When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 7:  I had a little refrigerator


by Jochen Markhorst

VII        I had a little refrigerator

Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece

Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola
Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!

 To promote the release of Cahoots 50th Anniversary Edition in 2021, Robbie Robertson has himself interviewed for a “The Making Of” series of clips to be posted on the official The Band website, on YouTube, Facebook and whatnot.

The approach is – obviously – not overly critical, but Robertson is realistic enough to hint between the lines that he himself agrees that The Band’s fourth album is not exactly a highlight of the legendary band’s oeuvre. “We were just messing around,” is the gist of his reminiscences, laced with half-excuses like “we weren’t really studio guys” and “I just wanted to get off that treadmill”.

Then he seems to remember that we are actually making a promotional film and quickly dashes off some half-hearted advertising talk: “I think this record is unique in The Band’s music, unique in this discovery process, and it really represents the music of a period, and the fact that is has no rules – I don’t know, I just rejoice in them,” stressing that they were experimenting, that they had complete freedom in manager Albert Grossman’s new studio in Woodstock (Bearsville Studios); “So this was like a new toy.”

Cahoots’ biggest flaw understandably does not come up: the songs are just not that strong. In his autobiography Testimony, which was in shops five years before these promotional clips, Robertson is a touch more frank: “We knew it wasn’t all our best work” (like Levon Helm in his memoirs: “The music on Cahoots didn’t prove that memorable”). It’s still The Band, of course, with even on an overproduced album those irresistible frayed edges that elevate the men to such an exceptional band, and there are enough glimmers to call it a good album – the opener “Life Is A Carnival”, Allen Toussaint’s horns, Danko’s drive and vocals plus the arrangement of “Volcano”, the heartbreaking melancholy of the closing track “The River Hymn” – but the off-category quality of the three previous records is no longer there. We only hear that particular quality flaring up briefly in the album’s Dylan song, at track 2, in “When I Paint My Masterpiece”.

Not in so many words, but Robertson, too, does recognise this. And then oddly, with poorly acted modesty, seems to want to pull some of the credits back to himself in those promotional clips in 2021:

“He said: You know, I got a song. I got the beginning of a song. I think it might be good for you guys. So he played me this song “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” He’s playing the song, and I’m thinking, he’s right, he’s right. You put The Band in front of this song, something’s gonna happen. And he was playing and he was playing it, he got to a point and said: Yeah, that’s as far as I got. I really need in between the second verse and… I really need a bridge in there.

I said to him, do you want something to drink? (I had a little refrigerator.) You want something to drink, you want a Coke or something? He said: Oh great, okay. So I went and got a Coca Cola, and he made up the bridge. It says Oh to be back in the land of Coca Cola. And… it’s just one of those… in music… a perfect accident, when something just… this fits with that. And then we went and recorded that in the studio. And I thought, okay, this is a sign, this is telling us we’re getting down to business here. And it feels good. Again, very unusual, but I feels good.”

… which is a slightly upgraded version of the story he had already penned in 2016’s Testimony:

“There’s a tune, might be good for you guys.” He picked up my guitar and sang what he had so far on “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

What a song! What an idea! I thought. I asked him if he wanted a Coke from the small fridge I had in my studio, and he came up with a bridge, “Sailing around the world in a dirty gondola, oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola.” I wrote down the words and the guys and I recorded the song the next day.

So, in both versions Robertson testifies that Dylan had only written part of the song and that a bridge was missing still; in 2016 he states Dylan lets him hear what he has so far, and in 2021 he reveals it was no more than the beginning of a song. Which is demonstrably false. Thanks to The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), we know the demo version that Dylan recorded alone on the piano on Day 4, the last day of the Blue Rock sessions 19 March 1971. A version that is the same as the recording with Leon Russel and his men three days before, apart from a few minor textual interventions, and apart from:

Sailing around the world in a dirty gondola
Sure wish I hadn’t sold my old Victrola
Ain’t nothing like to that good old rock-n-rolla

… apart from a bridge, that is. A bridge Dylan already had for quite some time. The same chords and melody as the bridge with the familiar first line that we’ll hear shortly after on Cahoots. Only the second line has changed (and the third has been deleted). Granted, not too brilliant poetry, but on that front the alternative to which the contents of Robbie’s fridge inspire is not much shinier either;

Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola
Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!

… although this variant has plenty of fans. And not the least, by the way. The ever-enthusiastic Professor Rollason, for instance, sees in these lines “a crucial Old World/New World contrast” and finds the rhyming gondola/Coca-Cola “perhaps worthy of Byron” (Dylan, Europe and a wild goose chase, 1998). Or Los Lobos’ keyboardist and producer Steve Berlin. Stereogum publishes a list of eighty artists choosing their favourite Dylan song on Dylan’s 80th birthday, 24 May 2021. Steve Berlin chooses “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, praising these very words: “And then the line about the land of Coca-Cola brings it all back home.” Friendly, but if we’re honest it’s really not much more than some corny rhyming fun.

Nevertheless, these words in the bridge seem to suit Dylan quite well. He never sings the Victrola/rock and rolla variation again, to the Coca-Cola variation he remains faithful for decades. Longer in any case than to the preceding chorus line Everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody. Somewhere around 1990, Dylan apparently learns how lame this particular simile is; after all, a rhapsody is a piece of music that, while a unity, is defined precisely by its contrasting parts – and thus, by definition, is not supposed to be smooth. From the 1990s onwards, Dylan then usually sings there either everything is gonna be different or everything is gonna be beautiful. Very occasionally, the rhapsody still comes along (Poughkeepsie 1996, Akita 1997), but from the twenty-first century onwards, the oxymoron is permanently banned.

The evolution of the bridge, from Victrola to Coca-Cola to the presumably final Shadow Kingdom variant “world full of crimson and clover” is less choppy, but then again: much more drastic as well…


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 8: “Crimson and Clover still hits me”


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. Corny rhyme? ‘Coke-Cola’ is obviously a key symbol of what the consumptive capitalist land of America is all about.

  2. Larry I don’t think symbolism and the cornyness of the rhyme are mutually exclusive. They can exist together.

  3. The ‘cornyness’ description of the rhyme is what I question, not that it can’t exist together as a symbol.

  4. CocaCola I’d say as a recognized symbol gives it a bit more dignity than being thought of as merely a “corny” rhyme ..
    There’s no exclusivity suggested, however.
    Nor is there indication that the world is about to end because of such silly quibbling (lol)

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