Friday, September 21, 2012


Bob Dylan

Tempest is a very nice album.

Four of the tracks – Tin Angel, Scarlet Town, Tempest and Roll on John are very nice indeed.

I think it is the nicest of the five albums which Bob Dylan has made since resuming song writing in 1997. (Christmas in the Heart doesn't count.)

I think it is probably the nicest thing he's done since Blood on the Tracks.

I liked it very much indeed.


Bob says there is no significance in the title. This album is called Tempest. Shakespeare's last play was called The Tempest.

But if Tempest should prove to be Bob's final album then its closing lines, addressed to a mysterious figure identified only as "John", would serve very nicely as a final curtain-call for the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll.

Tiger, Tiger, burnin' bright
I pray the lord my soul to keep
In the forests of the night
Cover him over and let him sleep

This is someone who doesn't use language in the same way that the rest of us do; who increasingly communicates by borrowing words, phrases, images, quotes from other people and mixing them up until they mean something different. This is an oracular, almost scriptural voice: words not spoken by anyone, but standing for themselves; words referring to other words; songs about songs; text for text's sake. 

Two lines from a romantic poet; a line from a child's prayer; a line which sounds like a quote but isn't. It's a cliché to say that someone who died young "burned too brightly". The mysterious "John" seems to have died young, evidently killed in some kind of ambush. The line "you burned so bright" is repeated eight times in the course of the song. But right at the end, we are asked to make a connection between it and Blake's poem The Tyger (as opposed, presumably, to Tyger). Did the singer have it in mind from the beginning that this "John" (whoever he may be) was tiger-like? Or did the repetition of "burned so bright" suggest the quotation? Does the "tiger, tiger" line retrospectively change the rest of the song? What happens when you put The Tyger and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep side by side? Part of the point of the Tyger is that it contrasts with the Lamb (as opposed to Lamb) which is also, arguably, a children's prayer. (Did he who made the lamb make thee?) Does a stanza made up entirely of quotes evoke the mood of the sources? Or their meanings? Or their original context? Are we reading literary hyper-links? "When I talk about 'John' I want you to feel the way you did when you first learned to recite Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright in school?". Or are the words just tumbling out because they sound so good. 

Shine your light
Move it on
You burned so bright
Shine on, John


Does Bob Dylan know Bill Caddick, Steve Tilston, or Dave Sudbury? I assume he does. I mean, I assume he knows everything. I assume he spends his days in the gramophone library of the Abernathy building, endlessly listening to obscure folk records. (There is no such place as the Abernathy building, but then, I seriously wonder if there is any such person as Bob Dylan.) We can be pretty sure he knows Fairport Convention.

But that's not really the question. I hear the Writing of Tipperary in Tempest, the Slip Jigs and Reels in Roll on John and the King of Rome in Early Roman Kings whether Bob put them there or not. And I hear at lot of things which Bob definitely did put in, and a whole lot of other things which he definitely left out. The point of Scarlet Town is that it isn't Barbara Allen and the point of Tin Angel is that it isn't Black Jack Davey and the point of Tempest (I'm astonished no-one else has mentioned this) is that it isn't the Great Dust Storm Disaster.

And that's true even if you have never heard those songs, which obviously you have.


Dylan has, at different times in his life believed in astrology and synchronicity. He toys with the idea that the Long Black Veil might have been dictated by Joe Hill from beyond the grave. Astrology and I-Ching are all about fuzzy logic: a symbol with a dozen possible meanings is placed alongside a symbol with a dozen possible meanings, and you are are invited to choose the meaning you want to believe from a huge and shifting quantity of data. (
This is also how Sociology works.)

The succession of phrases and words and symbols in a Dylan song are much more like a hexagram or a horoscope than a recipe book. They don't mean. They evoke moods and suggest and allude. And they put you in a state of mind in which you draw inferences and make connections even if they aren't there. I'm told some kinds of drugs have much the same affect.


We can all agree that Tin Angel isn't Seven Yellow Gypsies, or Black Jack Davey or any one of that genre of songs about the lady who would rather have one kiss from a gypsy's lips than all of her husband's lands and money. Oh. Bob takes:

It was late last night when the boss come home
Enquiring about his lady
The only answer he received
"She gone with Gypsy Davey...."

and turns it into:

It was late last night when the boss came home
To a deserted mansion and a desolate home
Servant said "Boss, the lady's gone
She left this morning just before dawn..."

