High Water (for Charley Patton) part 8: The Portable Henry Rollins


by Jochen Markhorst

VIII       The Portable Henry Rollins

High water risin’, six inches ’bove my head
Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m going to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere

“Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff,” the opening line of the second verse of the closing track of “Love And Theft” (2001), “Sugar Baby”, is then a bit awkwardly quoted, by half-contrite fans who keep trying to satisfy their never-drying Dylan craving with hundreds and hundreds of bootlegs. In the song, the narrator means illegally distilled alcoholic beverages, but fans gladly and knowingly misuse the double meaning of the word bootleg.

However, we know full well that Dylan, like most artists, hates those illegally distributed rejected studio recordings and secretly recorded live performances. It’s like your phone being tapped, Dylan says in the Biograph booklet in 1985. “The bootleg records, those are outrageous.” And at a press conference in Rome, in this same year 2001 that he sings of the bootleggers’ pretty good stuff, he is even a degree fiercer about the “so-called hardcore fans of mine who are obsessed with finding every scrap of paper I’ve ever written on, every single outtake”, culminating in a oddly naive cannonade:

“I mean, you don’t drive a car out of the showroom without paying for it, do you? You don’t leave the supermarket without passing through the check-out with your goods. It’s called stealing. Why the principle should be thought to be any different when it comes to music, I really don’t know.”

… probably because the showroom owner doesn’t care too much if his car is still there after the “theft”, Mr Dylan. Still, the dismay is real. This tirade is unleashed in response to his relief that the rejected “Mississippi” recordings from the Time Out Of Mind sessions were never leaked and bootlegged, so the song is not “contaminated”, as he calls it, and he can still record “Mississippi” for “Love And Theft”.

Incidentally, the dislike seems to flow in only one direction. In the summer of 1986, a year after that official conviction in Biograph, Dylan tells Q magazine interviewer David Hepworth, gleefully:

“I like the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. She passed away about fifteen years ago. I bought a record of hers when I was in Jerusalem in 1972. This guy was selling them on the street corner and they were obviously bootleg records.”

“He laughs,” Hepworth writes after that. Laughing out of discomfort at his own hypocrisy, we may assume – for it does seem likely that Dylan is at that moment thinking back to the anecdote he told his friend Tony Glover in ’71, the anecdote playing out in Manhattan a few months before this bootleg purchase:

“Last night we were walking down Seventh Avenue, and on the corner was this cat hawking bootleg records, just ‘Bootleg records, bootleg records, get ’em here.’ Just hawking ’em right on the street,” Dylan fumed. “I saw one. There was one he had of mine called ‘Zimmerman.’ And I caught it just out of the corner of my eye going by, and uhhh … I was with my wife, and we went back and she said, ‘Gimme that record.’ She grabbed the record from him and said, ‘Punk!’ — and we just took it, man, and split, just walked away with it.”

Hypocritical or not, Dylan’s aversion doesn’t really wear off, over the course of half a century. And he will have put approvingly a mark while reading Henry Rollins’ crushing Now Watch Him Die, the poems and diary-like notes Rollins wrote in 1992, immediately after the brutal murder of his best friend. For all the pain, fear and aggression, Dylan will also have felt a kind of comic relief at Rollins’ account of Florence 16 June, when Henry tackles a street vendor:

“I went out earlier and tried talking to the guy selling the horrible bootleg shirts outside the show. It was a great conversation. I told him he was a fucking thief. He smiled and shrugged. I told him to get the fuck out and he said he couldn’t, he already bought the shirts. I told him he was fucking with our trip. He told me that he was sorry but this was his job. I told him I was going to beat the shit out of him. He begged me not to. I took a big pile of shirts and threw them to people in the street. He ran around trying to get them back and I grabbed him and wouldn’t let him take them away from people.”

We can be pretty sure that this passage has a little checkmark in Dylan’s copy. Leading up to this, the author describes in this same diary entry from this 16th June his desperate, aggressive feelings and his depression, and then chooses words that Dylan will borrow for “High Water”: “I’ll never be able to say anything back to them that isn’t coming from the dark room that is my mind.” The dark room of my mind, Dylan makes thereof, in the second, final version of the opening verse.

We owe the discovery – of course – to New Mexico’s keen Dylan researcher, Scott Warmuth. In the songs on the previous album, Time Out Of Mind, Scott was already able to pinpoint Rollins quotes and paraphrases in eight of the 11 songs, and apparently Dylan still had enough Rollins fragments for “Love And Theft” stashed away in his famous very ornate box.

The irrefutable confirmation of this, of Rollins’ contributions to “Love And Theft”, Warmuth finds in the second half of this fourth verse of “High Water”. Opposing Dylan fans can still attribute that dark room of my mind to coincidence, but the sputtering gets a lot less convincing when Scott points to other Rollins passages:

“You’re weak and in need. You want something to hold so you can have something to blame. Don’t reach out to me. I’m drowning too.”

… which Dylan transfers almost verbatim to the fifth and sixth verses of this verse. Originally from Pissing in the Gene Pool, 1987, but it is gradually beginning to look like Dylan is flicking through the 1997 compilation The Portable Henry Rollins Paperback on the tour bus; all the Rollins quotes and paraphrases can be found there. Including a source for the seventh verse of this verse, It’s rough out there, on page 33:

Everybody is somebody else’s freak
Think about it
Sit at home with the television on
Watch some people burn shit down
Thousands of miles away
“Look at those freaks. Aren’t they something? Must be rough over there.”

Henry Rollins probably won’t be calling it stealing or outrageous, none of this. He is a fan. And presumably, it is not so much his poetry as his music that has been the calling card. In Unwelcomed Songs (2002), a collection of song lyrics 1980-1992, Rollins talks in Chapter 6 about his short-lived side project Wartime (one album, Fast Food For Thought, 1990):

“We recorded on and off through 1988 and eventually it was done. Andrew produced and Theo engineered. The record came out and we did a video for the song Truth. Jesse Dylan, son of the great Bob, directed.”

Rollins is referring to the song “The Whole Truth”, a relatively still laid-back song (by his 80s standards anyway), carried by a concrete, industrial bass riff, with lyrics in which we hear echoes of 1965 Dylan:

Eye to eye and wall to wall
Can you see what's here? Does it fill you with fear?
Can you keep your distance from what you hate?
Unbelievable, unreal, too shocked to feel
Look out! Mind the gap!

Most of the violence then comes from video director Jesse Dylan, who has in the background a couple of tough guys going at a car with sledge hammers and grinding tools, a Black Knight narrowly surviving a hanging and an innocent beekeeper dying a gruesome death. In between, Henry Rollins provides comic relief at the beach by striking seductive poses in the surf à la Madonna in “Cherish”, also in black-and-white. High water everywhere.

To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 9: I just thought that was the way he spelled his name


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:




  1. Source of 7th verse?

    ….Must be rough over there…

    Get back!

    Rather, Jerry Jackson:

    It’s rough out there

  2. You’ve got to believe me baby
    It’s rough out there
    I love and want to keep you warm
    Keep you out of the storm
    (Jerry Jackson (Kaye/Springer)

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