One hundred and twenty-two years ago today, on July 28th, 1890, in Auvers, France, the outstanding but wholly dismissed artist Vincent van Gogh lay prostrate on the precarious balance between life and death. The day prior he had walked alone into a field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He would spend the next day lying in bed smoking a pipe before finally, on July 29th, succumbing to an infection in the wound. He was 37 years old and had sold only one painting during his lifetime (Sherwood, 2006). Attended to by his brother Theo, his last words were reported to be, “The sadness will last forever” (Sweetman, 1990).
In memoriam to this brilliant artist, I present to you today an unfinished work by another. Captured on tape by biographer Robert Shelton in a Denver hotel room on March 13, 1966—just three days after the final sessions for Blonde On Blonde—this “sketch” by Bob Dylan would come to acquire several names over the years, given by various bootleggers and fans: “Definitely Van Gogh;” “Positively Van Gogh;” and “Spuriously Seventeen Windows (The Painting By Van Gogh).” After this date, Dylan would go on to complete his European tour in a blur of inspiration and stimulants before entering a reclusive period on July 29, 1966, when he crashed his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle on a road near his home in Woodstock, New York. The extents of his injuries from this accident were never fully disclosed, however, Dylan claimed that he broke several vertebrae in his neck. As for why he never returned to this composition—the narrative of which had the potential to develop into something with a grandeur to rival his “Visions of Johanna”—Dylan had told the press at the time: “The songs I don’t publish, I usually do forget…I have to start over all the time. I can’t really keep notes or anything like that” (Heylin, 2009).
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When I’d ask why the painting was deadly
Nobody could pick up my sign
‘Cept for the cook, she was always friendly
But she’d only ask, “What’s on your mind?”
She’d say that especially when it was raining
I’d say “Oh, I don’t know”
But then she’d press and I’d say, “You see that painting?
Do you think it’s been done by Van Gogh?”
The cook she said call her Maria
She’d always point for the same boy to come forth
Saying, “He trades cattle, it’s his own idea
And he also makes trips to the North
Have you ever seen his naked calf bleed?”
I’d say, “Oh no, why, does it show?”
Then she’d whisper in my ear that he’s a half-breed
And I’d say, “Fine, but can he paint like Van Gogh?”
I can’t remember his name he never gave it
But I always figured he could go home
‘Til when he gave me his card and said, “Save it”
I could see by his eyes he was alone
But it was sad how his four leaf clover
Drawn on his calling card showed
That it was given back to him a-many times over
And it most definitely was not done by Van Gogh.
It was either she or the maid just to please me
Though I sensed she could not understand
And she made a thing out of it by saying, “Go easy
He’s a straight, but he’s a very crooked straight man.”
And I’d say, “Does the girl in the calendar doubt it?
And by the way is it Marilyn Monroe?”
But she’d just get salty and say, “Why you wanna know about it?”
And I’d say, “I was just wondering if she ever sat for Van Gogh.”
[from here the recording becomes too damaged, and is not worth listening to]
It was either her or the straight man who introduced me
To Jeanette, Camilla’s friend
Who later on falsely accused me
Of stealing her locket and pen
When I said “I don’t have the locket”
She said “You steal pictures of everybody’s mother I know”
And I said “There’s no locket
No picture of any mother I would pocket
Unless it’s been done by Van Gogh.”
Camilla’s house stood on the outskirts
How strange to see the chandeliers destroyed…
Heylin, C. (2009). Revolution In The Air: The Songs Of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Sherwood, K. (2006). van Gogh, Vincent (1853–1890). Encyclopedia of Disability. Ed. Gary L. Albrecht. Vol. 4. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference. Retrieved July 29, 2012 from Gale Virtual Reference Library
Sweetman, D. (1990). Van Gogh: His Life and His Art. New York: Crown Publishers.