I Contain Multitudes (2020) part 3
by Jochen Markhorst
III The thrill of rhyming something that’s never been rhymed before
A red Cadillac and a black moustache Rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash Tell me what’s next - what shall we do Half my soul baby belongs to you I rollick and I frolic with all the young dudes . . . I contain multitudes
“Warren was an egotist,” DJ Dylan bluntly says in his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, episode 55 (“Classic Rock”, 17 0ktober 2007). “He wanted recognition. He painted Warren Smith – The Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby Man on the back of his car. He was good friends with Johnny Cash, and Johnny offered him a slot on his package show. But Warren said no – his plans didn’t include playing second fiddle to anybody. He had a big problem with amphetamines, and in 1965 he barely escaped being one of those tombstones you see every mile.” And two years later, in episode 100 (or 103, if you count the three reruns in Season 3), in the farewell show “Goodbye”, when DJ Dylan plays “So Long, I’m Gone”, the fourth Warren Smith song in the series, he is equally harsh: “Warren had a bit of a temper, and he became angry at Jerry Lee for the rest of his life. Whenever he heard a Jerry Lee Lewis record on the radio, he would smash the radio, and throw any copies of a record he came across out the window.”
But: it’s only love, and that is all. Dylan is a fan, and a true fan is not afraid to name his idol’s human failings. There are plenty of tributes in return. In 2022, in The Philosophy Of Modern Song, Dylan argues that Warren Smith belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame, in the announcements and concluding remarks around three of the four songs in Theme Time Radio Hour, the offensive asides regarding Warren’s character and behaviour evaporate among all the eulogies. Plus, of course, the ultimate reverence: Dylan covers both “Uranium Rock” (albeit with different lyrics) and “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache” live on stage (three times in June/July 1986, with Tom Petty’s band), and records Warren Smith’s version of Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If You Want It” during the Down In The Groove sessions in April 1987.
Although… the ultimate reverence is actually Dylan’s contribution to that wondrous tribute project, the album bursting at the seams from all the legendary grandmasters contributing to it: Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy Of Sun Records (2001). Wondrous because, despite Paul McCartney (“That’s All Right”), Van Morrison and Carl Perkins (“Sittin’ On Top Of The World”), Led Zeppelin (“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”) and a dozen more rock gods and demigods, it turned out to be an admittedly fun, but definitely not a legendary record – the gods are mostly having unconcerned fun (Elton John, Eric Clapton), the demigods are desperately trying to put classics in a modern, contemporary format (Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Live), maybe that’s why.
In fact, only Chris Isaac’s perfect rendition of Hank Williams’ “It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You” stands out. And Dylan’s contribution, of course, choosing, as befits Dylan’s idiosyncratic style, not one of the many immortal Sun Records classics, but a rather obscure B-side; “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache”, that is.
… the attractive rockabilly song with the curious main character’s physical description He was long and tall – the male version of Long Tall Sally, apparently.
And in 2020, Dylan then honours Warren Smith with this opening line of the third verse of “I Contain Multitudes”; A red Cadillac and a black moustache. On his radio show, Dylan introduced the song with a declaration of love to the sound of Sun Records:
“Each of those record companies had their own sound. When you dropped the needle on a Specialty Record, you knew it was a Specialty Record; same with Imperial, Chess, King, and a million others. Perhaps the most distinctive were those that came out of the Sam Phillips Memphis Recording Studio and were put out on his Sun Record label.”
… the bridge to the tender announcement of the song itself: “Like this one. Warren Smith’s tale of his girl, cavorting with a mysterious stranger, dining and dancing in the cabaret till the break of day; Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache.”
Warren Smith is, all in all, one of those multitudes that comprise the protagonist of Dylan’s song. Like there always is a Warren Smith simmering somewhere in Dylan himself, we may add after all these decades of overt and not-so-overt tributes. Of which Dylan himself is semi-aware, judging by his self-analysis in that 2020 New York Times interview:
“There are certain public figures that are just in your subconscious for one reason or another. None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space. I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them.”
Although in this particular case he is talking about “songs with designated names”, referring to songs like “Roll On John” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”. But the mechanism by which a complete song title which is “just in your subconscious for one reason or another” just pops up from that subconscious, twirling down onto the writing paper will be identical, we may assume
Something similar seems to happen with the next verse, with Rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash. We know that Dylan is browsing through Juvenal’s Satires in Peter Green’s 1967 translation in these days, thanks to that bizarre The size of your cock won’t get you nowhere quote from “Satire IX” in “Black Rider”, and theoretically Dylan then could also have noticed and stored her bejewelled fingers sparkle from “Satire VI” and a big ring to flash from “Satire VII”. But a mild form of self-plagiarism seems more likely. The opening line is chosen. The poet looks for a rhyme word for “moustache”, and finds “flash” – quite satisfying for a poet who says:
“It’s a game. You know, you sit around… you know, it’s more like, it’s mentally… mentally… it gives you a thrill. It gives you a thrill to rhyme something you might think, well, that’s never been rhymed before.”
(SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo, 1991)
And once that “flash” is chosen, somewhere in the subconscious A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring from 1978’s “Señor” awakens. “Ring” ignites the next link in the chain reaction and triggers She wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks from “She Belongs To Me” (1965)… et voilà: Rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash.
Not too informed guesswork, of course. By his own admission, even Dylan himself does not know where the words come from. “They just fall down from space,” as he says. But the option that the words do bubble up from his own catalogue is still more appealing than the theory that a ferociously attractive song like “I Contain Multitudes” is made up of scrapped-together space junk.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 4: Boogaloo dudes carry the news
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