- 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
- Crossing The Rubicon part 10: They’re written on plastic
- Crossing The Rubicon part 11: A bridge crossing the Avon, Warwickshire
- Crossing The Rubicon part 12: We must find the next little girl
- Crossing The Rubicon part 13: I’m hot as a bull
by Jochen Markhorst
XIV I’m gonna build my house next to you
Mona Baby, are you still in my mind - I truly believe that you are Couldn’t be anybody else but you who’s come with me this far
The unforgotten Joe Strummer sings her, just before his death 22 December 2002, in the opening track of his best record in years. Streetcore (2003) is the last album by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Strummer’s last band after The Clash, The 101ers and The Latino Rockabilly War, and is actually unfinished; Strummer dies unexpectedly, just fifty years old, of a heart attack halfway through the recordings. Most of the vocals are therefore first takes (there are no more), and in one song (“Midnight Jam”) the vocals have not even been recorded yet. Perhaps also because of this, because of its unpolished nature, Streetcore is Strummer’s strongest, purest album since The Clash’s 1979 masterpiece London Calling. Highlights include the song Strummer wrote for Johnny Cash, “Long Shadow”, the acoustic Bob Marley cover “Redemption Song” and the closing song, the gorgeous, heart-breaking “Silver And Gold”, a re-titled cover of Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old” with Strummer’s last words: “I’ve got to hurry up before I grow too old” (before we hear him say goodbye with “Okay, that’s a take”), and strongholds are, apart from the dirty rock band and the leaden reggae rhythm section, Strummer’s lyrics, Dylanesquer than ever. Like in “Get Down Moses”;
Once I got to the mountain top, everywhere I could see Prairie full of lost souls running from the priests of iniquity Where the hell was Elijah? Well, what do you do when the prophecy came was true?
… which sounds like a forgotten outtake from Dylan’s Infidels.
The album opens strongly, too, with the song sounding like a lost Clash outtake, and also giving a fat nod to Dylan:
As the nineteenth hour was falling upon Desolation Row Some outlaw band had the last drop on the go Let's siphon up some gas, let's get this show on the road Said the Coma Girl to the excitement gang
“Coma Girl”, which after just 3 seconds, when Joe starts singing, ignites crushing Clash nostalgia in every baby boomer and the entire Generation X. It’s a catchy ode to the ferocious Coma Girl, the leader of the motorcycle gang, who happens to be called Mona. So the final refrain is:
Mona, baby Mo-Mona, baby (dulang, dulang) Mona, baby Mo-Mona, baby (dulang, dulang)
Dylan is a fan. In 2005 in London, he plays “London Calling” twice, both times as the opening of the encore, he writes an essay on the song in 2022’s The Philosophy of Modern Song, and as a DJ he plays four songs by The Clash in Theme Time Radio Hour: “This is Radio Clash”, “Tommy Gun”, “Train In Vain” and “The Right Profile”, even announcing the band as “Joe Strummer and The Clash”. And the last time he plays a Clash song (December 10, 2008, Ep. 85, Famous People, “The Right Profile”), the DJ says: “We don’t have to tell you about the group that’s playing the song – we all know about The Clash.”
It would be nice if The Rubicon‘s Mona Baby were a salute to the only Mona, baby in Dylan’s record cabinet, Strummer’s Mona, baby from “Coma Girl”, but that’s probably a bit of a stretch.
The tenderness “baby” appears 273 times in the official collection, in Lyrics 1962-2012. The book collects the lyrics of 390 Dylan songs, so it is not complete; the counter on Untold Dylan now stands at 627 Dylan songs. Lyrics ignores, for instance, songs that were a one-off, such as “I’m Not There” and “Wild Wolf”, of which we have only low-quality recordings from The Basement with rather unintelligible vocals; outtakes like “Western Road”, “Fur Slippers” and “Jet Pilot”, outtakes of which it is not entirely clear why they are ignored, as opposed to others which are not; and songs Dylan wrote together with Helena Springs, such as “More Than Flesh And Blood” and “If I Don’t Be There By Morning”.
