Live-Blogging Bob Dylan’s Endless 14-Minute Titanic Song
Leo DiCaprio! The grim reaper! Buffalo Chicken! A second-by-second rundown
Even before the album’s September 11 release, much has been made of the title track to Tempest, Bob Dylan’s upcoming LP. There were “Tempest” parodies and chatter about Leonardo DiCaprio’s appearance in the song’s lyrics. This is what happens when you record a nearly 14-minute, alternately dreamy and nightmarish retelling of the sinking of the Titanic. People get curious.
Look, 14 minutes is a long time, and you know how this song ends. But how does it get there? I’m here to help navigate. Below, I’ve liveblogged my first listen to this salty epic. If you care to join me, the full album is streaming on iTunes.
0:01 to 0:23 The song begins with a sepia-toned mix of mournful violin, wheezing accordion, and old-timey piano. Somewhere Ken Burns’s ears perk up. I’m already imagining a camera panning across black and white photographs of men with curly mustaches in top hats and women in ballooning lace gowns, unaware of their frigid fate.
0:24 to 0:38 Dylan starts singing. He doesn’t sound nearly as phlegmy as usual. He’s going to “tell us a story / about the great ship / that went down.” I like when songs tell you what they’re about.
0:39 to 1:17 Bob sings the word “’twas.” Love that linguistic accuracy! He also shares that the Titanic set sail on the 14th day of April. I’ll fact-check this. He’s right. The Titanic sailed from Southampton, England on the 14th, and [spoiler alert for the culturally and historically illiterate] sank on the 15th.
1:18 to 1:25 “All the lords and ladies / heading for their eternal home.” The Titanic’s destination port of New York City? Nope. Icy death!
1:26 to 1:36 “The chandeliers were swaying / from the balustrades above.” I have never heard the word “balustrades” in a song before.
1:41 to 1:45 “The watchman he lay dreaming.” I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing more from this watchman.
1:52 to 1:55 The watchman “dreamed the Titanic was sinking.” Being able to foretell the future in your dreams would be a cool power.
1:57 to 2:13 More stately violin and piano. When is a violin called a “violin” and when is it called “a fiddle?” Or are they different instruments? Anyway.
2:14 to 2:47 Leo sighting! Dylan sings about him sketching and painting. I love the idea that Dylan saw The Titanic. I love the idea that Dylan sees any movies or TV shows. Although his taste may leave something to be desired. (See: His Dharma & Greg appearance.)
2:48 to 3:10 “Something sounded wrong” to Leo. That would be the giant iceberg destroying the ship’s hull.
3:42 to 3:46 “The angels had turned aside.” That’s a nice image.
3:54 to 4:00 “Dead bodies already floating.” A less nice image. How is there another ten minutes of this song? I just looked up how long it took for the Titanic to sink: two hours and 40 minutes. I guess 14 minutes is reasonable then.
4:53 to 5:04 The watchman is back! “He lay there dreaming / at forty-five degrees / He dreamed the Titanic was sinking.” Wait a minute. He’s still sleeping? He’s a deep sleeper. And an absolutely horrible watchman.
5:10 to 5:17 More weepy violin. If I could play violin, all I would ever do is play these kind of melancholy and vaguely Irish melodies. Along with “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
5:20 to 5:28 “Wellington he was sleeping.” Who the eff is Wellington? I checked the ship’s passenger list. No Wellington. Who cares? Wellington is a cool old-school name, like Grover and Phineas.
5:42 to 5:49 Wellington “strapped on both his pistols / How long could he hold out?” I always really liked the image of someone fighting the sea. W.B. Yeats has a good poem about that called “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea.” Thin Lizzy has a bombastic epic about Cuchulain called “Black Rose.” Thus ends our Irish mythology interlude.
5:50 to 6:36 I’m bored. When someone writes a 14-minute song, do they expect people to pay attention to the whole thing every time through? Do they think about the listener at all? What should I have for lunch today?
6:39 to 6:51 “Mothers and their daughters / Descending down the stairs / Jumped into the icy waters / Love and pity sent their prayers.”
6:55 to 7:05 American Gilded Age tycoon John Jacob Astor IV makes an appearance on “the last trip of his life.” He was a real dude who died when the ship sank, as well as the richest passenger on the boat. Just FYI.
7:10 to 7:22 Calvin, Blake, and Whistle (?) “gambled in the dark.” No clue who those guys are. Glad we’re more than halfway through the song, though.
7:56 to 8:09 I think I’ll get a salad for lunch. Maybe with avocado, chickpeas, and broccoli. Either that or a Buffalo chicken wrap. Did you know that beleaguered Boston Red Sox skipper Bobby Valentine claims to have invented the sandwich wrap?
8:10 to 8:27 “Davy the brothel keeper” tells his girls that they can clock out because the ship is sinking.
8:28 to 8:41 “Jim Dandy smiled / He never learned to swim / Saw the little crippled child / And he gave his seat to him.” Okay, this line hits close to home for me. I’m a very weak swimmer. It’s one of those things where I didn’t learn when I was little and then, because I was embarrassed about that, I would avoid going swimming as I got older. So I never got any better. I was stuck in a vicious circle of shame.
9:18 to 9:42 Leo returns. “He lost his mind already / What ever mind he had.” Another painful admission: I’ve never seen Titanic.
10:10 to 10:12 It’s been a while since we heard from that schlemihl watchman.
10:34 to 10:45 He’s back! “The watchman he lay dreaming / The damage had been done / He dreamed the Titanic was sinking / And he tried to tell someone.” At this point he should just stay asleep, right? But I’m still stuck on the idea of someone who can tell the future in their dreams but can’t do anything about it. How annoying would that be? Like, imagine if you could dream that you had to get up and pee but couldn’t wake up in time to actually go do it. You’d go crazy!
10:50 to 11:03 More sad violin.
11:05 to 11:50 We finally meet the captain. “He knew he’d lost the race.” Ignominious, this guy.
11:53 to 12:04 “When the reaper’s task had ended / 1600 had gone to rest / The good, the bad, the rich, the poor / The loveliest and the best.” Reaper doin’ work.
12:10 to 12:20 The people waiting on the shore for the Titanic to arrive “tried to understand / But there is no understanding / For the judgment of God’s hand.” He waits till 12 minutes to says this is all unknowable? That’s annoying.
12:30 to 12:35 “All things had run their course.” Except this song.
12:36 to 12:51 “The watchman he lay dreaming . . .” I’m done with you watchman.
12:52 to 13:54 Instrumental outro. I’m getting Buffalo chicken.