"You got something to tell me, tell it to me man
Come straight to the point, as quickly as you can"
"Henry Lee, the chief of the clan
Came riding through the woods and took her by the hand."

It's partly another hyper-link. The opening line tells us "when you are listening to this song, I want you to be thinking about the story of Gypsy Davey and the Raggletaggle Gypsies"; the rest of the verse fleshes out the scene in the ballad, tells us what master and servant really said to each other and how they felt.

But what are we to say about a line like:

"Go fetch me my coat and tie
And the cheapest leather than money can buy
Saddle me up my buckskin mare
If you see me go by, put up a prayer."

At some level it connects back to:

"Go saddle for me my buckskin horse
An a hundred dollar saddle
Point out to me their wagon tracks
And after them I'll travel..."

But it's as if the line has become distorted – as if endless repetition has retained a trace of the original line, but removed its meaning. Dylan's own version of the original song is much concerned with the value of the lady's shoes:

"Pull off, pull of your high-heeled shoes
Made of Spanish leather
Get behind me on my horse
And we'll ride off together." 

Woody Guthrie's version (the best) is more concerned about her gloves

"Now I won't take off my buckskin gloves
They're made of Spanish leather
I'll go my way from day to day
And sing with the Gypsy Davey."

And of course, in Dylan's own girl-leaves-boy ballad "boots of Spanish leather" are a cryptic sign that a relationship has ended. And all of this is somehow evoked by not being in the new song. Not a hundred dollar saddle, but a cheap one. Not expensive Spanish leather, but the cheapest you can find.

It sometimes feels as if classic songs are being boiled down to their constituent motifs and reassembled in random orders, as if someone wanted to convey to you his feelings about  St Mark's Gospel and told you that it was a story about a man in a cave hammering nails into a boat with a fish. The sad story of Barbara Allen is almost always set in a place called Scarlet Town which some people think may simply be a pun on "Reading". But all that's left of the ballad in Dylan's song "Scarlet Town" is the repeated line "In Scarlet Town, where I was born" and the fragment "In Scarlet Town in the month of May, sweet William on his death bed lay." 

This is also what dreams are like, at least according to Dr Freud.


 It's perfectly obvious which "John" Bob is singing about.

From the Liverpool Docks to the red light Hamburg streets
Down in the quarry with the quarrymen
Playing to the big crowds, playing to the cheap seats
Another day in the life on the way to your journey's end

John Lennon really did grow up in Liverpool; he really did have a residency in Hamburg; his first group really was called the Quarrymen, he really did perform to big crowds, he really did make a famous one-liner about "the people in the cheap seats" and he really did co-write a song called Day in the Life. That's what, six references in four lines? But Roll on John really isn't "about" that John. Dylan once wrote a song about Lenny Bruce called "Lenny Bruce" that really was about Lenny Bruce. It said things like.

Maybe he had some problems, 

maybe some things that he couldn’t work out
But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth 

and he knew what he was talkin’ about


I rode with him in a taxi once
Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months

That actually tells us things about the comedian. For example, its tells us that he was a comedian. If we had never heard of Lenny Bruce (and I hadn't, not particularly) then we would come out of the song better informed. But as a lyric, it sucks.

Roll on John tells us nothing about John Lennon. Or Bob Dylan. You wouldn't know from the song that the two of them ever met. You'd hardly know that John sang songs. Lennon certainly did form a skiffleband called the Quarrymen but they certainly never performed in a quarry. Some of the lines are very obscure indeed:

Sailin' through the trade winds bound for the south
Rags on your back just like any other slave
They tied your hands and the clamped your mouth
Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave

Lennon did travel from England to America, but he went by plane. Maybe it's a reference to the story of him learning to sail a yacht and holding onto the wheel all through a storm, one of those things which is such a perfect metaphor that you can hardly believe it happened in real life even though you know it did. But that works only if you know in advance that "John" is John Lennon, and are trying to retrofit the solution to the riddle. And the song isn't a riddle. It's a song.

It's a song about a man who travels from England to America, who is killed in an ambush, possibly in Texas, and whose death makes lots of people very sad. The atmosphere and melody, as well as some of the lines, strongly recall Knockin' on Heaven's Door – a not inappropriate song to evoke when talking about a man who was shot in the back. But having drawn the line from Tempest to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, I can't help hearing echoes of Steve Tilston's fictitious Billy the Kid in the new song. Compare:

A train to St Louis, just one jump ahead
he slept one eye open a gun 'neath his head
but he dreamed of the green fields and mountains of home
while crossing the plains where the buffalo roam


Slow down, you're moving way to fast
Come together, right now over me
Your bones are weary, you're about to breath your last
Lord you know how hard that it can be.

