When I Paint My Masterpiece 10: The muscled mussels from Brussels


by Jochen Markhorst

The muscled mussels from Brussels

I left Rome and landed in Brussels
On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried
Clergymen in uniform and young girls pullin’ muscles
Everyone was there to greet me when I stepped inside
Newspapermen eating candy
Had to be held down by big police
Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent
When I paint my masterpiece

When Dylan resumes his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour 2021-2024 in the spring of 2024 in Fort Lauderdale on 1 March, it soon becomes apparent that he is still tinkering with the song.

In Florida, at that first concert, he keeps the lyrics intact, but the arrangement has been quite radically changed. And by a funny coincidence well-timed. A brusque lady somewhere in the audience heckles loudly after track 4 (“False Prophet”): “Play something that we know!”.

Almost immediately guitarist Bob Britt sets in an over-familiar lick. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” from 1990’s They Might Be Giants, hails half the internet the next day. Which might be a bit too wishful thinking. For starters, the song is not a TMBG-song, but only covered by the alternative rock band from Brooklyn. It is actually a 1953 novelty hit from The Four Lads. Though Dylan’s jukebox probably contains Bing Crosby’s 1953 version or Frankie Vaughan’s 1954 hit version.

Apart from that, it is highly questionable whether “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is the template; a stronger and more likely candidate is Irving Berlin’s 1930’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz”, of which “Istanbul” is a rip-off. Dylan undoubtedly knows both songs, but may have been inspired by the overnight stay at Fort Lauderdale’s Ritz-Carlton, and surely is more charmed by the exuberant rhyming pleasure and humour in “Puttin’ On The Ritz” anyway;

That's where each and every lulu-belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin' elbows
Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin' on the Ritz

… for example, or even a degree more ferocious and exuberant in the 1946 rewritten version for Fred Astaire:

Dressed up like a million dollar trouper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Come let's mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or um-ber-ellas
In their mitts
Puttin' on the ritz

Overenthusiastic Dylan fans further mystify the surprising new arrangement by understanding it as a lightning-fast, spontaneous, sharp-witted response to that witch’s shouted complaint. Which it most definitely is not; not Dylan, but Bob Britt starts the lick, it is clearly rehearsed and this new arrangement will be maintained through Austin 6 April, in all 24 concerts of Leg 8 of the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour 2021-2024, that is.

Incidentally, Play something that we know is quite a bizarre reproach from the lady. She shouts this after song number 4, when Dylan and the band have already played “Watching The River Flow”, “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine” and “I Contain Multitudes” – a music lover who doesn’t know any of these songs must have been living under a rock for the past 60 years.

Dylan – When I Paint My Masterpiece, Fort Lauderdale 1 March 2024:

So a radically different arrangement, but Dylan has left the lyrics alone – the song has exactly the same words as the last concert of the seventh leg, 3 December 2023 in Evansville, Indiana. Well, for the time being, anyway; before the month is over, the ever-scraping and shaving poet has already been rewriting lines again. Especially verse line 3, the old and familiar You can almost think that you’re seein’ double, is suddenly bothering him, evidently. On 14 March, in Athens, Georgia we hear Oh but always I live inside of a bubble, the following week in Louisville You can always get into trouble, and at the last concert (Austin 6 April) it has evolved into You can always find some way to get yourself into trouble1).

Apart from that, a small text change in the second stanza stands out. The smooth rhapsody line that has been replaced since the 1990s by Someday, everything gonna be different is this one time in Austin: Someday, everything gonna be so doggone beautiful – perhaps the relieved sigh of an elderly bluesman playing the last concert of an exhausting series (24 concerts in 37 days) right before a well-earned holiday.

