Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 13: I’m hot as a bull

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:



  1. The line no matter how many times seemingly all round wrongly guessed at, ie
    “I harnessed the bull, took up the pill” – no ‘un-‘; no ‘pin’) -or whatever it is – doesn’t change the overall gist of the song lyrics.

    Why Jochen flips a coin and chooses one hearing thereof over others (though often reconsidered after more listening thereto) is hard to fathom ~ with no printed rendition to help, the line, as he says, is ‘unintelligible’.

    And it should have heen left at that ….

    A splattering of rotten tomatoes at this point is well deserved.

    99% certainty ??? – get out of town!(lol)

  2. Anyway, Dylan said he had no time to talk to me on the phone because he was on his way out the door to fetch his ‘hide’ from the top of the hill.

  3. On listening to a very bad tape thereof, it might be taken as hearing:

    “I had a (second ) look up the hill”

    But certainly not so on listening to a clearer tape …

    Why Jochen chose to include that example is puzzling.

  4. Excellent and credible analysis of the evolution of this verse, really enjoyed the insights. Clearly the third line “keep as far away” warranted revision as it was poetically awkward. Its “dying sun” replacement is far smoother, though less attention-grabbing. The “bull” line is interesting but I’d be sad for the loss of the “broken key” line which I love. They don’t seem equivalent. With the breaking of the key after unlocking the door, he’s entering a new realm and making it impossible for himself to turn back. A very evocative and cinematic image. With the unharnessing of the bull and removing of the pins (presumably from the gate of the bull’s pen at a rodeo or a bullfight, or maybe just a farm) he’s setting the bull free and loose to cause destruction, at the risk of its violent death at a bullfight, or perhaps the violent overthrow of the rider at a rodeo. But the “unharnessing” is curious, because a bull would be ridden with the harness at a rodeo when it’s set free from the pen, and it wouldn’t have had a harness at all at a bullfight or farm. Maybe the harness is not a saddle but just some other kind of binding of the bull while in the pen. But that is not common either. So while the unharnessed and loosed bull is also somewhat evocative, with its undercurrents of both freedom and violence, I can’t really make much literal sense of it in this context.

  5. Merci Matthew. I do share your feelings (and doubts) about these text revisions.
    Still – perhaps we’re just mishearing.
    Thanks for the kind words & groeten uit Utrecht!

  6. Yes, try as I might I could not convince myself as to what Dylan actually sings.

    Maybe Dylan was deliberately making the point that no one really knows what the real Caesar actually said before he crossed the Rubicon (lol).

  7. The evening sun is sinking low
    (Bob Dylan: Tell Old Bill)

    The evening sun is low
    (Henry Longfellow: The Village Blacksmith)

    The dying sun is going down
    (Bob Dylan: Crossing The Rubicon)

  8. Caesar could well have crossed the Rubicon over a bridge in a wagon rather than as the crossing is depicted in Romanticized poetry and art.

    Markhorst, usually more restrained in such matters, leaps overboard and gives a Dylan line as ” unharnished’ though it may be “I harnessed”, very difficult to tell.

    Expected of course, he then he gets stuck in the muck as to what the whole line might be, and goes fishing in a dry creek.

    As if to say if you don’t know the answer, make one up – hubris be damned.

    Puzzling….as it messes up an otherwise very good article.

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