Friday, April 15, 2011

On "Key-Slapping Slippards"

On “Key–Slapping Slippards”


Paradise Lost, in

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew
by Dr. Seuss


by Bob Dylan

What do Seuss and Dylan have in common? Read on.

I’m an escapist and I know it. Elsewhere is attractive, especially if there’s a beach and cold fruity drink. Not that I’m aching to get away all the time. My here and now in Seattle is often pleasant enough. But when the rain smashes down on a mid-winter afternoon, I become a first-class daydreamer. Even in fine weather, I am vulnerable to fantasy —  the seductions of a new ecosystem, unfamiliar plants, and a variation in the scent on the breeze. I’ve always been a wanderer, at least in my mind, ever since I was a boy growing up in the frigid northlands of St. Paul.

One of my favorite books of that childhood was I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, by the man known to his accountant as Theodor Geisel. The story is about leaving your troubles behind and finding someplace better, and whether such a thing is possible. The illustration I loved best shows the hero dozing contentedly on huge cushions in an airy room, crescent moon outside the window. The text reads:

            Then I dreamed I was sleeping on billowy billows
            Of soft silk and satin marshmallow-stuffed pillows.
            I dreamed I was sleeping in Solla Sollew
            On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo
            Where they never have troubles. At least, very few.

Solla Sollew was published in 1965, the year of my fifth birthday. I’m not sure why I connected with the story so strongly. I had no special need to escape anything in an early boyhood that was safe and content. We lived in a large St. Paul house in a neighborhood packed with kids. My friends and I had freedom to roam, from the banks of the Mississippi to the sledding hills of the Town and Country golf course. I suffered a few minor problems of course — bickering older brothers who made me the butt of their jokes, an adored older sister who was around too infrequently, and a fierce, distant father. But all in all, not too bad. More serious difficulties waited a few years down the path and over the wall of puberty.

I had little awareness of 1960’s unrest either. I do remember when RFK was killed because of the shock on Mom’s face when I came down for breakfast the following morning. Every child sees the bogey-man once in a while. The decade mostly showed itself in my parent’s post-war, pre-social-revolution lifestyle and in puerile manifestations of popular culture. Not Dylan and MLK, but the Monkees and the Brady Bunch.

One of my few windows into the convolutions of the day and other serious matters were the playfully subversive books of Dr. Seuss. The author is one of those rare adults who can put heavy issues into silly language and fun pictures that the under-ten crowd can seize upon. The Lorax, for example, is a eco-parable that will have any child thinking twice before yanking a flower — that small truffula tree — out of the ground. The Butter Battle Book makes kids laugh at the one-upmanship of its foolish generals, and tremble a little too, when “the bitsy big-boy boomeroo” is about to be dropped. In The Sneetches, one group of dowdy birds have “stars on thars” and the rest do not. Both tribes are swindled by Sylvester McMonkey McBean before they learn to overcome their superficial differences and get along. What Seuss said to me and other kids in these classics is what all great artists say to their audience: it’s a beautiful and disturbing world out there, a world that requires your attention.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew is lesser known Seuss. It never achieved the mass appeal of The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or Horton Hears a Who. Many of today’s children are also unfamiliar with the story. Why? For one, it has never been translated into a live action travesty starring Jim Carrey. Moreover, unlike the above examples, Solla Sollew is hard to figure as a lesson in values. It is somewhat jumbled in message, especially the controversial, thought-provoking ending, as I explore below. But Solla Sollew also has a lot to offer: a bewitching vision of paradise, and a startling juxtaposition of human innocence and deceit.

A brief synopsis:

A boy — a man? — something related to the strange cat-like creatures that the Doctor called, in another of his books, “Thing 1 and Thing 2,” is out strolling in nature one day,

I was happy and carefree and young
And I lived in a place called the Valley of Vung

when he is confronted by some previously unseen troubles.

A Skritz (huge mosquito-like thing) at my neck!
A Skrink (casual foot-chomping beast) at my toe!

But that’s not all.  A “Quilligan Quail” is after his tail. We never learn why the nasties suddenly appear, but I am reminded of when my eldest son was in primary school and one day, he came home distraught and crying. “Daddy, have you heard about the bombs?” I wondered for a moment if we'd had a terrorist attack.  Instead, he had learned at school that day, that humans keep Weapons of Mass Destruction and have been known to use them.

An offer by a passing stranger — “a chap wheeled by in a one-wheeler wubble” — proves irresistible. 

I’m off to the City of Solla Sollew
On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo
Where they never have troubles, at least very few.

It is not very far
And my camel is strong.
He’ll get us there fast.
So hop on! Come along!

So begins his journey in search of Solla Sollew  (Shangri-la Eden Brigadoon Avalon  (name your paradise) Kauai).

Disillusion begins immediately. The “chap” is a bully and a liar, the camel gets sick, the bus never comes, and wouldn’t you know it, “The Mid-winter Jicker came early this year!” As a result, “a flubbulous flood with suds in my eyes and my mouth full of mud…” Next, forced conscription at the end of a spear wielded by “General Genghis Khan Schmitz.” Also, the occupation is a disaster! Instead of a single “Perilous Poozer of Pompelmoose Pass” an entire pack of the toothy beasts attack. Our “Private, First-Class!” is way overmatched. Luckily, “Vent No. 5” appears and the young Thing from Vung jumps in, only to find himself facing “billions of birds, going all the wrong way,” in beds, with babies, fish, dishes, and drums (refugees, from the battle above, perhaps?). All the pictures that go with the these scenes are, of course, priceless.

But finally! Our hero pops up through a hatch on the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo. The glittering towers of Solla Sollew are just on the other side. Seuss’ illustrations again evoke paradise. We smell the waving, disc-shaped flowers which look like pastel Necco candy wafers. We nearly feel the marshmallow stuffed pillows under our bottoms. Vung crosses the delightful bridge to the promised land, where a doorman (actually, another “chap”) greets him with “a wave that was friendly and kind.” Our hero is welcomed again and again. The doorman recites the familiar speech about the city, ending with,

            Where we never have troubles.
            At least very few.
            as a matter of fact, we have only just one.
            Imagine! Just one little trouble, my son.
            And this one little trouble,
            As you will now see,
            Is this one little trouble I have with this key. . .

            There is only one door into Solla Sollew

And we have a Key-Slapping Slippard. We do!

Seuss moves to close-up, and we see the little green booger beastie doing his trick, flinging the key away with a malicious leer.

Can’t kill the Slippard. Bad luck, apparently.

So the doorman issues another invitation:

            I’m off to the city of Boola Boo Ball
            On the Banks of the beautiful River Woo-Wall,
            Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!

The THING from Vung scratches his head. I, for one, would have taken the “chap” up on it. True, my fifth grade teacher did say I was the most gullible child he’d ever met. (I had to look up “gullible.”)

But here’s what Mr. Vung does. (And frankly, Dr. Seuss, I’m still a little shocked, just as I was way back in the 1960’s.) He returns to the home valley wielding a great huge baseball bat! And there they are: the Grintz, the Stinkz, and the toe-biter too! I mean, why not a gun, good doctor? Why not blow the little Furtz’s head off? When I read this story to some first-graders recently, a cute little fellow in the back began swinging his imaginary club, shattering imaginary skulls.     

Where does Bob Dylan fit into all of this?  

I turn to Dylan because he has often considered the same problems. In fact, the themes of deceit and heartbreak and self-doubt and the desire for a less corrupt, more luminous world run through his entire body of work. I need to turn to Dylan because, in this case at least, Dr. Seuss seems to have befuddled himself, or at least this loyal reader. A club can't be the answer. Something is missing.

Consider “Highlands,” from the 1996 masterpiece, Time out of Mind. “Highlands” contains the same themes as I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, but from a  different perspective. Can we get away from our troubles? Is it possible to find a place of peace and tranquility, at home or away? Can we find heaven on earth? But whereas the creature in Seuss’ book is young, innocent, and just starting out in life, the persona in “Highlands” is aging, weathered, and stuck in a rut.

For those who need a brief review: the man in the song (Dylan? You can never quite know, but okay, I think so) begins in a reverie. He’s thinking of a place he’s seen once, perhaps in a time long past, or in a dream, or in another life.

Well, my heart’s in the Highlands, gentle and fair
Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air.  

