Dylan himself. By the time it gets to Phoenix, the song’s live debut, 3 March 2022, the line has already been deleted and replaced:
I can feel the holy spirit inside, I see the light that freedom gives I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives The dying sun’s going down and the night is coming on
… a not too exciting, but otherwise harmless revision. The oppressive menace of the original Keep as far away as possible – it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn has been maintained in a watered-down form, but now has the poetic sheen of an ancient poem. The dying sun’s going down and the night is coming on has a somewhat stately, nineteenth-century couleur, it smells of Baudelaire, and the tone fits the third line of the coming, last stanza (“The killing frost is on the ground and the autumn leaves are gone”), another black-romantic, Baudelaire-like mood image. But above all: not as alienating as the studio version.
Dylan seems to think so too: he sings this variant from that debut on all subsequent performances in this American spring/summer tour. Except once, San Antonio, 14 March, when he sings “Seem like ten, maybe 20, years now I’ve been gone”. Clearly a mistake; that’s a line from a revised version of the sixth verse, where thirty seconds earlier Dylan had accidentally sung The dying sun’s going down and the night is coming on – he shifts gears quickly, this evening, and quickly improvises a one-time reversal of both new lines.
A little rustier, by the way, seems to be the switching speed at the fourth line, at the “refrain line” with the next links in the accumulatio. Both in the studio, and in the official publication on the site, and in all 52 performances after the debut in Phoenix, Dylan sings “I turned the key and I broke it off”. Which is a fine enhancement to the series, of course. In songwriting, turning the key is usually used as a metaphor for the opposite, for opening “the door to your heart”, “the gateway to a new life”, “the home of our love”, something like that. Use of a key, in any case, as we know it from songs like “A House Is Not A Home”, John Mayall’s “Key To Love”, Madonna’s “Open Your Heart”. And if the key is used at all to close, it is usually idyllic and romantic as well. Ray Charles singing “(Turn Out the Lights) Love Me Tonight” (We can turn the key and lock the world outside the door), Charley Pride’s “My Heart Is A House”, and the most beautiful of all: Dusty Springfield’s “Breakfast In Bed” (1969);
Don't be shy You've been here before Pull your shoes off, lie down And I will lock the door
Dylan, however, is Dylan, and he chooses a nice inversion of the cliché, thus creating a next strong link in the chain of “cross the Rubicon” equivalents. Still, at the very first performance, he seems less convinced of its beauty. What he sings there is quite unintelligible, though. It sounds like “I’m hot as a bull, took out the pills” or perhaps “I had a second look up the hill”, which of course it isn’t (at 5’41”):
Eventually it is deciphered with 99% certainty, in New York by Craig Danuloff, founder of the wonderful Freak Music Club, an on-line Bob Dylan Fan Club:… it is, as Craig hears, probably:
“Unharnessed the bull, took out the pins”
Not something you just pull out of a sleeve – it seems, like the line before it, to be a deliberate, rehearsed revision of the text. “Unharnessed” is a very unusual word in song art, and in literature at that. It is a word that you come across once in a while with Mark Twain and more often with Chekhov, and then always in a literal sense: to strip a horse of its harness. Curious, as the term is eminently suitable for metaphorical use – like here, where it indicates something like unleashing the inner beast.
All the more remarkable, as we encounter the positive, harness, often enough, both in literature and in the art of song. Dylan sang it sixty years ago along with Woody Guthrie, in his overflowing list-song “Talking Hard Work” (1944): “I held a 125 wild horses, put saddles and bridles on more than that, harnessed some of the craziest, wildest teams in the whole country”; in the 80s we sing it along in REM’s “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, one of Michael Stipe’s more Dylanesque lyrics;
Reason had harnessed the tame Holding the sky in their arms Gravity pulls me down
Or in one of the most gorgeous songs by The Pretty Things, on their somewhat forgotten 1970 masterpiece, Parachute:
Beside grey lakes of lead she's harnessed to a kneeling form, Before the storm subsides, she's flown And leaves the body torn.
… “She Was Tall, She Was High”, from the magnificent Abbey Road-like suite on side 1.
Anyway, “unharnessed the bull”. Strong metaphor, just like the continuation, whether misheard or not, “took out the pins”: charged, ambiguous and fitting in the accumulation of crossing the Rubicon equivalents – but nevertheless discarded after one performance.
The next day, 4 March 2022 in Tucson, Arizona, Dylan has felt a Holy Spirit and seen a light. Which is, as we know, within the reach of every man who lives. He turns the key and breaks it off.
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 14: I’m gonna build my house next to you
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