Song: “Cold Irons Bound”
Album: Time Out of Mind
Release Date: September 1997
Autumn has always been a particularly stimulating season for me. All five senses seem to go into overdrive. I’m sure living in New England has something to do with it: The fall foliage (seen), the falling acorns (heard) the evening breeze (touched), the wood burning in the fireplace (smelled), the pumpkin pie (tasted). Perhaps as an effect of all this multi-sense stimulation, my memories tend to be retained more intensely from autumn-seasons gone by - in relation to other seasons. I’ve recently wondered if this is my brain tapping into its most primal modes of survival: Ancient ancestral genes and synapses having stored prehistoric experiences in every way possible, to best track, and to best elude.
My fall memories have played out on these blog pages over the years, most notably in relation to Halloween. Go figure! It’s not like this celebration stands out among other annual celebrations - such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, Easter, and the Fourth of July - when it comes to special moments. But Halloween does benefit from sitting smack dab in the middle of that leaf-dropping, night-moves, wind-swept, memory-soaked time-of-year. The Halloween’s of yesteryear that I’ve devoted writeups to already are; 1) the evening I met my wife (see my The Who-centric “Under the Big Top” series entry # 16 here ) and; 2) the hilarious night my son Peter decided to don a Richard Nixon mask for trick-or-treating (see my Neil Young-centric “Forever Young” series entry # 37 here ). I’m going to add to that list here with another Halloween memory, this one much earlier in my life. But before I do, I want to tie in the Bob Dylan angle.
This is the 3rd time I’ve swung back to Time out of Mind in this Master Blueprint series. It goes to show how great of an album I think it is (the only other album with a Blueprint threepeat thus far is Bringing It All Back Home). Time out of Mind is a haunting disc, about love lost. Every song attempts to express this unique type of pain, with memories, analogies, regrets and innuendos piling up from track to track, and a likely journey down the Mississippi River (and Highway 61) cutting across it all (see Master Blueprint # 11: here ). There’s imagery everywhere on this album, with one song in particular -- the mesmerizing, bass-guitar-driven “Cold Irons Bound” -- offering up the strongest imagery of them all. Much of it comes courtesy of a single refraining line:
“20 miles out of town in Cold Irons bound”
Setting aside the fact that ‘Cold Irons’ is capitalized in the lyrics (connoting that this could be a place - as opposed to shackles - …. a place where you don’t want to be), I’d like to focus here on that more obvious image: A man in chains, twenty miles from any semblance of hope. This image is so visual to me, in ways similar to the powerful visual effect that comes with listening to “All Along the Watchtower” (see Master Blueprint # 32: here ). In my mind’s eye I see a vast forest sprawled out between the imprisoned protagonist and the town. I see darkness. I see howling wind and pouring rain. I see …. Iron Maiden album covers (now there’s one band I never thought I’d mention in this blog series). I see Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”.
And, I see the childhood Aurora model “The Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare” ( here ), which my lifelong friend, Phil, had finished and painted at the base of his cellar stairs, an eerie entry into the labyrinth beyond.
Phil’s Martin Avenue home was next-door to my family’s home in my early grade school years (we moved a few blocks away when I entered 6th grade). Our homes were in an idyllic New England neighborhood in the then-small town of Franklin, Massachusetts. Old stately Victorians, along with cottage-style and farmhouse-style homes surrounded us. Equally old and stately trees lined the avenues. There was plenty of woods. There were train tracks, which were well-traveled by my friends and I. And all of it was close to a classic Bedford-Falls-style downtown.
This was all quite bucolic, but such an environment could also play games with the wild and vivid imaginations of a young adolescent, especially in the fall. Large oak trees with their rustling leaves could take on a life of their own to a wandering mind. At night, heading home from any number of friend’s homes nearby, shadows danced about. The wind made human-like howling noises. What’s around that corner? The Forgotten Prisoner coming back to seek revenge on anyone who dared cross his path? I’m tellin’ ya, when I hear that driving Tony Garnier bass beat kicking off Bob Dylan’s “Cold Irons Bound”, it’s like the soundtrack to those spooky moments.
It was during one of those Autumn nights in our home on Martin Ave, just before Halloween, when my parents and their closest hometown friends, the Rappa’s, gathered all their kids (along with Phil and another neighbor friend, Jeff) down into the cellar. We sat in a circle. Not soon after, the lights went out, excepting for a candle which flickered on a small table beside Mr. Rappa, who commenced to reading an unfamiliar poem called “The Terrible Ghost Story” from a thick book of many short poems. It began “There was a man named Joshua Brown, who disappeared one night from town”. That caught our attention.
After each verse, Mr. Rappa hesitated in order that we could take in the gruesome details of a fictional murder victim being discovered one body part at a time (i.e. “as they searched the fields and lanes, they came upon the victim’s veins”). The breaks in the action were highlighted by our parents in two ways. The first of these were recommendations in the book, whereby a given ‘body part’ (food items, such as grapes for eyes) had been pre-prepared in baggies. These items would be passed around from one trembling, blinded, nervously-giggling kid to the next (the poem is at the end of this post, including the suggested food items in parenthesis…. you can probably guess ahead what item was used for those veins). The second highlight was much more impromptu; my Dad whacking the oil tank in the rear of the basement with a baseball bat after each verse, to produce a loud, horrifying GONG (we eventually got a kick out it).
This was a hugely successful coup by my parents and the Rappa’s, seeing as none of us kids would ever forget it. However, our Mom’s and Dad’s would have to deal with the immediate after effects for a spell. I for one didn’t sleep all that great that evening, or subsequent evenings for that matter, and I’m pretty sure the same went for my friends and siblings. My buddy, Jeff, had to head back to his home in the dark that evening, which was less than a block away (we could see his home from ours). I watched him out the window with my Mom. I have to say, I’ve never seen anyone move that fast before or since. The long-term effect was much more positive though. Moments like the one my parents and their friends created in that dark basement can be expansive to the imagination of a young mind; indelible, often in unforeseen ways. Counterintuitively, I believe it’s the sort of thing that can have you ultimately overcoming your fears.
It took me decades to track down “The Terrible Ghost Story” again, which I accomplished about 15 years ago. At the time, I preserved the poem in its entirety. However, for the life of me I could not find it one last time this week, in order that I could credit the author, who I do not recall. I apologize up front to the author (as well as anyone reading this whose name is Joshua Brown). If anybody can track down the poem’s author, I’d be grateful, and I will subsequently include it here.
As for “Cold Irons Bound”, it’s these same terrorized emotions that Bob Dylan tries to pull out of us in this song (how else could you interpret a song that begins with the lyrics “I’m beginning to hear voices, and there’s no one around”). Since I cannot find the original bass-driven version on line I’ll have to settle for this alternate take (I recommend the original though): Cold Irons Bound alternate take
Keep alert in the night air, folks. And be careful of what might be behind that large oak tree up ahead.
There was a man named Joshua Brown
Who disappeared one night from town.
His friends with fearful thoughts were filled.
Where is he now? Has he been killed?
The proof they had right from the start.
They were almost sure when the found a part.
A part of Brown,you've soon to know
What they found was his big toe ( Have kids feel a piece of carrot)
It was too bad he had to die,
What they found next was his right eye? (grape)
Too bad he had to die so young
The next part found was Joshua's tongue.( a few slices of deli meat)
"Who done him in? The robbers band?"
They asked as they found Josh's hand ( wet glove filled with sand)
We must be sure: We must have proof!
Ah, Here's a clue! It's Josh's tooth. ( a wig or a small stone for tooth)
As they searched the fields and lanes,
They came upon the victim's veins. ( cold, cooked spaghetti)
They screamed, they showed their grief and pain,
What next they found was poor Josh's brain. (damp sponge)
They knew J. Brown was surely dead,
When they picked up his only head. (head of cabbage)
The ghosts will talk, the witches fly,
No one will speak. None saw him die.
Oh, who could be so cruelly mean,
And kill Josh Brown on Halloween!