“Crossing The Rubicon” (2020)

Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways Album Review | Pitchfork

The study of what it meant for Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon river is quite fascinating.  A simple search of the phrase will lead to it’s historical significance.  It was a decision of great import as it would mold Caesar into the head of an empire rather than one of many revered and feared leaders of a republic.  The act of crossing the Rubicon, in mid-January of 49 BC when “[t]he killing frost is on the ground and the autumn leaves are gone” was tantamount to causing a civil war.

The phrase has come to mean making a life altering choice that one cannot come back from, one usually associated with parting ways with a life formerly lived for one desired or at least for an outcome worth gambling all or nothing.

Dylan’s “Crossing the Rubicon” has nine verses of four lines each, with rhyming couplets, nine of which rhyme with “Rubicon” though the word is used eleven times in the song.

Dylan has crossed the Rubicon many times professionally, refusing to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, defying what the audience at the Tom Paine awards wanted to hear, going electric at the Newport Folk Festival,  turning to gospel music, etc.  And all of that is a worthwhile biographical journey, but I’m more interested in how Dylan crosses the Rubicon within this song.

He doesn’t cross it with his rhymes.  They are served on a polished and clean platter of rhyming couplets, 36 to be exact. However, there are, as it seems there so often is with a Dylan song, pattern severing or meaning generating incongruities.  Just a few I’ve observed are below, but I’m sure there are more worth a close listen or reading to find:

–Dylan does not use any internal rhymes, but he does repeat words from line to line or within lines like flow and flow (lines 5 and 6), take/take/take (line 23)

–the repeated “I” sounds in this line, “How can I redeem the time – the time so idly spent.” (This song more personal than meets the eye or about how an “I” can pervade over events, a song or crossing a river.)

–the anachronisms caused by referring to purgatory, praying to the cross, and the Holy Spirit in a song supposedly about an event that took place in a pre-Christian world.

–before each refrain “and I crossed the Rubicon,” he includes two verbs, e.g. “pawned” and “paid, and “strapped” and “buttoned,” but not at the end of the end of the sixth stanza; just one verb, “stood” accompanies it: “I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon.” (Perhaps the greatest Rubicon a dictator can cross that—choosing between heaven and earth.)

Here’s the studio version online while it lasts:



“If You See Her, Say Hello” (1974)

Robert Shelton senses a “sea-wave rhythm in  “If You See Her, Say Hello.” It is structured with rhyming couplets from beginning to end sung by Dylan with an ebb and flow. Most of the rhymes are simple, words we have heard rhymed before. The rhyming I think fits the simple request of Hey, if you see her, say hello, just like anyone might say to someone we know who might see someone we know. When it’s someone we loved or still love such a request becomes strained–it doesn’t fit what we really feel or really want to say, so much more to say than just hello. The song has some strained rhymes, “Tangier”/”hear,” “heart”/”apart,” “rounds”/”town,” and my favorite, “off”/”soft.”

In any essay called “The Power of Love,” Michael Dorris said about love that once caught in its thrall, once in you can never really get out: “we are permanently in that love’s thrall, caught in its wake, a part of its flow” (the Shelton sea-wave again). Dylan captures the staying power of love in “If You See Her, Say Hello,” maybe more than in any of his songs.  And it makes sense that “still”, as in always, would make a prominent appearance in a rhyming role.  This happens in verse two:

We had a falling-out, like lovers often will
And to think of how she left that night, it still brings me a chill
And though our separation, it pierced me to the heart
She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart

The “will”/”still” rhyme sounds like a perfect end rhyme, but the second line extends bringing “chill” in at the end to shift “still” into an internal rhyme position.  Later, “still” still maintains sound prominence internally with the assonance “still lives inside.”  What brings a chill is how they departed, but she has never left, still living inside of him, “permanently in that love’s thrall.”

The song, like the whole album, is worth the chill found in the blood spilled on every track.  I love this version of the song, from the New York sessions; especially chilling is the added line, “If you’re making love to her, kiss her for the kid.”  Blood indeed in the tracks of this album . . .  caught in its thrall I am:



“Tombstone Blues” (1965)

In Who Is That Man, David Dalton says of  “Tombstone Blues” it “is old-fashioned Buck Owens country rock (overlaid with Chicago blues guitar leads) that chimes perfectly with the mock hillbilly yarn.”   I think Scorcese captured that well in the scene this song appears in No Direction Home where the young, black Dylan sings it porch-side.   The rhyming word “Shoes” filters its way six times through this song, as part of the chorus.  But shoes are not really there–Mama ain’t got none:

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse (Dylan sings “food” )
I’m in the streets (Dylan sings “kitchen”)
With the tombstone blues

Dylan wrote “fuse” but sings “food” but either way with “shoes” and “blues” the rhyme supports the “mock-hillbilly yarn” of it all .  Catchy as all get-out, it’s hard to get this chorus out of your head once you hear it.

Here’s an audio of it from 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival:

“The Ballad of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” (1968)

In “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” “creep” rhymes with “leap,” two nicely juxtaposed contrasting movements.  It’s “creep” that finds “midnight” in front of it though, not leap, which would make the lines with that rhyme less open to interpretation:
Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee
With a soulful, bounding leap
And, foaming at the mouth
He began to make his midnight creep
For sixteen nights and days he raved
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest
Which is where he died of thirst

Really, it’s the word “make” that causes interesting problems.   A person can make a low to the ground movement, because he would rather not be noticed.  So “midnight” describes the time of the creeping.  And this makes sense in the song, being that this is no home but a brothel Frankie Lee goes to (creeps) for sixteen nights . . . days, too.  But Frankie may have turned those days into nights (“moral desert,” Robert Shelton calls it), succumbing to temptations of the flesh.  So Frankie Lee may have made his midnight go slower, move gradually, to the tune of 16 days worth of midnight.
Not sure if anything is revealed by this; even the little creep who carries Frank Lee’s body to its grave concealing his guilt while doing, says, “‘Nothing is revealed,’” just what someone who creeps or a creep would want, perhaps especially around midnight.
Here’s the audio of Bob singing it live in Portsmouth in 2000 sometime within 24 hours of midnight:

“Scarlet Town” (2012)

In “Scarlet Town,” Dylan keeps to rhyming couplets and mostly perfect rhymes, for example, in the third and fourth verses:

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William Holme on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissin’ his face and heapin’ prayers on his head
So brave, so true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he would weep for me
Little Boy Blue come your blow horn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
In the beginning of the song where the town is depicted as perfect, bravery in the face of death, the promise of reciprocal weeping, and fairy tales references, perfect rhyming makes sense.  Later though, we sneak a peek at what’s under the covers of perfection and we see torn hems, the end being near, and hearts on platters, junky whores.

Dylan tells us that evil and good live side by side in Scarlet Town–one side, the left side imperfect, no rhymes, right side, all perfect rhymes, or just about, in Scarlet Town, where “All things are beautiful in their time.”

At the end of the second verse in “Scarlet Town,” Dylan keeps the rhyming couplets alive (as he does throughout the song) but uses “still” as an internal rhyme kicker:

The music starts and the people sway
Everybody says, “Are you going my way? ”
Uncle Tom still workin’ for Uncle Bill
Scarlet Town is under the hill.

It’s the only verse that ends that way.  The “is” in the middle of the last line also keeps the assonance maintained, “Bill,” “is,” “hill.”

This all seems constructed by someone who knows his rhyming, not over the hill with use of it, not over the hill like Scarlet Town isn’t, described instead as being “under the hill.”  Still plenty to do and experience when not over the hill.  “All things are beautiful in their time” sits in the last verse.  But Dylan’s beautiful times are not over yet, never-ending in fact; his bell still rings, after all.

Here’s its live debut (audio), Winnipeg, 2012.


“Ring Them Bells” (1989)

There’s a beautiful rhyme with “will” in “Ring Them Bells.” It appears in the third verse, third of five:
Ring them bells Sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep

It’s a sneaky rhyme, as it requires “know” so that “will know” reverberates when the internal rhyming hits two lines down with “willows.” And just in case you pass it up, “filled” appears at the end of the line to team up with “will,” so that a three word rhyming weaves through the verse along with “asleep”/”weep”/”sheep.”
Oh (notice too the “know”/”Oh” rhyme–Dylan doesn’t care where words rhyme), Dylan was back when Oh Mercy hit the records stores.  The word got out back in 1989.  He’s back . . . Ring them bells!
Here’s a truly pleasant version of this gem of a song from 2000 performed in Dublin:

“Restless Farewell” (1964)

In Chronicles Dylan says, “Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change , but you can only feel it . . .  but you don’t know it in a purposeful way.”  Maybe this is why the farewell in “Restless Farewell” is a restless one.  The speaker is uneasy, agitated, regretful, but finger-pointing, insinuating in his targets.  The “fast”/”past” rhyme, maybe the first time Dylan used it, helps express the break to come, the need for change, the inevitability of it:

Oh ev’ry girl that ever I’ve touched
I did not do it harmfully
And ev’ry girl that ever I’ve hurt
I did not do it knowin’ly
But to remain as friends
And make amends
You need the time and stay behind
And since my feet are now fast
And point away from the past
I’ll bid farewell and be down the line

Robert Shelton says that “[t]ime is crucial in this song.”  Time to go, time to leave the past behind, time to move on, time to cut ties, time to make the break. It’s also the last song of ten on this memorable album; maybe Bob was restless about leaving it and the work and joys that went behind creating it.