Roll on John, through the rain and snow
Take the right hand road and go where the buffalo roam
They'll trap you in an ambush before you know
Too late now to go back home

Lennon wasn't killed in an ambush: he was shot by the loneliest and nuttiest of all lone nuts. (And Billy the Kid didn't travel from England to New York with a ten shilling note in the lining of his jacket.) This is a fictitious John made up of half-remembered fragments of the real one. But the above verses contain no less than three quotes from actual John Lennon songs. The quotes and the actual facts about Lennon's life seem to hover above the story about the English slave who was killed in an ambush in the Wild West; whispering "when I talk about this imaginary figure, think about John Lennon". (Thus it was fulfilled which was spoken of the prophet: I am the egg man.) 

It has a very good chances of standing as a memorial to Bob's friend John. "Lenny Bruce was bad/ he was like the brother you never had" is already long forgotten.


There is a danger of getting lost in Dylan's songs. You either approach them as codes which have a magic solution ("Aha! "John" not having time to escape from the Wild West to England is an allegory of President Nixon trying to deport Lennon because of his drugs conviction") or you start trying to unpick a network of intertextuality. Or you start to tell complete falsehoods, like "Tempest tells the story of S.S Titanic", which it plainly doesn't.

Most likely

fly away little bird
fly away flap your wings
fly away by night
like the early roman kings

is referencing the nursery rhyme

two little dickie-birds, sitting on a wall
fly away Peter, fly away Paul
come back Peter, come back Paul.

("Peter" is the Pope in Rome; "Paul" is the protestant church.) But when I hear "fly away and flap your wings" I can't help thinking about the best song ever written about a little bird, who certainly did flap his wings, the famous pigeon named the King of Rome (as opposed to "King of Rome").

Is this the connection that Bob intended me to make? I doubt it.

Did Bob intend me to make connections that Bob didn't intend me to make? I'm quite sure of it.


John Lennon wasn't buried, but cremated. No-one even knows where his ashes were scattered. Titanic didn't go down in a storm. It hit an iceberg. So why is the song which gives the name to album called Tempest?

Well, because Tempest isn't about the Titanic. So far as I can tell, it's about the end of the universe. It just uses Titanic as a sort of controlling metaphor. Dylan puts his cards on the table in the first stanza. That godawful movie is about an old lady telling a crew of treasure hunters what really happened on the day of the disaster. The most famous Titanic song of all says that

It was sad, (it was sad)
it was sad (mighty sad)
it was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the sea)

Dylan's opening stanza references both of them:

The pale moon rose in its glory
Over the western town
She told the sad sad story
Of the great ship that went down...

It's fictional versions of the story that Dylan is drawing on. "It was sad..." sees Titanic as an example of hubris and nemesis and God being a bit of a bugger.

When they built the great Titanic, they said what they would do
Was build a ship which the water could not go through
But God with power in hand
Showed the world it could not stand
It was sad when that great ship went down....

Dylan conflates the sinking of the ship with God's final winding up of his creation to the point where you can't tell which bit refers to which event. His song could also be seen as an account of all the husbands and wives and little children who lost their lives. There certainly was a rich man named Mister Astor on Titanic. Davey the brothel keeper is rather harder to track down. Leo, the mad artist who painted whatever was in his head, is a reference to Jack Dawson, the perfectly sane artist who painted naked women, who didn't exist, and was played by Leonardo Dicapprio in the movie. Cleo is there because she rhymes with Leo. We aren't told if any of the uncles and aunts and the nephews lost their pants.


Dylan's last idol, Woody Guthrie, said that on Black Sunday when the worst of the dust storms struck Oklahoma, lots of "religious minded folk" thought that it was literally the end of the world.

It fell across our city 
like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, 

we thought it was our doom.

Dylan's account of Titanic is likewise steeped in imagery which is literally apocalyptic. He 
is clearly using Guthrie's song (Great Dust Storm or Dust Storm Disaster) as a model. Both songs are waltzes; both songs are very long. Both convey the scale of the disaster by piling up individual facts and stories. Both use religious imagery. And there is a rather more obvious connection which explains why the album is called Tempest and not, for example, Iceberg.

Guthrie's song begins:

On the fourteenth day of April
Nineteen thirty five
There struck the worst of dust-storms
That ever filled the skies.

