by Jochen Markhorst
II To the buried that repose around us
Gotta tell tale heart like Mr. Poe Got skeletons in the walls of people you know I’ll drink to the truth of things that we said I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed I paint landscapes - I paint nudes . . . I contain multitudes
It is his secret project, Alan Parsons and his first LP Tales Of Mystery And Imagination – Edgar Allan Poe (1976). Why he keeps it so secret is not entirely clear. Parsons already has a solid reputation and, young as he is at this point (he is 27 when he records the album), already has a dream career; first as sound engineer for Abbey Road, Let It Be, McCartney’s solo albums and Dark Side Of The Moon, then as producer for highly successful records by Pilot, The Hollies, John Miles and Steve Harley’s Cockney Rebel. Alan Parsons, in short, has long since had the stature and authority to do as he pleases, right there at his workplace at Abbey Road Studios.
But the songs he is writing with Eric Woolfson for the themed project on Poe’s oeuvre are being secretly recorded in between, with the help of musicians who are not allowed to know exactly what they are collaborating on either. Only the flamboyant fool Arthur Brown (of “Fire”, and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) seems to suspect something:
“For instance, “The Cask Of Amontillado” we titled “Bristol Cream”. It was just the first idea that came into our head, just to keep the whole thing a secret. I think Arthur Brown had an inkling of what was happening. Because the lyrics alone were enough to give it away. When he first came into the studio he was very subdued, you know. We ran through it. He was humming the tune, listening to the melody. But when we went into the studio, the whole thing changed. He started leaping around, yelling and screaming – which was just the job for “The Tell-Tale Heart” on the album. ”
(1976 interview with Parsons, bonus track on the 2007 deluxe edition of the album).
Dylan has been allowing Poe into his catalogue for some sixty years, but until now much more indirectly than Alan Parsons. A paraphrase here, a borrowed metre there, a meaningless wink like Rue Morgue Avenue in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”… it isn’t until 2020, until “I Contain Multitudes”, that Dylan finally unabashedly, loud and clear, name-checks Poe and his work in a song.
And apart from explicitly, “The Tell-Tale Heart” in line 1 that is, also indirectly the plot of “The Cask Of Amontillado” in line 2, the short story in monologue form in which a Signor Montresor recounts in an antique, Venice-like setting how, fifty years ago, he immured the kind Fortunato alive downstairs in his huge wine cellar. As revenge for an unspecified, and presumably imaginary insult. Compositionally, therefore, very similar to “The Tell-Tale Heart”; again the dramatic monologue of an apparently mentally disturbed murderer, also driven by a macabre kind of paranoia, who confesses in a long monologue, and in vain tries to gain understanding for his atrocity.
Interesting, as it offers some insight into Dylan’s creative process. He analyses himself, and credibly, that the one line I contain multitudes opened the floodgates to “trance writing”, that this one Walt Whitman line, which, incidentally, we also heard him quote in Martin Scorcese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019), is the catalyst, “the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses.”
So, Dylan appears to associate “having multitudes” with an archetype from distinctive Poe stories. To some extent recognisable; in 2004, Dylan tries to express to interviewer Ed Bradley in the interview for the CBS “60 Minutes” special the unease with his 1960s image:
EB: What was the image that people had of you? And what was the reality?
BD: The image of me was certainly not a songwriter or a singer. It was more like some kind of a threat to society in some kind of way.
EB: What was the toughest part for you personally?
BD: It was like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story. And you’re just not that person everybody thinks you are, though they call you that all the time. ‘You’re the prophet.’ ‘You’re the savior.’ I never wanted to be a prophet or savior.
Dylan uses “like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story” as a metaphor for some kind of schizophrenia; a rather radical clash of a self-image with the outside world’s perception – which makes the associative leap from I contain multitudes to precisely these two Poe stories more insightful.
The stream-of-consciousness, then, seems to meander on through Montresor’s wine cellar cum catacombs, through the skeleton-decorated setting of The Cask of Amontillado‘s gruesome finale;
“Drink,” I said, presenting him the wine. He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled. “I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.” “And I to your long life.” He again took my arm, and we proceeded.
At least, it seems that Dylan’s follow-up line, I’ll drink to the truth of things that we said, is an echo of Montresor’s cynical drinking salute, minutes before he fetters and immures the perplexed, half-drunk Fortunato. How the meandering current then arrives at I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed is probably as puzzling to Dylan himself as it is to his audience. “I’m just as bewildered as anybody else,” as Dylan says in that same New York Times interview. Who knows, perhaps the river bed takes him via Alan Parsons to Gram Parsons to The Flying Burrito Brothers to:
He was gone in the early morning And he said he wouldn't be long But that was spring and now That the leaves have all turned brown She only shares her bed with The loneliness she has found
… the heartbreaking country-tearjerker “All Alone” from the 1971 album The Flying Burrito Bros, the somewhat underrated album featuring Gene Clark’s “Tried So Hard”, Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” and the gorgeous cover of Dylan’s “To Ramona”. After all, “all these songs are connected,”, as the master argued with academic seriousness, at his MusiCares speech in February 2015.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 3: The thrill of rhyming something that’s never been rhymed before.
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