Dylan chose to sing this song at Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday celebration, a restless farewell of sorts, to a man whose time was to come (he died at the age of 82).  Time goes by fast . . . the last time Dylan would sing this song live was near his own birthday, May 24, on May 21, 1998.  Birthdays are celebrations of our years.  “Restless Farewell” to them Dylan seems to be saying, so we can “point away from the past.”

“Not Dark Yet” (1997)

In not “Not Dark Yet”, Dylan unites atmosphere and tone so well. Most of the song, except for the third verse, captures a person acted upon by events, subjugated to fate.  In the third verse, he admits to going places, London, Paris, and following a river and making it to a sea. Elsewhere, he’s been stagnant, framed by birth and death, events he feels powerless to control.

What Dylan definitely wills in this song is many rhymes; each two lines are couplets, and he sings each one in such an unforced fluent and achingly beautiful tone.  Yes, the next to last verse shows his movement from Paris to the sea, but the speaker’s mind is stagnant, numb even.  He sings

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

(love that “numb”/”from” rhyme):

Christopher Ricks observes the Keatsian influence in the song–namely to “Ode to a Nightingale.” Much heartache in both, much nearness to the end (not dark yet), fading, even half loving death.  “Do I wake or sleep?,” Keats ends the poem; Dylan finishes the song with the refrain, “not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” “Getting there” … somehow by moving but standing still.

This song never fails to be moving.  In case you want to be moved again by it, here’s the official video:


“Man Gave Names To All The Animals” (1979)

Image result for slow train coming

Dylan hasn’t rhymed the word “glass” in over three decades.  When he last did it was in reference to that snake that he mysteriously does not name at the end of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals“:

He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake . . .

The “glass“/”grass” last rhyme of the song is the last time Dylan will be responsible for the rhyming–he leaves us to come up with “snake” from the rhyme with “lake.”


We have to name him from the sound Dylan gives us, but he won’t say it/sing it . . . a rather snake in the grass move.  The -s sound helps, too, though; can you hear the snake slithering with all those onomatopoeic s’s?  We may not be able to see him, disappearing at all by that tree, but we can hear him and we can identify him, so ingrained as he is into our psyche.

Just  a little help, Dylan seems to be saying, is all we need to point out the snake though we can’t see it.

Here is is singing it in 1981 in London, June 30th, when he was smack dab in the middle of his gospel stage:



“Life Is Hard” (2009)

me” ends each verse of “Life is Hard,” but it rhymes with only one word in the song, and that word is “be”:

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

The friend you used to be
So near and dear to me
You slipped so far away
Where did we go a-stray
I pass the old schoolyard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

It’s a spillover rhyme though so the lack of rhyming at the end of each verse with “me” is consistent.  “me sandwiches” “be”– the lover he speaks of as the center of his “me“-ness.

Life is hard, maybe even possible without her.

I’d venture to say that just about every Dylan album has a can’t live without her song; the first perhaps “Girl From The North Country.”

The “went” rhyme in “Life Is Hard” conveys something gone but how we’re left with the traces, past never dead, not even past:

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

Way and will are gone, but their meaning remains with the speaker. If you think about it that is the way with all meaningful things gone–they are gone but what they meant to us remains; hard to shake what brings meaning to our lives, partly why life is hard.

Speaking of meaning, in “Life Is Hard” “meant” rhymes with “went” and the meaning known is what two things used to mean but not what they mean now; those two things are the will and the way:

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

Again, the will and the way are lost, but not their meaning from the past. The past is tied to being near someone who used to give the singer a way and a will, perhaps. Such nearness is essential. We underestimate the value of nearness; in this song, such nearness is essential; it’s echoed in the bridge, four times:

Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

The songs celebrates nearness, in a sense, for what happens without it.

One of my favorite songs is “The Nearness of You.” It helps me value and celebrate nearness. Here’s Sarah Vaughn singing it, a song originally sung by Gladys Swarthout for the film Romance in the Dark (1938) and written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington: