by Jochen Markhorst
III An amazing ability
I live on a street named after a Saint
Women in the churches wear powder and paint
Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray
I can tell a Proddy from a mile away
Goodbye Jimmy Reed – Jimmy Reed indeed
Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need
“Ik ben makelaar in koffi, en woon op de Lauriergracht, N° 37 – I am a coffee broker, and I live on Laurel Canal, N° 37.” The opening line of the greatest novel in Dutch literature, Multatuli’s Max Havelaar (1860), illustrates that an opening line does not necessarily have to be poetic, bizarre, surprising or mysterious to become immortal; the fact that it is the opening line of a masterpiece is usually enough. “Call me Ishmael”, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up”, “When shall we three meet again?”… in itself not too glamorous, none of them, but because they open Moby Dick, On The Road and Macbeth, appreciated and quoted all over the world.
Conversely, we quote opening sentences the author has thought long and hard about, that have been polished, that have a brilliance of their own, that suck the reader into the story. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”, “I am an invisible man”, “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure”… sentences that not only survive because they introduce inevitable masterpieces (1984, Invisible Man and L’Étranger respectively), but also have a magical power of their own. Like perhaps the most beautiful of all, penned in 1967 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo – Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to see ice.”
… try putting away Cien años de soledad after reading that.
Dylan has a reputation to uphold, too. “Maybe a significant part of Dylan’s genius is his amazing ability with opening lines,” as Tony Attwood writes on Untold Dylan in 2016. Among fans, it is a popular pastime, choosing the Ten Most Beautiful Opening Lines, and in June 2023 Tony makes the ultimate attempt at structure – and more or less capitulates; on the final list, 114 (!) candidates remain. If anything, it demonstrates that Dylan recognises the importance of a smashing opening, and has a rare talent for it. And we see that convincingly and exuberantly practised here on Rough And Rowdy Ways:
- Today and tomorrow and yesterday too, the flowers are dying like all things do - Another day that don't end, another ship goin' out - All through the summers into January I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries - I’m sitting on my terrace, lost in the stars, listening to the sounds of the sad guitars - Black rider, black rider, you been living too hard - Mother of muses sing for me - I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year - McKinley hollered; McKinley squalled - 'Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63, a day that will live on in infamy
One opening is even stronger, more mysterious, catchier than the other. One classical (“Mother Of Muses”), another epic (“Murder Most Foul”), a third gothic (“My Own Version Of You”), suspenseful (“Crossing The Rubicon”) or lyrical (“Black Rider”, “Key West”)… stylistically it is multicoloured, and amazing they all are.
In that line-up of amazing opening sentences, the opening of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, I live on a street named after a Saint, women in the churches wear powder and paint, can be catalogued under the heading “epic” as well. At least, it’s an opening like that of Anthony Doerrs brilliant novel All The Light We Cannot See from 2014;
“In a corner of the city, inside a tall, narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel, on the sixth and highest floor, a sightless sixteen-year-old named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a low table covered entirely with a model.”
… or, even more to the point, as the opening of Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, in which the protagonist, while not on a street named after a Saint, still lives on the next best thing for nineteenth-century Dutchmen: on a canal named after a spice. Openings that, like Dylan’s song written in the present imperfect, insinuate an upcoming epic, indicate a story of a fascinating life, combining a dry bureaucratic fact like the exact residential address with a curiosity-raising detail.
Like Dylan himself, this narrator is good at keeping things vague – he does suggest that he shares intimate information, but then does not tell, say, 125 Hyndford Street or 87 Randolph Street, but limits himself to a somewhat anonymous designation. His home is in a (former) Catholic neighbourhood, that’s about all the information he is willing to share. And apparently near a church. At a time in history when the image of powdered ladies with colourful make-up was still predominant – nineteenth-century, instinctively, but not much later than the 1950s, presumably. Enthusiastic bloggers and exegetes, led by Niall Brennan on his blog High Summer Street (13 July 2020), see it as confirmation that Dylan has been browsing Johnny Rogan’s 2005 biography Van Morrison: No Surrender. Triggered by the title of the chapter “Are You A Proddy?”, a thorough investigation is set up.
The opening of Dylan’s song would then be inspired by an excerpt on page 40: “Catholics all went to schools named after saints and Protestants went to schools named after streets”, and on the same page is written: “you could tell by looking at somebody if they were a Protestant.” Proddy George Ivan Morrison attended Elmgrove Primary School and then Orangefield Boys Secondary School – both named after nearby Elmgrove Road and Orangefield Road respectively, indeed. So admittedly, two echoes of this page 40 in the Van Morrison biography seem audible in the first verse of Dylan’s song. But ultimately, if we’re honest, a bit too generic to be promoted to “inspiration” – it barely transcends coincidence, after all.
Anyway: vague or not, I live on a street named after a Saint is a classic opening, and actually more than just insinuating or suggesting – it’s a promise. Promising something like a novella, a gripping story about a profound event in the protagonist’s life…
To be continued. Next up Goodbye Jimmy Reed part 4: The truth was not known
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