Some songs are so rich and multicoloured that they deserve their own book .
I fear that almost every song on Rough And Rowdy Ways is going to claim that right.
I Contain Multitudes (2020) part 12
by Jochen Markhorst
XII They’re not metaphors
Pink pedal pushers and red blue jeans All the pretty maids and all the old queens All the old queens from all my past lives I carry four pistols and two large knives I’m a man of contradictions and a man of many moods . . . I contain multitudes
Two months after Dylan has his sympathetic but rather incomprehensible eulogy penned by Douglas Brinkley for the New York Times interview in June 2020 (“Pretty Maids All In A Row. That could be one of the best songs ever”), co-composer Joe Vitale is still perplexed. “Coming from Bob Dylan, it doesn’t get any better than that,” the drummer tells Rolling Stone. “I called Joe [Walsh, the other writer of this Eagles song] immediately. And he goes, ‘I know what you’re calling about.’ I said, ‘This is so cool, Joe.’ He was excited, too. He thought that was really cool. I printed out that article and framed it.”
Apparently, the song has been on a pedestal with Dylan for quite some time. Almost a quarter of a century before, in the first verse of the brilliant Time Out Of Mind-outtake “Red River Shore” already stood out: “Pretty maids all in a row lined up / Outside my cabin door”. At the time, nobody catalogued that as a tip of the hat from Dylan to the Walsh/Vitale song, which most pop fans would not exactly consider an unrelenting masterpiece. Far more likely, and far more dylanesque too, was the option that Dylan here appropriates an old, eighteenth-century English nursery rhyme…
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, And pretty maids all in a row.
… “Mary”, as it was written down in the 1950s by Iona and Peter Opie in the invaluable The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. But this finding can be binned, after Dylan’s declaration of love in the New York Times; he really does wink at Eagles. Not just once (in “Red River Shore”), not twice (this second time here in “I Contain Multitudes”), but even three times; after all, the trigger for Douglas Brinkley’s question about Dylan’s appreciation of the Eagles is the name-check in the last song of Rough And Rowdy Ways, “Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey” in the monumental time-travelling “Murder Most Foul”.
And perhaps it’s even more than three times; retrospectively, after this name-check in 2020, remarkably matching fragments of Glenn Frey’s solo work in particular can be found in more songs from the Time Out Of Mind period (1997) – in “Not Dark Yet”, for instance (too hot to sleep from Freys “Long Hot Summer” 1992), in “Mississippi” (there’s a fire in the sky and I started thinkin’ ’bout the things we said / I said I’m sorry; she said I’m sorry too, from “I Got Love” on his solo album The Allnighter, 1984), and in “Dreamin’ Of You”.
Whether Dylan also places a wink in the continuation of this verse, with and all the old queens, is less demonstrable. More obvious is that the rhyme king was looking for a rhyme word for red blue jeans, and queens would quite easily pop up even among less gifted pop poets. The word combination the old queens is hardly obvious. Or at least hardly common. Sure, men like Elton John, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg use it, usually with self-mockery, to refer to homosexuals older than, say, forty. As it is also used in one of the very few songs, perhaps even the only song in the canon with this word combination:
Along the boulevards he'd cruise and all the old queens blew a fuse Everybody loved Georgie boy
… Rod Stewart’s moving ballad “The Killing Of Georgie” (1976), from one of his finest albums, A Night On The Town. According to writer Nick Hornby, the last record before it became embarrassing to be a Rod Stewart fan; before all those “interchangeable blonde women” Rod makes headlines with; before
“… Do Ya Think l’m Sexy. And Ole Ola, the 1978 Scotland World Cup song (the chorus of which went Ole ole, ole ola / We’re going to bring the World Cup back from over thar’). And his obsession with LA, and the champagne and straw boaters on album sleeves, and the drawing on the cover of Atlantic Crossing.”
(Nick Hornby, 31 Songs, 2003)
The album that also features the wonderful version of Cat Stevens’ classic, “The First Cut Is The Deepest”. So wonderful, in fact, that the song has since been more or less hijacked and is considered one of Stewart’s signature songs. Which does bother the otherwise meek, unassuming Yusuf Cat Stevens a tiny bit; “Maybe some people don’t know I wrote this one. It wasn’t Rod Stewart,” he says, announcing the song in 2014 at one of those charming NPR Tiny Desk Concerts (and when he plays it at Glastonbury June 2023, at his ravishing, triumphant set, the whole world is reminded).
Either way; neither a compliment to Rod Stewart’s “The Killing Of Georgie” nor a scenario integrating gay men of age into “I Contain Multitudes” is very likely. A well-thought-out scenario is unlikely anyhow; by now, we may be open to the option that Dylan is telling the truth, when he self-analyses: “It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state.” Interviewer Douglas Brinkley does try to provoke his host with the bold statement “I Contain Multitudes is surprisingly autobiographical in parts”, qualifying this part of the song as “confessional”, but in vain; Dylan doesn’t bite.
With some flexibility, then, a line can still be drawn to Dylan’s oeuvre. After all, over the past sixty years he has referred to pretty maids as “queen” plenty of times. Queen Jane; Queen Mary; the motorbike black madonna from “Gates Of Eden” is a two-wheeled gypsy queen; the adored one from “I Want You” is the Queen of Spades; Rosemary from “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” looks like a queen without a crown, and there are plenty more examples – in the past lives of the male narrators immortalised in Dylan’s oeuvre, dozens of old queens can be found. Which is what the narrator here, in the snatches of context we can discern with some tolerance, seems to mean with old queens; something like “girlfriends of the past”.
Although Dylan does of course, in this same interview clip about this same song, claim seriously: “The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors.” Hmm. “All the old queens from all my past lives”. But: no metaphors. So the poet thus suggests that his multitudes-containing protagonist is not just some guy, but on the contrary, has spent quite some time in royal circles.
Not very likely either. No, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve caught Dylan using an entirely unique interpretation of a term like “metaphor”. And he claims the opposite just as easily and seriously. “I use a lot of metaphors and symbolism in songs,” he tells Edna Gundersen for USA Today in 2004, “and they’re based on rhythmic value.”
Yeah, well. Above all Dylan is, as we all know, a man of contradictions and a man of many moods.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 13: A little bit of Lincoln can’t park the car
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
- I Contain Multitudes: Bob Dylan’s Account of the Long Strange Trip