I Contain Multitudes part 17: An inarticulate proposition


by Jochen Markhorst

XVII     An inarticulate proposition

Get lost Madam - get up off my knee
Keep your mouth away from me
I’ll keep the path open - the path in my mind
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind
I play Beethoven sonatas Chopin’s preludes . . . I contain multitudes

 “After the show, Bob Dylan came over to meet me. He’d become a recluse after his motorcycle accident, avoiding touring and festival crowds. Somehow, they’d sneaked him in, and no one but a few performers knew of his presence. He shook my hand and said “Stars . . . great song. Great song.” I rode back to the hotel on his lap and he made an inarticulate proposition, which I declined in favor of going back to Bromberg’s room for a late-night jam.”

Janis Ian’s autobiography Society’s Child (2008) is a colourful and fascinating account of a colourful and fascinating life, and is, as you might expect from a lady who wrote crushing songs like “At Seventeen” and “Jesse”, moving, staggeringly honest and insightful. The reader is therefore strongly inclined to believe Janis’ account of her one-off encounter with Bob Dylan word for word.

On Sunday 27 August Dylan was an anonymous visitor to the 1972 Philadelphia Folk Festival, which he presumably attended to see his mate David Bromberg at work. Coincidentally, then, he was lucky enough to catch John Prine’s set, as well as Janis Ian’s. For Ian, it’s something of a come-back – at the time, her status is that of a one-hit-wonder (the controversial, marvellous “Society’s Child” from 1967), but today she plays two new songs that will turn the tide. She opens with “Jesse”, an unreleased, completely unknown song at the time, and because of its fragility, not exactly the ideal, attention-grabbing opener of a set. But this is a folk festival audience, as Janis knows;

Jesse received thunderous applause, and cries of astonishment. No one knew where I’d gone for those four years, but they sure as heck knew a great song when they heard one, and I was welcomed back into the fold so vociferously that my show ended with the longest standing ovation of the evening.”

The applause gives her the courage to do another new number in the encore, venturing into the premiere of the long, heartbreaking song whose greatness is immediately recognised by none other than Bob Dylan: “Stars”; the song that opens with

I was never one for singing
What I really feel
Except tonight, I'm bringing
Everything I know that's real

… which undoubtely immediately generates a jolt of recognition in Dylan, only to be reinforced by the continuation, by naked, unadorned confessional lyricism like Some make it when they’re young, / before the world has done its dirty job and I guess there isn’t anything to put out on display / except the tunes, and whatever else I say, and larded with poetic gems like

Some make it when they’re old.
Perhaps they have a soul they’re not afraid to bare
or perhaps there’s nothing there

Great song, indeed, and perhaps made even greater by Nina Simone in Montreux, 1976, the performance with its weirdly chilling intensity in the “perhaps pretending” couplet (3’26”), and her piano playing with the beauty and sensitivity of a Beethoven sonata or a Chopin prelude.

Ian’s – justified – pride in the song and its success (the song pops up in the repertoire of such luminaries as Cher, Mel Tormé and Jeff Beck) dominates the rest of the chapter, but Janis’s account leaves that casual, brooding mise-en-scène unexposed: I rode back to the hotel on his lap and he made an inarticulate proposition. We don’t get any more information, but at least it illustrates – once more – that the persona, or multitude, Dylan brings up in this final couplet of “I Contain Multitudes” has little in common with himself; Dylan himself apparently does like it when a Madam sits on his knee, and he does not object when her mouth comes close. No, the persona here is more like a good old all-time favourite: the hard-boiled detective from a 1950s film noir, a Sam Spade who remains the only man in the entire film impervious to the seductive squirming of a femme fatale on his lap. “Take a hike, lady,” he coldly said as he pushed the dame off his lap, “stay away from me and don’t you try to kiss me.”

Fitting to the multitudes motif is Dylan’s choice of words. After the Juvenal paraphrase Get Lost, Madam, from a work from twenty centuries ago, and the Hollywood image from the twentieth century, the song poet opts with Keep your mouth away from me – again, after that I’m going to Bally-Na-Lee from the opening couplet – for a quote from a seventeenth-century Irish poem. Originally in Gaelic, of course, but in Lord Longford’s translation:

Keep your kiss to yourself,
young miss with the white teeth.
I can get no taste from it.
Keep your mouth away from me

… indeed, it seems more and more likely that Dylan, during his visit to Ireland, in the conception phase of Rough And Rowdy Ways, browsed through an inspiring anthology of antique Irish lyricism. Or, even more appealingly, that sometime during the evening’s alcoholic sojourn with Shane MacGowan, 11 May 2017, Shane stood up, and declaimed from memory a few of his beloved Irish poems – and that Dylan quickly made a few notes on the back of a beer mat. Five years later, 7 November 2022, when Dylan closes his first European Rough And Rowdy Ways tour in Dublin, the Irish bard is still playing through his head, at any case:

“I want to say hello to Shane MacGowan out there. He’s one of our favourite artists and we hope he makes another record soon. Fairytale Of New York is a song that is close to all of our hearts. Listen to it every Christmas.”
(preceding the finale “Every Grain Of Sand”)

It does move Shane. “Thank you 🙏 @bobdylan” he tweets at 10:17 the next morning.

To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 18: Thou art at last—just what thou art


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:



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