One of the side-effects of researching Bob Dylan's roots in Shakespeare is a burgeoning grok that Dylan borrows liberally from anywhere and everywhere. Another Dylanologist, for instance, has uncovered a vast trove of Hemingway (and everything else from Chaucer to Joe Eszterhas) lurking between the lines of his songs as well as throughout his Chronicles memoir, and again there is the 2011 hullabaloo over Dylan's use of photos for some of his paintings. Yet again, as noted in a previous post, "Absolutely Sweet Marie" seems to be a tarted-up Emily Dickinson, and the song itself a remarkable sort of poetic critique, with references back to her verse.
Because of all this, as well as Dylan's listing of a truckload of influences in Chronicles, not to mention the Shakespeare-heap in the Basement Tapes that I'm STILL trying to size up (it's BIG, folks) my brain has been conditioned to look on just about every word he utters as a potential allusion. Moreover, since Dylan lists Sinclair Lewis reverently on the last page of Chronicles (and also on Blonde on Blonde--can anybody else spot the sly Lewis reference on that album?? Hint: go Mobile) last spring the suspicion popped into my head that eventually I'd trip over an allusion to H. L. Mencken somewhere in my Dylan wanderings. Didn't Sinclair Lewis, after all, dedicate Elmer Gantry to Mencken "with profound admiration"? Wasn't Dylan steeped in Fitzgerald, Hemingway and those other 20s literati with whom Mencken consorted? And the clincher for my paranoiac percolation: Dylan's translation of Shakespeare into surreal hillbilly strophes perhaps resembles Mencken's semi-comic translation of the Declaration of Independence into colloquial American.
But that was half a year ago and despite my anticipation... nothing. Then three weeks ago I was idly plowing through my typhoon-stricken office when I happened upon the three-volumes-in-one edition of memoirs, The Days of H. L. Mencken. This combined edition of 1947 has a short new introduction which I've long loved but not recently revisited, so I dug in. Ah yes, here was his nod to the ladies:
...many letters have come from women, and... most of them, especially those relating to Happy Days, have said in substance, "I had precisely the same experience." It never occurred to me in my youth, or to any other normal American boy of the time, that creatures in skirts and pigtails saw the world as we did. Yet it seems to have been the case, and I am glad of it, for it means that many grandmothers of today, like their husbands and brothers, cherish memories of an era when the world was a great deal more comfortable and amusing than it is today. We were lucky to have been born so soon. As the shadows close in we can at least recall that there was a time when people could spend weeks, months and even years without being badgered, bilked or alarmed...
And on he satirically goes, through the range of human folly, to the punchline and conclusion:
I enjoyed myself immensely, and all I try to do here is to convey some of my joy to the nobility and gentry of this once great and happy Republic, now only a dismal burlesque of its former self.
A typically good-natured bit of misanthropy, but the jolt here for a Dylan student would be the "burlesque" Republic, which must automatically suggest Dylan's Empire Burlesque. But alas, not quite a smoking pistol to be tagged and presented as evidence in court.
A few days later, however, a random quip by Mencken goes traipsing through my brain, as his many witticisms are wont to do: "Love is a season-pass on the shuttle between heaven and hell." (or something like that--punching "Mencken love season pass shuttle heaven hell" into Google's cyber-snouter fails to yield the exact quote). Then within seconds, the mysterious workings of my decrepit neurons upon the Mencken quip also rouse to mind, in some para-Google way, these Dylan lines from one of his classic love songs:
The train leaves at half-past ten
But it'll be back tomorrow at the same time again,
The conductor, he's weary,
He's still stuck on the line,
But if I can save you any time,
Come on, give it to me,
I'll keep it with mine.
(song: "I'll Keep It with Mine")
If this is a Mencken-extrapolation (I'd say it's a little short of a smoking pistol again) it's a damn good one, especially that "stuck on the line" shuttle-bit, for if Dylan knows his Mencken ($20 Canadian says he does) he'd know "stuck on the line" yields an elegant double-meaning (Dylan is very prolific in double-meanings) namely that Mencken, although his first published book was a poetic Ventures into Verse, in his later critic-incarnation he became very iffy and somewhat disparaging of poetry, which he considered a lesser art. Stuck on the "line" indeed.
But whatever Dylan's meaning(s), the overall idea of a love shuttle corresponds perfectly with Mencken, so that now I'm almost thinking Dylan's song wasn't really a love-tribute to Nico, as I originally heard (or Judy Collins as Wikipedia has it) but a sly paean to Mencken himself. Maybe?
If so, it certainly wouldn't be the first or last time Dylan wrote ardent verse to a member of the woody gender.
PS: I was also thinking that a reference to heaven and/or hell would really CLINCH the shuttle allusion, but nope, nothing. Then the pun hit me. I tweeted it about Dec. 9-10 @frameofmind if you can't spot it in the lyrics yourself...
PPS: The gobsmacker on Wikipedia is that the song was originally titled "Bank Account Blues" (!!!) Weird as Dylan, eh? Maybe it's me channeling that wacko Weberman (or vice versa) but I detect a few ppm of old "Tory" Mencken in that title too...