Pay In Blood

The song in part works as a dramatic monologue, in this case comprising the thoughts, rather than the spoken words, of the narrator. The narrator would appear to be a contemporary of Jesus, and the person being addressed Jesus himself. By way of his thoughts, the narrator unintentionally gives us a deeper insight into his character than the surface meaning allows. In addition, we’re presented with two different outlooks – Jesus’ and the narrator’s – and of how disastrous consequences can result from the failure of one (of each, perhaps) to accommodate the other. As such the song’s subject matter will be just as relevant here and now as to those living in the first century middle east. That it is applicable today as a warning to those in single-minded pursuit of their ends, perhaps political ends, is reinforced by the use of modern idioms throughout.

From the start the narrator makes it clear he’s dissatisfied with his lot. He’s merely grinding his life out, and he’s oppressed – ‘nothing more wretched than what I must endure’. Since from the use of the present tense we can judge him to be, on one level at least, a contemporary of Jesus, the perceived cause of his oppression, those who ‘strip your useless hopes away’, would presumably be the Roman occupiers. And from his claim to be ‘circling around the southern zone’ he would seem to be an inhabitant of Judea, the southern part of this Roman province where Jesus was crucified – Galilee being the northern part. The narrator’s complaint about his treatment continues throughout the song, so that he comes across as excessively self-pitying. In fact, his cry of ‘Hear me holler’ seems to exemplify the principle that empty vessels make most sound, especially given the similarity in sound between ‘holler’ and ‘hollow’.

In addition to being self-pitying, the narrator comes over as thoroughly vicious. He continually threatens violence – ‘I could stone you to death’, ‘I’ll put you in a chain’, ‘I’ve got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim’. One might expect him to have it in for the Romans, but his threats seem to be directed at Jesus. The reason seems to be that he sees Jesus as a traitor to the cause of political autonomy – ‘Our country must be saved and freed’. In the light of this, the violence he threatens ‘for the wrongs that you’ve done’ would seem to be because he sees Jesus as actively working against the cause. This interpretation would seem corroborated if in the fourth verse it’s Jesus the narrator is castigating as ‘another politician pumping out the piss’, and himself he’s describing as ‘another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss’. The tone is bitter. He sees himself as put down, and in thrall to a politician he doesn’t respect. In both cases the obvious exaggeration  seems in character for someone we’ve already seen to be exaggeratedly self-pitying.

The moral failings of this narrator make an unenviable list. He’s disparaging – ‘You gulped it down’; he’s dismissive – ‘Another politician…’; and he’s passive in the sense that he relies on exploiting others’ mistakes. It’s clear that he objects to Jesus in part because he sees him as one of the ‘rising’ men (i.e. increasingly successful men) – thereby missing the more literal, theological sense in which Jesus rises. In bragging that he’s ‘been out and around with the rising men’ the narrator makes it clear that he regrets that this is as far as he ever got; to be out and around with them is not the same as being one of them. His enmity towards Jesus is therefore fuelled by envy of someone he sees as being on the rise, making progress. Rather than taking steps to be successful himself, however, he sulks. He blames unspecified others – ‘They strip your useless hopes away’, and he blames fate – ‘Low cards’. He seems to exult in pessimism; not only are his hopes taken from him, he tells us, but they were useless anyway!

Despite this litany of failings, he tries to present himself positively.  He informs us that he’s both hard-headed – ‘My head’s so hard, must be made of stone’ – and brave – ‘You could put me out in front of a firing squad’. Ironies abound with this character. It’s this very hard-headedness – what he sees as a no-nonsense attitude – which causes his violent opposition to Jesus and which is presumably instrumental in bringing about Jesus’ death. His head, made of stone, – i.e. his uncompromising attitude – is the stone which metaphorically he uses to stone Jesus to death.

It’s ironic too, from a Christian perspective, that the revenge he has in mind is stoning, given Jesus’ using the occasion of such a stoning to condemn hypocrisy – ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 7.53-8).  Since the narrator’s attitude to Jesus is no less oppressive that that of the Roman occupiers to the narrator, the narrator is condemning himself out of his own mouth as a hypocrite.

