Tuesday, March 11, 2008


slow boat coming

I've always found the third verse of Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" from Blonde on Blonde (1966) to be absolutely hilarious:

Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line.
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine.
An' I said, "Oh, I didn't know that,
But then again, there's only one I've met
An' he just smoked my eyelids
An' punched my cigarette."

Not only is this extremely funny, but there's a fascinating utopian gesture here, I think, despite the fact that one does not necessarily expect to find anything utopian amidst the chilly landscape of B.o.B.

"Drinking up" someone's "blood like wine" is a sadly familiar human activity. And I don't think, sadly, I have to explain the idea at all, but just to be clear, let me define it as finding delectation (on the verge of, or crossing over into, inebriation) in the depletion of the vitality of someone one is exploiting, cheating, or just bullying. But however common this sort of enjoyment is, the "Mobile" lines suggest that it is ridiculous. Sipping and savoring human blood is portrayed as a strange mix-up, just like smoking an eyelid or punching a cigarette would be.

So Cruelty is viewed here as simply strange. That doesn't mean, of course, that many people will come to look at it that way. But I think that there's a suggestion lurking in this slapstick Dylan passage that--hey! this idea/feeling about the ridiculous nature of sadism isn't so hard to grasp. So that's why I say "utopian"...because to think of more and more people coming to such a perspective is to think, isn't it, of a future as amazingly bright, in its own way, as anything suggested by "When the Ship Comes In" from The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964). And it appears to be a pleasantly robust utopia, where people still, on occasion, slug each other in the face, and where they may choose to partake of cigarettes and other unhealthy substances.

And yes, I know, I know--having set down these words, Bobby D.'s own legendary bouts of cruelty are a subject that I should discuss at some point.

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Legendary bouts of cruelty?

Do tell.
Interesting idea, Stephen. There is a kind of theatre of cruelty at work in Dylan's work, especially in those years, when he was reputedly reading a lot of French Symbolist poetry.

Think I first heard the line in a Ramblin' Jack Elliot song, but can't remember which one. But it's originally from a Bascom Lamar Lunsford tune on Harry Smith's anthology:

Oh I don't like a railroad man
No I don't like a railroad man
If I's a railroad man they'll kill you when he can
Drink up your blood like wine

Annotations by Jonathan Bogart say:
"Here we find the railroad men who will drink up your blood like wine (they make a cameo on Blonde on Blonde), an unstable image that has no precedent in folklore or any explanation that reason can find: it’s simply burned into the background of the national psyche, a ghost of a meaningless warning from an age long gone."

But, of course, it's not meaningless, if you're a hobo. The "railroad men" are the company dicks who beat the crap out of anyone caught around the railroad yards, and were known to toss boxcar riders out of the cars, sometimes to a painful death.

The railroadmen-thing is a direct quotation from an old folk song by Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
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