Bob Dylan’s Tempest is Superb Storytelling

Dylan sings Tempest – his poignant story of the sinking of Titanic on 15 April 1912

Bob Dylan has a voice for every decade he’s been recording. Now at 71 he sounds a bit like Danny la Rue as he rasps through his repertoire. It’s worth it.

As a DVD Tempest is pretty good starting with head swaying Duquesne Whistle and we imagine the old rascal has come up with a light and breezy line-up of cheerful (relative term after all we are talking Dylan here) but naturally the lightness doesn’t last. Of course it doesn’t.

Long and Wasted Years’ hypnotic melody belies the tragic sentiments of an old man’s regrets.

Roll on John is a fine tribute to John Lennon – ‘I heard the news today, oh boy…they hauled your ship upon the shore…shine your light…you burn so bright…in that forest of the night…cover him up and let him sleep…roll on John.’

But of all the tracks Tempest itself is a masterpiece. Dylan is back to his narrative best. Think of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll or Hurricane. Here Dylan packs a terrific storyline against a waltz tempo reminiscent of some of Jimmy Shand’s very best. I can just imagine Jimmy tapping his toes to this one.  But it’s no jolly romp. For me Tempest succeeds in capturing the hopeless and terrifying tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic which nothing else has come close to. It’s that mixture of Dylan feeding us lines which spark our imagination.

At a few seconds under 14 minutes long, Tempest’s brilliant lyrics would occupy too much space to quote in full. Anyway they might need his scratchy, hoarse delivery to provide the song’s full impact. Here are a few and notice the similarity to the start of Coleridge’s, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. .

The pale moon rose in its glory
Out on the Western town
She told a sad, sad story
Of the great ship that went down

The chandeliers were swaying
From the balustrades above
The orchestra was playing
Songs of faded love

He staggered to the quarterdeck
No time now to sleep
Water on the quarterdeck
Already three foot deep

The ship was going under
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside

Lights down in the hallway
Flickering dim and dull
Dead bodies already floating
In the double bottom hull

The engines then exploded
Propellers they failed to start

The boilers overloaded

The ship’s bow split apart

Passengers were flying
Backward, forward, far and fast
They mumbled, fumbled, and tumbled
Each one more weary than the last

The watchman lay there dreaming
At forty-five degrees
He dreamed that the Titanic was sinking
Dropping to her knees

Mothers and their daughters
Descending down the stairs
Jumped into the icy waters
Love and pity sent their prayers

Brother rose up ‘gainst brother
In every circumstance
They fought and slaughtered each other
In a deadly dance

They lowered down the lifeboats
From the sinking wreck
There were traitors, there were turncoats
Broken backs and broken necks

Jim Dandy smiled
He never learned to swim
Saw the little crippled child
And he gave his seat to him

Petals fell from flowers
‘til all of them were gone
In the long and dreadful hours
The wizard’s curse played on

The watchman, he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone

The captain, barely breathing
Kneeling at the wheel
Above him and beneath him
Fifty thousand tons of steel

He looked over at his compass
And he gazed into its face
Needle pointing downward
He knew he lost the race

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears

When the Reaper’s task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best

The watchman he lay dreaming
Of all the things that can be
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
Into the deep blue sea

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