Bob Dylan's Great Travel Song

In the Bob Dylan lexicon, I think it’s fair to say that “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a song originally performed by The Band and which first appeared in Dylan’s own voice on 1971’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, is not generally regarded as his “masterpiece.” It may not even be regarded as a masterpiece, which is as it should be given its title, although I beg to differ. It is a masterpiece in the genre of what you could call the “travel song,” or perhaps the “time-travel song,” depending on how you view it. However you look at it, it is a great summer vacation song -- particularly if you’re heading to Europe, as right about now, a lot of Americans are.

Clocking in at 3 minutes and 22 seconds, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” comes crammed with a traveler’s itinerary. There are names of much-visited cities (Rome, Brussels, Venice), popular tourist sites (the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum), transportation (planes, trains, gondolas), travelers’ bugaboos (crowds, bumpy flights, muscle-strains), as well as the usual standbys (hotel rooms, cameras, sex). And all in three verses plus a two-line bridge! Dylan even sounds as if he has a cold (more than he usually does, that is), another problem that tends to afflict travelers.

The opening quatrain is irresistible. Bluesy piano, slide guitar, drums, and a voice that seems to hover over centuries:

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stair.

I half-sung, half-murmured those words to myself repeatedly during a recent visit to … Amsterdam, a city not mentioned in the lyrics. There was no rubble, no ancient footprints, but there were those dirty old canals, and endless hooped bridges, to walk beside at night. It was enough: I was on the move, in the Old World, and the song resonated.

But what kind of song is it, and when is it taking place? The opening four lines just about suggest the present, but then Dylan shifts dramatically either into the past or into a very pleasing fantasy:

Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece.
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece.

(Click here to listen to most of the first verse.)

So are we in the late 15th century or in the smeared and blurry imagination of a 30-year-old rock star as, jet-lagged and no doubt inebriated (“seein’ double”), he walks the nocturnal streets of Rome filled with inchoate yearning? Either way, they’re terrific lines to sing -- and who could resist a date with Botticelli’s niece? -- if you’re planning to wander and ponder any of Europe’s old capitals yourself this summer.

The second verse begins with some of the greatest, and funniest, lines Dylan has ever written. Todd Haynes tried to juggle Dylan’s multiple personae in his 2007 bio-pic, I’m Not There, but the results seem pedestrian when placed next to the singer’s own work. We’re still in Rome, but it’s Ancient Rome, or more likely the dream of a past life in Ancient Rome:

Oh the hours that I spent inside the Coliseum,
Dodging lions, and wastin’ time.
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see ‘em,
Yes it sure has been a long, hard climb.

You can say that again! Bob Dylan, former slave and ex-gladiator, who was so adept at his enforced profession of dodging the mighty kings of the jungle that he frankly found the entire enterprise a bore, jeering spectators and thumbs-down emperors in togas be damned. A jaded gladiator. How cool is that? And who else could pull it off?