Welcome

I’m glad you’ve found the site and hope you find at least some things in it worthwhile. Please do comment. There’s a post on each song from New Morning, and I’ve begun to add posts on other albums.

I should say that the overall aim of the site is to present literary interpretations of Dylan’s lyrics. Close, literary analysis is something which doesn’t appear much on the internet or in books on Dylan, yet I can’t imagine I’m alone in regretting this. I can think of just a handful of sites and books I’ve found at all useful. This, then, is an attempt to at least begin to plug what I see as a gaping hole. The focus is on meaning rather than style but I’m not claiming special insight into ‘the meaning’ of the songs. I’m sure there will be other, often better, interpretations. And of course meaning will often be personal for each listener, or perhaps arise from a transcendent beauty, or subtlety, created by the writing, making hopeless any attempt to pin it down.

Nevertheless I think it’s important to get away from those interpretations which assume each song is only about some trivial aspect of Dylan’s life – drugs or meeting Elvis, say. The topics are of much greater import. I’ve tried to show that in many songs the speaker is not Dylan himself, and indeed may be somebody he wouldn’t want to be. These narrators are not to be taken at face value. Like the speakers in most so-called dramatic monologues, they are duplicitous but in a way that the careful listener can see straight through.

An example from outside Dylan’s work which may serve as a model is the narrator in Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Up At A Villa, Down In The City’. Here the narrator, in attempting to show his appreciation for the beauties of nature, unintentionally informs us that his primary concern is with monetary value:

‘The wild tulip, at the end of its tube, blows out its great red bell
Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the children to pick and sell’

What a shame he included the final clause! In a similar way Dylan often gets his narrators to give things away about themselves. In ‘The Wicked Messenger’, for example, the narrator is clearly untrustworthy when he characterises the messenger as wicked. The narrator comes across as someone with a contemptuous attitude towards the messenger, and fearful of him. How do we know? Because Dylan tells us the messenger came from Eli (God). It’s very unlikely that God’s representative would make a meal out of insignificant things (‘the smallest matter’), or ‘flatter’ his hosts. Far more likely the narrator is trying to turn us against the messenger so that he can continue in his own disreputable ways.

I started with the songs from New Morning, an album of quite amazing lyrical complexity. Ever since I bought it forty-five years ago, I’ve suffered under the illusion that it’s thin both musically and lyrically. Going back to it, I’ve realised how wrong I’ve been. Some of the lyrics seem now to be masterpieces of precision, the thematic richness being disguised by a sometimes extreme simplicity of language. I hope I’ve managed to get across something of Dylan’s skill here.

It’s worth pointing out that the New Morning album – like a number of Dylan’s albums – works as a unified whole (thus exemplifying one of its themes). The same themes are treated in different songs, and very often the exact same words will be used again and again from song to song. Nevertheless the treatment, and the contexts, are so different that it’s quite possible to overlook the thematic connections. I think these connections would be worth a study in their own right. Unfortunately, constraints of time have necessitated my ignoring such inter-connectedness here and instead treating each song as an individual work.

I should say in passing that I hope I don’t come across as some sort of apologist for Christianity, let alone as a religious nutter!  I’m certainly not trying to impose religious interpretations on the songs, and it was surprising to me when some seemed open to such interpretation – especially where an album precedes Dylan’s ‘born again’ period. If anything I’ve said seems way off, please do say!

David Weir

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Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)

The song concerns a journey. It’s both a physical journey by train and a spiritual one. It begins with the journey underway, goes back to its start in verse six, and ends with the narrator’s arrival at his destination (though not necessarily the right spiritual one). The rest of the song is made up of flash-backs to a previous relationship with a woman which the narrator is attempting to restart. In the process, we glimpse aspects of the narrator’s character which explain why, though the physical journey is completed, the success of the spiritual one is still in the balance.

There is some ambiguity about the woman’s identity:

‘There’s a babe in the arms of a woman in a rage
And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage’

It’s possible, but not certain, that one or both of these descriptions are of the ‘woman I long to touch’ of the first verse. If so, the woman and the stripper would be the same woman at different stages of her life. We can form a picture of a man, infatuated with a stripper, who goes on to marry her and have a child with her. The rage she’s in follows his infidelity. After their break-up, he tries either to get back with her again, while remembering her as she used to be.

The alternative is that there are two women. Whether there’s in fact one or two may not matter. This interpretation is unavoidably vague – the song omits unnecessary detail.1 What does matter is what we discover about the narrator from his interaction with her or them. For simplicity, I’ll not distinguish between them unless specifically necessary.


Spiritual Journey/Marcel and St John

Despite the narrator’s concern about his relationship, it’s clear he’s also concerned for his spiritual wellbeing. He’s on a spiritual journey, one through ‘dark heat’ – which suggests that until the journey is successfully completed life can be compared with hell. He begins his journey:

‘… with Marcel and St John’

– presumably the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel and the author of the fourth gospel respectively. (These are described as ‘Strong men belittled by doubt’ – other people’s doubt, one imagines, rather than their own.)


Marcel
: The explicit reference to Gabriel Marcel acts as a pointer to a major theme of the song. Marcel claims we have come to treat others as subjects rather than objects. We have ceased to see others as ‘thou’ (French ‘tu’), instead objectifying them as he or she. ‘Thou’ is a person I identify with, in a way that ‘he’ or ‘she’ is not.

The idea permeates the song. In the first two thirds or so of the song the woman is referred to distantly in the third person. To the narrator she’s an object – ‘the woman I long to touch’. Apart from a single use of ‘we’ (‘we entirely agreed’) only the refrains which close the fourth and eighth verses represent a departure from the third person:

‘Oh, where are you tonight?

and

‘Oh, if I could just find you tonight’

This then changes. The final four verses all directly address the woman as ‘you’, our nearest modern equivalent of ‘thou’ or ‘tu’. The narrator is no longer addressing the woman from an emotional distance, or seeing her merely as an object. He now treats her as a person, a subject, the words ‘you’ or ‘your’ occurring eight times while ‘she’ and ‘her’ don’t occur at all.  Further, in the final verse, for the first time, she’s apostrophised as ‘baby’ – a term which, like ‘thou’, implies a closeness.

The narrator’s proclivity not to see people as subjects for the majority of the song reaches its height in verse seven. Here he seems to distance even himself from his own subjectivity in the way he distanced himself from the woman’s. But this time it’s by using the third person ‘he’ even though he’s referring to himself:

He took dead-centre aim …’

What we can gather from this is that by the end of the song the narrator has made spiritual progress. ‘Spiritual’ is not to be taken in a vague, esoteric sense, but as concerning everyday matters. The success of his relationship is likely to depend on whether he’s prepared to treat the woman (and perhaps, as a result, himself) as a subject with emotions.

That she is a subject as much as he is, is hinted at by similarities between them. His train is long-distance and rolling. She is a longtime stripper, and drifting. She is also privy to his private thoughts, which amounts to their being identical subjects.

And the reason for the narrator’s despair when he:

‘… discovered her invisible self’

may be that what he discovered was her her true identity – with him.


St John
: The success or otherwise of the narrator’s spiritual journey is to be judged against two claims made by Christ according to the fourth gospel. These are:

‘I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will never walk in darkness. They will have the light that leads to life.’ (John 8.12)

and

‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6).

With respect to the first quotation, it’s because he’s in darkness – ‘dark heat’ and ‘the dark side’ of the room – that by the end of the song it remains unclear the extent to which the narrator has achieved spiritual fulfilment. It’s merely unclear because in the second verse his otherwise dark environment is lit up:

‘There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze’

And the ‘white diamond gloom’ which accompanies the darkness near the end suggests that he’s still alive, or has enough of the ‘light that leads to life’.

With respect to the second quotation, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, the narrator seems to ignore its implied advice for achieving spiritual fulfilment.

Consider ‘the way’. While he recognises ‘a pathway that leads up to the stars’, he says no more about it, suggesting that he at least fails to fully grasp its significance as a route to salvation. On two other occasions he has an opportunity to follow ‘the way’, but doesn’t take them. As a result of fighting his twin, he falls ‘by the way’. And he also ignores ‘the way’ when he indulges in adulterous sexual behaviour despite realising that ‘the law (of God) looks the other way’. Despite having ‘finally arrived’ in the final verse, it’s unclear whether his destination is the right one:

If I’m there in the morning …’

His way – or pathway – might not have been Christ’s way.

In addition to not following ‘the way’, the narrator makes excuses for ignoring ‘the truth’:

‘The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure’

Why he finds the truth (or the law of God, roughly ‘Love God and love your neighbour’) obscure, too profound, and too pure, he doesn’t say. More likely, he just doesn’t find it convenient to go along with. Nevertheless he does go some way towards seeing that truth when he discovers the true nature of the woman’s ‘invisible self’.

It’s significant that the woman of the second verse didn’t experience his qualms about purity since she:

‘… bathed in a stream of pure heat’


The Woman’s Role

The woman is presented as Christ-like. As such she has a role in enabling the narrator to achieve spiritual fulfilment.Since she is a representation of Christ, in trying to ‘find’ her, the narrator is attempting to achieve spiritual salvation.

That she’s to be seen as Christ is apparent from the narrator’s longing to ‘touch’ her, which is reminiscent of the woman cured of menstrual problems by touching Christ’s clothing (Mark 5.25). And if she is Christ, she will be prepared to sacrifice herself for the narrator. That she’s prepared to make such a sacrifice is apparent from her agreement with him that:

‘Sacrifice was the code of the road’

An additional reason for seeing her as Christ is that her father has God-like qualities. He advocates being ‘more than streetwise’ – in other words, being considerate to others rather than merely learning how to deal with them. He is for being, as it were, ‘street legal’. He practises what he preaches, and he’s loving in that he preaches ‘from the heart’. And in that he can predict the future, he – like God – would seem to be omniscient.

The woman is presented as God-like too, in that her hair implicitly associates her with Apollo. Just as her divine counterpart in Changing Of The Guards had ‘long, golden locks’, so the woman here is ‘golden-haired’. And she too seems to be omniscient, for with respect to the narrator’s private thoughts:

‘… she had some way of finding them out’

Not only is she associated with purity, rather than darkness, but at the same time with water – ‘a stream of pure heat’ – with its baptismal significance.

What, then, is her role in the narrator’s spiritual survival? This will depend on the extent to which he can adopt her Christ-like qualities. He, too, needs to be identified with Christ. That he too sees ‘sacrifice as the code of the road’ makes a promising start.

The narrator’s ironic description of his dissolute way of life as ‘sweet paradise’, in the penultimate verse:

‘If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
Remind me to show you the scars’

also suggest that the narrator could eventually come to be identified with Christ. The lines put his hearer is in the position of the apostle Thomas who likewise wouldn’t believe unless he had first-hand experience of Christ’s wounds. However, that she needs to be reminded about the scars suggests that the narrator’s Christ-likeness can’t speak for itself. He has not yet achieved identity with Christ. He is un-Chris-like in that his acceptance of the scars is an unwilling one, unlike Christ’s acceptance of his wounds.


Aiming and Missing

Unfortunately, the narrator tends to see his life’s purpose merely in terms of winning back the woman. This is made apparent by way of a play on the word ‘miss’. In the first verse we’re told:

‘There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much’

In the sixth, we’re told:

‘He took dead centre aim, but he missed just the same’

On one level the narrator is aiming not literally at the woman, but in the sense of making her the object of his interest. The suggestion is that in trying to recover her for himself, he’s taking the wrong approach. He wants to possess her, rather than engage with her as a fellow subject. The result is that he misses her in the sense of regretting her absence.

On another level, the aiming is more sinister. He could be aiming a gun. And just as in Baby, Stop Crying, where it’s unclear whether the intended victim is the woman, the narrator’s rival, or the narrator himself, so it’s unclear here too. We’re told ‘He took dead-centre aim’, but not who or what at. Since he’s despairing and fights himself (‘the enemy within’), the target could be himself – a failed suicide. Alternatively, it could be his rival – suggested by his going on to kick his rival in the face.

And it could be the woman, out of revenge. The reference to ‘horseplay’ suggests this. While on the surface the term ‘horseplay’ suggest general philandering, in seeming to hark back to New Pony, it also reminds us that in that song the narrator shot the pony.

Since people share subjectivity, and are thus in a sense identical, it makes no difference who the intended victim is.


Sex and Violence

However we’re to interpret his aiming, having failed to win the woman, the worst of the narrator comes out:

‘There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped’

He seems to struggle to control himself:

‘I won’t but then again, maybe I might’

Might what? In the same verse he mentions ‘a landscape being raped’. The word ‘raped’, together with its reappearance in the phrase ‘I watched her undrape, perhaps provides the answer. Just as the rain in the first verse reflects his tears and the misery they’re caused by, so the rape of the landscape might seem to reflect more sinister intentions towards women.

Sexual licentiousness might also be behind the references to both ‘horseplay and disease’ and ‘forbidden fruit’.

At any rate, the narrator now turns his attention to the rival he presumably sees as responsible for his brush off:

‘It felt out of place, my foot in his face’

and, for no clear reason, to the woman’s boss whom he, euphemistically, ‘deals with’.

At this point in the song his moral progress has been largely, but not entirely, negative.


The Narrator as Humanity

If the woman is to be seen as Christ, then her boss (like her father) might be taken to represent God. His having ‘never known about loss’ seems to describe God’s position up to the Fall, and therefore makes apparent a further identity, one between the narrator and Adam, the cause of God’s loss. To that extent, the narrator’s journey towards spiritual fulfilment is that of humanity in general.

Further reasons for seeing the narrator as Adam include his describing an earlier wrongdoing as eating the ‘root of forbidden fruit’, and his earlier situation as ‘paradise’.


Self-Defeating

The narrator’s selfish approach is not only misguided but self-defeating. That his actions just re-bound on himself is clear from the way he seems to be identified with – is one and the same with – the rival he beats up. In the very next verse he tells us:

‘I fought with my twin, that enemy within
Till both of us fell by the way’

suggesting that to fight the rival is indistinguishable from fighting himself.

To fight an aspect of oneself – the ‘enemy within’ – is literally self-defeating if one or other succumbs. As it is, both succumbed in that they both ‘fell by the way’. The implication is that in assaulting the rival, the narrator is effectively assaulting himself.

That he and the rival can be taken as identical is further reinforced by the expression ‘the guy you were loving’. That in fighting the rival, the narrator can be taken to be fighting himself is made clear by the vagueness of the expression. It would seem to apply as much to the narrator before the breakdown of the relationship as to a rival.

That the narrator and his rival are identical is further made apparent by the narrator’s excuse for his violence, that the rival ‘should have stayed where his money was green’. The only place where his money is likely to have been green is the ‘green smoky haze’ referred to in the second verse. Since the narrator is clearly there, but the rival is not explicitly mentioned, the rival’s presence depends on, and amounts to, the presence of the narrator.

It’s worth noting that the narrator’s fighting ‘the enemy within’ cannot be justified on the ground of moral superiority. The twin has as much of a claim to the moral high ground. He, too, has an ‘enemy within’ – the narrator.


Turning Back the Page
:

Despite the apparent negative direction of the narrator’s spiritual journey, he has made some progress towards his true destination – and more than he thinks. The evidence for this is his writing a letter. Thoughts of the woman bring back memories. She:

‘… winds back the clock and she turns back the page
Of a book that no one can write’

The book presumably stands for the events in the couple’s lives to date. The claim that no one can write it seems to imply that those events are beyond anyone’s control. They’re pre-determined. The narrator seems to be blaming chance for things having gone wrong in the relationship.

He’s wrong. Although he doesn’t realise it, it’s clear that things are not beyond his control since he’s already putting them right. In the first verse, he refers to:

‘Tears on the letter I write’

He might not be able to write the book, if that means assuming responsibility for everything that’s happened, but he can and does write a letter. The letter, presumably an attempt to undo the wrongs of the past, can thus be seen as a first step in the narrator’s spiritual rejuvenation.


Time/Eternity

Just as there are grammatical changes of person – first to third, and third to second – so there are changes of tense. While many events are recounted in the past tense, the present tense ‘there’s’ is used no fewer than ten times in places where the past might have seemed more natural.

The removal of temporal distinctions from certain situations, so that they each seem to occur in an eternal present, establishes their importance. There’s a ‘nowness’ about the woman’s raging while looking after the baby, the narrator’s being dazzled by the stripper, and his contemplation of violence.

There’s a similar ‘nowness’ arising from the two dawn references. The first occurs in the middle of the song at the outset of the narrator’s journey:

‘I left town at dawn with Marcel and St John’,

and the second in the final verse at the journey’s end:

‘There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived’

Both the employment of different tenses and the lines’ respective positions in the song suggest that on a literal level there are two separate dawns rather than, say, two references to the same dawn. However, if dawn is taken as symbolising a new beginning, there’s a sense in which they can be treated as one and the same.  The narrator is hoping, at the end of the song, that the new dawn will bring the meeting with the woman he craves. He’s assuming that the previous dawn did not bring this about, but there’s a sense in which he’s mistaken. To the extent that the woman is Christ, his re-discovering her began when he set out accompanying Marcel and St John. If his arrival, and presence in the morning at the end of the song, are interpreted in moral terms, then – although he doesn’t realise it – he has already gone some way towards finding her. The dawn or moral awakening he’s hoping for at the end has already occurred.


Conclusion

Among the numerous identities which become apparent are those of the woman the narrator ‘longs to touch’ and the stripper, the woman and Christ, the woman and the narrator, the narrator and his rival, the narrator and Christ, and ultimately the narrator and humanity in general. Each can be taken to illustrate the view, derived from Marcel, that people are united in their subjectivity and that this is insufficiently recognised. The lack of a real distinction between individuals is reinforced by the listener’s inability to tell whether in certain cases there is one person or more.

The lack of distinction which perhaps matters most is that between the narrator and Christ. The woman and the narrator are each implicitly identified with Christ, but the identities need to be recognised by the narrator. In order to make his quest for the woman successful, the narrator needs to be Christ-like in his relationship with her. And this means acknowledging, by way of his behaviour, his identity with her.

This role in turn requires the narrator not to objectify himself as ‘he’, but to accept his own subjectivity. He needs to accept that this subjectivity is at bottom the same as that of the woman and Christ. To fully realise his identity with Christ he needs to behave in accordance with the dictum ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. The narrator’s awareness of the woman’s absence at the end of the song makes it uncertain whether or not the narrator has sufficiently done this.

 

 

  1. The reference to a woman with a baby is reminiscent of the similar situation in No Time To Think.
  2. A comparable identity might exist between the narrator and the boss. There’s a similarity if the boss’ having never ‘known about loss’ applies to the narrator too. We’re not told explicitly that this is the case, however. Also, the boss, we’re told, ‘was always too proud to beg’. This might seem to identify him with the narrator by way of the narrator’s counterpart in We Better Talk This Over, although there the narrator is fully prepared to ‘beg, steal or borrow’.

Minor revision 12.10.2017

 

 

 

We Better Talk This Over

Introduction

The narrator here is both a husband and Christ. As a husband, he’s advocating divorce. And as Christ, he’s trying to offload his God-imposed responsibilities to humanity. In whichever role one sees him, he is looking after his own interests while aware that he should be pursuing the greater good. The effect of presenting the narrator as Christ seems to be to make the husband’s position clearer. He can either accept that he should selflessly sacrifice his own interests to those of his wife, or reject that option on the ground that he is ‘only a man’. However, the song implies that the husband has no more reason for abjuring responsibility than does Christ.

Despite the dual identity of the narrator, it’s that of husband which is primary in the song. As an ordinary person, his concerns are universal. The references to Christ are essentially to help us to form a judgment about his behaviour, and hence about the behaviour of humanity generally.


1. The Husband’s Character

The husband is out to get his way, and employs a range of techniques to convince his wife – and probably himself – that he should get it. He imposes his view, he distorts the facts, he presents himself as done down, and he’s aggressive. In addition, we can’t trust him because, on his own admission, he’s drunk, and because he fails to give reasons for the claims he makes.


Imposing
: Having suggested, quite reasonably, that he and the woman talk matters over when they’re in a more fit state, he proceeds straightaway to impose his own view on her. The song represents his own words from beginning to end so that, despite his suggestion, it’s clear he intends to do all the talking himself.

In order to impose his view, he patronises her:

‘You’ll understand I’m only a man
Doing the best that I can’

The phrase ‘You’ll understand’ implies that she wouldn’t have been able to arrive at the conclusion which follows without his help. By talking down to her he makes it difficult for her to present an opposite view.

A further technique he uses in order to impose his view is the use of rhetorical questions. Since rhetorical questions, by their very nature, imply that responses are not needed because the answers are obvious, he can use them to support his view in favour of the need to separate without fear of being opposed. Accordingly he asks:

‘Why should we needlessly suffer?’

‘… why you wanna hurt me?’

and

‘Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?’

In each case the content of the rhetorical question is disingenuous. The narrator is attempting to get the woman to believe something which we have no reason for supposing is the case. He seems to be distorting the truth to suit his own ends. In the first quotation he attempts to smuggle past the view that their suffering is ‘needless’. No argument for this is provided; the view is simply imposed. The second implies that his wife is trying to save the marriage in order to hurt him, which seems extraordinarily unlikely. And the third seems to imply that splitting up is the only alternative to spying on each other from a distance. It’s not. An obvious alternative would be for each to do away with the telescope and come closer together.


Further Disingenuousness:
The husband continues to distort facts, and so gives us more reason to distrust him, when he says:

‘This situation can only get rougher’

Not only does he provide no reason for believing him, but what he says is thrown in doubt by his later reference to his wife’s ‘delicate ways’. If her approach is indeed delicate, any roughness would seem to be down to him.

Another distortion of the truth occurs when he says:

‘The vows that we kept are now broken and swept
‘neath the bed where we slept’

The fact that he says ‘the vows that we kept’, rather than simply ‘our vows’, shows he’s aware that things are not as bad as he’s implying. If in the past they kept their wedding vow, then there’s still a solid foundation on which to renew the relationship. By ignoring their previous mutual loyalty, he’s being disingenuous.

In a similar way, the injustice of his desire to break up with his wife is apparent in his claim that:

‘We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase’

If what he says is true, it would seem to provide a further reason for not breaking up. Since providing such a reason cannot be his intention, it would seem likely that he’s in fact trying to make light of his own wrongdoings.

.
Sympathy: A further underhand technique the narrator uses is to try to get his wife’s sympathy despite his working against her interests.

First, he says:

‘I feel displaced, I got a low-down feeling’

And then:

‘I guess I’ll be leaving tomorrow
If I have to beg, steal or borrow’

In the latter case, he’s implying that for both their sakes he’s prepared to put up with an impoverished lifestyle if that’s what it takes to bring about a better life for them both. What he’s really doing, however, is manipulating his wife’s emotions so that she feels sorry for him.


Aggression
: We get a further indication of the manipulative nature of the husband’s character when he reassuringly says:

‘You don’t have to be afraid of looking into my face’

Reassurance is fine, but one wonders why it’s necessary. He seems to be betraying a dark side to his character – that it’s normal for him to rule by fear. It transpires that this is borne out by the sudden change of technique which follows.

Despite trying to seem reassuring, he almost immediately becomes accusatory:

‘You been two-faced, you been double-dealing’

Quite what he’s accusing her of is unclear, although it may be of carrying on a relationship behind his back. If she’d really been guilty of carrying on another relationship – ‘double-dealing’ – it’s unlikely he’d need to be so vague about where she’d find a new home:

‘Somewhere in this universe there’s a place that you can call home’

So, what put the idea of an illicit relationship in his mind? Again, he seems to be attributing to her faults which may in fact be his own.


2. Unity

Throughout the song there are allusions to a unity between the narrator and the woman which conflicts with the narrator’s desire for separation.

Unity is evident in the continual use of the words ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘both’. The words occur a total of seventeen times, sixteen of these in the first three and the last three verses. In the middle four verses, ‘I’ and ‘you’ dominate. While the pattern perhaps suggests that the husband regains a measure of composure which he had at the beginning of the song, it also suggests a movement from unity, to separation, and back to unity again. This in turn suggests that he will ultimately accept his responsibility to his wife.

Although the simile:

‘Like the sound of one hand clapping’

is intended by the husband to bring out the unlikelihood of their remaining on good terms after separating, it is much more apposite to demonstrating the value of unity over disunity. The point about ‘one hand clapping’ is that it can’t occur. The sound of clapping can only result from the movement of two hands.  Clapping is by its nature a unified result of separate movements. Thus, contrary to the narrator’s intention, the simile serves to bring out the ineffectiveness of separation, rather than the improbability of mending the relationship.

The matter of the couple’s unity is again raised by the line:

‘With both eyes glazed’ 1

The phrase ‘both eyes’ primarily refers to just the narrator’s eyes, ‘glazed’ presumably because he’s drunk. But it could equally refer to the woman’s since she too, we’re told, has yet to sober up. By using the phrase ‘with both eyes glazed’ to refer to his eyes alone, the narrator is artificially separating himself from his wife and in so doing ignoring a unifying similarity between them.

Also relevant to the unity of the couple is the question:

‘Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?’

This question already suggests an underlying unity in that both husband and wife are involved in the same activity. However, when the question is taken together with the line ‘With both eyes glazed’, it’s not just unity which becomes apparent, but a movement from disunity towards unity. If two people are each looking through a telescope, each will have an eye ‘glazed’ – literally – by the glass of the telescope. Whereas the narrator originally used ‘both eyes glazed’ to refer to just his own eyes, the telescope metaphor widens its reference to include the woman’s eyes. In effect ‘both eyes’ becomes ‘the eyes of both’.

All these cases of unity succeeding separation, or of separate things being subsumed under a unity, suggest the misguidedness of the narrator’s attempts to show that the couple are destined to be apart.


3. As Christ

The theme of unity extends beyond the couple. At various points in the song the narrator seems unintentionally to present himself as Christ in conversation with God. This is suggested by references, explicit or implicit, to the crucifixion, exile, eternity and the new covenant. The main effect of these is to draw a comparison between the husband’s relationship with his wife, and Christ’s with God. The existence, despite appearances, of an indissoluble unity between Christ and God will serve to reinforce the existence of a similar unity underlying the relationship of the married couple.


Death and Resurrection
: This theme becomes apparent when the narrator attempts to soften the blow of separation:

‘It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half’

The word ‘cross’ is suggestive of the crucifixion. If the narrator-as-Christ is addressing God, then such a crossing of paths can be seen as Christ’s acceptance of his divine role. This is because the time lapse – ‘a day and a half’- amounts to a total of three days when applied to each of them. This is the time between Christ’s death and resurrection. The ‘day and a half’ reference thus seems to make the narrator-as-Christ dimly aware of the need for accepting his divine status. It’s in this context that his earlier demand to ‘call it a day’ – as opposed to the present ‘day and a half’ – can be seen as attempting to avoid the sacrificial role marked out for him.

The husband’s proposed separation from his wife is thus being presented in Christian terms so that it can be compared with Christ’s wanting to abjure his divine status. If the narrator-as-Christ would be wrong not to acknowledge his responsibilities to God, then the narrator-as-husband would similarly be wrong not to acknowledge his responsibilities to his wife.


As God
: A further indication of the narrator-as-Christ’s divinity is his speaking as if he is also God:

‘You don’t have to be afraid of lookin’ into my face’

The language is, presumably unconsciously, biblical (for example, Exodus 33:20 “… you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live”). In the light of this, the accusation of being ‘two-faced’, taken literally, can also be taken to imply that the narrator is a unity comprising both Christ and God.

Exile: Not only does the narrator as Christ want to deny his divinity but he alludes to exile as a way of underlining his earthly nature:

‘I’m exiled, you can’t convert me’

There are two plausible ways in which the narrator-as-Christ might be exiled. One is in his enforced move to earth from heaven. The other is in his having inherited Adam’s exile from the garden of Eden. He sees himself as ‘displaced’, as having a ‘low-down feeling’, and as being involved in a ‘downhill dance’. All these suggest that he’s ‘down’ on earth rather than in heaven, or has shared in the fall of man. As Christ, the ‘conversion’ he’s refusing to accept in the light of his exile, is to the divine, redemptive role required of him by God.

Nevertheless, he’s incapable of permanently relinquishing his divine status. Such separation from God would be as impossible as the sound of one hand clapping. If the underlying unity between Christ and God must endure despite Christ’s feelings of displacement and exile, then so a comparable underlying unity between husband and wife might be expected to endure despite the husband’s feelings of displacement and exile.

We can conclude from this that the husband is no more actually ‘displaced’ when with his wife, than Christ is displaced when carrying out God’s intentions on earth.

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Eternity: In the light of the unity between the narrator-as-Christ and God, the narrator’s claim that:

‘We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase’

is clearly untrue. It’s made from a purely human perspective. One might assume that what God has instigated is not subject to erosion by time, but is of eternal significance. In a similar way, the value of having kept vows (‘the vows that we kept’) doesn’t cease simply because they eventually get broken.

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The Bond: There’s a further allusion to the narrator’s status as Christ in the final verse:

‘I wish I was a magician
I would wave a wand and tie back the bond
That we’ve both gone beyond’

Just as in ‘No Time To Think’, where ‘magician’ represents the selfish side of a mercurial character, so here it represents the selfishness of the husband in wanting to separate from his wife. The ‘bond’ can be seen not just as marriage between the husband and wife which the husband wants to end, but as the new covenant between man and God which is to be brought about by Christ’s death. It is this which the narrator as Christ seems to be trying to put aside.

Also, the expression ‘tie back the bond’ treats the bond as a curtain. As such, it reminds us of the curtain in the temple being ripped at the time of the crucifixion and so revealing the presence of God. In trying to get out of his saving role, the narrator-as-Christ is unconsciously drawing attention to his divine status. In the end – by way of miraculous rather than magical power – he does ‘tie back the bond’, or re-create the old covenant with God. This suggests that for the husband, tying back the bond can be just as much a matter of renewing his responsibility to his wife as a matter of dissolving their union.

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Conclusion

The song suggests that the husband would be wrong to leave his wife. It does so by making clear the shallow nature of his excuses for so doing, and the underhand nature of his attempts to justify it. It also does so by drawing a comparison between the husband’s relationship with his wife and Christ’s relationship with God. The Christ/God unity thus serves to reflect the marital one. Just as Christ’s suffering was intrinsic to his redemptive role, so the husband’s suffering is necessary for his wife’s happiness.

The song goes further than just reflecting the one relationship in the other, though. In presenting the husband and Christ as two ways of seeing the same narrator, it suggests that Christ’s suffering for the sake of others is not something distinct from the husband’s suffering for his wife. Christ’s suffering is the husband’s suffering (and the suffering of people generally which it represents). The first cannot exist, and so be beneficial, without the second.

 

  1. As in the previous song, Dylan is making use of an idea from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

‘A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye’

 

I Want You

Introduction

A guilty undertaker, saxophones that speak, weeping mothers, a broken cup, and – above all – the mysterious Queen of Spades! A surreal nightmare? No, but neither is it just the love song implied by the title. The narrator’s apparent yearning for romance is in fact a yearning for something more spiritual.

The omens for success are not good. Spiritual death abounds, first in the guise of the guilty undertaker, and then as a lonesome organ grinder – the latter suggestive of a dreary and otherwise empty church.1 The narrator finds himself under pressure to ‘refuse you’ – God – the object of his spiritual quest:

‘The cracked bells and washed out horns
Blow into my face with scorn’

He largely succumbs to this pressure. In deliberately ignoring the plight of those around him, he’s unconsciously destroying any chance of spiritual fulfilment.

Although the song ends with his behaviour increasingly at odds with his spiritual longing, there have nevertheless been signs of hope. From the start he at least shows some willingness to resist the pressure:

‘It’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you’

And in the fifth verse, he comes closest to experiencing the spiritual union he craves, albeit at second-hand.


Waiting

Although the song ends with the narrator still yearning, that’s because he associates the spiritual solely with an external God, the ‘you’ of the title, rather than with selfless action. This leads him to ignore the suffering of others.

Those in need of help are represented by the weeping mothers of the second verse. Yet he does nothing, despite recognising from the drunkenness and perverse leaping of the politician that there can be no political solution to their plight:

‘The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep’

Instead he looks to an equally impotent source of help:

‘… the saviours who are fast asleep’

Not only are these ‘saviours’ asleep, but since the expression ‘fast asleep’ normally applies only to young children, he must realise that looking to them would be futile.

Since they’re powerless, they can only:

‘… wait for you’

But who is ‘you’? The narrator seems to be putting the ball back in God’s court. If neither the political authorities, nor the next generation are in a position to help, then God must intervene.

At this point the narrator seems to realise that ‘you’ could equally refer to himself. Unfortunately, he seems not to notice that this puts him on a par with God, pointing the way to the spiritual union he wants.

Instead, he responds by making an excuse for his own lack of action:

‘And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinking from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you’

He must wait, or so he claims. Yes, he can do what is required. He and the saviours can work together – but not yet. He must wait for them to be old enough to shoulder their share of the burden. Having been forced to accept his own responsibility for alleviating suffering, he welcomes procrastination as a means of escape.


Imagery

The imagery in the second verse serves a number of purposes.

First, to establish the narrator’s lack of spiritual commitment, it presents him as a parody of Christ. Like Christ, he refers to the personal suffering involved in his role of saviour as a ‘cup’. But whereas Christ had, albeit reluctantly, accepted his suffering –

 ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done’ (Luke 22.42)

 – the narrator attempts to negotiate with God. He’ll do God’s work, provided the suffering – an inextricable part of that work – is taken away. Or to put it another way, he insists on having his cake and eating it.

Secondly the reference to ‘drinking from my broken cup’ reminds us of the drunken politician. But now we see that the politician is drunk not because he’s irresponsible (although on one level, like the narrator, he may be), but because he’s had to drink from more than one cup, as it were. Having been been forced to take on others’ responsibilities – including the narrator’s – it’s become too much.

There’s also further evidence of the narrator’s disingenuousness. Presumably the gate is both heaven’s gate and a barrier to God’s direct intervention. How, one might wonder, do you ‘open up’ a gate? The superfluous ‘up’ seems like an attempt to make what he’s agreed to do sound as onerous as possible.2

And in addition to exaggerating what he’s agreed to do, he takes steps to make himself sound more reasonable than he is. He requires only that his drinking from the cup be ‘interrupted’, not ended altogether. Likewise, the saviours have only to ‘ask’ him to ‘open up the gate for you’, and he’ll do it. (By adding ‘for you’ on the end of a sentence spoken to God, the narrator becomes downright patronising – it’s as if he is saying that God can’t open the gate on his own.)

The narrator, then, is both selfish and disingenuous. He has no intention of acting in the present, but would rather pass the responsibility for acting on to the next generation. Rather than refuse outright, he becomes devious, first by attempting to strike a ludicrous bargain, and then by putting on a show of being conciliatory.


The Dancing Child

The dancing child of the final verse, one assumes, is one of the saviours mentioned earlier, but no longer asleep. That is, he’s aware of what needs doing and by whom. Despite the narrator, the impression we get of him is favourable. Being a child he represents innocence, while his clothing suggests unostentatious simplicity.3 And his ‘dancing’ contrasts favourably with the gross leaping of the politician who, apparently having had to drink more than his share from the narrator’s cup, has become drunkenly ineffective. The child is clearly a source of hope for the future.

The narrator is less appreciative:

‘Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit
He spoke to me, I took his flute’

The narrator’s declining to tell us precisely what the child said suggests it didn’t reflect well on him. Instead he tells us how he reacted – ‘… I took his flute’, and only in vague terms why:

‘… I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride’

The flute is the child’s voice, just as the ‘silver saxophones’ of the first verse are the narrator’s voice telling him to refuse his God-given role. From the narrator’s harsh response one imagines the child had criticised him for his indolence, and for passing the buck onto the next generation.

Was there a ‘lie’? Unlikely. From the picture we’ve been given of him, we can assume that the child told the narrator the truth – that the narrator is neglecting his responsibilities.

The false accusation of having lied is not the only fictitious reason the narrator deploys to excuse his behaviour. His disingenuousness comes out in three other ways.

First, he claims he acted as he did:

‘Because he took you for a ride’

Not only is this too a lie, but one would expect him to have said ‘Because he took me for a ride’. The use of ‘you’ instead of ‘me’ ironically serves to unite the narrator with the addressee in making them both a victim of the child’s purported deception. It’s ironic because it points to the very unity with the addressee which the narrator is hoping for. In the end, since it’s the narrator, and not the child, who’s being deceptive, the accusation serves to emphasise the distance the narrator is putting between himself and God.

The narrator also claims that the reason he silenced the child was:

‘… because time was on his side’,

thus implying that the child has time to recover from any harm arising from his lie. This is also ironic in that the narrator seems unaware of the implication – that he himself does not have time on his side. Already time has moved on since the saviours were ‘asleep’ in verse two. By misrepresenting the time left for action, he’s playing with fire.

And finally, he tries to make light of his treatment of the child, referring to it merely as a matter of not being ‘cute’.4


Eternity

The third verse is different from the preceding verses in that is not addressed to God. Since there is no addressee other than the narrator himself, there’s more reason for taking it at face value. Its purpose seems to be to make clear what the narrator represents in the scheme of things.

That eternity is the concern of the song becomes apparent in the first line of this short verse:

‘How all my fathers, they’ve gone down’

The biblical-sounding expression ‘all my fathers’ seems to refer to the narrator’s ancestors throughout history. What is true of him is therefore timelessly true. And the same can be said of the third line:

‘But all my daughters put me down’,

except that instead of looking backwards to the beginning of time, the line looks forward to its end.

These lines make the narrator both a son, and then a father, from the beginning of the human race to its end, respectively. As such his redemption or salvation will be the eternal redemption or salvation of humanity.

The fathers have ‘gone down’ – died – without accepting their role in the world. This is a spiritual death, not just a literal death, because they’ve ignored the suffering of those like the weeping mothers. As the second line puts it, using ‘love’ in the agape sense:

‘True love they’ve been without it’,

The daughters haven’t ‘gone down’, either physically or spiritually. Instead they’ve put the narrator down, or criticised him. Physically, they’re either alive, since they’re around now, or have yet to be born. And spiritually they’re alive because they criticise the narrator’s lack of concern with true love:

‘… all my daughters put me down
cause I don’t think about it’

The implication is that the only love he thinks about is sexual, a view which is corroborated in the fourth verse. In criticising him, they can be seen dismissing him, and those throughout time whom he represents, as spiritually worthless.


The Chambermaid

Having been rejected by the daughters, the narrator makes do with sex from another source – a chambermaid at The Queen of Spades, which is presumably a pub or small hotel.5 Her provision of sexual favours is one sense in which she is ‘good’ to him.

Like the previous verse, this verse is in the third person and seems to represent the narrator’s private musings which, therefore, we can trust. He extols the chambermaid’s virtues and in so doing seems to at least glimpse God-like qualities in her. In her God-like role she acts as a foil for the narrator against which we see his selfishness. At the same time, she’s a model of what he could be like. She selflessly acts as his saviour, by being (sexually) ‘good’ to him, despite knowing she’s not his first choice:

‘She knows where I’d like to be
But it doesn’t matter’

We’re left to decide whether he’d ‘like to be’ with God, the ‘you’ of most of the verses, or another woman.

Of her God-like qualities there can be no doubt. Like God, as traditionally conceived, she seems to have total knowledge:

‘She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her’

and

‘She knows where I’d like to be’

And like God, she is all seeing:

‘And there’s nothing she doesn’t see’

Her omniscience is a reason for the narrator to put aside dissimulation as pointless. She – and therefore God – can see through him.

She also serves as a foil for his arrogance. The language employed in:

‘She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her’

is reminiscent of Exodus 3.6 which says that ‘Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God’. The narrator’s arrogant refusal to take on a saving role, represented by his inappropriate fearlessness before God, is thus emphasised by the contrast between it, and Moses’ humble respect before God.


Conclusion

So, it’s not an ordinary love song, and the surreal imagery serves a purpose. It enables us to grasp the sad plight of someone with a spiritual ideal which he cannot live up to in practice. The events of the song span a short period of time in which on the one hand the narrator becomes more entrenched in his selfishness, while on the other he acquires an unconscious glimmering of understanding about how his ideal might be realised. Whether he’ll emulate the kindness and understanding of the chambermaid, and so achieve his spiritual goal, is left undecided.

The narrator is an everyman character. His spiritual aspirations and failings represent those not just of his contemporaries, but of people throughout eternity. He is the son of all fathers – and thus all weeping mothers – from the beginning of time. And he is the father of all daughters to the end of time. Thus he represents both the product of spiritual death throughout the ages up to the present, and the progenitor of spiritual hope from now onwards. Just as it is incumbent on him to advance from spiritual death to spiritual life by taking responsibility on himself, so it is incumbent on humanity generally to do the same – not leaving it to would-be ‘saviours’.

  1. The expression ‘lonesome organ grinder’ also has auto-erotic overtones and may express the narrator’s fear for his sexual future. The result would be his apparent promiscuousness.
  2. ‘Open up’ also has connotations of liberal generosity. Taken in this way it suggests what the narrator could be like, but sadly isn’t.
  3. I’m assuming the Chinese suit is the sort of simple clothing ubiquitous in China under Mao Tse-tung. It might be being used here to represent a Christ-like simplicity.
  4. It might be possible to take all but the first line of the verse, and the chorus which follows it, as being spoken by the child. On this interpretation, the child would be warning his mother about the narrator’s promiscuousness about which the narrator has lied. It’s not an interpretation which fits easily with the song as a whole, though.
  5. This sounds a bit prosaic, but it appears to do justice to the surface meaning. Why ‘Queen’? Why ‘Spades’? The expression ‘Queen of…’ might be to make us think of the queen of Heaven. And ‘Spades’, with its connotations of digging, might remind us of the undertaker, and the dangers of spiritual death.

True Love Tends To Forget

Introduction

Is it a jealous narrator who’s distraught at his lover’s increasing lack of interest in him? Or is the song about guilt, and the narrator’s refusal to reform?

Both interpretations are plausible. Undoubtedly the narrator is so overcome by jealousy that he can no longer trust his lover. We even wonder whether his suspicions might be well-founded. But our initial impression is soon complemented by one which sees him as a callous and impenitent  self-seeker trying his lover’s patience by persisting in outrageous expectations of her.

Since the first interpretation is relatively straightforward, it will be better to come back to it later and concentrate for now on the song as a presentation of guilt and possible redemption.


First Verse

The first verse presents the narrator’s thoughts, and then the remaining five verses – including a surreal chorus – are as if addressed to the woman.

That the song is about guilt is apparent from the first line:

‘I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes’

Just as Is Your Love In Vain? uses an idea from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, so this song makes use of some of that poem’s wording:

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye

The crew’s weariness is a result of their guilt in approving the death of the albatross. Dylan’s use of the somewhat archaic term ‘weary’ in a context involving eyes therefore seems to imply that the narrator here is guilty of something. That this is so is confirmed at several points in the song.

In claiming to be ‘weary’ the narrator may be genuinely fed up with his lover for not meeting his expectations. She’s not privy to his thoughts in this verse, so he may be more resigned to losing her than he’s prepared to let her know. If it’s true that he hardly recognises her when she’s nearby, this suggests that what he really appreciates is the more idealised picture of her stored in his memory. In telling us ‘there’s no room for regret’, he seems on the one hand determined to win her back, but on the other  to be admitting to feeling smothered by her presence1. Nevertheless, his mere mention of regret implies he may be feeling more responsible for how things have turned out than he’s letting on.

It’s significant that he’s looking in her eyes when he starts to tire of her. In the lines which follow, the word ‘eyes’ gets echoed in the words ‘recognise‘ and ‘realise‘:

‘I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes
When she’s near me she’s so hard to recognise
I finally realise …’

The repetition of ‘eyes’ in these words makes her seem ubiquitous, as if – God-like – she’s aware of everything he’s doing. This possible implication of a divine nature is followed by others later.

Another effect of the repeated ‘I’ sounds is to make the narrator seem egoistical. He doesn’t recognise the woman because he’s so concerned about himself – as if, when looking in her eyes, he sees only reflections of himself.


Temptation

In the third verse the narrator describes himself as:

‘ … lyin’ down in the reeds without any oxygen’

The main significance of this becomes apparent in the line which follows:

‘I saw you in the wilderness among the men’

Here the woman is being overtly identified with Christ (Matt 4.1-11). Although the narrator is implying she gives in to temptation – he sees her ‘among the men’ – his untrustworthiness allows us to assume that, like Christ, she successfully resists it.

The first line quoted is significant in that it suggests the narrator should also be seen as in the wilderness. Not only does ‘reeds’ suggest a wilderness, but the slightly awkward sounding ‘in the’, which introduces the word, makes us associate it with ‘in the wilderness’. In his case, though, the fact that ‘lying’ can have a sexual sense suggests he is not resisting temptation.


The Woman As Redeemer

Implicitly by being ‘in the reeds’ the narrator is being compared with Moses who as a baby was hidden in bulrushes. In one way this is ironic, given his behaviour. But in another it presents him as a heathen in need of redemption.

That the woman is to be seen as his potential redeemer is apparent from the line:

‘Saw you drift into infinity and come back again’

Her divine nature is further being indicated both by the association with infinity, and her coming back again – which can be taken as a reference both to Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. The narrator will have an opportunity to be redeemed, and whether or not he takes it will determine how he’s ultimately judged.


Hell

The fourth verse sees both the narrator, again as Moses, and the woman, as Christ, in hell:

‘But this weekend in hell is making me sweat’

While on one level the weekend in hell is a short, unpleasant period spent by the narrator in the woman’s company, on another it’s Christ’s harrowing of hell between his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s on this level that the woman is in hell – not as punishment, but as the narrator’s redeemer. Just as Christ redeemed Moses, and  those like Moses in hell through no fault of their own, so the woman can be seen as the narrator’s potential redeemer.

But the narrator is also experiencing hell in that he’s the subject of fear. He fears the woman’s leaving him, and this is a fear brought on by his infidelities. Whether or not he’s redeemed will depend on whether or not he continues to be unfaithful.

There’s irony in that the fires of hell are making the narrator sweat, since it’s the woman who is the ‘hard worker’ while the narrator’s seems to do little more than lie down and complain of weariness. The point seems to be that those who make an appropriate effort will suffer less than those who don’t.


Need For Redemption

Just as it’s imprudent for anyone to wait until Christ’s return at the last judgment before reforming, for by then it will be too late, so it’s imprudent for the narrator to wait for the woman to ‘come back again’ before reforming. It will be too late, and his condemnation to hell will then be irrevocable.

His fear that she’ll abandon him is echoed in the final verse by the appearance of the archaic word ‘forsake’ in:

‘Don’t forsake me, baby …’

which is reminiscent of the biblical; ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matt 27.46, Psalm 22.1). At the same time the narrator treats her as untrustworthy, likely  to sell him out. Without supplying any evidence, he sees her as doing the opposite of what she’s actually doing. He sees her about to sell him rather than buy him back – redeem him.


From Mexico To Tibet

Instead of relinquishing his life of infidelity and committing himself to her, the narrator at best procrastinates with the absurd declaration:

‘All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when’

The absurdity is in his expecting her to meekly wait, so that he can continue to pursue the life of a philanderer. This becomes even more apparent in the final verse. There, while blaming the woman for his lack of direction, he unconsciously gives away the extent of his infidelity:

‘Don’t keep me knockin’ about from Mexico to Tibet

Not only is he being unfaithful – ‘knockin’ about’ – anywhere and everywhere, but he has the gall to suggest that it’s her fault that he’s constantly unfaithful to her:

‘Don’t keep me knockin’ about …’

And it’s not just the geographical extent of his philandering which he’s unconsciously admitting to. Earlier he had complained:

‘Every day of the year’s like playing Russian roulette’

Every day!

Again the admission is unconscious. He’d intended to imply it was her infidelity and subsequent rejection of him which kept him in a continual state of suspense. But, if she were the guilty one, there’d be no sense in which his experience would be like that of playing Russian roulette. As it happens, the image is well chosen. The ‘Russian’ of ‘Russian roulette’ makes us want to associate it with the other distant places mentioned – Mexico and Tibet. The resulting implication is that it’s his daily ‘knockin’ about’ which he sees as risking his relationship.

There’s a further implication of the ‘Mexico to Tibet’ image. While the countries are far apart, the distance he travels is nothing compared to her:

‘Saw you drifting to infinity and come back again’

Furthermore, not only does she reach infinity but she returns from it – presumably, like Christ, out of selflessness. He, on the other hand, has yet to return from his knocking about.

In the light of all this his claim:

‘You belong to me, baby, without any doubt’

seems at best wishful thinking, and at worst presumptive.


Sincerity

The phrase ‘I’ll tell you‘ in:

‘All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when’

is significant for bringing out a contrast in attitude between the woman and the narrator. The reference to telling reminds us of what he said in verse two:

‘You told me that you’d be sincere’

While he tells her he’s not going to commit himself till he’s ready to give up his philandering, she had previously told him she’d be loyal.

Not only does a juxtaposition of the expressions draw attention to the narrator’s lack of sincerity,  but the phrase ‘You told me’ implies further insincerity. It has an air of being hard-done-by about it, as if she’s let him down.  What he’s doing is once again blaming her for a fault which he knows is in fact his own.


Refrain

The refrain:

‘True love, true love, true love tends to forget’

echoes the title and occurs at the end of all but the two chorus verses. The meaning, however, varies from verse to verse. At the end of the first verse it seems the narrator wants an excuse for no longer recognising his ‘baby’ as the woman she was. He puts it down to his ‘true love’ for her. This true love for her makes him forget what she’s really like. He remembered her as having been faithful, but  his love for her has caused him to get it wrong – or so he tries to convince himself.

While at the end of the second verse the same words are again used to express criticism, this time the focus is a lack of sincerity on her part. And this he attributes to her love causing her to forget him. In neither verse does he cast any doubt on the extent of their love – it’s ‘true love’. Or, again, so he tries to convince himself.

By the fourth verse, when the line next appears,  the criticism is reiterated. The fault is on her side. Additionally, though, the idea that the woman’s true love is forgetful is made to seem absurd since it follows on from the implicit identification of the woman with Christ in the chorus. In her role as Christ she is extremely unlikely to forget him. On the contrary, if he loses her the fault will be his own.

While her ‘true love’ is genuinely true, and it certainly won’t forget him, the opposite is the case for his. Declaring that true love tends to forget has become a threat about what he’ll do – forget his commitment to her – if she doesn’t accede to his wishes not to ‘forsake him’ and keep him ‘knockin’ about’.


Second Interpretation: The Woman As Unfaithful

There are reasons for sympathising with the narrator. As noted above, it’s possible he has good reason for his suffering since, whether it’s true or not, he may genuinely think the woman is being unfaithful.  We’re nowhere given a strong reason to think that the woman isn’t playing the same game of Russian roulette that he is. It’s just that it seems unlikely given that he seems to declare the opposite in admitting she’s a  ‘hard worker’. It also seems particularly unlikely given that she’s compared with Christ.

Nevertheless, every verse contains something which could be interpreted as going against the woman. She might be ‘so hard to recognise’ because she’s no longer the faithful woman she was. And the fact that the narrator accuses her of not being sincere does allow the possibility that she’s not kept her word. We’ve got no clear reason to suppose that when she was ‘among the men’ she wasn’t in fact giving in to temptation rather than resisting it, and it may be that we should trust the narrator when he says he knows her well and thinks she isn’t encouraging him enough. Maybe he’s right too when he accuses her of being a tearjerker.

Even if the narrator is just jealous, and there’s no justification for his suspicions, these would at least provide a genuine reason for sympathy. But there isn’t if his unhappiness simply results from his thinking he’s going to lose her because he’s not prepared to commit himself .


Conclusion

One can understand that the narrator might genuinely think the woman is being unfaithful. It seems no more likely he’s right, though, than that we should think the opposite about him. Nevertheless the song is probably best seen as supporting both this interpretation and that it’s about guilt, represented by the narrator’s philandering, and the possibility of redemption.

On the latter view the woman plays a Christ-like role as potential redeemer, but it is only as a potential redeemer. There’s no reason to expect her patience to be inexhaustible – and the narrator seems presumptuous in expecting her to wait till he’s ready to reform.

 

1 That there’s ‘no room for regret’ may also refer to the narrator’s infidelity. He recognises what it’s doing to his relationship, but refuses to reform on the dubious ground that there’s ‘no room’.

Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)

Introduction

Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, on which Dylan was involved, is of particular interest for the comparison it draws between the eponymous characters. While history presents them as representing good and evil respectively, the film suggests that morally there’s little to distinguish them. Both, for example, are gunslingers out to get revenge, both use prostitutes, and both die in a gunfight, the victims of revenge. Señor takes a not wholly dissimilar approach, blurring distinctions between good and evil by uniting them in the narrator.


The Narrator

The narrator combines the characters of Billy the Kid and Christ. As the former, he’s the chief protagonist in the Lincoln County War between opposed financial interests in late nineteenth century New Mexico. The conflict is notable in that both factions enlisted the support of lawmen  and criminal gangs, so that again there is no sharp division between good and evil. The narrator seems to be an outlaw looking for revenge on the person who betrayed him. When he can’t find her, he settles for pointlessly wrecking the place he thinks is harbouring her.

At the same time, but independently, the narrator is Christ – or at least Christ-like. The first verse hints at this when it has the narrator say:

‘Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, Señor?’

The words ‘way’ and ‘truth’ in close proximity reminds us of Christ’s saying ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6).

And in the final verse he wants to:

‘Overturn these tables’

a clear reference to the incident in the Jerusalem temple which is held to have precipitated Christ’s arrest and subsequent crucifixion.

Other indications that the narrator is Christ include a reference to the cross, his being called ‘Son’, and an implication that he’s scourged – ‘stripped and kneeled’ (Matt 27: 27-30). There’s also perhaps a hint of the resurrection in the phrase ‘pick myself up’.

Despite these characteristics the narrator-as-Christ comes across as thoroughly human and far from confident. He’s constantly asking for information and advice. His humanity is also emphasised in the phrase ‘I stripped and kneeled’. The gospel account of Christ’s passion has the mob kneeling before him in mockery, so in kneeling he seems to be being treated as one of the mob. And as such he comes across not so much as a redeemer but as in need of redemption.


The Se
ñor

We’re told nothing about the person addressed as ‘Señor’ in the majority of the verses. Nevertheless from the mode of address it’s clear that this person is respected and looked to for direction. The Spanish title perhaps links him to New Mexico and the Lincoln County War so on one level – where the narrator is a gangster – he may be a gang boss.

It’s noticeable however that not one of the narrator’s nine questions gets answered. Thus the Señor seem to be no ordinary human. It may be that where the narrator is to be seen as Christ, the Señor is God. The narrator is thus putting his faith in God since he lacks the confidence to answer his questions himself. The Senor’s lack of response leaves us with the impression that either there is no God, or else that God is relying on the narrator to achieve his purpose without direct, divine intervention. That the narrator might at this point have a skewed idea about the nature of God is suggested not only by his excessive reliance on him, but by his seeming to think that even God might not have the answers – ‘Do you know…’ he asks, and ‘Can you tell me …?’.

The question the song ends with:

‘Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, Señor?’

not only goes unanswered but, with its echo of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, implies that to rely on God for answers is to take the wrong approach. Yet by the end of the song the narrator is already thinking about actions of the sort the historical Christ took. He’s begun to achieve his, possibly divine, purpose unaided without the need of answers from God.


Third Verse: The Ancient Mariner

Two verses, the third and the fifth, stand out from the rest in that neither of them is addressed to the Señor. Instead they seem to represent the narrator’s thoughts prior to his gradual adoption of a more self-dependant attitude. Ironically what brings about this self-dependence seems to be thoughts of revenge. We learn in the second verse that he’s searching out an unnamed ‘her’ – perhaps someone whose betrayed him – while at the same time remaining wary of a counter-attack.

The more immediate onset of the narrator’s self-reliant attitude is presented through his realisation that he can play a part in defeating evil. That there’s evil in the world, and that its perpetrators can be redeemed, is presented by way of allusions to Coleridge’s poem The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. In that poem the eponymous mariner tells of how he was punished for needlessly killing an albatross by being made to wear the dead bird round his neck ‘instead of a cross’. While the burden fell away once his crime had been expiated, the ship’s crew suffered death for approving it.

In ‘Señor’ the action equivalent to the falling away of the albatross has yet to occur:

‘There’s an iron cross still hangin’ down from around her neck’

Instead of an albatross, or Christ’s cross which the albatross replaced round the ancient mariner’s neck, his adversary ‘s guilt is represented by an iron cross, thus emphasising the association of evil with war and militaristic conquest.

By using the word ‘still’ in ‘still hangin”, The narrator seems to see evil as on the one hand continuing, but on the other as capable of being overcome. The word achieves the same effect in the preceding line:

 ‘There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck’

and its use again in the immediately succeeding line is also suggestive of hope.

‘There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot’

The ‘marchin’ band’ would seem to represent the unrewarded activity (since there’s no one around to hear them) of people with the potential to redeem others. That they’re still playing shows they haven’t given up. The verse ends with the narrator’s realising that he has a role to play in responding to his adversary’s plea for redemption – ‘Forget me not’.


The Woman

The woman is made to wear the iron cross as a punishment. She has betrayed the narrator (one assumes) but may also represent Eve, or – since ‘upper deck’ puts us in mind of the ‘upper room’ in which Christ predicted his betrayal – even Judas. As Eve, she represents mankind in need of redemption and her ‘hiding’ thus represents Eve’s attempt to hide from God. In trying to find her, the narrator is both a Billy character bent on revenge for personal betrayal, and a redeemer responding to her plea not to be forgotten despite having betrayed God.


Fifth Verse: The Fools And The Gypsy

The fifth verse again represents the private thoughts of the narrator – and it again represents progress in the narrator’s outlook. It takes up where the third  verse left off, beginning by referring back to the woman’s plea for redemption, ‘Forget me not’:

‘The last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was a trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field’ 1

At this point his pessimism causes him only to remember humanity in its fallen state, those lost forever like the crew on the ship. They’re fools in that ‘the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God (Psalm 14.1) – something which the narrator avoids doing despite receiving no response to his questions.

The fools too, it’s implied, are wearing iron crosses whose weight, or magnetic attraction to the bog, represents their spiritual demise.

Just as Coleridge’s mariner is redeemed, and the crew lost, so we can assume the woman will be redeemed but not the fools – at least while they remain fools. Before becoming instrumental in bringing about redemption, however, the narrator once more puts his trust in an external source.

‘A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said ‘Son this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing’

In apostrophising him as ‘Son’, a term appropriate to Christ as son of God, the gypsy is confirming the narrator’s status as redeemer. If ‘a broken flag and a flashing ring’ refer to the flag pole and a band used to repair it (a flashing ring being a ferule used to hold a pipe in place), the flag and ring are likely to represent either Christ’s death and resurrection, or (which may amount to the same thing) the fallen state of the world and its subsequent redemption. The gypsy, in effectively calling his Son to action, represents God. But he’s not the Señor  – the God of simple answers.

That the narrator recalls the gypsy’s words, suggests that he is now prepared to take on his allotted role as redeemer. That he does in fact take on the role is indicated by his use in the final verse of the gypsy’s language. Where the gypsy had said ‘Son, this ain’t a dream no more‘, the narrator declares:

‘This place don’t make sense no more

The repetition of ‘no more’ identifies him with the gypsy, and so with God. Accordingly he’s ready to begin his mission of redemption represented by overturning the tables in the Temple.


Time And Eternity

As the Christ-like narrator comes to realise he needs to act, a sense is created of time speeding up. Early in the song ‘How long…?’  occurs twice, giving the impression that time is barely moving, and a similar impression is created by the occurrence of ‘still’ three times in the third verse. By contrast the sixth verse finds the narrator hurried – ‘Well, give me a minute’. Time stretching out is associated with the world of betrayal and revenge, and an absence of time with the world’s redemption.

There is no one era in which the song seems to be set. The Lincoln County reference suggests late nineteenth century, whereas the colloquial language is late twentieth century. The effect is to make time seem unreal, and this is reinforced in a number of ways. First, we realise that what has still to happen – what the narrator’s ‘waiting for’ in the last line – has happened already:

‘Seems like I been down this way before’

Secondly, an allusion to the resurrection in the sixth verse make it seem to take place between the third and fourth lines, so that it is happening as the narrator speaks:

‘I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, Señor’,

This is anachronistic even within the confines of the song since the events which historically led up to the resurrection (‘let’s … overturn these tables’) have still to happen.

The question:

‘How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?’

is similarly anachronistic in that the precaution to which it alludes is presented as continuing to be taken after it can no longer be of use. From a temporal perspective it’s too late because the narrator has already been caught – as is implied by his having stripped and kneeled.

The overall effect is to place these events outside of time, enhancing their significance by giving them a non-temporal permanence.

The answer to the narrator’s question about his destination:

‘Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?’

is therefore both. The fact that Billy the Kid’s famous battle is in the past and Armageddon is in the future makes no difference – the Lincoln County war and Armageddon are two aspects of the same battle between good and evil. Armageddon is no more just a one-off future event than the Lincoln County battle was just a one-off past event. Both are eternal, and one’s murderous intent in one will be one’s fate in the other.

Similarly the woman’s plea to ‘forget me not’ followed her act of kindness in holding the narrator in her arms. But the expression ‘she held me in her arms one time‘ suggests not just a passing event, but  an eternal event – a kind act of permanent significance.


Tales Of Yankee Power

That the events of the song are not applicable to any particular time or place is also suggested by the sub-title ‘Tales Of Yankee Power’.  They highlight a need for redemption that’s ongoing and everywhere. For that reason the setting is as much nineteenth century America as first century Jerusalem. Initially the sight of ‘that painted wagon’  causes the narrator to think of a ‘trainload of fools’ – presumably a wagon-train load – and only after that is he reminded, by way of its being a gypsy’s caravan, of the gypsy.2

In that it’s a wagon train, the fools are pioneers  setting about conquering the west. They’re American invaders travelling in convoy for safety. This explains why the narrator can ‘smell the tail of the dragon’; he’s aware of the beginning – just the tail – of American domination, the dragon representing a power-mad, twentieth-century  America.

It is, then, this awareness of a nascent dragon which further impels the narrator to take action. Initially he tries conciliation:

‘Can you tell me who to contact here, …’

but when this doesn’t work:

‘… their hearts is as hard as leather’

he advocates a more radical approach:

‘… let’s disconnect these cables,
Overturn these tables’

It’s this approach which leads to his death, the act of redemption.

However, the placing of Christ’s first century action in a nineteenth century context seems to imply that redemption is ongoing, not limited to a particular time or place. Thus when the narrator despairingly cries:

‘This place don’t make sense to me no more’

it’s not just first century Jerusalem but the world throughout its history which is in need of reform.


Conclusion

Although redemption is a major focus of the song, its main concern is with who can achieve it. Contrary to traditional Christianity, the view seems to be that it’s up to individual humans to redeem themselves and help redeem others. The narrator represents such a person. While on one level he can be interpreted as wholly unrepentant outlaw, on another he is no more than a flawed human being capable of redeeming himself and others.

On the first level he can be seen as a Billy the Kid killed in the process of attempting to exact revenge. He’s a gangster whose overturning of tables, far from to bring about a new order, is an act of wanton destruction. And his picking himself up off the floor is literal – what he does having lost a fight – and is not to be interpreted metaphorically as resurrection.

On the other level, though, he is a different character, only superficially similar to the gangster.  His overturning of tables is far from wantonly destructive.  It’s this version of the character alone to whom the  two verses of private thoughts belong. And it’s these thoughts that mark him out as a potential redeemer. Nevertheless, the Christ-figure here is far removed from the Christ of the gospels. He’s human, through and through. He lacks confidence, needs to be cajoled, initially wants revenge and takes time to see that purely human actions might fulfil a divine purpose.

1 That the ‘stripped and kneeled’ refers to Christ’s scourging is perhaps reinforced by a compression of ‘fools’ and ‘bogged‘ to make us think of ‘flogged’.

 

2 The expression ‘painted wagon’ is perhaps inspired by Coleridge’s description of the motionless ship:

‘As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean’

In each case the effect is to give an impression of stagnation associated with guilt.

Minor revisions 23/23.4.17

Is Your Love In Vain?

Introduction

Any inclination to see this as an emotional love song is soon dispelled. It’s immediately apparent that  the narrator’s approach to wooing the woman is, absurdly, to impose numerous conditions on her. In fact the song is better seen as a dramatic monologue in which the narrator unintentionally betrays numerous untoward aspects of his character as he ineptly tries to get the woman to accede to his will. As the song progresses, he comes across as a devious, selfish, misogynistic, naive, self-deceiving egotist.  Yet he may not be as malicious as this implies. We find he’s pathetically incapable of forging a successful relationship and that he may well realise this. His negative behaviour may not be malicious so much as resulting from a hopeless attempt to resolve his problem. Not only does the song present  a complex personal psychology, but in combining so many negative traits in one individual, that individual is perhaps best seen as a reflection of humanity at large.

The song is structured so as to reflect the development of the narrator’s thoughts. While the first two verses  contain what he actually says to the woman, the third temporarily abandons the dramatic monologue approach to give us his private thoughts. These lead to a change of tack in the final verse in which he is again speaking to the woman.


First Verse

Right from the start we learn that the narrator is devious. He puts on a show of being selfless, apparently re-assuring the woman that he won’t be put out if she chooses not to have him:

‘… you won’t hear me complain’,

 That this is just a show of selflessness is apparent from the speed at which he turns the conversation to himself:

‘Will I be able to count on you …?’

Selfishness is also suggested by the refrain:

‘Or is your love in vain?’

It seems to be implying that if he can’t count on her  he’ll reject her. Her love for him will be wasted if she doesn’t meet his expectations.

Not only is this cruelly insensitive, but he also manages to combine presenting his conditions with making any adverse outcome seem her fault. It’s her love that’s in vain. There’s no hint that he might be failing to come up to her requirements.


Second Verse

The second verse continues to present the narrator’s character. He’s still laying down the law regarding his expectations of the woman. Bizarrely, he insists on being left alone:

‘I must have solitude’

and he implicitly tells her off for wanting to be with him:

‘… why do you intrude?’

Some lover!  In addition to imposing conditions, he demeans her by patronizingly treating her as if she’s stupid:

‘Or must I explain?’

And finally she’s again virtually blackmailed into submission in the refrain. If she doesn’t yield to his demands, he’ll call the whole thing off. One wonders if, subconsciously at least, he might not be looking for an excuse to do just that.


Egotism In The Third Verse

Musically the third verse is a bridge which facilitates the transition from the second to the fourth and final verse. But it also works as a way of facilitating the narrator’s transition from his attitude in the earlier verses to the somewhat different attitude expressed in the final verse.

A major difference compared with the earlier verses is the language used.  Whereas in each of the other verses the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ are used  fewer times than ‘you’ and ‘your’ (sixteen compared with twenty), the word ‘I’ alone occurs six times in this verse and ‘you’ and ‘your’ not at all. There are several possible reasons for this.

First,  if we take into account that it’s not just ‘I’, but ‘I’ve’  (or ‘I have’) which is repeated, the verse can be seen as an attempt by the narrator to give himself confidence. On only one other occasion in the song is ‘I’ used with a verb in the past tense. Here he comes across as assertive, detailing not what he wants, but what he’s already achieved.  It’s noticeable that this is the only verse in which there are no questions. One suspects, however, that there’s so much assertion going on in the verse, that it’s really a cover for his insecurity.

On the other hand, the egotism may reflect the fact that that since the narrator’s no longer speaking aloud, there’s  no need to put on an appearance of unselfish concern.

Finally, and most importantly for what follows, the constant use of first person pronouns would seem to reflect a change of tactic. It’s as if the narrator is taking a break from addressing the woman in order to scheme his next move in private. We, but not the woman, are privy to thoughts which represent his real reasons for wanting to start a relationship. In going over them, he’s wondering whether they’d justify his making a concession. At any rate, such a concession – to accede to her supposed desire for a relationship – is made at the beginning of the final verse.


Self-deceit In The Third Verse

While his thoughts remain private and unshared with the woman, that’s no reason for us to take them at face value. Even while taking stock, the narrator it seems cannot do so without indulging in self-deceit. He creates a fantasy world in which he paints his past life as untypically full and rich. It’s difficult to believe that this reflects the truth:

‘I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been in the wind’

and,

‘I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings
And I’ve never been too impressed’

Not impressed? Then why mention it? And in any case, why not be impressed? It sounds impressive. In any case, if what he’s saying were true, one would expect it to be still going on. Why is he not still dining with kings? Why didn’t he accept the offer of wings? Far more likely the narrator is exaggerating his successes in order to impress. Since the woman isn’t privy to his thoughts, it must be to impress himself. In so doing, he comes across as someone who has failed, but can’t bear to admit it.

The self-deception goes further than wildly exaggerating in order to impress, however. He pretends to be disdainful of what he’s supposedly achieved. Having presented himself as superior, he then pretends to be above it all. Rather than admit to the consequences of failure, he convinces himself that he has no desire for the trappings of success. His standards are higher – or so he’d have himself believe.

There’s yet further self-deceit hidden in the apparently innocent comment:

‘I’ve been in and out of happiness’

The phrase is awkward. One doesn’t speak of being ‘in happiness’ or ‘out of happiness’. The narrator seems to have substituted ‘happiness’ for ‘love’, for one can fall in love, and fall out of love. It seems he’s avoiding saying he’s been in and out of love. But why? Is this also something he doesn’t want to admit even to himself? If he hasn’t, that might explain the crassness of his attempts to negotiate a relationship. Again he’s coming across as someone trying to cover up for inadequacy. One can well understand why he’s , as he puts it, ‘been burnt before’.


Love

Self deception is a trait not just confined to the third verse. Throughout the song he acts as if he can be so sure of the woman’s love that he can call all the shots. That this is mere wishful thinking is indicated by the uncertainty inherent in the opening words:

‘Do you love me … ?’

and in his suspicion that her protestation of love is no more than a symptom of guilt.

Above everything else the narrator’s attitude to love is a sign that behaviour initially seeming malicious is essentially the result of inadequacy. He claims to have experienced love:

‘I’ve been burned before and I know the score’,

but, even if it’s true,  the expression ‘the score’ hints at the reason it came to nothing. It suggests a tendency to quantify relationships. The idea is reinforced when he asks:

‘Will I be able to count on you?’

– the word ‘count’ having a similar meaning  to ‘score’.

Ignorance about love would explain the absurdity of the final verse’s opening line in which he’s back to addressing the woman:

‘All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you’

Is he really unaware that falling in love with someone is not something one chooses to do, let alone chooses to do after careful consideration? He’s seeming getting more and more out of his depth.


Fourth Verse

Nevertheless, to  fall in love with the woman is the concession he condescends to make in the final verse, having convinced himself in the previous verse that he’d have nothing to lose.

In making the concession, he puts on a show of reluctance:

‘All right, I’ll take a chance …’

While on the surface he appears to be trying  to make himself sound magnanimous, his beginning with ‘All right’ suggests he wants to look as if he’s been forced to give in. Maybe this is to bolster his self-esteem. Nevertheless it implies that the woman’s been badgering him, in the light of which he’ll selflessly do what she wants. The reference to taking a chance also seems to be to give the impression he’s doing it for her against his better judgment.

But not for long. Four lines later he asks:

‘Are you willing to risk it all …?’

Suddenly she is the one who’s expected to take a chance.

Further disingenuousness is apparent in his announcing:

‘If I’m a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too’

The context requires us to see this as generosity since previously (and absurdly given he’s thinking of starting a relationship) he’d resented being interrupted at night, seeing it as an intrusion. But now, he’d have her believe, he is prepared to sacrifice his nocturnal solitude to her. And not just the night; the morning too – such generosity!

But no, we’d be wrong to take the declaration this way. What he’s actually doing is denying he’ll give up these things. They’ll be done only:

‘If I’m a fool …’

While superficially this is doubtless an attempt to feign jocularity about having been ensnared by overwhelming  emotions, the phrase betrays a lack of concern for the woman.  It seems to imply that making such concessions as these would be the action of an idiot. One is left wondering whether to condemn his selfishness, or to take pity for his inability to cope.

His standing in the listener’s eyes is not enhanced by what on the surface appears to be rampant sexism:

‘Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow’

Even in the late twentieth century such a demeaning stance would have been met with derision. It goes along with the condescending ‘Or must I explain?’ of the second verse. Nevertheless, his general ineptness makes us suspect that this outdated view of a woman’s role may be as much attributable to ignorance of the opposite sex as to genuine chauvinism .

Nevertheless, what seems inescapable is that he’s yet again thinking about what she can do for him rather than what he can do for her.


‘So Fast’

In the second verse the woman is implicitly associated with the magician in No Time To Think:

‘Are you so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude’

The phrase ‘so fast’ reminds us of the lines:

‘The magician is quicker, and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink’

There the magician seemed to be represent the mercurial side of the narrator’s character, and to represent his desire for revenge. Here, it would mean the narrator is implicitly, although perhaps unconsciously, associating her with a side of his character which he wants to keep in control. He’d rather be in ‘darkness’ than give in to the base desires which he allowed to overwhelm him in the earlier song.

That the narrator and the person he’s addressing are to be seen as two halves of a single individual is perhaps hinted at in the first verse where the narrator asks:

‘Do you need me half as bad as you say?’

To the admittedly limited extent that this interpretation holds, we’re at least able to sympathise with his desire to dominate.


Conclusion

A masterpiece of economical writing, the song depends entirely on the narrator’s own words to convey the intricacies of his psychology. While the lyrics are paramount,  words and music form a united whole.  In that the musical style is that of a love song, it serves to ironically underscore the narrator’s inability to form a romantic relationship. And the very different melody of the third verse reflects lyrical differences consistent with its representing a contemplative hiatus.

Superficially the narrator comes across as an unpleasant character attempting to benefit himself at the expense of someone else. On closer inspection, however, his manifold faults can be attributed at least in part to deeper flaws in his character which he vigorously, albeit ineptly, tries to overcome. These are his insecurity and difficulty in forming relationships. The attempt to be dominant even  becomes laudable if the person he’s addressing is interpreted as a negative side of his own character. On the main interpretation, what the narrator represents is human nature, the average person desperately trying to make something of him-or-herself, but failing hideously.

Baby, Stop Crying

Introduction

For the most part the song presents the character of the narrator. A number of techniques are used along the way, including ambiguity – and in particular ambiguity about identity. The narrator is apparently the same as that of No Time To Think, a song which ended with him contemplating murder or suicide.

Baby, Stop Crying starts with the narrator on the brink of carrying out his intention:

‘Go get me my pistol, babe’

It’s still unclear who the intended victim is. If the wife has a lover it seems likely to be him. But either way, given the narrator’s deranged state of mind, he could be considering killing either himself, or his wife, or them both. As it is, the song ends without the intention having been fulfilled.


The Baby

The phrases ‘stop crying’ and ‘baby, please stop crying’, occur repeatedly in the chorus. It’s probable that Dylan is here re-using a device he used in ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ – playing on an ambiguity in the sense of ‘baby’. In the four main verses the woman is addressed as ‘babe’, not ‘baby’, indicating that – although she can still be seen as the one addressed in the chorus – the addressee is someone else, probably the narrator’s infant child. Since a child is referred to in No Time To Think, then it’s plausible that ‘baby’ would refer to an actual baby. That the identity of the addressee doesn’t have to be limited to one or other is significant in that the destructive effect of the crying on the narrator’s state of mind will be double. This at least mitigates what might otherwise come over as sheer heartlessness – a plea to stop crying repeated no less than thirty-two times.

On Street Legal the phrase ‘stop crying’ is also sung by the female backing singers, possibly without the word ‘baby’. Accordingly the addressee could also be the narrator. His wife would be complaining equally about his effect on her mental state. And, of course, she too could also be addressing a baby. The overall effect would be to show both the narrator and his wife driven to distraction in each others’ company.


Life And Death

The second verse is replete with ambiguity. The reference to fare in:

‘I will pay your fare’

suggests a journey, but we’re told nothing explicitly about the nature of the journey. The instruction:

‘Go down to the river, babe
Honey, I will meet you there’

is consistent with the fare being for a journey along the river, across the river, or even to the river. And even if we assume it’s along or across, we still don’t know if the narrator is going to accompany the woman, or if he’s expecting her to go alone.

Much will depend on what the journeys along and across the river each represent. It’s most likely that they are journeys to life and death respectively. Rivers traditionally represent life, and if the river is the Styx it would represent death. For the woman, a journey along the river might represent life without the narrator. One across it would represent life with him – if that for her is a sort of death.

The first verse too can be taken as involving the river, though here the direction of travel is vertically downwards – ‘down to the bottom’:

‘You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe’

As noted above, the phrase ‘down to’ in ‘You’ve been down to the bottom’ is echoed in the second verse’s Go down to the river, babe’. The ‘bottom’ and the river are thus associated; the bottom is the bottom of the river. The narrator would seem to be contrasting life with him, represented by a joint journey along the river, with life with the ‘bad man’, which he associates presumably with drowning.

Given that the woman survives, ‘down to the bottom’ might also be taken as a sort of baptismal immersion. In this case, for the narrator the wife has survived metaphorical drowning in the ‘bad man’s’ company, but has emerged spiritually better off in that she’s returned to him. And from the wife’s point of view the ‘bad man’ has been the source of spiritual, or emotional, renewal, and her return to the narrator is to be associated with drowning.


Suicide

The language of the third verse suggests an alternative interpretation of the second. This is that while the river does indeed represent death, it’s representing literal death. Accordingly, when the narrator says ‘I will pay your fare’, he’s offering to facilitate his wife’s journey into the next world – in other words, to kill her. Support for this in the third verse comes in the opening line:

‘If you’re looking for assistance babe’

To the early twenty-first century ear ‘assistance’ has overtones of ‘assisted suicide’. At any rate the word ‘assistance’ is distancing in a way that its synonym ‘help’ isn’t. The second line:

‘Or if you just want some company’

could then be referring to company in death – in other words a suicide pact. It would be for the purpose of such joint suicide that the narrator offers in the second verse to meet his wife at ‘the river’ (now more obviously the Styx).


The ‘Bad Man’

Just as the ‘baby’ need not be the wife, it’s clear that the ‘bad man’ is not to be uniquely identified with the wife’s lover. The description ‘bad man’ equally applies to the narrator himself, particularly if he’s also the narrator of No Time To Think.

At the surface level, the ‘bad man’ clearly is a different person to the narrator. This is implied by some subtle differences in the language and tone of the second verse compared with the language and tone of the first. In the first verse the narrator declares:

‘You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe’

and in the second,

‘Go down to the river, babe
Honey I will meet you there’

The difference in language concerns the words ‘with’ and ‘meet’. While we’re told the wife has been ‘with‘ a bad man, we learn that the husband intends merely to ‘meet’ her. The difference is crucial because it points to a harmony between the wife and the ‘bad man’, but to a distance between her and the narrator. Doing something with someone creates a kind of unity between them, whereas simply meeting them draws attention to their prior separation. Being with someone implies a mutual closeness, whereas ‘I will meet‘ implies at best closeness on one side.

Secondly, the tone of the first quotation suggests the wife’s behaviour was voluntary; there’s nothing to indicate compulsion. By contrast the second quotation has him ordering her, and tells her he’s going to meet her whether she likes it or not.


The ‘Bad Man’ As The Narrator

Despite these differences, there is also a marked similarity in the language which hints at an identity between the bad man and the narrator. In each verse the direction of travel is described using the same phrase – ‘down to the‘. She has been ‘down to the bottom’ with a man and she’s told to go ‘down to the river to be met by a man’. If, as this seems to imply, the bad man is the narrator, the narrator is unconsciously informing us that he himself is at least in part responsible for the woman’s demise in going ‘down to the bottom’.

The narrator and the’ bad man’ can, then, be seen as two men or one. If there are two men, the happiness and misery represented by different interpretations of the river can easily be accommodated. It’s possible for the wife to be happy with one man and miserable with the other. However if the narrator and the ‘bad man’ are one and the same it cannot be that the wife is happy with one man and miserable with the other. Instead her happiness and misery must apply to her relationship with the same man, the narrator, but at different times.


Breaking The Cycle

The wife, and perhaps the narrator, seem to be locked in a cycle of misery. Her attempt to find happiness with the ‘bad man’seems futile. The use of the word ‘back’ in the second line of the song emphasises this:

‘But you’re back where you belong’

She has arrived at where she is in the present only by having come back to it from the past. Not only does an earlier present give rise to an exactly similar present now but, if things don’t change, that present too will give rise to an exactly similar present in the future – and so on, ad infinitum. 1 On the narrator’s view his wife is locked in an eternal cycle of repeatedly finding the present. A way out of the cycle would be if a decisive step is taken.


Right And Wrong

There is reason to suppose that the narrator might be on the way to breaking the cycle. In the fourth line of the song,

‘Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong’,

which is apparently intended to refer to the use of the pistol, the narrator has, he claims, lost the ability to distinguish good from bad. There are a number of things to say about this. 3

First, if the line is taken at face value, it might indicate the narrator’s having concluded that traditional moral values don’t always apply. While it’s far from clear that the song is espousing this, there’s some suggestion in No Time To Think that remaining unfaithful to his wife might have been the better course of action. This might seem to him to justify decisive action.

It may be that the narrator has not really lost the ability to tell right from wrong, though. If he had, he surely wouldn’t think it necessary to point it out. It might be natural to do so after killing someone, to the police perhaps, but it’s unlikely to be the sort of thing on his mind beforehand. Furthermore, if he really knew what he was contemplating might be right or wrong, that would be a reason for not going ahead just in case. It would hardly excuse going ahead as he seems to expect it to. More likely the narrator is just trying to bolster himself in the woman’s eyes, hoping perhaps that she’ll prevent him from doing what he’s threatening, while at the same time trying to get her to feel guilty for the murderous or suicidal state she’s put him in. If so, the cycle of misery seems set to continue.2


Identity And Division In The Chorus

In the chorus there’s again an implication of identity between different people – this time the narrator and the woman. And it’s because they share the same knowledge:

‘You know, I know, the sun will always shine’

At this point  they’re unified by their optimistic outlook – or so the narrator is convincing himself. Yet while the narrator and the woman can be seen as a unity, the narrator sees himself as mentally disintegrating. The crying is:

‘…  tearing up my mind’

Unity with her, it seems, goes hand in hand his own mental disintegration.

The precise nature of the division in the narrator’s character comes out in the same line that informs us of his disintegration. In saying:

‘So baby, please stop crying, ’cause it’s tearing up my mind’

he’s unintentionally making himself out to be both considerate and selfish. He does so in giving two different reasons why she should stop crying. The word ‘so’ – used to imply a reason’s been given – refers back to the previous line which ends:

‘… the sun will always shine’

Accordingly the reason he’s giving that there’s no need to continue crying is that there are always grounds for optimism. But immediately, this considerateness for her state of mind vanishes as he follows up with a very different reason – her crying is destructive of his mental state. One part of him focuses on her need for comfort, while the other part is selfish.

Just as we’re told the narrator and his wife are united by the same optimistic outlook, so it seems they’re united in distress. In her case it’s shown by her crying, and in his it’s shown by his claim about the effect of the crying on his mind. Despite their being so similar, neither seems to recognise that each has as much need of sympathy as the other.


The Narrator’s Character – Positive

The presence of ‘please’ four times in the chorus shows the narrator to be respectful, and the offer of assistance and referring to himself as a friend suggest at least some consideration for others. He seems sympathetic too, recognising that she’s been often hurt before, and the recognition that she must be ‘madly in love’ combines sympathy with generosity.

If he’s actually unable to tell right from wrong, this too would work in his favour. Someone who murders, but can’t tell right from wrong, can hardly be judged guilty.


The Narrator’s Character – Negative

The narrator has a number of negative characteristics which not only seem to outweigh any good points, but enable us to see why the relationship might have foundered. He imposes on his wife, he’s selfish, and he seems to lack commitment to her.


Imposing
: He’s both imposing and sexist when he tells the woman she’s back where she belongs.

And his expectations of her are equally imposing. From the outset he seems bossy, taking it for granted she’ll do what he says. The order:

‘Go get me my pistol, babe’

is followed by,

‘Go down to the river, babe’,

And even though the tone of the final verse is sympathetic, he still ends up being bossy:

‘Honey, come and see about me’


Selfish
:  Despite the sympathetic tone, it’s clear that the narrator is self-centred and selfish. In the line just quoted, instead of saying he’ll go to her, he requires her to come to him.

Additionally, he doesn’t just say ‘come and see me’ which the context requires, but ‘come and see about me’. Why ‘about‘? It changes the meaning. The focus is suddenly himself. He’s telling her that his state is as bad as hers, and that he’s just as in need of sympathy.

One might also wonder how he knows, in verse four, that she’s:

‘… been hurt so many times’

– unless, that is, he is the one who has hurt her.  If the narrator is the same as the narrator of No Time To Think, we know that he has been unfaithful. In this case the aura of sympathy looks disingenuous. Apology would seem more appropriate than sympathy.


Uncommitted
: The narrator’s commitment to his wife gets thrown into doubt in the third verse which begins:

‘If you’re looking for assistance, babe
Or if you just want some company’

‘Assistance’ seems remarkably stiff and formal in the context. So does ‘company’. And despite the offer in the next line:

 ‘Or if you just want a friend you can talk to’

it’s apparent that it’s not friendship pure and simple he’s offering. The qualifying ‘you can talk to’ sounds distancing . Once again he’s eschewing an opportunity for closeness, just as he did earlier in wanting to ‘meet’ her at the river instead of going with her. The expression ‘talk to’ provides no indication that he’s offering anything other than a one-sided conversation in which his own contribution will be minimal.

This lack of commitment continues in the fourth verse in which the tone suggests he’s resigned to losing her. When he says:

‘ I know what you’re thinking of’

he may mean he thinks she’s considering leaving him for good. That this has been in the back of his mind is suggested by his having said ‘Come and see about me’. The word ‘come’ implies he expects her to be somewhere else, and not likely to return unless pressed. If this is what she’s thinking, it suggests too that he’s relinquishing his other explicit claim to knowledge in the chorus, that the sun will always shine. He doesn’t actually think it will.

His recognition that her commitment is to her lover is implied when he says:

‘Well, I don’t have to be no doctor, babe
To see that you’re madly in love’

The ‘doctor’ reference has him presenting her love for someone else as an illness. At the same time the word ‘well’ – read as the opposite of ‘ill’ – either ironically suggests that her love is anything but an illness, or that he (not being ill, in the sense of ‘in love’) is in a position to judge. On each interpretation his claim that she’s ‘madly’ in love has him trivialising her suffering, rather than recognising that she too is mentally deranged – something borne out by her constant crying.

The lack of commitment shown goes hand in hand with a gradual diminution in his affection which becomes apparent as the song progresses. By the end he’s no longer so inclined to use expressions of endearment. While in three of the four  verses ‘babe’ and ‘honey’ occur, after the second verse their appearance gradually lessens so that by the fourth ‘babe’ appears just once. And by this time ‘honey’ doesn’t appear at all.


Conclusion

The song uses a dramatic monologue style to present in his own words the narrator’s character and view of his situation. The presentation is helped along by way of a number of ambiguities, particularly ones involving identity. He doesn’t specify the identity of the ‘baby’, and this enables us to see it as both the wife and a child. The effect is to show us the extent of the pressure he’s under. On the other hand the ‘bad man’ can be seen both as his wife’s lover and as the narrator himself. Where the ‘bad man’ is seen as the lover, the narrator’s failure to recognise the ‘bad man’s’ characteristics in himself is complemented by his failure to recognise his wife in himself. He fails to see that her mental distress and  need for sympathy is as great as his. At the same time, his actual identity with the ‘bad man’ would mean there is no lover. In that case the wife’s happiness and sadness would accompany her relationship with the narrator at different times, rather than the narrator and a lover at the same time. It’s not that he’s been replaced in her affections, but that in her eyes he’s no longer the man he was.

Although he seems to be a man at end of his tether, the narrator’s words are not entirely trustworthy. On the surface he comes across as polite, kind and sympathetic, an impression which belies his deviousness in pretending to be in a worse state than he really is. And towards his wife, he’s both imposing and sexist. In addition he’s selfish, his apparent concern for her wellbeing being insincere, or at least immediately being replaced by concern for himself. His attitude to his wife has been ambivalent from the outset. He’s never seemed committed , and by the end what feeling he may have had for her seems all but gone.

By the end of the song the narrator has made no progress towards carrying out any violent intention. The pistol of line three doesn’t get mentioned again. We’re left with the impression that he’s been bluffing in order to elicit sympathy.

Revised 20.2.17

  1. See footnote 3.
  2. Both the ideas of eternal recurrence, which a strong man can escape, and of a need to break down traditional distinctions between right and wrong, have their origin in Nietzsche. Eternal recurrence is also a theme of Mr Tambourine Man.
  3. See footnote 1.

 

No Time To Think

Introduction

This is a story about a possible suicide combined with bloody and hypocritical revenge. It’s presented by way of the multifarious thoughts of the would-be murderer – thoughts which cover his failed marriage, his past infidelity, his rejection of present temptation and  his apparent commitment to a violent resolution. Yet we see him as a tragic figure, far from one-sidedly evil, and capable of admitting his faults. Ultimately he’s presented at least in part as a victim of his own nature.

The richness of the protagonist’s thinking comes across by way of three striking techniques. First, every alternate verse begins with a list of concepts, a stream of consciousness reflecting the rapid movement of his thoughts. Most are developed in the ensuing verses, while repetitions serve to indicate a hectic mind grappling with unresolved issues. Secondly, different facets of his character are represented by figures from Tarot playing cards – most importantly, Mercury and the Magician. And thirdly, the protagonist addresses himself in both the first and second person, as well as his wife in the second. In so doing he draws our attention to a major theme, the divided personality. Together the techniques present to us a tortured and fractured mind unable to control its darker side.

We can only come to a general idea about what happens. Certain things are reasonably clear, while others are left vague so that the listener is forced to accommodate multiple interpretations. It’s clear that we’re being privileged with a first-hand account of the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. And we can gather that he’s distraught about his wife’s infidelity, and that this leads him to beat up his rival, for which he goes to prison.1 He then sets about killing. It’s almost certainly himself he intends to kill, although the reference to ‘the victim that’s there’ suggests that he means to kill his wife or her lover.

The precise nature of his intentions doesn’t matter. The song’s primary concern is not with this, but with how someone can be driven to do something terrible. It’s a study in human psychology, and as such it’s about human motivation generally, and not just the narrator’s. The narrator’s violent intent at the end of the song can be attributed to facets of his character and a decline in his mental state. Self-deceit, pessimism and moral weakness all contribute. There are compensating characteristics, but these are too few to make much difference.

The post is quite ridiculously long. Apart from the Introduction and Conclusion the most important sections are 1, 2, 4 and 7. And failing that, just 2 and 7.


1. The Traitor

A theme of the song is betrayal. Both the narrator and his wife have betrayed each other, and it’s the narrator’s response to being betrayed which becomes the main focus. In verse seven, however it’s the narrator’s conscience which is treated as the traitor:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’,

One way his conscience betrayed him was by acting as it should – urging him to give up thoughts of revenge. The narrator responds only begrudgingly however, going for a compromise:

‘I’d have paid off the traitor and killed him much later’

Thus, insofar as his conscience is the traitor, he’d have reached an accommodation with it and at least postponed his revenge.

But he didn’t postpone his revenge. This happened, we’re told, because ‘some tyrant waylaid you’. The narrator’s complaint about his conscience might now be that it didn’t divert him away from revenge when it should have done. A tyrant gets in the way. We need to know, then, who this interfering tyrant is who provides the narrator with the lame excuse of a frustrated conscience.


2. The Magician

It’s the magician:

‘But the magician is quicker and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink
And there’s no time to think’

The magician has thwarted the narrator’s attempts to follow his conscience. If the narrator is now on a path to murder or suicide, it’s the magician who’s to blame. But who then is the tyrannous magician?

In the Tarot the magician is someone who ‘sells’. He frequents the marketplace and misleads by sleight of hand.2 So too this magician. He’s evil – ‘blacker than ink’ – as shown by his wares:

‘Anger and jealousy’s all that he sells us’

Since only the narrator can be blamed for his own anger and jealousy, the magician must be none other than an aspect of the narrator himself. He’s his more mercurial side, the side the narrator recognises in himself when he says:

‘Mercury rules you …’

Since the tyrant is the magician, and the magician is the narrator, it follows that the tyrant is the narrator.

This identity of narrator and magician is confirmed by the narrator’s own words. Were the magician’s existence – his ‘game’ –  merely ‘thicker than water’, there’d be no reason to see more than a blood relationship. But that’s it’s ‘much thicker than blood’ implies a relationship much closer than even a blood one.3

The magician, then is the narrator – at least in the sense that he’s a representation of the narrator’s more evil, mercurial side.

Accordingly, although the narrator complains that the magician’s speed leaves him ‘no time to think’, it’s really the narrator himself who’s limiting his options and so preventing his conscience from rescuing him.

Recognising that:

‘… your kindness throws him’

he goes out of his way to keep the magician in him content by acting impulsively on his desire for revenge. He has a strategy rendering impotent the kindness in him:

‘To survive it you play deaf and dumb’

In other words, he refuses to either listen to or discuss alternatives to revenge. It’s a hopeless strategy for, far from enabling him ‘to survive’, it puts him on a path towards suicide.


3. Infidelity And Attitude To Sex

Much about the narrator’s character can be gleaned from his changing attitude towards sex as the song progresses. Given his own infidelity, his reaction to his wife’s seems nothing short of hypocritical. As he says about himself:

‘You can give but you cannot receive’

Furthermore,  while prepared to admit he’s unfaithful, his attitude represents another instance of his trying to avoid blame. Just as he blames the magician, so he passes the buck here. In claiming to have been:

‘Betrayed by a kiss …’,

(assuming he’s referring to himself) he seems to be trying to put the blame on the kiss itself, instead of on himself.  And, in the line:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’

(again, assuming he’s the addressee) he appears to be blaming his infidelity on both his conscience and the supposed tyranny of a seductress.

Infidelity, it would seem, is deeply embedded in his character.

Further evidence of this is his naturally using language suggestive of extra-marital liaisons. Destiny fools him, he says:

‘Like a plague, with a dangerous wink’

implying that normally he’s susceptible to being fooled by winks, even dangerous ones .

While later in the song we find him eschewing sexual pleasure:

‘For pleasure you must now resist’

this doesn’t indicate he’s a reformed character. Sexual licentiousness has simply been put on one side so that he can focus on revenge. He’ll gain nothing morally, and his action seems likely to exacerbate the feelings of loneliness hinted at in the second verse. He stands only to lose. In finishing with ‘the Babylon girl’, he seems in addition to be turning his back on what is both beautiful and natural, as represented by the rose in her hair. And in obtaining ‘one last real glimpse of Camille’ – presumably a courtesan like the Camille in Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias – the inclusion of ‘real‘ suggests that in leaving her he’s turning his back on reality.


4. Salvation

The narrator’s attitude to infidelity becomes a focus of the song’s attention in another way. Not only is it presented as a betrayal, but as a betrayal of Christ. The victim is ‘betrayed by a kiss’ which was the manner of Christ’s betrayal, and furthermore it takes place:

‘In secret, for pieces of change’

The phrase ‘pieces of ‘ echoes the expression ‘thirty pieces of silver’ used by the gospel writer to describe Judas’ fee (Matt 26.15).

Like Judas, the narrator ends up suicidal, thinking he can’t be forgiven:

‘You can’t find no salvation …’

This is his tragedy. He fails to appreciate the possibility of spiritual renewal. Or else he thinks it’s for other transgressors who ‘offer their heads for a prayer’. Instead of taking the traditional representation of spiritual renewal, water, as a sign of hope, for him it’s just something which ‘gets deeper’ and leads him onto the ‘brink’ – presumably of damnation.

That all is not yet lost is also indicated by the wording of the narrator’s excuse for postponing thoughts of revenge:

‘That’s just the way that I am’

God told Moses, somewhat tautologically, ‘I am who I am’, and goes on to refer to himself as ‘I am’ (Exodus 3,14). It seems that in the above quote the narrator is unconsciously alluding to his own God-like nature. There is a sense in which he and God form a unity, if only he realised it.

And, of course, ‘the way that I am’ is a reversal of Christ’s saying ‘I am the way’. If he were to give up thoughts of revenge, he would be more Christ-like – in a sense forming a unity with Christ. This leads to a further understanding of the nature of his betrayal. If in betraying his wife he is betraying Christ, then his betrayal of Christ will be a betrayal of himself.

The result:

‘Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt
You can give but you cannot receive’

The amusing rhyme between ‘virtue’ and ‘dirt/You’ helps make the claim palatable. Nevertheless the narrator is reduced to seeing himself as the snake in the garden of Eden.


5. Similarities

A theme of the song is similarity. Often it’s impossible to tell who a line refers to. The result is that we have to deny individuals characteristics which would distinguish one from another. Not so the narrator who who considers himself a special case despite obvious similarities between his situation and those of his wife and his rival. As a result he proceeds to usurp the moral high ground and make them his enemies.

It’s his short-sightedness in this respect which causes the narrator to condemn his rival for a failing which applies to himself. His prediction:

‘He who cannot be trusted must fall’

shouldn’t just apply to his rival, as the narrator presumably intends. Since neither is trustworthy, the narrator has no justification for making an exception of himself. Had he realised this he might have seen how hypocritical he’d be to condemn his rival

A similar point can be made with respect to the line:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’

Whether it’s his wife or himself he’s addressing, there’s no indication that he realises his words apply no more to the one than the other. If the action of a tyrant exonerates him, then they should also exonerate his wife.

And then again, the grammatical incompleteness of the line:

‘Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss’

makes it applicable both to the husband who has been unfaithful to the wife, and the wife for being unfaithful to her husband. The line, in not distinguishing between them, unites them in a way which should prevent the narrator criticising her when he is as guilty.

Finally, there’s a double similarity between husband and wife in the line:

‘Anger and jealousy’s all that he sells us’

The narrator is clear not only that his wife is going to be every bit as angry and jealous as he is, but that she too is under the influence of the magician. He should realise then, one would have thought, that if her anger and jealousy doesn’t result in violence, then neither should his.

.
6. First And Second Person

It’s curious that the narrator suddenly switches from using the second person to using the first. This happens when having said:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’

he continues

‘I’d have paid off the traitor and killed him much later’

The significance is two-fold.

First, just as the narrator fails to see and act on similarities, so he creates differences where there are none. The effect is to enable him to treat the owner of his conscience as a different person, thereby seeming to exonerate himself from guilt.( It was your conscience, not mine, that did the betraying.) It’s the same technique he used when treating the magician as a separate character.

Secondly, it allows the owner of the conscience to actually be a different person – his wife. In this case he’s not merely exonerating himself from guilt, but criticising her by telling her what he’d have done in her position (paid off the traitor etc).


7. The Narrator As A Unity

A fundamental concern of the song is the need for a person to operate as an integrated whole, rather than a duality. The narrator’s moral weakness arises from his conception of himself as a combination of individuals. The point is reinforced by way of a pun on ‘eyes’:

‘I’ve seen all these decoys through a set of deep turquoise eyes’

The ‘eyes’ are ‘I’s – different autonomous individuals he sees as comprising the one person. And these I’s are themselves decoys, serving to divert him from what he’d achieve as an integrated whole. The point is made by way of splitting the single word ‘decoys’ so that it becomes two parts of the expression ‘deep turquoise‘.

The idea is represented in the seventh verse by the phrase:

‘Where the lion lies down with the lamb’

(Isaiah 11.6) which presents an ideal coming together of conflicting attributes. Within a human being, two conflicting aspects will act as a restraints on each other once they become reconciled.

A similar idea is present in the allusion to ‘the missing link’ in verse four. Just as there’s supposed to be an evolutionary stage between monkeys and humans which involves aspects of each, so there needs to be a link between the primitive and higher attributes of a person to ensure that the primitive can’t take control.

