By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
When introducing the song from Tempest, ‘Soon after Midnight’ in 2012, I concurred with Jochen Markhorst’s assessment that this is ‘a real murder ballad.’ Ian Maxton from Spectrum Culture leans the same way, but allows for some ambiguity: The song “elides the border between tale and metaphor like one of those optical illusions where the picture changes depending on what details you fix your eyes on: it’s both. ‘It’s soon after midnight / And I don’t want nobody but you’ is maybe the most terrifying line Dylan ever wrote – and all the more so for its tenderness.”
After writing that article, my attention was drawn by the following verse:
Charlotte’s a harlot, she dresses in scarlet Mary dresses in green It’s soon after midnight and I’ve got a date with the fairy queen
Looking at that last line I began to wonder if we weren’t missing something. The ‘fairy queen’ is generally taken to refer to Titania from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it seems to fit as Titania can cast love spells and turn the clown Bottom into an ass. However, Titania is ultimately a benevolent figure, and the play itself something of a feel-good comic fantasy. There’s no compelling reason to murder Titania.
But what if Dylan had another fairy in mind, Acrasia (sometimes written Akrasia) from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene written from 1590 to 1596? Acrasia is thought to be derived from Homer’s portrait of Circe, the witch in The Odyssey, who turns Odysseus’ crew into pigs and keeps the hero dallying for a full year before he breaks free. Now here’s a more villainous character than Titania; not only a witch and seductress of bold knights, ‘Akrasia is an evil witch. Enslaves men to sexual desire… She is a vampire or succubus who sucks away the spirit of men.’
Her abode and the seat of her enchantment, the Bower of Bliss, is a false paradise. The undaunted Knight, Sir Guyon, sets out to destroy her Bower of Bliss and her power. This is as good as murder as ‘The bower of bliss references the female body; the Bower of Bliss is to be found between women’s legs.’
First, he must deal with two lesser harpies (Charlotte and Mary?) and overcome various obstacles. Sir Guyon, who is supposed to represent Reason and Temperance, himself descends into fury as he destroys the Bower of Bliss. Sir Guyon’s battle with Acrasia is symbolic, or indicative, of the conflict within the soul of the male hero.
‘Spenser treats these as hostile, morally disruptive forces within the soul, powers which reason must fight against in a perpetual psychomachia.’ Psychomachia refers to that state in which we do battle with ourselves, our good versus our evil selves, reminding me of a Dylan line from another song:
I fought with my twin, that enemy within Until both of us fell by the way
All this is highly speculative, of course, with little textual support, but it seems to me to be more tuned to the drive behind the song than Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s worth remembering that the precise time, soon after midnight, is traditionally the witching hour, the hour of enchantment, when supernatural forces are at their strongest.
The song was sung many times in 2013, but there is one performance that stands out from the rest, and may indeed be a ‘best ever’ (at least until the next best ever comes along) – this one from Stockholm (13th Oct)
Soon After Midnight.
We’ll stay in Stockholm for this wonderfully contemplative version of ‘Scarlet Town.’ I introduced this song in 2012 and there’s not much I can add here. There might well be an ‘optical illusion’ effect operating here too, depending on which details you hone in on. However you interpret the song, there’s no doubt it casts a powerful spell. It has a sombre mood and reflective feel. It’s my favourite track from the album, and yet I find it hard to account for the mysterious hold it has; the best of Dylan’s later songs are multifaceted and something new seems to be revealed each time you listen. Hard to find a better performance than this one.
We’ll stay in Stockholm for ‘Early Roman Kings,’ another Tempest song with shifting perspectives and points of view. Most significant to my mind is the shift to the first person after the second verse, turning the song into another dramatic monologue, and making it sound as if the persona has adopted the position close to those scary early Roman kings, whoever they are:
I'll strip you of life, strip you of breath Ship you down to the house of death One day you will ask for me There’ll be no one else that you’ll want to see Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings Gonna break it wide open like the early Roman Kings
For my ear the song lacks the emotional coherence, like ‘Scarlet Town,’ which would bring these disparate images into some kind of focus and the song seems to fly apart at the seams.