Curiously, the weaker lines from “When I Paint My Masterpiece” still remain untouched; the entire third stanza escapes once again. The questionable 1971 intervention to replace With a picture of a tall oak tree by my side with On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried has been since 2018  – hardly impressive – On a plane ride so bumpy that it made me ill, to rhyme with comin’ down the hill. But the line in between,

Clergymen in uniform and young girls pullin’ muscles

… has been unchanged since its first official publication (Writings & Drawings, 1973). It is definitely an intriguing, Dylan-worthy mise-en-scene, but those body-building misses remain alienating. We have just arrived in Brussels. You might encounter enough clergymen in uniform, chaplains there, true. The Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels has plenty of barracks, military training institutes, a military hospital and whatnot, not to mention all the chaplains on duty in prisons, schools and the ordinariate – but muscle-flexing young damsels, no. Mussel-eating ladies, yes. Plenty young girls pulling mussels out of the shell. Mussels and chips, moules-frites is pretty much the national dish of both Flanders and Wallonia and you can order it in any eatery, on any terrace in Brussels. Chez Léon for example, in the Royal Saint-Hubert galleries near Grote Markt, Grand-Place, claims to prepare about a tonne of mussels a day (1,000 kilograms, about 2,204.6 pounds – close to a British ton). It is, in short, almost impossible to walk through the Belgian capital on any sunny day without seeing young girls pullin’ mussels.

It is of course quite possible that Dylan in March 1971 succumbed to the pun created by the homophone mussels/muscles, and still found it funny enough to hold on to it when it was booked in 1973, but not very likely. The pun is just too one-dimensional, simple, too thin, the “joke”, if you can call it that, wears off quickly and doesn’t have an indestructible power like, say, the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken or honky-tonk lagoons.

No, muscles, on second thought, does look like the next miss by the same hard-of-hearing dyslexic transcriber who tried to make us believe, back in 1973, that the opening line of “Tell Me, Momma” is about a cold water dog called Ol’ black Bascom and that a little bird flutters around in “Sign On The Cross” and that the narrator sees the Jacks and the River Queen in “Down Along The Cove” (to name just three of many examples).

It is, admittedly, not an enviable job – to be given the task, sometime in 1972, of typing out all of Dylan’s lyrics from the past decade. We don’t know who the unfortunate one at publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. was. But this one time we cannot blame him or her. Those muscles must have come from somewhere else.

No editor, cryptographer or transcriber is mentioned in Writings & Drawings, but the work is “especially” dedicated to “the girls upstairs – Cathy, Miriam, Mildred & Naomi who put this heavy volume together”. The choice of words (“the girls upstairs”) and the casual, not to say disrespectful, limitation to first names suggests that transcribing the lyrics is a job outsourced to the girls in the typing pool, to the secretaries. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is the last song. We have reached the last page. It is Friday afternoon and the ladies have been working on this horrible monster job non-stop for nine weeks. They are pretty much done with it.

“Spanish Stairs?” says Cathy hesitantly, “shouldn’t it be Spanish Steps?”
“Just type it down Cathy. Who cares,” replies Miriam, whose boyfriend is waiting downstairs.
“Poetic licence!” shouts the indestructible Mildred, who has ended discussions with this very same platitude about three hundred times in recent weeks.
Naomi already has her coat on. “Why don’t you grab the sleeve of that last Band album,” she says gruffly, pointing to a pile of records in the corner, “I think all the lyrics are just on there.”
Miriam quickly finds it and flips open the sleeve. Cathy now looks even more unhappy: “Girl from Greece? We did spend an hour and a half trying to decipher Botticelli’s niece!”
“Enough of this,” Naomi decides briskly. “Just copy The Band’s lyrics. I’m off. Have a nice weekend.”

Fiction, of course, but it could just as well be based on historical events. Indeed, the published, official lyrics are a non-existent mix of the Dylan/Leon Russell version on Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (first verse) and The Band’s Cahoots version (the other two verses plus the Coca-Cola bridge). Which means we can blame that alienating muscles on Robbie Robertson, who, after all, tells us himself in his autobiography Testimony: “I wrote down the words and the guys and I recorded the song the next day.”

Not too familiar with mussels perhaps, Robbie Robertson.

1 thanks to Craig Danuloff for unravelling what Dylan is singing there.


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 11: I go back to Stephen Foster


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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