- Black Rider (2020) part 1: He must keep himself clean in speech
- Black Rider (2020) part 2: O where are you going?
by Jochen Markhorst
III A Chance Is Gonna Come
Black rider, black rider, you been living too hard Been up all night, have to stay on your guard The path that you’re on, too narrow to walk Every step of the way, another stumbling block The road that you’re on, the same road that you know Just not the same as it was a minute ago
“If Bob Dylan could go back in time, would he travel the same road, would he leave behind everything he had, to devote his whole life to music?” Sandra Jones asks Bob Dylan, in the third person for reasons that are unclear, for Belgium’s Ciné-Revue in 1978. Dylan’s answer echoes more than 40 years later in the opening lines of “Black Rider”:
“I don’t think I can answer your question with all the honesty it deserves. First, you can never rebuild the past, and that’s how it should be. So, it’s not humanly possible to answer that question. Over twenty years a man accumulates experiences, mistakes and successes. At the end of the day, he finds out that he has changed totally and that he couldn’t travel the same road again.”
Dylan does seem to be fond of it it, of the life-is-a-road metaphor. “I’m standin’ on the highway watchin’ my life roll by”, “I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe”, “Your old road is rapidly agin’”, “The way is long but the end is near”, “I can follow the path”, “Gon’ walk down that dirt road” … every record since 1962 has featured a song that uses life = a road. Dozens of times as in these examples, and in addition often enough symbolically. “Desolation Row”, “the Highway of Regret”, “Suicide Road”, Rough And Rowdy Ways, the album on which we again encounter a “boulevard of crime”, “Armageddon Street”, a “road of despair” and a “long, lonesome road”. And in this opening couplet of “Black Rider”, the song poet seems to want to thematise the metaphor itself.
At least, we do see a similar accumulatio, an accumulation of equivalents, as in “Crossing The Rubicon”, and , more so, as in “Mississippi”:
- The narrow path in verse line 3;
- Stumbing blocks on the way in verse line 4;
- The changed road in verse line 5/6
… where the Dylan fan will notice that Dylan, with every step of the way, chooses exactly the same words as the opening words of “Mississippi”. Remarkable, as Dylan has a documented aversion to repetition – but apparently his need to use the equivalents path, way and road in this verse trumps that aversion to repetition.
The state of mind of both protagonists, of the narrator in “Mississippi” and the Black Rider, is approximately similar. In “Mississippi”, the song poet chooses an accumulation of equivalents that all express distress; boxed in, painted in a corner, trapped, nowhere to escape, drownin’, and so on. The Black Rider is similarly trapped; the path is too narrow, there are obstacles in the way, the only route he knows has changed beyond recognition. But the distress seems even a degree worse than the one tormenting the narrator in “Mississippi” – this protagonist seems terrified. Well, he should be scared to death, at the very least. A suspicion which is triggered mostly by the opening line, of course; you’ve been living too hard.
Word choice Dylan chooses in other contexts to describe a fatal course of life, like when he talks as a DJ in Theme Time Radio Hour about Little Walters’ death: “He died at an early age, 38 years old. But if you see pictures, he looks closer to sixty. A hard-living man, but a great artist.” And like the famous words from the monumental song that stands on a pedestal with Dylan, and with all of us, from “A Change Is Gonna Come”: It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die.
The follow-up line, the second line of verse, hints at much the same thing. Have to stay on your guard suggests, quite clearly, that the Black Rider is threatened, and it is obvious that his life is threatened. In any case, the words echo Sir Toby’s words in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:
“So if you value your life at all, be on your guard, for your opponent has all the youth, strength, skill, and anger that god can give to a man.”
… which at first seems a bit far-fetched, but on the other hand: Twelfth Night has been a purveyor of Dylan’s oeuvre for sixty years now. Starting as early as 1963’s “Percy’s Song”, which bases the final song from the play, on “The Wind and the Rain”. A few years later we hear an otherwise empty name-check in “Highway 61 Revisited”, and conversely, directors in the twenty-first century integrate Dylan’s songs into performances of Twelfth Night. And, to complete the circle, my ship’s been split to splinters from “Mississippi” is the plot-driving catastrophe from Twelfth Night or What You Will.
Anyway: both the words living too hard and be on your guard Dylan knows and uses mainly in a fatal context, and that’s how he seems to use them here – so this black rider does indeed seem to be at the end of his life’s journey. A rather hackneyed theme presents itself. Which might explain why even a Nobel Prize-winning poet does not shy away from clichés like narrow path and the road you’re on. And who, apart from “Mississippi”, indeed seems to be haunted by “A Change Is Gonna Come”:
For what I knew was wrong Yes it's been an uphill journey It's sure's been a long way comin Yes it has It's been real hard Every step of the way But I believe, I believe This evenin' my change is come
But whether the coming change here in “Black Rider” is indeed the ultimate, final change, we will only hear and learn in the following verses…
To be continued. Next up Black Rider part 4: He lets them synthesize into a coherent thing
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
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music