The official site bobdylan.com does list 703 titles, but among them are a few hundred covers. Some of the ignored outtakes are mentioned, and even link to their own page, but that page is then empty (like “Fur Slippers” and “Too Late”, to name but two of the many examples). Most of the 237 songs that do exist, but are not included in Lyrics, are not on the official site either.
Anyway: if we apply fuzzy statistics for the sake of convenience, and simply extrapolate, we can roughly put the number of times Dylan uses the word “baby” in a song at 438. Not exceptional, of course. Statistics do not exist, but it is safe to assume that the frequency of the word “baby” in Dylan’s oeuvre is rather below average, compared to, say, Springsteen or Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards.
What is exceptional, though, is the use of capitals. In the only official publication of the lyrics of “Crossing The Rubicon”, on the site, Baby is capitalised. Exceptional, because of all 438 babies in Dylan’s oeuvre, this Mona is only the fifth baby to be capitalised;
- And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
- Nobody has to guess / That Baby can’t be blessed (“Just Like A Woman”)
- Angel Baby, born of a blinding light ( “Tough Mama”)
- Sugar Baby get on down the road (“Sugar Baby”)
- Mona Baby, are you still in my mind
There does not seem to be a system. The Baby from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is clearly a pet name. In “Just Like A Woman”, it seems to be a private nod to the socialite Baby Jane Holzer, who happens to be in Dylan’s circle in those days (she’s also the “Baby Jane” in Roxy Music’s first hit “Virginia Plain”, 1972). The lady who gets the qualification “Tough Mama” is consistently capitalised (not only as Tough Mama but also as Dark Lady, Shady Lady and Angel Baby), presumably as a tribute, reverentially, to graphically represent the divinity of the beloved. And “Sugar Baby” gets its capital letters in all likelihood out of respect for one of the progenitors of the song and of the album “Love And Theft” (2001) at all, Dock Boggs’ landmark “Sugar Baby” from 1927.
The Baby in this last Rubicon stanza, which appears to be a common affectionate addition only by ear, does not really fit into any of the four categories seamlessly. Spelling and punctuation (no comma) are simply that of a first name + last name. Which opens the gateway to finding connections with earlier Monas in Dylan’s songs – the Mona from “To Ramona”, Mona Lisa with the highway blues from “Visions Of Johanna”, the Mona who warns the narrator about the railroad men in “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”, the Mona who stands before a harsh judge in “I Wanna Be Your Lover”… choice enough, and who knows, one of them might be a candidate for the Mona Baby from “Crossing The Rubicon”, the Mona Baby that many, many years later is still on the narrator’s mind – to his own amazement.
Or: the use of capitals and the absence of a comma signal a title. Which is a more probable possibility, considering Dylan’s oeuvre; references, paraphrases, quotations and bows to songs are much more common than cryptic references to the private worries of the man behind the songwriter.
On that front, Monas in songs, there is plenty of choice, of course. Even when leaving aside the hundreds of songs in which a loved one is compared to the Mona Lisa, “Mona” is a name with a sound combination that lends itself well to being sung – like “Lola”, “Laura”, “Carol”, “Donna”, “Sharona”, “Rosanne”… the o/a combination simply is euphonious. Dylan probably also knows Waylon Jennings’ “Mona” (1974), and certainly J.J. Cale’s enchanting “Mona” from 1979. But deepest under his skin, of course, is Bo Diddley, the giant who helped polish the sound of Rough And Rowdy Ways, and whose “Mona” was put on a pedestal by the Stones, was melted down by Buddy Holly into “Not Fade Away”, and in the twenty-first century is one of the five Diddley songs on DJ Dylan’s playlist:
“There’s Bo Diddley, cracking the Mona code. Written about the famous painting The Mona Diddley. Tell you Mona what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna build my house next to you. “Mona” – a name that’s derived from the Irish, which means: little noble one.”
(Theme Time Radio Hour Ep. 35, “Women’s Names”)
To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 15: Today and tomorrow and yesterday too
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