Previously in this series…
- Part 1: He must keep himself clean in speech
- Part 2: O where are you going?
- Part 3: A chance is gonna come
- Part 4: He let’s them synthasise into a coherent thing
- Part 5: Marjorie
- Part 6: ‘Tis but a scratch
by Jochen Markhorst
VII A feeling for words
Black rider, black rider, hold it right there The size of your cock won’t get you nowhere I suffer in silence, I’ll not make a sound Maybe I’ll take the high moral ground Some enchanted evening, I’ll sing you a song Black rider, black rider, you’ve been on the job too long
“Anybody with a feeling for words and language,” Dylan says in conclusion, as he lists which artists he is a fan of in the December 2022 Wall Street Journal interview. Among the usual suspects (Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave) and talented “normal” newcomers like Rag’n’Bone Man and Celeste, stand out: Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan. The latter come a bit out of the blue. In 2001, at the press conference in Rome, he still claims rather credibly that he has never heard of Dr Dre or Eminem, and that “the present-day music scene has never been of my personal concern”. But then again, at that same press conference, he claims just as seemingly sincerely that he cannot remember working with Kurtis Blow (“Street Rock”, 1986). Anyway; maybe thanks to his grandchildren, maybe because he has had enough of that posed detachment he has cultivated for some three decades now, around his 80s Dylan knows again what’s on the charts and acknowledges the position of rap music in recent music history. With apparent appreciation, even.
It perhaps explains the sudden receptivity to unfiltered banalities like sucking off all of the younger men in the lyrics revision for the first live renditions of “Crossing The Rubicon”, and to one of the most remarkable verse lines of the album Rough And Rowdy Ways, and of Dylan’s oeuvre at all, the very undylanesque line The size of your cock won’t get you nowhere.
In the six decades before, there are plenty of obscene frivolities and sexual banalities in Dylan’s oeuvre, sure, but: always in the blues tradition. So veiled indecency, half-hidden behind sanctimonious metaphors like fiddle, pencil, pie, door, juice, the whole fruit basket and all variations of riding, playing and rocking. Or even more vague – like it gets so hard (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”), for instance, or last night I knew you (“Mississippi”).
Purely linguistically, of course, “cock” is also in fact a metaphor, but this is precisely one of those rare examples of a metaphor whose symbolic meaning has now superseded its actual meaning – to the extent that the originally neutral “cock” is now X-rated. Children’s programmes, and entertainment productions at all, feel forced to flee to “rooster” since the 1970s (Howlin’ Wolf’s sexualisation of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” fortunately did not penetrate the upper world). A fate that also threatens “anaconda”, by the way, but more dramatically – after all, we have no synonym for this constrictor, the Eunectes murinus.
Anyway, Dylan’s The size of your cock won’t get you nowhere. The fans’ discomfort can at least be soothed somewhat with the consolation that Dylan has copied, reassuringly dylanesque, from the work of an Ancient Roman, from the Satires of Juvenal (first century AD). From Satires IX, the only piece Juvenal writes in dialogue form, about the life of a pitiful boy of shame: “If your stars go against you the fantastic size of your cock will get you precisely nowhere” (in the translation by Peter Green, 1967). Still, perhaps we should be grateful that Dylan left it at that, and did not venture into the perversity that Juvenal composes ten lines away: “You think it’s easy, or fun, this job of cramming my cock up into your guts till it’s stopped by last night’s supper?”
Atypical within Dylan’s oeuvre, all things considered, but paradoxically appropriate again, for all the incoherence, within the lyrics of “Black Rider”. After all, by now we can’t ignore the fact that the lyrics are rather disjointed in terms of content. Stylistically, it is a lump of granite, with its cast-iron rhyme scheme, the elegant metre and the repetitio black rider black rider as the opening of each verse. But substantively, it is a swept-together heap of shards from very disparate sources, the character sketches hopelessly diffuse.
The narrator’s state of mind is particularly unstable, to put it kindly. Rocking back and forth between slavishness, aggression, appeasement and conflict-prone, and contradicting himself, too. As does this size of your cock line clash with his own words. That won’t get you nowhere, snarls the narrator – who just two stanzas ago revealed to us that the black rider is visiting his wife (stop visiting mine). So the size of his cock apparently at least gets him into the narrator’s marital bedroom – call that “nowhere”.
It almost seems as if the poet is thematising content inconsistency, and wants to underline that in this final couplet with sought-after, obvious exaggeration. “Some enchanted evening” is a quote that cannot escape any fan and hardly any music lover – everyone knows the Rodgers/Hammerstein song, and Dylan himself recorded it in 2015 for Shadows In The Night. Less well known, but nevertheless just as much stolen is taking the high moral ground; from Ovid, of which Dylan had already plundered so much for “Love And Theft”, 2001. Dylan read this combination of words in one of Ovid’s erotic elegies, Elegy XIV, “To His Mistress” (No, I’m not going to take high moral ground, in J. Lewis May’s translation, 1925).
Just as famous as some enchanted evening, then again, are the closing words, you’ve been on the job too long:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star 'Long comes Brady in his 'lectric car Got a mean look right in his eye Gonna shoot somebody jus' to watch him die He been on the job too long
… the closing words of each verse of “Duncan And Brady”, as sung by Dylan himself in the version recorded for Good As I Been To You in 1992, and eventually released on Tell-Tale Signs in 2008. He also performs the song (some eighty times, at the beginning of the 21st century), and then broadly follows the Tom Rush version from 1964, in which this line is also sung at the end of each verse (eight times in total).
Juvenal, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Ovid, “Duncan and Brady”… and in between established clichés like I’ll sing you a song and hold it right there and suffer in silence (although the latter could just as well be a nod to the Willie Nelson song) – the multicoloured nature of Dylan’s sources at least mirrors the chaotic content of the lyrics.
Yeah well. “I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs,” as Dylan says at the conclusion of his Nobel Prize speech, “and I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”
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
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece