from the desk of H. Bowie...

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"When I Paint My Masterpiece"

A song written by Bob Dylan in 1971

I’ve been reading Rick Rubin’s book The Creative Act: A Way of Being lately – not all at once, mind you, but sipping it slowly, like a rare old whiskey – and it’s put me in mind of this song by Bob Dylan, from 1971.

This composition has been performed and recorded by Dylan himself on multiple occasions, but the first released recording was by The Band, and their original studio recording is still the version I’m partial to.

Let’s just review the lyrics, shall we? Ideally, of course, along with the music.

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble.
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double,
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli's niece.
She promised that she’d be right there with me,
When I paint my masterpiece.

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum,
Dodging lions and wastin’ time.
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see ’em;
Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb.
Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory,
When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese.
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody,
When I paint my masterpiece.

Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola;
Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!

I left Rome and landed in Brussels,
On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried.
Clergymen in uniform and young girls pullin’ muscles:
Everyone was there to greet me when I stepped inside.
Newspapermen eating candy
Had to be held down by big police.
Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent,
When I paint that masterpiece.

So what is going on here? As is usual for Dylan, one can find many levels of meaning, many wheels turning beneath the surface.

First let me point out that, as with another Dylan song I’ve written about, “All Along The Watchtower,” it’s a deceptively simple and seemingly straightforward song: only three verses (plus a silly little bridge that is often omitted); no big words or nightmarish images, as is the case with many of his other works.

In one sense, it’s just a little travelogue, apparently descended from that familiar literary form practiced by every school child when they are asked by their teacher to write down how they spent their summer vacations.

And so there is nothing here that calls attention to itself, nothing here that screams to the listener: look, I’m being artistic.

But this, of course, is part of Dylan’s artistry: if one is going to write a story about an artist wishing to create their masterpiece at some future time, one can’t make the story itself an obvious masterpiece.

And so there is a sort of “Aw shucks” quality to Dylan’s words here, a contrived modesty that draws the listener’s attention away from the current work in order to have them instead turn their focus, along with the singer, towards some ideal future work.

So what else is going on here? In some ways this feels like Dylan doing his Henry James bit, contrasting American and European sensibilities. This contrast is implicit in the tone of his observations, which sound in many ways like those of a typical American tourist visiting the Continent for the first time. And then, of course, there is the more explicit bridge in which he wishes to escape a “dirty gondola” and return to the “land of Coca-Cola.”

And while a more diverse and sophisticated modern audience might not think of this famous soft drink in the same way, it’s good to remember Andy Warhol’s comments about the product, offered during roughly this same time period:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

And then if we put this together with Dylan’s comment that “it sure has been a long hard climb,” we can get some sense of his appreciation for his homeland. Dylan is better known for his critiques of American society, but here perhaps we catch him feeling a bit homesick for the country that produced Woody Guthrie, the artist who penned “This Land Is Your Land,” and a society that at least expressed and aspired to egalitarian ideals, no matter how imperfectly realized.

And then there is also a strong Jamesian sense of the almost crushing burden of human history experienced so directly in Europe. Lines like “ancient footprints are everywhere,” “you can almost think that you’re seeing double,” and “dodging lions” all give you the sense that the singer finds it hard at times to separate current experience from the historical realities that are so vividly depicted all around him.

And then this is contrasted with the simpler personal American memories of the sounds of train wheels, and running on a hilltop following a pack of wild geese: an unaffected sense of oneness with nature, as opposed to being continually surrounded by storied human artifacts; and a sense of active movement, as opposed to passive observation and remembrance.

Some of the lyrics to the song are varied between renditions. Dylan’s own deliveries talk of a date with “Botticelli’s niece.” This must have been a bit of a reach for Levon Helm in The Band’s version, though, so he translates this into a more homespun reference to “a pretty little girl from Greece.”

But Dylan’s wording is notable because it is the only reference in the song to any of the European old masters whose works Dylan must surely have seen while in Europe, and whose art must surely have inspired this song to start with.

There is a certain irony here, because the term masterpiece is almost always, and certainly in terms of European art typically enjoyed by tourists, applied in hindsight, and often posthumously.

And so for an artist as prolific as Dylan, there is a definite comic aspect to the idea of him looking forward to a specific time and place on which he will create his masterpiece. This feels like the protagonist again taking on the appearance of an American bumpkin, simplistically thinking that he might not only one day paint his masterpiece, but also know with absolute certainty that the work just completed was indeed his masterwork. For the truth is that it is none of the artist’s business to make such a claim, or even to use such a term: the artist’s only business is to make more art. And Dylan knows this – and, I think, has always known this – better than any of us.

But there’s still more here. Consider these words from Dylan:

Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work.

So in this compact little song Dylan is giving us a lesson in creativity. Like many songwriters who went on to become famous, the powers of anonymous observation that he could draw upon to fashion his earlier works were lost to him once he himself was the one being continuously observed by everyone around him.

No matter, Dylan seems to be saying here. He is still observing, still experiencing, still using his imagination to whip these scraps into art – even if he is only observing the same things other toursts have seen, experiencing the mundane details of a bumpy plane ride, and reporting what he sees as the object of everyone else’s attention. And so he takes all these little observations and experiences – these bits that started out just appearing to be a sort of simple travelogue – and transforms them into a seamless flow of words and notes that manage to be an expression unique to a particular artist, and yet conveying ideas and emotions that are close to universal. And he does this as a sort of magician, performing the trick as we are watching, with us left wondering how he pulls it off.

And yet, there’s still more waiting for us, here in this little song.

Let me share a quote from Rubin’s book:

By conventional definition, the purpose of art is to create physical and digital artifacts. To fill shelves with pottery, books and records.

[But] … that end work is a by-product of a greater desire. We aren’t creating to produce or sell material products. The act of creation is an attempt to enter a mysterious realm. A longing to transcend. What we create allows us to share glimpses of an inner landscape, one that is beyond our understanding. Art is our portal to the unseen world.

And so, finally, behind all of these other layers, Dylan’s song also manages to sincerely convey a longing for some sort of transcendence, some holy state in which all of the dirty details of real life fall away, some hallowed place in which everything is as smooth as a rhapsody, where his true love will always be by his side, and where his work will achieve mastery.

He knows, and we know, that no such state can ever be achieved.

But such knowledge in no way diminishes our shared longing, nor our striving to grow ever closer to such a perfected state.

But let’s take the notions of mystical transcendence down a notch, for one of the joys of this song is that there is something here for all of us. Dylan may now be the winner of a Nobel prize, but he’s not really trying here to present himself as some exalted artist. If you look at the last couple of lines of each verse, he’s not talking about perfecting his art, but just having a few little things go right for a little while, without any flies in the ointment.

And this is one reason why I prefer Levon Helm’s rendition – including his date with “a pretty little girl from Greece,” rather than “Botticelli’s niece” – and also why I like including the reference to Coca-Cola – because these are references that bring the narrative down to a sort of everyman level.

And so, if I’m spending a few hours working on my little Mac app Notenik, trying to make some new feature work right – and instead having it go wrong in more ways than I thought possible – I can easily hum this little song to myself while imagining how good I’ll feel when it’s all working perfectly.

So I suspect – as perhaps Dylan knew – that we all have our little masterpieces we’re working on – reflecting our varied interests and aspirations – and that we’re all looking forward to having a few things go right for us – even if only for a little while.

July 16, 2023