We don’t know why he didn’t stay in this place, out where “the bluebelle’s blazing,” but for whatever reason, he’s now living in a lesser world. He’d love to be in the Highlands, but something holds him back. He doesn’t yet feel “good enough to go.” But what sense of “good” does the singer mean? That he also has been corrupted? That a man in the fallen world just can’t live in paradise, by definition?

But the desire is strong, the daydream. “That’s where I’ll be, when I get called home.” In the meantime, he lives here, where “insanity is smashing up against my soul.”

A meal in a restaurant illustrates his human relationship problem. He is attracted to the waitress even as he feels alienated from her, even as he alienates her with a refusal to pander. “What in the devil could it all possibly mean?” All this man can do, in this lamentable society, is hearken back to his youth. If he was still young, least he could dance and drink and pretend. He would probably go home with the girl even though they have little in common.

The man singing “Highlands,” like the fellow from Vung, returned once, from a journey to paradise, after finding he couldn’t get in. As a matter of fact, in 1980, Bob Dylan stood on the very banks of that river, filled with a sense of wonder, sharing the vision, to the exclusion of all other songs. The strength of his belief in a heavenly kingdom led him far from any home he had known. It shocked and alienated fans from earlier periods. But three records and several years later, he remained outside the door. How could anyone get in? There’s a slippard in the lock.

So he returned to the lowlands. He lingered there through much of the eighties. But he didn’t pick up a club. He seemed troubled and disillusioned by the pests and dangers, but he remained vulnerable. Then, in the nineties, through a belief in the music, and grace, and an open mind, the inspiration returned. Maybe he needs “a full length leather coat” for protection and he definitely needs to cross the road “to get away from a mangy dog” but he is still dreaming of that place he once knew. He still has faith. This becomes a theme for many late period songs, including, most directly, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.”

You broke a heart that loved you
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

Who broke his heart?  It’s easy to read this as a woman, but I don’t think so. That’s not who “seals up the book.” It’s the King who walks the courtyard in that city in the Highlands. Only Dylan would call God a heartbreaker.

But he doesn’t stop believing and he knows that the club is not the answer, even though it is tempting, even though things look very bleak some days, especially when “someone hits me from behind.” Some days it’s a newspaper columnist from the New York Times, some days it’s your own depression. But he ain’t talkin.’ It’s better to just keep singing the songs.

The young man from Vung doesn’t need a club. Sure, he needs to look out for those little biting bastards."They will jump on your misfortune when you're down." He needs a skeptical eye. But more than this, he needs a vision of love. Dylan shows us, Dylan has always shown us, that you can’t settle. Keep looking to the Highlands.

            There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
            But I’m already there in my mind
            And that’s good enough for now.

I’m with Bob. I’m in the lowlands but I’m also dreaming on the banks of the River Wah-hoo. That nasty slippard can’t stay in the keyhole forever.


  1. Whoa, that's good. You think he's talking to God in "Trying to get to Heaven?"

  2. That's the way I've always heard it, friend. At least that particular verse. But that's often the way it goes with the great mystical poets. If you know Rumi, you hear the same voice, calling out to the Beloved, who at times sounds like an earthly lover and at other times God.

    But Bob's particular angle on this seems to be as one who was actually jilted by the Lord. I get the same feel in "Can't Wait":

    "It’s mighty funny, the end of time has just begun
    Oh, honey, after all these years you’re still the one
    While I’m strolling through the lonely graveyard of my mind
    I left my life with you somewhere back there along the line
    I thought somehow that I would be spared this fate
    But I don’t know how much longer I can wait"

    Let's recall that Dylan once met Jesus in a Tucson hotel room, eh? Ever since, he's either been living in that spirit, longing for it, or trying to figure out how he got left behind.

    crazy, huh?

    "I'm breathing hard, standing at the gate."

    Now what gate would that be?

    Thanks for reading my "Solla Sollew." Wasn't sure anyone did!

  3. Nice piece. I think Dr. Seuss is great (and subversive) as well. Have you seen Ronnie Keohane's Lily Amont the Thorns page. Her whole piece on Time out of Mind is something. You can google her or try pasting this link into your browser
    Consciously or not I think we all are living in the lowlands yet aspiring for the highlands.