Bob Dylan

Tombstone Blues

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Song Review by Bill Janovitz

If Salvador Dali or Luis Bunuel had picked up a Fender Strat to head a blues band, they might have come up with something like "Tombstone Blues." Like the work of these surrealists, Bob Dylan's song is rich with non sequiturs like "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 last line, a pun worthy of Nabokov), and takes irreverent jabs at religious, political, and bureaucratic figures: "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." The song, from Dylan's first fully electric album, the often raucous Highway 61 Revisited (1965), is played with an up-tempo chugging beat, the singer's own shuffling acoustic guitar strumming the rhythm, while Mike Bloomfield rips out Yardbirds-like blues licks. At times you can even hear Bloomfield clicking the pickup selector on his guitar to slip into a blazing bit of out-of-time soloing. They are helped along by Al Kooper on organ, Robert Gregg on drums, Russ Savakus on bass (who can also be heard making mistakes, or "clams"), and Frank Owens on piano. Everyone seems to be slightly off-rhythm -- particularly Dylan on acoustic guitar -- for a shambolic effect. Apparently the singer could not keep up with the ultra-fast pace he had set. But his monotone vocal wail is the voice of authority.

So what to make of these odd juxtapositions: Belle Starr, the "Bandit Queen," a mythologized real-life Western outlaw; Jezebel, the infamous shamed and abandoned Biblical figure, wife of the king of Israel; the murderer Jack the Ripper? Well, in this particular verse, Dylan seems to be sneeringly and contemptuously mocking authority, the corrupted officials "at the head of the chamber of commerce." If there is any recurring theme, it is one based around the story of Samson, Delilah, and the Philistines. While the song disdainfully takes aim at other holy cows and symbols of authority, and sounds like one of the first shots in the "culture wars," it is really just a loose-cannon, stream-of-consciousness rant that takes its cue from the surrealists and, at the same time, the symbolists. The former camp took aim at the bourgeoisie and their religious and societal organizations via an unfiltered flow of bizarre and seemingly unrelated images in film, painting, etc., the sort of "innocent" thoughts that arise in dreams. In explaining his view of the further purposes of surrealism, filmmaker Luis Bunuel was quoted as follows: "All of us were supporters of a certain concept of revolution, and although the surrealists didn't consider themselves terrorists, they were constantly fighting a society they despised. The principle weapon was not guns, of course, it was scandal. Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such social crimes as exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny -- in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed." The symbolists (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine) held that poems could be self-justifying, the meaning self-contained; i.e. there is no need to explain a poem if it sounds or reads great, evokes emotion, and/or preserves some heightened sense of awareness, which, presumably, such mystic poets as Blake would also believe.

The two schools of thought -- as well as blues and rock & roll music -- intersect in "Tombstone Blues." Like a good surrealist, Dylan's stream of thought rails at a dizzying assemblage of almost random figures, trusting that the resulting juxtaposition will result in something meaningful. And like a symbolist, the specifics need not represent anything literally. In other words, such pairing of images, or symbols, may suggest different meanings to different people, all such interpretations being equally valid. It is a long way from "Blowing in the Wind." The impact of Dylan's application of these philosophies to popular song cannot be overstated. From the Beatles to Van Morrison to R.E.M., songwriters were freed from the common lyrical themes of pop music and no subject was off-limits. An interviewer will often find himself chastised for asking a song's author to decipher the "meaning" of a particular song.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Highway 61 Revisited 1965 Columbia / Legacy 5:58
Biograph 1985 Columbia 5:57
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 1994 Columbia 0:00
No Image 2001 Sony Music Distribution 6:01
Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde 2002 Sony Music Distribution
Bob Dylan [Limited Edition Hybrid SACD Set] 2003 Legacy 5:58
The Collection: Another Side of Bob Dylan/Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited 2009 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 5:58
Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde 2009 Columbia / Sony Music 5:58
The Best of the Original Mono Recordings 2010 Columbia / Legacy 5:52
The Original Mono Recordings 2010 Columbia / Sony Music 5:55
The Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 2013 Columbia Records / Sony Music 5:55
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