How Does It Feel?

Bob Dylan and Crime Fiction

The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off…
Subterranean Homesick Blues
(aka “The Case of the Missing Pump Handles)

Bob Dylan and his music have always had ties to crime and detective fiction.

On his first album, Bob Dylan (1962), he mostly covered traditional folk songs, including “The House of the Rising Sun,” which deals with prostitution. But he was soon writing his own songs, and particularly during his early years, he continued the folk tradition of writing about real life events and true crime.

One of his first originals, “The Ballad of Donald White,” is sung in the voice of a young man sentenced to die, and bemoans the fate of those who fall through society’s cracks. The song itself seems to have slipped through the crack, never officially appearing on any of Dylan’s official releases until decades later, and quickly discarded by Dylan himself, who rarely performed it live — perhaps because better songs were on their way.

One of those was certainly his searing, sneering “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” from 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changing told the story of a black servant fatally beaten to death in a drunken rage by a wealthy white bon vivant, wielding a cane. The killer was convicted, but only served six months and paid a $500 fine. “Now is the time for your tears,” indeed.

On the same album, “A Pawn in Their Game” questioned the assassination of Medgar Evers by a white supremacist, while the widely bootlegged “Who Killed Davey Moore?” from the same era lamented the death of a boxer after suffering brain damage in the ring. In those early years Dylan also railed regularly about war profiteers, political and religious hypocrisy and the scourge of racism (eg. “Blowing in the Wind”) and the despair of poverty (the bleak, noirish murder ballad “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” a song as mean and lean as a starving rattlesnake).

In the ensuing years the ever-mercurial “song-and-dance man” may have gone electric or Christian, or done entire albums of Christmas songs or Frank Sinatra covers, but like a hellhound dogging his trail, Dylan’s roots have proved hard for him to shake — or to ignore.

He was still at it in the seventies, giving us the elegiac gunfighter’s farewell, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” from the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack (1973), and recounting the swirling, impressionistic, Old West-set ballad of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” (from the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks), is a jaunty hoedown featuring  an unfortunate love affair, cheating lovers, a bank robbery and murder.

On the 1976 album, Desire, he told the story of “Hurricane,” about middleweight contender Rueben Carter, jailed for the shooting of a clerk during a liquor store hold-up. Or, as Dylan put it, “Something he never done,” and in “Joey,” he lamented the murder of mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo, gunned down during a family dinner in a restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy.

A few years later, tucked away on the supergroup effort Travelling Wilburys’ first album, Dylan released “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” top-loaded with lyrical shout-outs to Bruce Springsteen. Although usually dismissed as a simple poke at the Boss’ bombastic early songs (particularly Born to Run’s “Jungleland”), this chuggling tale of drug dealing and betrayal set against the backdrop of a dying Jersey City, with its two cleverly nicknamed titular drug dealers, a post-op transvestite and a disturbed Vietmnam vet, the vet’s devious girlfriend and her brother, a crooked cop, serves just as well as a cracker of a crime song.

And so it goes… throughout this shapeshifter’s career, even on songs not easily classified as “crime” songs, Dylan has sung about gamblers, ramblers, outlaws, thieves, scoundrels, killers and cheaters of all sorts.

After all, it’s Dylan. Who the hell knows what he’s squawking about at any given time? There’s always something happening, but, like Mr. Jones, we don’t always know what is is.

Dylan Goes Hard-Boiled

As his career tumbled into the eighties, Dylan more or less shed overt references to actual events, but that didn’t mean he’d shucked the world of crime–he just became more devious (and playful) about it. Playing hide-and-seek with Dylan’s lyrics would be a life-time gig, with no guarantee of success, somewhat akin to moving a mountain by banging your head against it only to be told you’ve got the wrong mountain. Still, his ties to crime and detective fiction–and particularly film–go far deeper than a cynical  attitude, a cock-eyed wit or a simple refusal to be not play the sap for anyone. His work is peppered with shout-outs and “borrowed” quotations, echoes and reverberations of other people’s works, that have somehow popped up regularly throughout Dylan’s long career.

