Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Few Thoughts While Reflecting on Dylan's Crossing the Rubicon

The only known bust known to be actually Caesar's face.
Crossing the Rubicon is an expression with ancient roots. The Rubicon is a relatively short, shallow river in northeastern Italy separating Gaul from Rome. It flows East into the Adriatic Sea. The expression stems from a significant moment in history. Julius Caesar had been governor of Gaul, the territory North of the Italy's boot, and North of the Rubicon. When his governorship ended the Roman Senate ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome.

Julius Caesar chose instead to head South with his army intact. When he arrived at the Rubicon, he had two choices: change his mind or press on. Crossing the Rubicon, both a literal and a symbolic act, was considered a point of no return, an act of war against Pompey and the Roman Senate. The incident was recorded in Plutarch's Lives: Julius Caesar (published in 110 A.D.)

Plutarch's Lives was used as primary source material for Shakespeare, and in recent years we've seen no shortage of references citing Shakespeare and Dylan in the same breath. Plutarch covers a number of early Roman kings, shining a light more on their character as much as their historical actions. The crossing of the Rubicon occurred in January of 49 BC leading to a civil war and setting in motion a series of events that led to the end of the Roman Senate form of government and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

[EdNote: The name Rubicon has been adopted as a brand of Jeep (Jeep Wrangler Rubicon) implying power, durability, risk taking and decisiveness.]

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Yet another intriguing album cover concept.
Crossing the Rubicon is the 8th track on Dylan's recently released Rough And Rowdy Ways. People ask me what I think and I have to say I like it. I can tell because I keep playing it.

This song opens with "I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year." First question: Is Dylan using the expression as an expression, or is he writing as the personification of Caesar, crossing into Italy?

The second line amplifies the first. Not only is it a dangerous month, but the worst time and the worst place, according to what people are telling him. He doesn't acknowledge that these things are true. That just seems to be the consensus, which he's clearly disregarding, because he's pressing forward, he's crossed the Rubicon.

In the third line he greets the Goddess of the Dawn, then proceeds.  
After describing the river and the rituals preceding his next move he turns introspective. What's the meaning of these dark days, these crazy times. And how should I use the time that I have left? How close are we to the end and I to my own? This Apocalyptic theme threads through much of Dylan's writing all the way back to Hard Rain.

In the fourth liine he says he's going to paint his wagon and cross the Rubicon. What does this mean? "Paint the wagon" is an expression that means take action, time to finish the deal, get it done. And with that he crosses the point of no return, let the chips fall where they may.

This is what leaders do. This is what visionaries do. They take action. They are decisive.

So it's interesting to remove the first three lines of each stanza and read all the Rubicon lines in a row. Every one of them is an action line. Nothing here is passive.

I painted my wagon - I abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon
I embraced my love put down my head and I crossed the Rubicon
I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon
I poured the cup and I passed it along and I crossed the Rubicon
I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon
I strapped my belt and buttoned my coat and I crossed the Rubicon
I turned the key and I broke it off and I crossed the Rubicon
I lit the torch and I looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon

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I usually like to do my own dissecting before reading everyone else's interpretations, and this is how far I will take it. Like many Dylan songs he takes an idea and wraps a lot of text around it. (cf. Things Have Changed). And like a lot of his songs they seem to emerge in that stream of consciousness style, which he most likely meticulously fine tunes "in the editing booth."

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I feel a need to comment on the bluesy music track and the repeating rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat duh-duh-du guitar accompaniment at the beginning of each new verse. I don't know it's origins in the blues world, but for me it brought to mind Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton's "Spoonful," live at the Fillmore as preserved on Wheels of Fire. In Dylan's case the music track is laid back, a drawling crawl with the percussive repeat adding a bit of emphasis to the lyrics. With Clapton and Bruce the repeat-theme is a laconic, easy-going clackety-clack of a roller coaster ascension to the highest point before a leap off the ledge in a thrill-ride instrumental that's as good as it gets. (You can listen to it here.)

Another song came to mind as I listened to this one several times, "Cry A While" from Love and Theft. Perhaps it was the manner in which the summary line for each verse had a similar rhythmic progression, or maybe it was something else, so I went and pulled it off the shelf (the live versions on YouTube don't really do it) and sure enough there's that feel, and as he sings, "I cried for you--now it's your turn to cry a while" you also have a light-touch version of that rat-tat-tat-ta etc., though far more subdued.

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After gleaning my own impressions of the song I. did check out some other comments and saw that one site suggested that the reference to the "14th day" might relate to the day preceding the Ideas of March, of which Julius Caesar was warned in Shakespeare's play. Since his death took place five years after this historical crossing, and his crossing the Rubicon was actually in January, it would be something of a time compression that you wouldn't ordinarily expect.

For what it's worth, you can give it a listen and then read the lyrics below.




Crossing the Rubicon

I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year
At the worst time at the worst place - that’s all I seem to hear
I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn
I painted my wagon - I abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon

The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows
Redder then your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose
Three miles north of purgatory - one step from the great beyond
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon

What are these dark days I see in this world so badly bent
How can I redeem the time - the time so idly spent
How much longer can it last - how long can this go on
I embraced my love put down my head and I crossed the Rubicon

I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage
I’ll make your wife a widow - you’ll never see old age
Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon
I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon

Put my heart upon the hill where some happiness I’ll find
If I survive then let me love - let the hour be mine
Take the high road - take the low, take the one you’re on
I poured the cup and I passed it along and I crossed the Rubicon

You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood
Others can be tolerant - others can be good
I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone
I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon

You won’t find any happiness here - no happiness or joy
Go back to the gutter and try your luck - find you some nice young pretty boy
Tell me how many men I need and who I can count upon
I strapped my belt and buttoned my coat and I crossed the Rubicon

I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives
Keep as far away as possible - it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn
I turned the key and I broke it off and I crossed the Rubicon

Mona Baby, are you still in my mind - I truly believe that you are
Couldn’t be anybody else but you who’s come with me this far
The killing frost is on the ground and the autumn leaves are gone
I lit the torch and I looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon
Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music



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Have you been enjoying Rough And Rowdy Ways

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