Dylan's second verse goes

Twas the fourteenth day of April
Over the waves she rode
Sailing into tomorrow
And a golden age foretold 

And yes, the standard works, or at any rate Wikipedia, confirm this: April 14th, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg; April 14th, 1935, a dust-storm struck Oklahoma. But we aren't simply dealing with a coincidence of facts. The date is part of the meaning of the song: it would hardly be going too far to say that the song is about the date. Every note of the tune is a hyperlink; saying, over and over again "when I sing about Titanic, I want you to think about Woody Guthrie and the dust bowl disaster and therefore of the end of the world". The most famous book about the dust bowl takes as it's title a quote from a song which is itself a quote from the Apocalypse. Chapter 14 verse 9 if I remember correctly. 

As a matter of fact, Titanic hit the 'berg at about 11:30 PM on Saturday night, and sunk a couple of hours later on the morning of April 15th. So placing the disaster at at about 12.30 seems fair enough. But when Dylan tells us this, his religious imagery reaches a climax: 

The ship was going under
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside
The veil was rent asunder
'Tween the hours of twelve and one
No change no sudden wonder
Could undo what had begun

This is all straight out of the Redemption Hymnal. "When the roll is called up yonder" is an inspiring ditty about the end of the universe ("when the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore and the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there"). Charles Wesley's great hymn And Can It Be... talks about the angels being unable to look directly at the wounds of Jesus. The synoptic Gospels all say that when Jesus Christ died, the veil in the Holy of Holies was ripped in half. Traditionally, Jesus died at 3PM on Good Friday, but the land was said to have been dark between 12 and 1. I don't know whether Bob is saying "the sinking of the Titanic was like the death of Jesus" or "I want you to feel some of the horror and sense of gravity that a devout Christian would feel reading the story of the Passion". Perhaps it's just that he likes the idea that his fictitious "Titanic" is dragged, not to the bottom of the sea but through a rent in the fabric of space and time -- out of the universe itself, into the underworld -- and felt that "the veil was rent asunder" is a nice phrase to describe that.

The idea that the Crucifxion of Jesus took place on April 14th is common enough to have a handy theological nick-name: "quartrodecimism".


Very probably, you may say: but does that help us find out what the song is about?  Well, no. We already know what the song is about. It tells us. It's the story of a Watchman who dreams that Titanic is going to sink but who fails to warn anybody in time. The song, I think, is more a description of the dream than of the real disaster. 
The Watchman is referenced four times in the song; it's almost a refrain. On the third occasion we're told

The Watchman he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed that Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone.

I think that's the point of the song. The apocalypse is coming; someone knows it; he tries to tell someone; but no-one listens. Is the Watchman Jesus,  who died on the same day the Titanic went down? Or is it Bob Dylan, the spokesman who denied he was a spokesman, standing on the ocean and reflecting from the mountain? Or is it literally the author of the book of Revelation, cooped up on an island, telling the truth, not being heard, refusing to be silenced? (Roll on, John.)

None of the above. The song isn't about anything. None of Bob's songs are, not since he stopped writing protest songs. It's an artefact enacting the connection between the death of Jesus Christ, the end of the universe, the sinking of the Titanic, the dust storm of 1935. If we enter into the ritual, then we experience the idea that we -- individually, collectively, cosmically -- are on the edge of a precipice; like the people on the Titanic, in their tuxedos, eating their fine food, listening to their fine music, not knowing that their ship was inexorably heading towards an iceberg and there was nothing they could about it. 

In a very real sense, life is rather like that. "Thou fool: this very night they life is required of thee".


The was a movie, itself replete with apocalyptic imagery, which began and ended with a Dylan song and had a Dylan song in the middle. The title of the movie was Watchmen. And definitely not the Watchmen.


I have heard Bob Dylan perform live three times. The third time was October of last year. The second time was in the spring of 2009. The first time was...hang on, just a minute, let me check:

It was D.H Lawrence, wasn't it, who said you'd be crazy to try to read the book of Revelation, and if you weren't crazy when you started, you'd be crazy by the time you finished.

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the book of Revelation
And filled his cup with tears.

Roll on, Bob. 

A short playlist about intertextuality


Lirazel said...

April 14 also happens to be the date Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, something Dylan knows but may have chosen not to reference. (It means quite a bit to us USAians.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Of course...! Which means that we now know who "the captain" represents... ("Our fearful trip is done / the ship has weathered every rack / the prize we sought is won" etc etc)