Granted, the Ravages of Time have not yet had the chance to do their work, but I’m fairly sure that Crossing The Rubicon will withstand them too.
Wonderful, wonderful song. Deserves its own book(let).
www.amazon.com/dp/B0BFNZ4RDY (also available in German and in Dutch)
by Jochen Markhorst
XVII A song is a prismatic thing
On the occasion of his painting exhibition The Asia Series, Dylan is interviewed by the former Chief Curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, John Elderfield. They have spoken to each other before, and Elderfield has also written about Dylan’s paintings before, on the occasion of the so-called Brazil Series, and that has paved the way for pleasant, substantive conversations, in which a sharp and apparently relaxed Dylan feels an inclination to not only make statements about his artistic conception in general, but also to reflect on his own songwriting in particular. Including statements that some Dylanologists prefer to ignore, by the way:
“A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear. Writing songs, you are looking for rhymes that feel right—things that come to you even as you are singing. They come to you quick-like. Sometimes even in a scatological way. You don’t have time to distil meanings or ideological fallout. You want to make sure that the feeling is there, but you can create feeling out of tone, texture, and phrasing, not only words. You want to make sure that there’s camaraderie between the lyric and the rhythm. That just has to be, or you wouldn’t have much of a song. All that profound meaning stuff—that comes later. And truthfully, that’s for other people to experience. Believe me, the songwriter isn’t thinking of any of those things.”
… in which Dylan once again expresses his opinion that semantics is often secondary – something he declares at almost every stage of his career (“I’m sick of people asking what does it mean. It means nothing,” Royal Albert Hall 1966, for example, and “It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it,” Playboy interview 1966). Here, in this Elderfield interview, he expresses the same thing even less elegantly than in his Nobel Prize speech (“I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means”): “All that profound meaning stuff – that comes later.” Plus, it’s “other people” who put all that “profound meaning stuff” into it – he himself, as he implicitly says, is not that familiar with this reflex.
What is elegant, though, and to some extent enlightening, is the beginning of Dylan’s answer (remarkably, at a point in the interview when Elderfield actually tries to direct the conversation towards Dylan’s painting): “A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear.”
Faceted and not strictly chronological, Dylan seems to mean. His substantiation is not too strong, unfortunately. Interviewer Elderfield looks for a parallel between the paintings and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”. “That particular song is a one-person narrative,” says Dylan, unlike a song like “Frankie And Johnny” with all its changing narrative perspectives and time shifts. Frankie says something, Johnny says something, the bartender says something… “prismatic”. Great word, but unnecessarily complicating; the narrative perspective of “Frankie And Johnny” is rather banal; it is really nothing more than the perspective of an omniscient narrator. The camera is at a fixed point for almost the entire song, filming wide open from somewhere in an upper corner, as it were. The time shifts are jerky, but still simply chronological. There are much better examples to be found in his own oeuvre, which Dylan presumably does not mention out of modesty (“Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, with its shift from an I-person perspective to an omniscient narrator, and its non-chronological narrative structure).
Anyway, “prismatic” is an excellent, all-encompassing qualification for a considerable number of songs in Dylan’s oeuvre, and “Crossing The Rubicon” can bear that label as well. “Prismatic” in a particularly attractive variant, even; at first hearing there is only one narrative perspective, for example (each verse has the I perspective). However, at second glance, the “I” turns out to be not one person, but at least two and maybe more – multitudes contain I, as it were. The anachronistic multiplicity of references (Dante, Caesar, Wild West, Matthew and 20th century blues, to name but a few) and setting choices (winter, summer, autumn and “most dangerous month”) is another quality that can be summed up by “prismatic”, a third is the rollercoaster of emotions demonstrated by the various first-person narrators, and the many suggested narratives a final one.
In other words, there is little left of Aristotle’s age-old laws of theatre, of the prescribed and tested unities of Time, Place and Action, the principles to which we have remained reasonably faithful for almost two thousand years now. At the most, Aristotle’s functional requirement “catharsis” can, with some tolerance, be distilled from the ending, from the melancholic “Mona-couplet”, but even that would probably not qualify as a real catharsis, by the standards of the old philosopher.
No, an art historian specialising in Low Countries painters like Rubens, Breughel and Bosch probably understands “Crossing The Rubicon” better than the literary critic. “I suppose the song is like a Rubens painting – maybe Massacre of the Innocents or something – only difference is you hear it instead of see it,” says Dylan in the catalogue to that earlier painting series, The Brazil Series (2010) about “Tangled Up In Blue”. “Crossing The Rubicon” would bear a similar mirroring with a work like, say, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (painted around 1500) or Breughel’s Triumph Of Death (1562); overflowing paintings with a multitude of diverse scenes, a range of emotions and dizzying synchronicity.
“It reminded me of the Hank Williams song You Win Again,” says Dylan about one of his own paintings, Skull And Bones from The Brazil Series. Conversely, all the verses of “Crossing The Rubicon” recall scenes from the old Flemish and Dutch masters. In the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the damned cross a red, bloody river; in the left-hand panel, the Goddess of Dawn colours the morning sky rosy. Dark skies span worlds badly bent, both in Breughel’s Triumph of Death, where Death stabs his victims with a crooked knife, and in Bosch’s Hell, as in Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents. On Bosch’s middle panel, the Holy Spirit has descended and we see happiness on the hills. One finds oneself between heaven and earth, we see broken keys, buttoned coats and strapped belts, torches lit and looking to the east, we see bowed heads and prayers to the cross, Breughel paints a wagon and everywhere, with Breughel, Bosch and Rubens, all hope has been abandoned, most succinctly in the deep and lurid darkness in Bosch’s upper right.
“I would like to try my hand at marquetry,” says Dylan at the end of the interview with art historian Elderfield, “I’ve never done that. I can definitely see myself creating panels of elaborate scrolling – doing high-style inlaying work – wood mosaics, stuff like that.” This is 2011. Nine years later, Dylan records “Crossing The Rubicon”. Creating panels of elaborate scrolling and high-style inlaying work. Like a medieval altarpiece by Hieronymus Bosch.
Packed with profound meaning stuff.
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