Bob Dylan Countdown #114: “Day Of The Locusts”

I did not get into Princeton University, so Bob Dylan, who received an honorary degree from that Ivy League university on an occasion that inspired this wickedly funny song, has one-up on me there. I did graduate from Syracuse University, the Princeton of central New York, but I skipped my commencement ceremony. It was a full month after my last final, the 2 1/2 four drive from my home in Pennsylvania was a hassle, and, frankly, I was happy to be done with it all.

Dylan seems to have felt some of that relief himself as he scurried out of Jersey on that hot day in 1970 with his wife and David Crosby in tow. By all accounts, he was nervous (or paranoid, considering the pot he had ingested, according to Crosby), attempted to get out of wearing the cap and gown, and high-tailed it out of there as quick as possible after it was over. The song title comes from the cicada infestation that hit Princeton that summer, a once-in-a-blue moon occurrence that likely summed up for Dylan the incredulity of it all.

Such distrust for university life is understandable for a guy who never bothered attending classes in his brief time in college. Of course, not everybody is as talented as Dylan, and some may need college as a way of getting themselves ready for the world. I got a good education, enjoyed my time in college (although I don’t miss it all that much) and am happy to have my degree, but, the further removed from college I get, the more ambivalent I feel about its ultimate worth. A lot of people I admire never finished college, and I’ve met a lot of morons with about multiple degrees to their names.

Dylan was likely reacting to the stuffiness of the situation, and could in no way form an informed opinion in just one afternoon about Princeton or anyplace else. Yet the experience did yield one of the best songs off New Morning, one full of mordant wit and evocative details.

You can practically see and smell the place as soon as you hear the opening line:  “Oh, the benches were stained with tears and perspiration.” His description of university officials as “judges” also betrays Bob’s frame of mind, since judges are rarely portrayed in a positive light in his songs.

He does go through with the process and receives his degree, but he quickly decamps for the “black hills of Dakota,” “lucky to get out of their alive.” A tad overdramatic? Yeah. But the way he sings the chorus (and cathartically bangs the heck out of the piano on the track as well,) you get the feeling that Dylan was awful relieved to be done with it himself.

Maybe on a cooler day, with less potent weed in his system, Bob might have felt more magnanimous about the situation. Nonetheless, on “Day Of The Locusts,” he makes a convincing case that higher education ain’t for everybody.

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