I suggest the reader check out Jochen Markhorst’s series of articles on the song. He does a wonderful job breaking the song down verse by verse. He finds it to be full of references but, after relating it to the ‘mosaic like character’ of many great Dylan songs like ‘Shelter From the Storm’ and ‘Memphis Blues Again,’ admits that, ‘The big difference is the lack of an unambiguous charge, or at least: of a guiding portent. Refrain lines such as “I’ll give you a shelter from the storm”, “there’s no time to think”, “can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile” and “only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” have a connecting, overarching quality – they direct the emotional charge of the images in the preceding lines…
‘Dylan offers no such handle in “Early Roman Kings”. Not only is “early Roman Kings” not a loaded term, as “Mobile”, “shelter” or “Mississippi” are, it is not even a term with an actual, overarching quality; nobody has any knowledge of the seven historical early Roman Kings (the first rulers of Rome, 753-510 BCE).’
Early Roman Kings
I’m going to stay mostly in Stockholm to pick up some other songs Dylan was playing in 2013 along with the Tempest songs. Since I’ve introduced these songs before many times I’ll move through them briskly. Enjoy these wonderful recordings.
Let’s begin with that wonderful melancholy ballad, ‘Forgetful Heart’ we covered in some detail in 2011. The song is still going strong in 2013.
With regard to ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ also from Together Through Life I still hark back to the harp and trumpet performance of 2009 but have no issues with this one:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
Dylan carried over the more stripped-down arrangement of ‘Summer Days’ that we found in 2012. It’s taken me a while to really like this arrangement, as I have preferred the ‘big band’ versions of 2005, but it’s hard to resist this more restrained, chuggy, bass and drums driven version. A fine jazzy performance. A great vocal too.
We’ve listened to some amazing versions of ‘High Water’ over the years. Too many ‘best ever’ performances to keep track of. Editor Tony Attwood has rightly brought attention to a cheeky 2012 version in which Dylan taunts his audience with the harmonica and I trust he’ll enjoy this somewhat smoother vocal performance. Another ‘best ever’ to add to our collection.
I’m glad we haven’t lost ‘Spirit on the Water’ – it will last until 2018 – for this gentle song has delicate shadings. The song celebrates a relationship, however painful it might be. In the end, love trumps everything else:
I’m saying it plain these ties are strong enough to bind
Spirit on the Water
‘Things Have Changed’ is also a survivor, and I’m glad of that too. Dylan’s rebellious spirit shines brightly in this song: ‘Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through.’ Jochen Markhorst has cast his illumination on this song, ‘“Things Have Changed’ is mainly lyrical, expresses in unrelenting, poetic images the discomfort of a displaced, numb narrator, through which the poet strings mysterious observations and half-known references.”
And we mustn’t forget the humour of the song.
Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet Putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street
Things Have Changed.
That humble, reflective song, ‘What Good Am I?’ will be the only survivor from Oh Mercy but will not last beyond 2014. Something of a rarity, its self-questioning and self-doubt make for a refreshing change from Dylan’s usual postures. The only other song like it I can think of right now is ‘What Can I Do For You?’ off Saved, 1980.
What Good am I?
Again Dylan improves on the 2012 performance of ‘Simple Twist of Fate.’ He’s learned how to make his voice softer, less bark and more croon. A welcome development. Those softer tones are full of implication and feeling. Dylan is finding his new voice, a voice beyond the croak and the bark; Frank Sinatra can’t be far behind.
Simple Twist of Fate
Tony Attwood has suggested that ‘Waitin’ for You,’ which was written in 2002 after the great writing burst that led to Love and Theft, lacks focus with a tendency to random images. I won’t argue with that. We often have to read unity into a Dylan song; he sets it up that way. But perhaps the emotional charge of this song isn’t sufficient to unify the images, I don’t know. You can overthink a Dylan song: he sets it up that way, little traps for the intellect that seeks to impose order on everything, even a Dylan song.
Waitin’ for You
Over 2012/13 Dylan started replacing ‘Watchtower’ as the final song of the night with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ A much gentler way to finish a concert. Here it is, our last song from that incomparable Stockholm concert, and Dylan’s final song for the concert. I always enjoy Donnie Herron’s violin, and get an echo from Rolling Thunder. The song still swings, but not as cheekily as in 2009 where it became a somewhat exaggerated waltz; this is just a gentle lilt. Some subtle harp at the end to cap everything off.
Blowin’ in the wind
So that caps me off for this post. I’ll be back with more from 2013 soon