When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 5: A man alone at his desk

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


by Jochen Markhorst

When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 5

by Jochen Markhorst

V          A man alone at his desk

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

It’s 1785 and eight-year-old Carl Friedrich Gauß baffles village school teacher Büttner with his arithmetic skills. Even the “most difficult textbook in the German language”, Höhere Arithmetik, little Carl completes in one afternoon. To master his emotions, the bewildered teacher habitually administers Carl the last spanking of his life, and then arranges a maths tutor to prepare little Gauß for an academic career.

“They worked together for a year. At the beginning Gauss looked forward to the afternoons, which at least interrupted the uniformity of the weeks, although he did not have much interest in mathematics, he would have preferred Latin lessons. Then it got boring. Bartels didn’t think quite as draggingly as the others, but tiring it was with him as well.”

German success author Daniel Kehlmann’s biggest hit is 2005’s Die Vermessung der Welt (“Measuring the World”), a kind of fictional double biography of top German scientists Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt and their very different ways of measuring the world. We see a fascinating submotif in the above excerpt: Bartels didn’t think quite as draggingly as the others, but tiring it was with him as well – the loneliness of the genius.

Belle & Sebastian – Lord Anthony (live at Barrowlands):

As a theme it does come up often enough in biographies of geniuses, fictional or otherwise, both artists and scientists: the frustrating insight that you yourself are the only one who can recognise the depth, truly appreciate the beauty, enjoy the elegance of your work – the loneliness of the genius creator of the genius masterpiece. And via a long-standing diversions, this motif now seems to creep into Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as well.

The disappearance of female company from that hotel room in 2002 still seems to be something Dylan initially regrets, in the sparse performances thereafter. In the years up to the seemingly last performance in 2011 the first lines still remain unchanged, the narrator rushing across Rome’s streets and down the Spanish Steps back to his hotel room on that cold dark night, but then:

Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ll paint all the walls, and paint them all with grease
She promised she’ll be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece.

… an unnamed “she” as a replacement for the Greek beauty and Botticelli’s niece, in other words. Not very striking, though; much more striking, of course, is that thing with fat, with “grease” – which will be further elaborated in the probably final version, the version we are graced with on the Shadow Kingdom release in 2021. The corona surprise marks the triumphant return of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. The song opens both the 2021 set and the soundtrack released in 2023 of that online corona concert, and thereafter remains on the setlist in all concerts of The Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour (2021-2024), usually around the fifth spot.

We can follow in quite detail Dylan’s wrestling with that first verse from 2018 through to today’s version from 2021. So, after 2011 Masterpiece is put in the drawer for seven years, but then, when Dylan has rehabilitated the song and dusted it off in the summer of 2018 at the start of the Far East & Down Under Tour, we hear:

Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
Gonna swap out all my clothes, scrape off all of the grease.
Gonna stay right there, gonna lock the doors on the world for a while
Gonna stay right there until I paint my masterpiece

The perhaps a bit too vulgar “swap out” is soon replaced by “wash out”, scraping off the grease is a keeper. Three weeks later and 8400 km (5200 miles) away, 26 August in Christchurch, New Zealand it is:

Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
Gonna wash out my clothes, scrape off all the grease.
Gonna lock the doors, gonna turn my back on the world for a while
Gonna stay right there until I paint my masterpiece

Bob Dylan – When I Paint My Masterpiece Christchurch 2018:

… and then Dylan only still fiddles with those last lines. We hear different variants with and without locking the doors and with and without turning my back on the world, which makes no difference to the thrust whatsoever. Main point: ladies are no longer welcome. The elder Dylan definitely decides on a radical change of tone, gone is the oh-la-la couleur. From now on we listen to a solitary, tormented artist deliberately cutting himself off from the world and its carnal temptations.

Ah, Humboldt exclaimed, what is science then? Gauss sucked his pipe. A man alone at his desk. A sheet of paper in front of him, a telescope at best, the clear sky outside the window. If this man doesn’t give up until he understands. That might be science.
(Measuring the World – Daniel Kehlmann)

Fitting to this new scenario are also the lyrics adjustments in the opening of the second verse, the Coliseum couplet. In 2002, the first time the ladies were discarded, he is still dodging lions and wasting time, and keeps on doing so in the years that follow. Only in 2018, at the resuscitation of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” in the Far East, do we hear:

Well, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodgin’ lions with a mean and hungry look
Those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see ’em
I could see ‘em comin’, I could read their faces like a book

… which is given a much more transparent metaphorical quality by the plot shift to a lonely, tormented artist; Dylan has decided that the artist is no longer idly loitering, down there in the arena – wasting time is dropped once and for all. The Coliseum is now unmistakably the stage, the publicness in which the artist for so long has been offering panem et circenses, bread and games to the public. The lions are now mean and hungry – evoking the critics, the arrogant reviewers, the howlers, the disgruntled fans, the Judas-and-treason-shouting disappointed ones. Who confront the creative, misunderstood genius with the same depressing truth as the young Gauß experiences;

“Not being able to look away was sadness. Being awake was sadness. Recognising, poor Bartels, was despair.”

I could hardly stand to see ’em, I could see ‘em comin’, I could read their faces like a book.


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 6: Pete, money is coming in


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. “Turn my back on the world” …. shades of Hobo Bob in the play “Mad House On Castle Street”, London, England (1962/3)

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