by Jochen Markhorst
IV He lets them synthesize into a coherent thing
Black rider, black rider, you’ve seen it all
You’ve seen the great world, and you’ve seen the small
You fell into the fire, and you’re eating the flame
Better seal up your lips if you want to stay in the game
Be reasonable mister, be honest, be fair
Let all of your earthly thoughts be of prayer
A change does come in this second verse, but for the time being for the worse; the suggestion suddenly becomes that the Black Rider is the blackest of all: Satan himself. At least, that’s what the second and third verse lines really seem to insinuate. You’ve seen the great world, and you’ve seen the small is an echo of the words with which Mephisto announces Faust‘s entire arc of action. After Mephisto’s first attempt to infiltrate Faust’s household fails miserably, he makes himself known as the Devil, with the usual detours (“I am the spirit that denies”, “Destruction is my original element”, “Part of the part am I, which once was all”, and a few more such cryptic hints), but then gets to the point fairly quickly: he wants Faust’s soul. They agree on the terms, and then Faust asks:
Which way now shall we go?
Which way it pleases thee.
The little world and then the great we see.
O with what gain, as well as pleasure,
. Wilt thou the rollicking cursus measure!
… so, the little world and then the great world, it shall be – the same route that the Black Rider has travelled, according to the narrator. In Faust I, the setting is then the small world, the here and now, with a relatively manageable radius of action – Faust and Mephisto move roughly between Leipzig and the Brocken in the Harz, so some two hundred kilometres all in all. We get to know the great world in Faust II. Boundaries of time and space no longer exist; Faust and Mephisto are in Ancient Greece, in a dream world, at the court of a medieval emperor, crisscrossing Europe.
And the next line, You fell into the fire, and you’re eating the flame, doesn’t really contradict the suggestion that the Black Rider is the Devil himself. Well, “fallen into the fire” fits, at the very least, Lucifer’s fall from grace, out of Heaven, straight into Hell, “so I brought fire out from your midst; it consumed you, and I turned you to ashes on the earth in the sight of all who saw you,” as God says it, flowery as ever, in Ezekiel (28:18). You’re eating the flame, however, is a less recognisable image. Remarkably, Dylan himself used it once before, more than 50 years ago:
Too much of nothing Can turn a man into a liar It can cause one man to sleep on nails And another man to eat fire
… in one of the Basement highlights that is, in “Too Much Of Nothing”. Apart from the wondrous content, it is notable that Dylan is now repeating himself for the second time: after the “Mississippi” quote in the opening verse, now a Basement paraphrase in the second verse.
It is a somewhat bizarre image. In “Too Much Of Nothing” we can deduce from the context that it should be understood as an expression of despair, and in the canon, we really only know it that way as well: Portia’s gruesome suicide from the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (“she fell distract and, her attendants absent, swallowed fire”) – there are not many more examples of eating fire.
Quite a lot of examples of the opposite, of course. Tragic heroes consumed, eaten, devoured and extinguished by fire – we know hundreds of examples thereof. An “ordinary” playful inversion of the cliché, however, it doesn’t seem to be – there is, in any case, no illuminating continuation, not one that builds on this alienating image, or a mirroring of catachreses, as we know from 1960s songs like “Stuck Inside Of Mobile” (the post office has been stolen / and the mailbox is locked) or ” Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” (your sheets like metal and your belt like lace).
The other obvious association is equally incomprehensible, although Dylan sings about that significantly more often than about bizarre suicides;
Th’ iron horse draweth nigh, With his smoke nostril high; Eating fire as if grazing, Drinking water while he’s blazing; Then his steam forces out, Whistling loud, “Clear the route”
… the fire-eating black rider that is the steam locomotive. Which is closer to Dylan’s heart, and old-fashioned train songs like this nineteenth-century “The Utah Iron Horse” are bound to be found in Dylan’s jukebox too.
Anyway: the last lines of this verse torpedo the last attempts to distil a narrative or a coherent portrayal from the lyrics. Better seal up your lips if you want to stay in the game are not words anyone can say to Satan, nor to a steam locomotive. “Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum” are Hume’s words in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II and have a certain notoriety because it is often incorrectly identified as the origin of the expression mum’s the word (mum has nothing to do with “mother”, but is “an inarticulate sound made with closed lips” according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
Be reasonable mister is a cliché that appears in dozens of film noirs, westerns and hard-boiled detectives, and the concluding Let all of your earthly thoughts be of prayer is utterly alienating again. Tone and content are derived from archaic, Puritan edifying literature popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The tone of religious hymns or evangelical poetry, usually written by pastors’ wives or old maids. Writers in whose biographies you always come across concepts like “Christian piety,” “purity” and “honest simplicity”. Like Eliza Lee Cabot (1787-1860) and one of her greatest hits, her hymn to the Lord’s Day, which opens with:
Sabbath Day How sweet, upon this sacred day, The best of all the seven, To cast our earthly thoughts away, And think of God and heaven! How sweet to be allowed to pray Our sins may be forgiven!
On the whole, it is beginning to look very much like Dylan has opened his ornate, beautiful box once again. The box we know about thanks to the loose tongue of screenwriter Larry Charles, who has worked with Dylan a few times. In Pete Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird, Charles revealed in 2015 that Dylan has a box, filled with pieces of written paper, which he occasionally turns over on the table:
“It was hotel stationary, little scraps like from Norway, and from Belgium and from Brazil, you know places like that. And each little piece of paper had a line […]. I realized, that’s how he writes songs. He takes these scraps and he puts them together and makes his poetry out of that. He has all of these ideas and then just in a subconscious or unconscious way, he lets them synthesize into a coherent thing.”
… to which Larry Charles, however, still notes: “He lets them synthesize into a coherent thing.” But what holds “Black Rider” together, what exactly makes it a coherent, unified whole is, for now, still puzzling…
To be continued. Next up Black Rider part 5: Marjorie
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