When I paint my masterpiece: 8. “Crimson and Clover still hits me”

by Jochen Markhorst

“Crimson and Clover still hits me”

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

Douglas Brinkley has noticed it too, the renaissance, or rather upgrade of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. He asks about it in his interview for the New York Times in 2020, and then gets a remarkable answer from Dylan:

“I think this song has something to do with the classical world, something that’s out of reach. Someplace you’d like to be beyond your experience. Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain. That you’ve achieved the unthinkable. That’s what the song tries to say, and you’d have to put it in that context.”

Remarkable for a variety of reasons. Confusing is the position taken by Dylan, after all the creator and restorer of the 50-year-old song; “I think this song has something to do with the classical world” – as if the song is a self-governing entity over which the creator has limited influence, and is as mysterious to himself as it is to the audience. In line, incidentally, with what Dylan says a little earlier in the same Brinkley interview about the creation of the Rough And Rowdy Ways songs: “The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”

And the second noteworthiness is the depth Dylan seems to suspect in “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. And just as confusing. The more often you reread Dylan’s analysis, the more opaque it becomes – it’s almost Kafka’s paradoxical circle, the Kafkaesque quirk we know from ultra-short stories like Die Bäume (The Trees) and Der Aufbruch (The Departure), in which each subsequent sentence further obscures the understanding of the previous one. As it is with these five sentences. At least, “Coca-Cola”, “Brussels”, a plane ride and candy-eating journalists, to name just a few other song ingredients, do not, with the best will in the world, unleash “something with the classical world”. The subordinate clause something that’s out of reach suggests a contiguous connection, that the “something” from the Classical World is out of your reach – though Dylan doesn’t use a conjunction between the two phrases, so it’s a bit of a guess what the connection between the phrases is meant to be.

The following three sentences seem to be intended as an accumulatio, as a listing of equivalents for something like “creating a surprising masterpiece” – “surprising” as the talent apparently is deemed to be insufficient to create something of this exceptional quality. It is successively “beyond your experience”, “supreme and first rate” and an “unthinkable” achievement. The qualifications are a bit intense, and the metaphor you could never come back down from the mountain is perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but the thrust seems clear: the song is about, as we already have thought for about 50 years, creating a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.

After which Dylan’s closing words unscrew the newly-created notion again: this now is the “context” in which to put it. Weird. This is not “context”, this is saying-the-same-with-other-words. That “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is “something about the classical world” and features a narrator who dreams aloud of creating an exceptional masterpiece, we have known for 50 years. No, it seems as if Dylan is gradually removing contextually alien elements for the song’s renovation, to make the lyrics more one-dimensional, coherent. Which would at least explain the elimination of Botticelli’s niece and the pretty girl from Greece, as well as the deletion of “wasting my time and dodging lions in the Coliseum”, and it “contextualises” the evolution of the bridge as well.

It’s a jerky evolution. The very first recording, with Leon Russel, the one we know from Greatest Hits Vol. II, does not yet have a bridge. The demo version Dylan recorded on his own at the piano in those same March days in 1971 has an initial bridge:

Sailin’ round 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!

… the bridge that will never be sung again and according to Robbie Robertson, thanks to an inspirational Coke bottle from his mini-fridge before the song’s first release, the Band’s version on Cahoots, is changed into

Sailing 'round the world in a dirty gondola
Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola

… the words that also appear in the official publication on the site and in Lyrics. It is the bridge version to which Dylan, apart from minor deviations, remains faithful until deep into the 1990s. I’d be so happy to be back in the land of Coca-Cola, Dylan sometimes sings abroad. Or when in the US: Oh, to be back in the town of Coca-Cola (in 1997 both in Durham and Los Angeles, for instance). And playful variations thereon. Oh, to be back in the land where I could have just one more rum and Coca Cola! he sings 1999 in Oxford, winking at the Andrew Sisters in a brilliant, lingering rendition with prominent steel guitar and impassioned vocals, by the way. And the most frenzied version gets the Brussels audience in 2002, already won over anyway because Dylan serves them with “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and the name-check “Brussels”:

Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola
I gotta fill it with root beer, 7-Up and even Coca Cola!

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

In yet another exceptionally successful performance, acoustic and driven, this time starring Larry Campbell’s mandolin, and stretched to over six minutes – in which Dylan plays the bridge twice (the second without root beer and 7-Up, but with “just another Coca-Cola”), and twice the last verse, so to the delight of the audience also twice “Brussels”, which Dylan milks very untypically and very showmanlike as well:

I left Rome, I pulled into Brussels [audience cheering again]
On a plane ride so bumpy… Brussels! Where they all go… [
                                   audience cheering even louder]

Sometime in the second decade of the 21st century, that drivel about gondolas and Coca-Cola then starts to bother Dylan, and he feels a need to tighten the lyrics further, make them more coherent, put them in context. So that silly bridge has to go. We’ll hear the revised version from 27 July 2018, the start of the Far East & Down Under Tour in Seoul:

Sailin’ round the world full of crimson and clover
Oh, sometimes I feel like my cup is running over!

… plus the musical novelty of playing the last bars of the bridge from “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” under my cup is running over.

Now, admittedly, the lyrics do indeed fit the “concept”. Sailin’ round the world full of crimson and clover, with the reference to Tommy James & The Shondells’ immortal world hit, does express something like “searching for an original masterpiece”. With as an amusing by-catch the backstory, which could just as easily have been a Dylan story: in a radio interview Tommy James was persuaded to play the rough mix of the song he was working on at the time (November 1968).

Unbeknownst to him, it is recorded and then sold as a single to listeners who ask for it. Demand soars, and Tommy’s record company denies the protesting Tommy James to finish the song, to mix it the way he thinks it should be. Comparable to Dylan’s objections to the release of unrelenting masterpieces like “Blind Willie McTell” or “Red River Shore”, recordings he feels are “not finished”. And comparably incorrect: the phenomenal success of the raw mix proves record company Roulette Records right. “Crimson and Clover still hits me,” as Keith Richards writes forty years later in his autobiography Life.

Also fitting with the “concept”, lastly, is Dylan’s new closing line of the bridge: Oh, sometimes I feel like my cup is running over, which can be understood perfectly as a heartfelt cry of the frustrated artist seeking inspiration for his Masterpiece. Perhaps a nod to another immortal 1968 masterpiece, to James Brown’s “I Guess I’ll Have To Cry Cry Cry”, but my cup is running over is, of course, in itself too generic to be promoted to reference.

It’s a fairly stable replacement since Seoul 2018 – Dylan varies at most on the introductory words. “Oh, lots of time I feel just like,” for example (Waterbury 2018), or even closer to the desperate gospel classic “Motherless Child”: “Oh Lord sometime I feel like…” (New York 2018), but these are only minute deviations from the more-or-less final version that will gain semi-official status with the release of Shadow Kingdom in 2023.

With which Dylan has finally put it into context, accomplished the unthinkable, reached the place beyond his experience, and built his supreme and first-rate bridge to the timeless portrait of the struggling artist. At least: if that’s what the song tries to say.


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 9: And then along came Man to burn the oak tree down


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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