In fact, Jim Linwood’s amazing Film Dialogue in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan web site helpfully points out some of the sixty-odd films from which Dylan has confiscated lines of dialogue:

“… nineteen belong to the dark, cynical cycle of 40/50s crime films that French cineastes later christened ‘film noir’ and nine star the archetypal noir anti-hero, Humphrey Bogart. The film from which most of Dylan’s quotes are taken is John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), which defined the noir genre and Bogart’s screen persona.”

In other words, Spade and Dylan may not have trusted each other, but they would have understood each other. Hell, we could argue all day about whether “Ballad of a Thin Man” has anything to do with Hammett’s Flitcraft.

But for the more literal-minded, Bob Dylan’s 1985 album, Empire Burlesque, does contain several pretty clear references to John Huston’s film classic The Maltese Falcon, including:

  • “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble…”
    — “Seeing the Real You at Last”
  • “Don’t look for me/I’ll see you…”
    — “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”
  • “Maybe you love me and I love you …”
    — “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”
  • “You wanna talk to me/Go ahead and talk…”
    — “Tight Connection to My Heart”
  • “Well, I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over/But that’ll pass…”
    — “Seeing the Real You at Last”
  • “At one time there was nothing wrong with me/That you could not fix…”
    — “Seeing the Real You at Last”

Dylan also paraphrases some dialogue between Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas from the 1947 RKO noir classic Out of the Past, in the following year’s Knocked Out Loaded.

  • “You said you were going’ to Frisco, stay a couple of months.
    I always liked San Francisco, I was there for a party once.”
    — “Maybe Someday”

But there are a ton more. Other crime or detective films Dylan has “borrowed” lines from include The Petrified Forest, The Big Store, All Through The Night, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, To Have And Have Not, Key Largo, City That Never Sleeps, On The Waterfront, Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Shoot The Piano Player, The Hustler and Taxi Driver, among others.

I’m not making any of this up, either. I stumbled across them in All Across the Telegraph, a collection of items culled from a British Bob Dylan fanzine, edited by Michael Gray and John Bauldie, which pretty much confirmed my suspicions.

Dylan has always struck me as a bit of a hard-boiled guy, anyway, a latter day, guitar-toting Bogart with a snappy line of patter. In 1997’s Time Out of Mind album, he lets fly with what I think is perhaps the ultimate noir line of despair:

  • “Don’t know if I saw you
    If I would kiss you or kill you
    It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow…”
    — “Standing in The Doorway”

There are also a few choice passages that reference crime and detective fiction (and a few sentences that could have come right out of a hard-boiled P.I. novel) in his rambling 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, including:

  • “He (Albert Grossman) looked like Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.” (p. 97).
  • “I had the Mike Hammer attitude, my own particular brand of justice. The courts were too slow and too complicated, don’t take care of business. My sentiment was that the law is fine but this time, I’m the law — the dead can’t speak for themselves. I’m speaking for ’em. Okay?” (p. 51)
  • “It’s a crazy mixed up world and you have to look it right in the eye.” (p. 45)
  • “Oh, the wicked ironies of life. I’d gotten a cosmic kick in the pants. I probably should have been wearing steel underwear.” (p. 162)



  • Bob Dylan | Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1962, Columbia Records)
  • The Times They Are A-Changing | Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1964, Columbia Records)
  • Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid | Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1973, Columbia Records)
  • Blood on the Tracks | Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1975, Columbia Records)
  • Desire | Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1976, Columbia Records)
  • Empire Burlesque | Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1985, Columbia Records)
  • Knocked Out Loaded Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1986, Columbia Records)
  • The Travelling Wilburys, Vol. 1 | Buy this CD
    by The Travelling Wilburys
  • Time Out of Mind Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1997, Columbia Records)


  • Chronicles: Volume One (2004; by Bob Dylan) Buy this book | Kindle it!
    Dylan is often infuriatingly full of himself, and sometimes he’s just full of shit, but his magic swirling shit’s still more compelling and fascinating than almost anyone else’s.


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Visions of Johanna cover by Todd Alcott.

Leave a Reply