High Water (for Charley Patton) part 18:    Every scrap of paper I’ve ever written on

High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 18

by Jochen Markhorst

“So-called hardcore fans of mine, whoever they might be — those folks out there who are obsessed with finding every scrap of paper I’ve ever written on, every single outtake,” Dylan sneers at the press conference in Rome, 2001. He despises how manuscripts, sketches and outtakes get out in the open, that they are traded and that people make money from them, calls it theft, and declares that “Mississippi” only survived because the 1997 outtakes were never leaked – which is why he was still able to record the song for “Love And Theft” in 2001.

After all, leaked outtakes, being “unfinished” anyway, are “contaminated” and even a masterpiece like “Mississippi” would in that case ruthlessly have been discarded.

Unfortunately, the journalists present don’t ask the obvious next question. This is ten years after he himself released the highly successful, trendsetting triple box set The Bootleg Series 1-3, after the official release of 58 outtakes, alternative takes and live recordings, it is three years after The Bootleg Series 4: Royal Albert Hall 1966, and one year before The Bootleg Series 5 – Live 1975.

Apparently, we are long past the point where Dylan has artistic or moral objections to publicising of outtakes and the like, long past the point where Dylan and his record company have figured out that it would be better for them to make a profit themselves. Which is perfectly understandable, of course.

It doesn’t stop, hereafter. The hunger of fans is insatiable, and in the first decades of the twenty-first century, a next volume in the Bootleg Series or a next “50th Anniversary Collection” (to secure copyright extensions) is released on average every 13 months. Among them, monumental releases like The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 in 2015; eighteen CDs of just about everything Dylan did in the studio (and outside, in hotel rooms, for instance) during those years while a tape recorder was running. One goldmine after another treasure trove for so-called hardcore fans, for Dylanologists and academics – the Bootleg Series bestows fascinating insights into the genesis of masterpieces.

In 2016, the same year that Dylan is awarded the Nobel Prize and with it definitive literary recognition, the last restraint evaporates too: Dylan sells his entire archive of thousands of items to the George Kaiser Family Foundation to build a real museum, the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which will open its doors to the public in May 2022. The archive contains some six thousand manuscripts, rejected versions, corrected drafts of hundreds of songs, poems and diary-like notes: “every scrap of paper I’ve ever written on,” as it were. Of which a select club of authors will gratefully make use of for contributions to the paper pavement tile to be published in 2023, Mixing up the Medicine, or for research for their own books.

Thus, of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” we also get to see first manuscripts, handwritten drafts with deletions and annotations and alternative stanzas. Not very much and partly illegible, but intriguing enough – and it does what you hope for from manuscripts: it gives some insight into the creation of the masterpiece. Dylan author Clinton Heylin, for instance, enthuses (“a corker”) about a complete but rejected couplet:

Doctor Frankenstein's still up there at his castle on the hill 
If he ain't come down by now 
I guess he never will
Livin' there in the underworld, I ain't sayin' it's wrong or right 
The sun is shining down 
Like it's twelve o'clock at night. 
Like a nightmare up there
High water everywhere.

Presumably a candidate who dropped out late, we may assume with some certainty. The metre has already been reasonably polished up, the rhyme scheme “fits” (is similar to the other stanzas), but mostly:

… on the fragment of the draft manuscript printed on page 496 of Mixing up the Medicine, we see Dylan jotting down the inspiration “Dr Frankenstein” under an earlier version of the opening couplet. Written with a different pen. Apparently Dylan had already put this – presumably second – draft version away again, he makes a cup of tea, the stream of consciousness still ripples on, then bears a possibly fitting mosaic stone with “Dr Frankenstein”, Dylan grabs the nearby pen and scribbles down a reminder. Something like that, probably – one of the many examples, anyway, from the Bob Dylan Centre archives that give us a glimpse of the path from a scribble in the margin to a song couplet.

To call the “Frankenstein couplet”, which eventually fails to make the final selection, a “corker”, a brilliant achievement, is perhaps a bit overly enthusiastic, but it does indeed have its own distinct charm. At first glance, and without prior knowledge, most Dylanologists would probably classify it as a lost “Desolation Row” couplet, a classification justified by the opening line Doctor Frankenstein’s still up there at his castle on the hill alone. A literary celebrity as protagonist, presented as the film character (no castle appears in Shelley’s book; only in film adaptations is Dr Frankenstein portrayed as an eccentric mad scientist in some castle on a hill). Very similar to other 60s protagonists in Dylan’s songs. Like Captain Ahab in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” (he was stuck on a whale – that’s Gregory Peck in the film, in Melville’s book it doesn’t happen) or Cinderella, who puts her hands in her back pockets “Bette Davis style”.


Equally deceptive is the strong doom vibe, identical to the “agents & superhuman crew” couplet from “Desolation Row”. Besides the matching décor (“castle”) and a cultural icon as the protagonist, word choices like underworld, nightmare and midnight, the poetic paradox The sun is shining down / Like it’s twelve o’clock at night, and postmodernist blending of cultural stereotypes also push the associating Dylanologist into the mercurial ’65-’66s. In this case: it ís Dr Frankenstein, yet for the character’s colouring, the song poet reaches for the clichés from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Not to mention the form:

Doctor Frankenstein’s still up there                  Now at midnight all the agents
at his castle on the hill                                         
And the superhuman crew
If he ain’t come down by now                         
Come out and round up everyone
I guess he never will
                                          That knows more than they do

Same number of syllables, identical rhyme scheme, matching metre, stylistically a copy plus content parallels… it becomes increasingly understandable why Dylan discarded this verse, this “corker” in the end. “Dylan really, really hates to repeat himself” (engineer Chris Shaw in Uncut, October 2008).

Incidentally, the Frankenstein couplet is not completely discarded. As we so often see in manuscripts and drafts, things move to subsequent songs. The Frankenstein theme keeps bouncing around in the back of Dylan’s mind for about 20 years, eventually descending in “My Own Version Of You” on Rough And Rowdy Ways, 2020, the verse fragment I ain’t sayin’ it’s wrong or right popping up a few years later as I don’t know what’s wrong or right in “Life Is Hard” (Together Through Life, 2009) and the underworld in “Tempest”, 2012.

“He has these fragments round in his head all the time,” as Larry Charles says, “and he’s constantly trying different bits together and seeing what happens.”


To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 19: Water’s gonna overflow

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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