The narrator’s mistake is to deal with his more primitive side in isolation. He tries either to give it full reign, as when he supports the ‘magician’, or to crush it, as when he later decides that ‘pleasure’ is to be resisted. Both approaches contribute to his destruction. Although he comes to recognises what he’s done:

‘You’ve murdered your vanity, buried your sanity’

it’s significant that it’s parts of himself he sees as having being murdered, rather than himself as a whole. By contrast the ‘lovers’ think in terms of the whole:

‘They’re not even sure you exist’


8. Self-Deceit

Part of the narrator’s moral weakness is a tendency towards deliberate self-deception. This, too, is the result of treating himself as a duality in which one half deceives the other. That he’s deceiving himself, rather than others, is apparent from the fact that he’s addressing himself throughout.  Perhaps the most obvious instance of self-deception is  when he convinces himself that he’s a creature of destiny:

‘… destiny fools you’

To know you’re being fooled is not the same as actually being fooled. By continuing to believe he’s being fooled even after recognising the fact, he must be guilty of deliberate self-deception.

Self-deception would also seem to be present in the constantly repeated wording of the title – ‘No time to think’. On several of the nine times it occurs, it’s being used as an excuse –  for example, for not combating his mercurial side, represented by the magician, or for not thinking about whether he’s actually being fooled by destiny. Never does he back up his claim that there’s no time to think.  On the contrary, he’ll find time to ‘play deaf and dumb’ and to find solace in drink.

He claims to be a ‘soldier of mercy’ but this too seems to be self-deception.  Although we don’t know if he carries out his plan for revenge, there’s little evidence of mercy in the song. At best it presents only half the truth given that in the same line he admits to being ‘cold’ and delivering ‘a curse’.

Similarly, his claim to have been pitied immediately gives us reason to doubt that it’s true. The pity came:

‘In secret, for pieces of change’

implying it came from a prostitute, who one assumes might have found it expedient to an act. It seems unlikely he would have overlooked this.

Finally, there is self- deception in the claim that he can’t help being like he is:

‘But that’s just the way that I am’

In fact there’s a double deceit here since he seems to be contradicting what he’s just said in the previous line:

‘I’d have paid off the traitor and killed him much later’

Given that he doesn’t actually pay off the traitor and delay killing him, he must be deceiving himself when he says without qualification that doing those things represents the way that he is. He knows full well that the way that he is, is more prominently represented by his mercurial side.

All this self-deception is highly ironic given his comment in the penultimate verse:

‘But no, you will not be deceived’

Where he himself is the deceiver, it would seem he is all too easily deceived.


9. Pessimism

A deficiency in the narrator’s outlook lies in his unwillingness to accept reality. A reality of his life is his association with prostitutes, and this he gives up for no moral reason and despite the detrimental effect on his mental well being.

There’s another way in which his unwillingness to accept reality comes out. This is his pessimism. Again, the effects are detrimental in causing the depression which develops into insanity. In the second verse he complains:

‘You fight for the throne, and you travel alone,
Unknown as you slowly sink’

The long vowels, internal rhyme and assonance all contribute to a tone of despondency. Why is he despondent, especially when there’s a ‘throne’ to fight for. Why is he resigned to travelling alone? Why doesn’t he stop himself sinking? If it’s a slow sinking, it’s clearly not the case that there’s no time to think. One feels that another person in a similar situation, instead of being so pessimistic, might well relish the opportunity it provides.

The empress  – a Tarot figure associated with nurture and sustenance – would appear to be a source of further hope. But not for him:

‘The empress attracts you but oppression distracts you’ 4

The narrator pessimistically assumes that his oppression must prevent  him from embarking on new life with the empress.

Thereafter negatives abound:

‘You can’t find no salvation’,

‘You know you can’t keep her’ – presumably his wife,

and, on release from prison:

‘You’re stranded, but with nothing to share’

Absurdly, the ‘but’  following ‘stranded’ makes having nothing to share sound like a pleasing contrast. If only the narrator would adopt a similarly positive outlook in the more auspicious circumstances he finds himself in!


10. Violence

Throughout the song the narrator has been presented as a realistic human being with recognisable faults. However, it might seem that his attitude to violence represents a departure from this. On a superficial interpretation he might even seem obsessed with violence. Certainly he makes a number of direct references to it. For example, about his sense of oppression he says:

‘…  it makes you feel violent and strange’

and when contemplating suicide:

‘Bullets can harm you …

There are also a number of indirect references, where violent expressions are used metaphorically such as in:

‘You’ve murdered your vanity’

and in the reference to blood in ‘thicker than blood’.

It would be wrong to see the narrator as a born psychopath, though. His thought processes show how his violent character developed gradually, and how one thing led to another.  It’s not particularly his fault, even that he feels ‘anger and jealousy’. It’s a common reaction in circumstances like his. And although he doesn’t deal with his impulsiveness well, he can’t be blamed for having impulsive tendencies in the first place. His feeling ‘violent and strange’ starts only after the onset of ‘oppression’. And his first violent action would seem to be a matter of breaking someone’s jaw, rather than murder. It’s only after his release from prison that he seems to have decided to use a gun.


Conclusion

We don’t know what happens at the end of the song, and we don’t need to know. We know what might have happened, but what the song is concerned about is why. The narrator isn’t to be dismissed as some sort of weirdo  who ought to have been locked up for longer. He’s us – a typical person. He’s unfaithful, and when he succeeds in not being unfaithful it’s for the wrong reason and only furthers his mental decline. He’s pessimistic, prone to self-deception and too readily finds excuses for acting without sufficient thought – all common human failings.

‘There’s no time to think’ – but there should be. The reason there isn’t is the narrator’s propensity to conceive of himself as a conglomeration of separate parts rather than as an integrated whole. He casts his mercurial side separately as ‘the magician’, and it’s the magician he blames for an impulsive, cruel attitude.. Had the narrator operated as an integrated whole, he’d have been able to keep his more reprehensible qualities in check. He’d have remained a flawed human being, but avoided becoming a tragic one.

1 The only indications of his wife’s unfaithfulness are the narrator’s response and that she sleepwalks, presumably – like Lady Macbeth – as a result of an inability to deal with guilt. There is no explicit mention of her lover.

2 As far as I can tell there’s little agreement on what the various Tarot cards symbolise. Accordingly I’ve confined my comments to what tends to appear in the pictures on cards. On the whole what the figures represent in the song is best worked out from the song itself. It’s significant, though, that some writers see the Magician as influenced by Mercury, and the Empress as representing growth and fertility. The narrator’s attraction to the empress might then be seen as an attraction to fatherhood.

3 There’s an illusion here to infidelity and betrayal. Although ‘game’ primarily refers to the magician’s business or raison d’etre (which I’ve loosely rendered as ‘existence’) it also has connotations of prostitution, as in ‘on the game’. The magician then can be seen not just as making the narrator renege on his feelings about revenge, but as responsible for his changing attitudes to sex.

4 See note 2.

New Pony

Introduction

On one level the song is a story of guilt and redemption. A girl, Miss X, shoots her pony following its breaking a leg. She acquires a replacement pony but is overcome with feelings of guilt for what she did to the original. Her guilt is accompanied by fear, which in turn becomes the instrument of her reform.  This reform is made apparent  by her declaration of love for the replacement pony. The replacement pony can even be seen as the dead pony having returned thus enabling the girl to turn back the clock and begin again.

On another level things are more straightforward. Rather than there being a replacement pony, there is just the one which gets shot.  On this view the second, third and final verses are flashbacks to a time before the shooting, and there’s no happy ending. The girl thinks she’s bewitched, and ends up racked with guilt and fear.

It’s not the case that we need to choose between the interpretations. Both are valid and equally so. But each is consistent with a different outcome for the girl.

The narrator in the majority of verses is Miss X.  Verse two, however, although it can be Miss X referring to the pony, can also be taken as the thoughts of the original pony prior to its being shot. And verse four (which is not included on Street Legal) can be interpreted as either from this pony’s perspective, or from the girl’s.

The meaning will vary considerably depending on which narrator is deemed to be involved.


Miss X

Miss X, the pony’s owner, is the main focus of attention. Her character is shown to be complex, and in keeping both with her feelings of guilt and possible redemption.

There are two sides to her. On the surface she seems humane and caring. She claims to have suffered as a result of her pony’s being put down. She’s seems appreciative of her replacement pony’s skills and appearance, and at the end she claims to love her pony.

The first verse alone, however, makes it clear that all is not what it seems. Striving to create a favourable impression, her words do little more than betray the guilt she’s trying to hide:

‘She broke a leg and she needed shooting’

Straightaway, under no pressure, she’s unaccountably making an excuse for the pony’s death. Furthermore, her manner of doing so is itself cause for suspicion.  Why say ‘she needed shooting? It puts the blame on the pony, unlike, say, the more natural sounding ‘the only option was to have her put down ‘.  And why ‘she needed shooting‘ ? It seems odd to specify the method, especially when the girl expects us to believe she found the episode distressing.

In fact it’s not clear at all that she really did find it distressing. We only have her word for it:

‘I swear it hurt me more than it could ever have hurted her’

Why should we believe her? Like the original excuse, the announcement is gratuitous, unprovoked. It seems not so much an expression of pain as a means of averting criticism – criticism which, for all we know, might be justified. And why, one wonders, was it necessary to swear to the amount of pain? It clearly implies the girl expects to be disbelieved. And this in turn suggests that there might be good reason to disbelieve her.

The same announcement seems designed to give the impression that the pony’s suffering can’t have been excessive. Contrasting the pony’s suffering with the girl’s seems like a ploy to make light of it. One’s tempted to think that if the pony’s pain hadn’t been unduly severe, there’d have been no need for the girl to bother insisting that she herself had been hurt more.

Clearly Miss X is protesting too much.

If the second verse is taken to represent the pony’s thoughts about the girl, we have further reason to doubt Miss X’s character. While the pony seems determined to put her in the best possible light, referring to her as ‘poor girl’ and giving her the benefit of a ‘sweet disposition’, it nevertheless lets us know she’s disturbingly unpredictable:

‘I never know what the poor girl’s gonna do to me next’

The pony may even be anticipating its fate at her hands.

The real reason for the pony’s death becomes apparent in the third verse.  Here Miss X is presented as taking excessive pleasure in the pony’s abilities and appearance. In fact she seems particularly fixated on anything to do with its gait:

‘… she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace’
She got great big hind legs’

Accordingly, when the pony breaks its leg, it ceases to interest the girl. Finding too little to recommend it, her response is to have it shot.


Guilt:

The girl is scared. Her fear starts in verse four. It’s not a replacement pony she’s addressing, but the original returning from the dead in order, she assumes, to exact revenge:

‘ … I seen your shadow in the door
Now I don’t have to ask nobody
I know what you come here for’

She jumps to the conclusion that a mysterious form of black magic is being used to punish her:

‘They say you’re using voodoo, your feet walk by themselves
They say you’re using voodoo, I seen your feet walk by themselves’

That she’s suffering from a hallucination caused by guilt is made obvious by the absurdity of her claim in verse five to have seen the pony’s feet ‘walk by themselves’. That the pony’s skills should be in evidence without the pony being there to demonstrate them, is in one way as absurd as the Cheshire Cat’s grin surviving the Cheshire Cat. But in another it’s poetic justice – an appropriate punishment for the girl’s having valued the pony’s walking skills above the pony itself.

It’s significant that in the lines quoted above, Miss X begins by reporting a rumour, but then claims to have had first-hand experience:

 ‘They say you’re using voodoo …’

gives way to

I seen your feet walk by themselves’

Given her need to refer to rumour, that she’s seen this bizarre event with her own eyes seems implausible. What’s actually the case is that her feeling of guilt is so strong that she’ll believe anything which seems to corroborate it. Like Macbeth after the death of Banquo, she convinces  herself she’s being haunted by an avenging ghost. As she despairingly puts it to herself:

‘Oh, baby, that god you been praying to
Is gonna give ya back what you’re wishing on someone else’

Whether or not she realises it, the god she’s been serving is herself. And now her own conscience is paying her back.

Unlike Macbeth, however, the girl can be taken as responding to her shock, and her sense of guilt, by an apparent change of heart. At least this is so if her ‘But I love you’, in the final verse, is taken at face value.


Redemption

Although Miss X’s guilt causes her to assume the pony has come back to haunt her, there is another way of interpreting events. According to this the new pony of verse three, in addition to being a replacement for the dead original, is the dead original in resurrected form. As such it is implicitly being identified with Christ. In declaring her love for the Christ-pony Miss X is able to make amends, literally. Since the new pony is the resurrected original, a refusal to mistreat the new pony will be a refusal to mistreat the original.

That the new pony is in fact one and the same with the old one is supported by an inconsistency  in the use of tenses in verse four:

‘Well now, it was early in the morning, I seen your shadow in the door

Now, I don’t have to ask nobody
I know what you come here for’

The past tense used in the first line suggests the pony is remembering how Miss X arrived under cover of darkness to shoot it. The final two lines, however, are in the present tense. This tells us that Miss X is now in the doorway, just as she had been on the previous, fatal occasion. Further, the use of ‘now’ in both the first and third lines (‘Well now…’/’Now I don’t …’) serves to conflate the past and the present so that they become one. Whereas in the past the girl had ‘come here’ to shoot the pony,  in the present it’s to express her love for it – as we discover in the final verse. Given the identity of the two times, the earlier and later arrival of the girl in the doorway, there can only have been one outcome. If the girl is expressing her love for the pony, then there never was a shooting.*


Spiritual Death

While the expression of love for the pony in the final verse might seem to have clinched Miss X’s redemption, her choice of wording makes it far from certain:

‘But I love you, yes I do’

Once again she’s protesting too much. The addition of ‘yes I do’, rather than simply reinforcing the sentiment being expressed, has the unwanted effect of implying that it needs reinforcing. And that casts some doubt on the veracity of her claim.

That she might be bypassing the chance of redemption becomes even clearer if the pony in the final verse is taken to be the original pony, for then the incident it alludes to must be a flashback to a time before its death. And at that stage, the girl clearly does not love the pony.

Furthermore, the phrase ‘one time’ in the girl’s exhortation:

‘Come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you’

would mean ‘one more time’ – that is ‘one more time before I shoot you’! If all she wants to do is exploit the pony before killing it, then there’s no love – and no redemption.


Identity Of  Pony And Girl

On the happier interpretation, not only has the pony acquired new life through its resurrection, and through the girl’s change of heart, but so has the girl by way of spiritual renewal. This might suggests that the pony and the girl are in some sense identical; the pony brings about the girl’s salvation by providing her with a second chance, yet the girl brings about her own salvation by seizing the chance.

Their identity is further corroborated in a number of ways.

First, the pony has some of Miss X’s moral qualities. It too has a ‘sweet disposition’ as is shown when it generously refers to Miss X as the ‘poor girl’, and in its just accepting its fate calmly without any hint of recrimination:

‘Now I don’t have to ask nobody
I know what you come here for’

Secondly there’s the fact that the fourth verse can be seen as being the words of both the girl and the pony. It could be the girl expecting revenge, and it could be the pony anticipating death.

Thirdly, the pony is described by the girl in language with human, sexual connotations:

‘She got great big hind legs,
And long black shaggy hair above her face’.

Combined with the fact that the girl is Miss X, a name which likewise has sexual connotations (Miss Sex), this makes us identify the pony and the girl. Added to that is the fact that its fox-trotting ability is something one would more usually expect to find in a human being.

Fourthly, the lines:

‘Oh, baby, that god you been praying to
Is gonna give ya back what you’re wishing on someone else’

can equally be applied to both. They can be the girl addressing herself in words which serve to spur her reform, or the girl warning the pony that its dabbling in voodoo will rebound on itself. In her mind, the pony which started out as Lucifer has become an avenging demon.

In addition, both the girl and the pony are female.

And finally, both verses two and four can be seen as from either the pony’s or the girl’s perspective which helps to suggest they’re the same.

If the two are in a sense identical, this suggests a number of things. It confirms that the pony’s suffering is just as much the girl’s suffering, despite what she assured us. And it enables the death she inflicts on the pony to be her own spiritual death. But there again, if the pony is resurrected then, by virtue of their identity, so is she.


Conclusion

The song is about human frailty and potential . Frailty is represented by the reprehensible behaviour of the protagonist, Miss X, who in consequence faces spiritual death, and potential is that same protagonist’s capacity for redemption. Because much of the song is open to a range of interpretations, there is no clear outcome for her. We’re left with the impression, as in real life, that things could go either way.

The lack of a particular resolution is made plausible by giving the protagonist a suitably doubtful character. This comes across in two ways. First her pony’s thoughts provide us with an ambivalent view of her, and secondly we can make judgments based on what she says, particularly if we’re prepared to read between the lines. Without meaning to, she lets on that she’s less upright than she’d like us to believe, and has reason to be so consumed by feelings of guilt that she thinks the dead pony has returned to punish her.

The different, but non-mutually exclusive, interpretations open to us are made possible through various techniques. These include the order of events not necessarily matching the order of the verses, the narrator of some verses not being restricted to one character rather than another, and the inconsistent use of tenses to give the impression that present actions can undo the moral failings of the past. At the same time the identity of the girl and her pony allows the death or the resurrection of the one to be the spiritual death or spiritual resurrection of the other.

*The Street Legal version omits this verse. Instead a female chorus repeatedly sing variants of the question ‘How much longer?’.

Changing Of The Guards

Introduction

The song covers the life of Christ, from before his birth to after the resurrection. Its primary concern is Christ’s institution of a new order to replace the covenant between Moses and God –  the ‘last deal’ which has failed or ‘gone down’*. This need results from the continuing prevalence of corruption represented in the song by:

‘Merchants and thieves, hungry for power…’

Although the song makes reference to incidents connected with the life of Christ, in themselves these are of secondary significance. Of more direct importance is the speech he gives at the end which makes it clear that his audience have a stark choice between life and ‘elimination’. Nevertheless the earlier part is important for the use it makes of a number of stylistic innovations including such things as deliberate anachronism and the inconsistent use of personal pronouns. These innovations serve to present life and existence generally as a unified whole. The implication is that those who don’t acknowledge this unity, and set themselves apart, are as good as dead. Accordingly, the events alluded to in the earlier parts of the song indirectly help to establish the main theme, the choice between life and death.

Although Christ’s resurrection is a defeat for the old order, it’s only a partial victory for him. While there’s a hint that complete  victory will eventually be accomplished, the song ends with an implicit threat of a further battle.


Theme: A New Order

The main theme of the song is, then, Christ’s institution of a new order and its upshot. We learn this in the final two verses. For reasons which will become clear, it’s apparent that the speaker in these verses is Christ. In his divine capacity he reproaches the representatives of the old order, implying that it’s worthless:

‘I don’t need your organisation …’

He then speaks as man:

‘… I’ve shined your shoes,
I’ve moved your mountains …’

He’s making it clear that under the new regime there’ll be no place for status, and no place for his audience if they don’t conform. Just as he has believed in himself by having faith to move mountains (Matt 17:20) and gone out of his way for them, they too should be prepared to believe in him and go out of their way for others. The anachronistic shoe-shining reference, though emphasising the role of Christ as servant rather than master, is of particular relevance in that it reminds us of Christ’s standing in the eyes of John the Baptist who considered himself ‘not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal’ (John 1.27) . Christ’s use of it suggests that he wants his hearers to adopt a similarly humble role.


Theme: Unity v Division

A second, but essentially related, theme is the superiority of unity over division. This is introduced in the first verse with a contrast between ‘banners united‘, and:

‘Desperate men, desperate women, divided

Not only is the existence of division made explicit by the word ‘divided’, but it’s emphasised by the men and women being referred to separately. The line could, for example, have been ‘Desperate people divided’ which would have obviated the need for ‘desperate’ to be repeated. It’s clear that division, in being associated with desperation, is being looked on as negative.

Despite this, throughout the song there are unities where one would expect division. The narrator, the listener (‘you’), Dylan himself**, the Good Shepherd, the divided people, the Captain, Apollo, Jupiter, Christ, Mary and God are all identified one with another so that they seem to be being treated as instantiations of the same being.

The overall effect is to establish that in instituting a new order Christ, far from attempting to bring about further division, is concerned to bring to the surface an inherent underlying unity.


Pronouns And Gender

The song is notable for an extraordinary use of personal pronouns. ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘her/she’, and ‘he/his’ each gets assigned to more than one person by the narrator. ‘I’ in verse two might be both Dylan himself and the Captain (or God), and in verse four Christ. ‘You’ in verse four seems to refer to the Captain’s ‘beloved maid’, mankind and perhaps the reader. ‘She’ or ‘her’ refers to Christ in verses four and five, and to God in verse six. ‘He’ or ‘his’ refers to the Captain in verse three and to Christ in verses seven and eight. The overall effect is that no one person, including the narrator, seems ultimately to be distinct from any other. They participate in an overall unity and so help illustrate this theme of the song.

The theme of unity versus division is pursued in a different way in verse eight. Here a speech begins simply:

‘ “Gentlemen,” ‘

The audience, it’s implied, is entirely male – suggesting a patriarchal society in which women are separated off as inferior. This divisive outlook contrasts with the speaker’s implied approval of unity when he speaks inclusively of himself and his audience, saying peace will bring ‘us’ no reward.

This approach to gender can be taken as representing the new liberal outlook which is replacing the harsh gender distinctions of the old order. The male/female separation referred to in the first verse, and implied again in the eighth, is presented as having been overcome under the new order.

This new approach can also be the reason for the apparent exchange of gender between Christ and God as the song progresses. The exchange suggests that, with respect to them, gender distinctions up till now have been misapplied . It further suggests that with respect to people, distinctions based on gender should not be made.


Time And Eternity

The anachronism ‘Gentlemen’ points to another unity – between the modern era and Christ’s. Other anachronisms which have the same effect include two in verse five. These are the distinctly modern stitches and heart-shaped tattoo apparently borne by Christ.

After a third-person account of the resurrection in verse seven, which follows a first person account of it in verse five, there’s a further temporal unity in which past and present become one:

‘He’s pulling her down, and she’s clutching onto his long golden locks’

The risen Christ (‘he’) is pulling God (‘she’) down – presumably to the earth at his incarnation – so that he and God form a united whole. However,  since the incarnation is obviously prior to the resurrection, and because the incarnation is referred to in response to a question about ‘what measures he now will be taking’, the past (the incarnation) seems to be being fused with the present (the resurrection) to constitute another, this time eternal, whole.

That under the new order temporal divisions are to give way to unity becomes apparent at the outset:

‘Sixteen years
Sixteen banners united …’

First, it seems as if sixteen years are to be experienced spatially, and therefore non-temporally, in the manner of banners.

Then:

‘… the Good Shepherd grieves’

might also imply that Christ’s existence is eternal since, if the temporal setting of the first verse precedes that of the third, an account of the incarnation, the adult Christ (the Good Shepherd) is being active at a time preceding his birth.

A similar point might be made about Christ wearing a veil over ‘her’ shaved head since this shows Christ anachronistically conforming to a Pauline injunction from decades later concerning correct dress for women (1 Cor 11:6).

It’s apparent, then, that there are at least five occasions in which temporal distinctions give way to an underlying, eternal unity.


The Captain And The Maid

The identities of two people need to be established. These are the Captain and, it would seem, a woman. We’re told in the third verse:

‘The Captain waits above the celebration
Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid
Whose ebony face …’

Since the battle is between the old order and the new, the Captain – the one in charge – would seem to have to be God ***. The ‘beloved maid’ would be Christ’s mother, and the thoughts she receives are therefore of God’s intention that he should father her child. She seems to be being presented as a ‘Black Madonna’ – perhaps to make clear the new order’s commitment to social unity in its opposition to racial elitism. But in addition the ‘beloved maid’ is also Christ himself – the word ‘beloved’ reminding us of the voice at Jesus’ baptism saying ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’ (Matt 3.17). The Captain’s love is not, then, just for Mary but is the sacrifice of his son, and – given his identity with Christ – Christ’s own self-sacrifice for mankind.

The verse ends:

‘The Captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid’

Previously the Captain had been ‘above’ the celebration, so in addition to referring to his mood, ‘down’ might well indicate his coming down from heaven at Christ’s incarnation. His belief that his love will be repaid is a belief that people will accept the demands of the new order.

The word ‘down’ recurs in verse four:

‘… I couldn’t help but follow,
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil’

Given the previous use of ‘down’ in connection with the Captain, we can assume that these lines are a first person account by him of the same event – his arrival on earth from heaven at the incarnation.


God, Christ, Jupiter, Apollo

The theme of unity versus division continues in verse four after the unexpected appearance of two Graeco/Roman gods. A woman, later identified as Christ, has been, we’re told:

‘… torn between Jupiter and Apollo’

‘Torn’ – as in torn apart – amounts to division. The event appears to have been the crucifixion, described from a purely human angle.

Jupiter and Apollo, while father and son, are themselves mutually separate pagan gods who on one level seem to be associated with further division – the tearing apart of Christ. By contrast, their Christian equivalents God and Christ, while also father and son, are identical with each other in line with the song’s theme of unity.

This might seem to set the two camps at loggerheads – the divided Jupiter and Apollo on one side, the united God and Christ on the other. However such a conflict between Christian and pagan deities is avoided by a further identity. This is the identity of Christ with Apollo.The identity becomes apparent in a line from verse seven:

‘He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching onto his long golden locks’

God is pulling Christ down – presumably at the incarnation when the two become united on earth. What’s important is that Christ’s having ‘golden locks’ makes him sun-like, or like Apollo the sun god. In other words Christ is taking on the qualities of Apollo.  The result is that the old order is being subsumed rather than challenged. And just as Christ subsumes Apollo, so Jupiter (now Christ’s father) is subsumed by God. The new order is being instituted without setting up an unnecessary conflict with the old.

This identity between Christ and Apollo in turn leads to a further identity and a further division. Since being torn between Jupiter and Apollo seems in part to be a representation of Christ’s crucifixion, his being torn or destroyed between Jupiter and Apollo is equivalent to his being destroyed – crucified – between two thieves. His identity with Apollo, then, is the equivalent of his identity with one of the thieves – the so called ‘good’ thief (Luke 23:29-43).

Further, since ‘merchants and thieves’ were the cause of the corruption, and hence a need for a new order, his being identified with a thief would suggest the job of getting rid of corruption is at least half done.


War

Although an unnecessary conflict between the old pagan and new Christian orders has been avoided, there still needs to be a war. This is the war between the new order and those who resist its implementation and who Christ warns in the penultimate verse.

The song begins with ‘banners united over the field’. ‘Banners’ and ‘field’ both have military connotations, and in a military context ‘united’ would imply a prospect of victory – presumably Christ’s. If that is so, it might explain why there’s a ‘celebration’, and why a ‘Captain’ should be on hand. Later militaristic references include ‘destruction in the ditches’ and ‘dog soldiers’, while the song ends with the promise of peace and the surrender of death, but with a hint of a further battle to come given that death has only surrendered and its ghost retreated. That battle would presumably be Armageddon (Revelation 16:16).

The reference to ‘dog soldiers’ occurs in the sixth verse whose lack of a finite verb makes it particularly obscure:

‘The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms …’

The effect, though, is to suggest the apparent permanence of the conflict, and to create a sense of hopelessness by the use of words such as ‘endless’, wailing’ and ’empty’. The reflections too, by implying repetition, suggest that the war is destined to go on without resolution****. Since the permanence of conflict seems to be being  alluded to even after an account of the resurrection in verse five, the sense of hopelessness is enhanced.

There is a hint here that all is not lost though. While ’empty rooms’ sounds desolate, the expression can remind us of the empty tomb and its significance. This significance becomes apparent in the verse seven in which the resurrection signals the return of hope.

Following a second account of the resurrection in verse seven, Christ announces:

‘Peace will come…
But will bring us no reward when the false idols fall”

The idols are presumably the wealth and power pursued by the merchants and thieves of verse two , and which are no longer to be valued. That peace will ‘bring us no reward’ is either because it is not going to come in the lifetime of his hearers, or because reward itself would be a false idol. That there’s no immediate prospect of peace has already been suggested by the messenger  (presumably of death) carrying a ‘black nightingale’ rather than a dove.

It’s implied, however, that ultimately there will be a reward. This will be when the final battle is won. Although the song ends before that happens, an earlier reference to ‘the celebration’ implies that, from an eternal perspective, it has already been won.


Christ: Good Shepherd, Paschal Lamb, God

The grieving Good Shepherd of verse one is, of course, Christ (John 10.11). And the lost sheep over which he grieves would be the divided men and women who cannot achieve salvation without help. The second verse, however, represents Christ differently – either as one of the lost sheep or as a sacrificial lamb (John 1.29):

‘She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born’

Christ is represented, then, in three ways –  as the Good Shepherd, as the lost sheep and as the sacrificial Paschal lamb. Later, as we’ve seen, he’s also represented as God.

A further way in which this identity is made clear occurs in verse four. After beginning with an apparent reference to the passion of Christ:

‘They shaved her head’

it ends with

‘… they lifted her veil’

The description is echoing accounts of the crucifixion in which the veil in the temple was torn to reveal the presence of God (Matt 27.51), and implies that the face revealed is not just Christ’s but God’s.


The Resurrection

It’s curious that there appear to be two accounts of the resurrection. The first, in verse five, is from Christ’s perspective, and the second  (in verse seven) is from that of a third-person. The accounts are characterised by a marked difference in tone. The first, in the past tense, is of someone who has been thoroughly disillusioned, and who perhaps doubted his divinity:

‘I struggled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches,
With the stitches still mending beneath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you’

The focus is negative throughout – struggle, destruction, unhealed wounds, reneging and treachery.

The stitches would be a reference respectively to Christ’s wounds, and the heart-shaped tattoo is perhaps a sign of his killers’ contempt in much the same way as was the taunting notice on the cross which called him king of the Jews.

The contemptuous attitude perhaps continues with the ‘renegade priests and treacherous young witches’ distributing flowers intended for ‘you’, where the flowers perhaps represent Christ’s message, and  ‘you’ is literally the listener. The  priests and witches are perhaps a fifth column within the new order who are subverting it. Either way, there’s little indication that Christ feels he has successfully instituted a new order.

A second account of the resurrection occurs in verse seven. Whereas Christ’s own account in verse five had made him seem totally human, this third-person account unites him with God:

‘He’s pulling her down, and she’s clutching onto his long golden locks’

– ‘he’ being Christ, and ‘she’ God.

The verse begins:

‘She wakes him up
Forty-eight hours later …’

It’s no longer a merely human Christ who has to rely on his own resources to get to his feet as in verse five. Christ is being raised by God. The tone now is up-beat. The phrase ‘forty-eight hours later’ is the distance between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and the latter is traditionally associated with Christ’s triumph. Then we’re told:

‘… the sun is breaking
Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks’

Here ‘sun’ can be read as ‘Son’ and so he’s implicitly being treated as the son of God. The chains being broken symbolise the restrictions which prevented the disillusioned people of the first verse from achieving salvation. And ‘rolling rocks’ puts us in mind of the miraculous rolling away of the stone sealing Christ’s tomb (Matt 28.2).

The Christ presented here is the successful Christ of the Christian religion, whereas the Christ of verse five is a man believing he’s been defeated.


Tarot

The change brought about by Christ, the replacement of an old, divisive system by a new, inclusive one, is seen in terms of the first of two references in the song to the Tarot. Christ is described as having been born:

‘On midsummer’s eve near the Tower’

The Tower is a Tarot card emblem associated with overwhelming change. (The tower reference could, of course, also be to the biblical Tower of Babel which might be seen as representing a shortcut to salvation, and therefore something to which Christ would be opposed.)

The other Tarot reference, in the final verse, is to ‘the King and Queen of Swords’ who, while representing unity, and therefore support for the new order, seem at risk of being divided. It’s ominous that they represent a refuge for the ghost of death – spiritual death – who, having divided (‘come between’) the opposition, is in a position to prepare a second sally.

That they are united is apparent from their being referred to as ‘the King and the Queen of Swords’ rather than ‘the King of Swords and the Queen of Swords’, the sort of formula used in the first verse to represent men and women as divided.


Conclusion

At the end of the song we’re left in the present day. The new order has been with us for two millennia, but the final battle has yet to occur. Death has been temporarily vanquished but has yet to be finally defeated at Armageddon.

At least that’s the case from our temporal perspective. From an eternal perspective the last battle has taken place and – judging by the celebration – been won. We can assume that from this same eternal perspective some people have chosen to reject being part of an undivided whole comprising God and humanity. These are those who remain loyal to the old order and who Christ warned to expect ‘elimination’ if they refused to adjust and so accept his ‘changing of the guards’.

Minor revisions 4.12.2016

* The theme is superficially similar to that of T.S.Eliot’s The Journey Of The Magi .

**See for example Seth Rogovoy: Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, Scribner 2009. Rogovoy, amongst others, suggests that the phrase ‘sixteen years’ with which the song cryptically opens, might refer to the time Dylan had been performing up to the album’s release. If so it’s plausible that ‘I stepped forth from the shadows to the marketplace’ could also refer to Dylan starting out at the beginning of his career.

***Compare  Robert Johnson: My Last Fair Deal Gone Down where ‘my Captain’ is blamed for the narrator’s misfortune

**** The reflection of the soldiers in the Palace of Mirrors is reminiscent of the scene in which Macbeth is shown Banquo’s descendants  which ‘stretch out to th’ crack of doom’ (Macbeth IV.I.122). In the song it’s the war represented by the soldiers which stretches out to the crack of doom – Armageddon and the end of the world.

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