Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dali, Dylan and the Tombstone Blues

“The lyrics fit the surreal style of the era, while being scathing of society and authority.” ~Wikipedia

In September 2009 I explored the question of whether Salvador Dali was madman or genius. What brought this to mind was the Wiki statement above which I came across while looking for additional insights on Dylan's Tombstone Blue. While I disagree with the statement as regards fitting "the surreal style of the era", I totally agree that many of Dylan's songs of the period were surreal, and therefore can be compared to Dali. First, let's correct the word "fit." The surrealism injected into rock and pop music of the Sixties most likely emerged as a result of Dylan. He wasn't fitting it in. He preceded it. At this point in time, the summer of 1965, it did not yet exist. The Beatles were still recording Help.

But this blog note is more concerned with the comparison between Dylan and Dali.

There are tens of thousands of artists, but very few who become household names, and even fewer who have done it during their lifetimes while still above the sod. Picasso, Dali and Warhol are certainly on the short list. Each of them carefully mapped a path to the fame they craved. Both Warhol and Dali crafted a distinct public face while surrounding themselves with an aura of ambiguity. And though there were countless surrealists in the movement, it is only Dali who became a household name.

Dali's paintings are noteworthy for a variety of features. Besides their masterful execution, the content included grotesque distortions, optical illusions, elongated legs on elephants and other body parts, sensuality, eroticism, flies, grasshoppers, melting watches, historical references, and inexplicable juxtapositions. An in-depth analysis of the three albums that established Dylan as the iconic figure of his time -- Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde -- likewise contain numerous songs that coincide with Dali's oeuvre.

Tombstone Blues, second cut on Highway 61 Revisited, is a suitable example of the surrealistic method of storytelling that would re-appear in various forms over the next forty years. While the Beatles were singing Twist and Shout in Shea Stadium, August 15 1965, Columbia was preparing Dylan's "Shot Heard Round The World" for its August 30 release.

While screaming teen-aged girls drowned out the lyrics of "You make me dizzy Miss Lizzy" other minds were being jolted awake by "Once upon a time you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you." Opening cut. Followed by this jangling jam-blast...

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
At the head of the chamber of commerce

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

Huh? What's this? It's surreal, but not meaningless. It's not dada. This song and many of the others are a mirror of the chaotic subterranean zeitgeist of that moment in time.

Like Dali, the song explodes with images. The images contain strings of historical references, allusions and illusions, literary distortions and eroticism.

The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, “I’ve just been made”
Then sends out for the doctor who pulls down the shade
Says, “My advice is to not let the boys in”

Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride
“Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
You will not die, it’s not poison”

What is it that Dylan is here "laying between the lines"?

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

The Biblical references add up all throughout, distorted and used to -- at times -- to torpedo sense, yet teasing the mind with promises of meaning. This can't be all nonsense, but there's work involved to gain a handhold. Parents walk away scratching their heads while their young ones hook on to fragments of meaning and catch a bigger picture. In the midst of all this madness, "I'm in the streets with the tombstone blues."

The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who sits worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter

Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after

Something's happening, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?

The march of imagery continues and the suggestive geometry of innocence reaches a climax with....

Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Ma Rainey was one of the first recorded blues singers, Beethoven one of the greatest composers at the dawn of the romantic period of classical music. Their passion for making great music has been replaced by an articifice, tuba players around a flagpole. It's madness, but when you see it and understand it, you know why this generation ended up in the streets with the tombstone blues.

Enigmatic is a word that applies equally well to both the art and the man, whether speaking of Dali or Dylan, whether it's the Hallucinogenic Torreador or Tombstone Blues. In both pictures the images are riveting, and add up to something.

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

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Saturday May 17 join us for A Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan as we kick off this year's North Country Dylan Days at the Sacred Heart in Duluth. To stay current on the events of Duluth Dylan Fest, visit the Facebook page and Like. Also, be sure to bookmark Hibbing's Dylan Days schedule.

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For a more comprehensive exploration of this song, read John Hinchey's Like a Complete Unknown. For an entertaining exploration of interpretations of the song's elements, visit Songmeanings.  

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

ridiculous. there is no code to be cracked nor literal meaning to be had. its oral/aural poetry man. the meaning is the sound

Anthony Schlagel said...

The original lyrics actually are (no matter what it says on Dylan.com):

Daddy's in the alley
He's looking for food
I'm in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues

(And I think they were much better this way, don't you?).

ENNYMAN said...

Anon: That's why I compare to Dali here and tried to avoid going too far in interpretation on this one.

Anthony: Yes, you are right and I have seen this a lot on bobdylan.com where the words and the recording don't jive. I'd like to know who does that and why. Doesn't he sing in one verse, "I'm in trouble with the tombstone blues"?

Anonymous said...

I agree, the "looking for food" lyric is better.

Another lyric he later changed in this song is that John the Baptist became "John the blacksmith." I'm curious if that may have been done because of his conversion to Christianity. He may not have felt comfortable with the old lyric any more, as people may mistake the "commander in chief" as being Jesus.

I don't think that was ever the case though. I think the CIC was supposed to be the President, and John the Baptist represented the patriotic Christians who blindly looked up to their leader the President, who had wrapped himself in a fake, political version of Christianity.

At any rate this song is brilliant. In fact, it was the song that helped me "discover" Dylan at the age of 34. The man is a genius and I only wish I had discovered him earlier.