A Dozen Dead Oceans

Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, Brussels 1873

Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall on Friday in Stockholm for the Nobel Literature Prize was impressive. In my never very humble view. Dylan was otherwise engaged or didn’t feel like attending, who knows, public ceremonies are not his thing. Patti stumbled, forget the second verse, said she was nervous, but she completely nailed it and then some. Patti Smith, I imagine, was chosen by Dylan with in the back of his mind the spirit of Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept the 1972 Oscar for the Godfather (in January 1973), when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather instead (to protest both Hollywood and US treatment of Native Americans), who .. declined it.



Patti Smith did not decline Dylan’s Nobel Prize. Her rendition of the song Dylan for some reason picked to ‘represent’ him was impressive (yeah, that’s just me). Even though she forgot the words to the second verse. That’s because she is good, and because the song is very good.

First, If you don’t know, her, a proper introduction is in place, here’s Patti Smith’s probably biggest hit, a rendition of Springsteen’s Because the night, from 1978.



As I was watching her in Stockholm on Friday, I realized a few things at the same time: that Dylan wrote the song when he was just 21 years old, and that this was 1962, pre-Beatles craze -though not by much. There are these great Newport Folk Festival clips where all the folkies including Pete Seeger are talking about -and admiring- ‘Bobby’, who they know, but don’t want to, is way better than any of them, and who Dylan doesn’t want to be part of (he loved the Stones et al); he’s much darker than the folkies and he knows it by then. They don’t.



It was also at the Newport Folk Festival, later, in 1965, that Dylan ‘went electric’, and showed up with with a rock band. That did not go down well with the hippies ‘avant-la-lettre’ (Traitor!). Which must have enjoyed the hell out of him.



If only the early hippies had listened to that 1962 song, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Because it is at times apocalyptic, it paints visions of hell and despair (a dozen dead oceans), certainly not love and happiness. How did all of the new born love generation miss that? Nor was that the only one of his early songs, and it’s almost eery to see how many Dylan songs everyone knows that were written in just a few years time in the early 60s when he was just out of his teen years.

And if only they had recognized that Dylan’s ‘idols’ were not just Woody Guthrie, who he made it a major point of going to visit in hospital when he first roamed east from Minnesota…



… but also -then- black music’s ‘unknown icons’ like Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Leadbelly, who were anything but hippies. Robert Zimmerman always knew where he came from, but even more where his music came from. And he never stopped paying his respects.



Like the 7 year older Leonard Cohen, bless his soul, who I think should have gotten the Nobel before Dylan, just so Bob could have gotten it seven years later, Dylan’s songs are replete with images sourced from mythology and biblical texts. Both ‘recycle’ images that Carl Jung would have said are engraved in our minds.

Having written songs as impressive as that for their lyrics, which got Dylan the Nobel Literature Prize for over 50 years later, also brings to mind Arthur Rimbaud, widely considered the best French poet of all times, who quit writing poetry when he was 21, the same age Dylan had when he wrote the song, and became a gun smuggler in Morocco, or so the story goes, only to die at age 37.

Luckily, or I think it is, Dylan didn’t stop there. Instead, he’s abided by the tradition that the people he admired set: keep playing till time says no more. Like Woody Guthrie did, like the guys before him, black or white, did. A sacred tradition. Sort of a pact with god, or the devil, take your pick. Even the Stones might be seen as fitting the tradition, Springsteen (?), though money does blur boundaries.

To date, few if any artists in the US play more shows than Dylan does, night after night. Not in big stadiums, though he could fill them, but in small(er) places. Keep playing. So maybe it’s not that strange that he coudld’t make it to Stockholm because he had ‘prior engagements’…


Here’s Patti Smith’s 2016 Nobel version of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall:



And here’s Dylan performing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in 1964:



And here are the lyrics:


Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways

I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world

Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog

I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest

Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden

Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


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