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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Part 1: A Long Note on Bob Dylan, Shakespeare and References

The mark of of good poetry is that it sinks its hooks into your brain and refuses to let go.
   A few weeks ago I downloaded The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band, and one morning, even before I had listened to more than a song or two, a curious couplet from one of the others, not heard for perhaps 20 years or more, popped unannounced into my mind:
            You can train on down to William's Point
            You can bust your feet, you can rock this joint...

It required a few seconds of thought before I pinpointed the song as "Crash on the Levee" but it was the "William's Point" that really grabbed my attention. William's Point??
   Well, maybe it's nothing; geographic references are frequent enough in popular music (and maybe more so in roots-y music). Think of "The Wabash Cannonball" or "Route 66" or "Green River." Or Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" (ever notice that it translates cleanly as "faith"?) Or "Yazoo Street Scandal" on the roots-y Basement Tapes itself.
   Perhaps it is just the long years snouting out sneaky references in Shakespeare, but something in me (a paranoid tendency, perhaps?) suggested that "William's Point" might actually be a reference to The Bard. Was I turning into Alan J. Weberman??
   But no, the idea isn't totally preposterous. Even Shakespeare himself turns nearly every usage of "will" into a personal pun, and wordplay is surely a prime tactic of Dylan and poets in general. Moreover, Dylan, like every literary spirit from Dryden and Goethe to Orwell and Firesign Theatre shows an abiding interest in Shakespeare. Note:

            Shakespeare he's in the alley, with his pointed shoes and his bells,
            Speaking to some French girl, who says she knows me well,
            And me, I'd send a message to find out if she's talked,
            But the Post Office has been stolen, and the mailbox is locked...

That's "Memphis Blues Again" from Blonde on Blonde, a mere year before the Basement Tapes were recorded.

Or how about this contemporaneous apostrophe to someone (a thin person?) from Tarantula:

(Sorry, still rummaging for the damn book, and its pointed reference to the formidable puzzle of Hamlet) (Aug. 18)... okay (Aug. 20) here it is in all its loopy glory, like the H. L. Mencken joke about poetry being maybe just "prose sawed into lengths" (ha ha--but maybe widen your computer window to not scrunch the lengths):

  i'm not saying that books are
  good or bad, but i dont think
  youve ever had the chance to find
  out for yourself what theyre all
  about--okay, so you used to get B's
  in the ivanhoe tests & A minuses
  in the silas marners .  .  . then you
  wonder why you flunked the hamlet
  exams--yeah well thats because one
  hoe & one lass do not make a spear--
  the same way two wrongs do not make
  a throng--now that youve been thru
  life, why dont you try again .  .  . you
  could start with a telephone book--
  wonder woman--or perhaps catcher in
  the rye--theyre all the same & everybody
  has their hats on backwards thru the
  stories            (1966; Penguin 1977, p70-1)

Whew!--SpellChuck doesn't like THAT! In any case, behind the potluck poetics (okaaaay,  SpellChuck, poetics IS a word, dammit) Dylan clearly recognizes that Hamlet is a problem-play, and a much-gnawed-upon bone of the scholars. In fact, I read somehere recently that Dylan in his heyday was a remarkably dedicated library-goer, and the literate quality of his poetry makes this fairly evident. I also recall reading Joseph Conrad's novel Victory back in the 70s and suddenly realizing, "Hey, this is the same Pedro as Dylan put in "Tombstone Blues"--albeit Conrad's Pedro doesn't have "a fantastic collection of stamps to win friends and influence his uncle."

But of course the acid test of any possible allusion is context. Unfortunately, "Crash on the Levee" is, at first listening, little more than a funky, drunken, semi-literate hillbilly harangue--like most of the Basement Tapes!--the singer remonstrating with his "mama" about some unspecified catastrophe that is splitting them up ("There's a crash on the levee, and mama you been refused." Again: "It's sugar for sugar, salt for salt/ If you go down in the flood it's gonna be your fault").

   In short, lots of suggestive symbolism, but little in the way of a narrative thread or logical structure. It's as disjointed as anything in Dylan's uber-scrambled oeuvre. Still, something in the general oddness of "Swamp's gonna rise, no boats gonna row" suggests Ophelia's death to me. Okay, that's a bit of a stretch, but what the hell meaneth "It's king for king, queen for queen/ Gonna be the meanest flood anybody's seen"? Monarchs on a levee??? Huh?? But the non-sequitur could be a hint at the murderous succession of kings in Hamlet, and the supposed selfishness of Hamlet's mother the queen...

But as I'm mulling this, other Shakespearean items in the Basement Tapes occur to me. Most obviously "Tears of Rage" and its "What dear daughter 'neath the sun would treat her father so?/ To wait upon him hand and foot, yet always answer no." The suggestion of Cordelia and King Lear is so strong I almost knew the Google results before searching the names. But the overall drift of "Tears of Rage"?--note the general puzzlement of all concerned with yet another Dylan hodge-podge, and the analysts' freewheeling projection of various meanings onto the mess.

Cocking my head at the tenuous but almost tangible Hamlet connection in "Crash on the Levee" it registers that the song is almost the shortest on the Basement Tapes at a miniscule 2:04, and I glumly regret that Dylan didn't add another verse or two to this sketchy and skeletal "situation" (if you can call it that; more like a mere glimmer of a situation) so the song would make a little SENSE. Idly I note that only the rocking opener  "Odds and Ends" is shorter at a microscopic 1:47... "You promised you'd love me, but what do I see?/ Just you coming spilling juice over me..."
   Hm. Now I'm connecting Shakespeare again, thinking of Troilus and Cressida, Cressida's love vow, and Troilus's fury at the end, when he imagines he sees her break the promise. This faint but distinct parallel is like the parallel of  "Crash on the Levee" to Hamlet. And note the ODD way that "Odds and Ends" starts: "I stand in awe..... "
   Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! (five bells, like on old news-wire teletypes, when the president is assassinated!)
   Okay, checking the exact lyrics via Google (back in the old not-so-hi-fi LP days I thought "Odds and Ends" began "I stand in the hall...") I hit a few bullseyes. For starters, Dylan has changed the lyrics slightly, in an altogether REVEALING way. YouTube gives both versions together; I cut+paste them:

I plan it all and I take my place (I stand in awe and I shake my face)
You break your promise all over the place
You promised to love me, but what do I see
Just you comin' and spillin' juice over me
Odds and ends, odds and ends
Lost time is not found again

Now, you take your file and you bend my head
I never can remember anything that you said
You promised to love me, but what do I know
You're always spillin' juice on me like you got someplace to go
Odds and ends, odds and ends
Lost time is not found again

Now, I've had enough, my box is clean
You know what I'm sayin' and you know what I mean
From now on you'd best get on someone else
While you're doin' it, keep that juice to yourself
Odds and ends, odds and ends
Lost time is not found again.

Well the fingerprints of Troilus and Cressida are ALL OVER this! The oddity I was about to mention was "shake my face"--doing duty as half-a-hint of Shakespeare and a vivid description of Troilus's final rage. But the changed lyric (presumably by Dylan, since it graces his site) is almost better. "Take my place" is CLEARLY Troilus sneaking into place in the tent scene (V ii) to eavesdrop on Cressida and Diomedes, where Troilus first is awestruck at her seeming infidelity with her "guardian" Diomedes, and then infuriated at Diomedes and the Greeks, even to the point of wildly stabbing with his sword at the distant Greek tents ("I'll through and through you!")

Again, the "Odds and Ends" song-title, and the truly WEIRD bit about taking a file and bending his head remarkably echoes Cressida fending off Menelaus's attempt at a kiss in the smoochfest of the "arrival" scene (IV v):

Menelaus: I'll have my kiss, sir. Lady, by your leave.

Cressida: In kissing, do you render or receive?

Patroclus: Both take and give.

Cressida:                                  I'll make my match to live,
   The kiss you take is better than you give:
   Therefore no kiss.

Menelaus: I'll give you boot; I'll give you three for one.

Cressida: You are an odd man; give even or give none.

Menelaus: An odd man, lady? Every man is odd.

Cressida: No, Paris is not, for you know 'tis true
   That you are odd and he is even with you.

Menelaus: You fillip me o' the head.              (fillip: tap)

Cressida:                                         No, I'll be sworn.

Ulysses: It were no match, your nail against his horn...

Then there is "like you got somewhere to go" which also has a clear referent in the play... ah, let's save it.

[Sept. 9: Cressida: I have a kind of self resides with you/ But an unkind self, that itself will leave/ To be another's fool. I would be gone." (III, ii, 140-2)]

But the disappointing thing is that as far as Dylan parallels the play, he seems to take Troilus's position on Cressida's "infidelity" while my Twitter stance from the start has been to take "sluttish" Cressida's side, and view her forlorn flirt (yes forlorn--me and Melvyn Levental against all the acadummies and the world!) as constituting a very sly optical illusion perpetrated on the audience--law-students, possibly--by a sly Shakespeare, almost as a perception-test.

Ditto for taking Hamlet's point-of-view in "Crash on the Levee" where Dylan-Hamlet coldly rages at his "mama" (i.e. both Ophelia and his "incestuous" mother). As I've also said on Twitter (perhaps to the point of irritation) Prince Hamlet is "a vicious schmuck"--and as with Troilus, his stupid, hot-headed denunciation of his girlfriend supplies the incriminating act.

But that's another long story, and this post is growing carcinogenically super-sized already. Suffice it for here, there's a lot of Shakespeare in the Basement Tapes (hey, how about "Please Mrs. Henry" as a funky-surreal Americana distortion of Falstaff in the tavern with Prince Hal, reversing roles, Hal playing Hal's father ("Please Mrs. Henry, won't you take me to your dad?") Hey, just a theory...

And doesn't "Wheels On Fire" FEEL Shakespearean?--in an ominous, fate-made-visible sort of way? But I can't sense WHICH play is being referenced, unless it's Othello. Hey, YOU tell me what "I was going to confiscate your lace/ And tie it up in a sailor's knot" means! Nothing at all? Just a reefer-madness vision you say?