When I Paint My Masterpiece (part 4: I love the sound of words, yeah


 I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.


by Jochen Markhorst


Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

A pregnant woman gets into a car accident and falls into a deep coma. Asleep for nearly six months, she wakes up and sees that she is no longer pregnant.

“No need to worry,” the nurse says, “you had twins! A beautiful boy and a beautiful girl. The babies are fine. Your brother came in and took care of everything. He even named them.”

“Oh no, not my brother,” the woman shrieks, “he’s an idiot! What did he name them?”

“The girl is named Denise,” the nurse answers.

“Oh. Well, that’s not so bad. And the boy?”


An old, but still witty joke, built on a similar play on words as the sound similarity that led to the introduction of Botticelli’s niece. At least, that’s what Tony Attwood suspects in his June 2015 article (“When I Paint My Masterpiece: the meaning of the lyrics and the music”, Untold Dylan): “I think turning Botticelli’s Venus into Botticelli’s niece is a nice piece of fun for Dylan, which gives him a handy rhyme.”

Which does seem plausible, yes. Dylan is a song poet who is guided primarily by sound, as he himself states time and again – referring not only to the sound quality or “colour” of the accompanying music, but also to the euphony of the words. “The semantic meaning is all in the sounds of the words,” he says in his autobiography Chronicles about his own song “Everything Is Broken”. His recollection of how he came to his stage name also illustrates how much he is driven by sound:

“Robert Dylan. Robert Allyn. I couldn’t decide — the letter D came on stronger. But Robert Dylan didn’t look or sound as good as Robert Allyn. People had always called me either Robert or Bobby, but Bobby Dylan sounded too skittish to me and besides, there already was a Bobby Darin, a Bobby Vee, a Bobby Rydell, a Bobby Neely and a lot of other Bobbys. Bob Dylan looked and sounded better than Bob Allyn.”

Just as names at all seem to have a strong effect on the synaesthetic side of his sense of language. “By the sound of his name you’d think he looked like Von Hindenburg, but he doesn’t” (Chronicles, on Clausewitz); “Originally, Volare was sung by an Italian singer named Domenico Modugno—just the sound of his name creates its own song.” Or about Donny Young changing his name to Johnny Paycheck: “That name was sounding too sunshiny for a man who was waking up in alleyways with tattered clothes after a three-day drunk” (The Philosophy of Modern Song, 2022). And it applies to place names just as much, as he confirms to Christopher Sykes of the BBC in 1986 for the programme Omnibus. Including an explicit declaration of love:

CS: You like the names of places, don’t you? Like “Baton Rouge”.
BD: “Belfast”! [laughs] “Whitney Houston” [laughs]. Sounds like the name of a town, don’t it? I love the sound of words, yeah.

But apparently the love for the sound of “Botticelli’s niece” quickly cooled. Already before Greatest Hits Vol. II is released (17 November 1971), featuring the Dylan/Russell version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, Dylan has donated the song to The Band. The Band’s – brilliant – version is the first to be released, on Cahoots, which hits shops 15 September. The first thing we notice, when putting Greatest Hits on the turntable two months after, is the replacement of Botticelli’s niece. Instead, Levon Helm sings:

Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I got me a date with a pretty little girl from Greece
And she promised she'd be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Since the 2013 release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), we know that Dylan very quickly replaced the Italian beauty with the pretty little girl from Greece. The last track of Disc 2 is a demo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a solo version of Dylan at the piano, recorded on 19 March 1971 – the fourth and last day of the Blue Rock sessions with Leon Russell. And on it, indeed, he already sings: “a date with a pretty little girl from Greece”.

Bob Dylan – When I Paint My Masterpiece (Demo):


However, the little Greek lady is not exactly a keeper either. The song is a favourite at the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. Dylan usually opens the show with a somewhat ferocious version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, in duet with Bob Neuwirth, with the men making a stew of the lyrics anyway, and after a week they’ve grown bored of the young attractive Hellenian.

The sixth show, 4 November 1975 Providence, Rhode Island marks the triumphant return of Sandro’s relative, Botticelli’s niece. Not the definitive return, though. The line keeps on irritating Dylan, one would almost suspect. After the Rolling Thunder Revue, it takes eleven years before the song is back on the setlist in 1987, and behold: out with the old, in with the other old – there’s the Greek maiden again. For as long as it lasts, that is.

The song is dropped again after three performances in 1987. In between, in June 1987 Dylan practices the song with Grateful Dead (and then again sings pretty little girl from Greece), but the song does not make it to the setlist of the joint tour 4-26 July. Which seems to be down to Dylan; the guys from the Grateful Dead love the song. Jerry Garcia has been playing the song since the 1970s with his various side projects. And the band has “When I Paint My Masterpiece” on the setlist around those rehearsal days with Dylan during their own concerts (13 June in Ventura, 21 June in Berkeley and 30 June in Vaughan). Staying there for years; until 1995, the men play the song 146 times. Always with Botticelli’s niece, by the way, who seems closer to their hearts indeed.

With Dylan, Masterpiece does not return until the early summer of 1991. Reluctantly, it almost seems. The performances are less scintillating (especially compared to the sparkling Rolling Thunder renditions), and Dylan seems unable to make up his mind about the girl’s identity: the date with-line is rehashed and frayed, and is first again a girl from Greece, without pretty (to add insult to injury: precisely when he finally plays the song in Rome, 6 June), but in the late summer, in South America, he reveals to both Argentinian (Buenos Aires, 9 August) and Brazilian fans (Sao Paolo, 16 August) that she is Botticelli’s niece after all.

After that, the song leads a dormant existence for years. Occasionally Dylan surprises his audience with a performance of it, as with a particularly attractive, largely acoustic performance in Brussels in 2002, from which both ladies suddenly have disappeared;

Gotta hurry on back
I’ll be just for a little while
And I’m going go in 
While I’m here at least
One day I’m gonna get it together
I’m gonna paint my masterpiece

[The exact words are not easy to understand, but it is in any case a radical change]

Bob Dylan – When I Paint My Masterpiece , Brussels 2002:

It’s a first run-in, but for now it doesn’t really take off. This is the only time in 2002 he plays the song, after a single outing in 2001 (24 June, Trondheim) and a single one in 2000 (5 April, Kansas). Until 2011 (22 June, Milan), “When I Paint My Masterpiece” will sound through a concert hall only 10 times, then fading away again for years.

But then it’s 27 July 2018 and we’re in Seoul, the start of the 2018 Far East & Down Under Tour …

To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 5: A man alone at his desk


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:

One comment

  1. Whether, niece, Greece, or Venus, the ‘meaning ‘ in the storyline of Paint My Masterpiece remains much the same
    ….. sure the sound of the words is important , but the former’s not discarded at by its author as a result. Knocking Dylan for not being a strict Structuralist is pounding on the wrong door.
    Ambiguous yes, but he’s not a nonsense writer by any stretch of the imagination. The listener is not left out of mix.

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