There are numerous further ironies arising from the narrator’s choice of expression. If he is the beggar ‘blowing you a kiss’, he’s unconsciously condemning himself as a traitor to Jesus by associating himself with Judas’ mode of betraying Jesus to the authorities. And earlier he complains about being ‘drenched in the light that shines from the sun’. In addition to the surface meaning, that he is so drenched is true if ‘sun’ is read as ‘Son’, for Jesus saw himself as the ‘Son of Man’ whose God-given task was to free the chosen people from oppression (and of course Jesus is often taken to be the literal son of God). As an opponent of oppression, the narrator is, then, blindly criticising someone who’s on his side in being against oppression. Being drenched in a light cast by Jesus should give the narrator an advantage, but it’s one which he doesn’t appreciate. Instead he threatens to make Jesus’ ‘eyeballs swim’, thereby  unconsciously using a similar image of water to express thoroughly anti-Christian, violent feelings. And any association of drenching and swimming with baptismal water has been lost on him.

Just as he associates himself with water, but in a way which misses the point, so he associates himself with the sun in a way which misses the point. While ‘circling around the southern zone’ can be interpreted as a reference to his own movements in Judea, it can also be taken as an unconscious identification of himself with the sun (son). The sun’s (apparent) rotation around the earth occurs in the southern part of the sky, and so over the southernmost part (zone) of the earth. The irony here  is that someone who distances himself from Jesus should unwittingly seem to associate himself with him.

It’s perhaps worth noting that when the narrator is ‘circlin’ around’ the southern zone, he is made to sound like a bird of prey. Since he’s also been ‘around’ with the ‘risin’ men’, they too are perhaps to be seen as birds of prey. The image suggests that their success is pursued by way of exploiting others.

The narrator’s ironic application to himself of what applies so much more valuably to Jesus continues with his complaints about having suffered ‘so many blows’ and to having ‘been though Hell’. Jesus, of course, suffered actual blows – scourging – and quite literally, according to the ‘harrowing of Hell’ tradition, visited Hell immediately following his death, in order to free those who didn’t deserve to be there. The main effect of the narrator’s complaint about having ‘been through Hell’ is to point out how pathetically inconsequential his outlook is compared with Jesus’. Whereas he moans about his own situation, Jesus acts to improve the situation of others.

That there are these, albeit ironic, similarities between the narrator and Jesus makes it all the more tragic that the narrator opposes Jesus, for in opposing Jesus he is, by implication, opposing himself. To bring about the destruction of Jesus is to bring about his own destruction.

The ironies continue when the narrator declares ‘The more I die, the more I live’. Presumably he means his life is so bad, it’s a sort of living death – the only living he does is a matter of dying. In ironic contrast his opponent, Jesus, actually did die, as opposed to merely using the idea of dying as a self-pitying exaggeration of his unhappiness. Whereas the narrator is egotistically concerned only about himself – …’I die…’, ‘… I live…’ – Jesus made life (in the sense of eternal life) possible for everyone. The more he died, the more everyone else was able to live.

Further ironies occur in the fourth and fifth verses. Jesus is called as a ‘bastard’, and told ‘If only you could prove who your father was’. Since, according to the tradition, his father is God, the narrator seems to invite the response ‘If only you knew who his father was!’ Jesus is criticised for crossing the line – perhaps meaning going too far politically, or of being a turncoat. There’s irony in the word ‘crossed’ since it was by way of dying on the cross that Jesus was able to achieve what he did. The reference to a drug in his wine only serves to point to the blood Jesus shed for others which it represents . The narrator is derisively condemning those things of which he fails to see the value.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is in the repeated line:

‘I pay in blood, but not my own’

The irony is two-fold, for in spite of both Jesus and the narrator making some sort of blood sacrifice, there is a crucial difference in the reason for making it and in the manner of its being made. Where Jesus was acting in the interests of mankind generally, the narrator is acting in his own political interests. And where Jesus paid in his own blood for the salvation of others, the narrator is adamant that it’s only the blood of others which will be spilt, presumably in the pursuit of his political ends. Despite his bragging about his bravery, when compared with Jesus the narrator comes across as pusillanimous – not prepared to put his life on the line for his beliefs. In this context the demand that Jesus ‘show me your moral virtues first’ comes across as a ridiculous case of the pot implying the kettle’s black. Ultimately, perhaps, he does in fact again end up paying with his own blood in that his negative outlook on life has made him self destructive. It’s plausible that he, like Judas with whom he unconsciously associates himself, will end up committing suicide.

The song works, then, equally as a condemnation of a narrow-minded, bigoted  narrator out of his own mouth and as a warning about how the moral failings he exemplifies might continue to result in unnecessary suffering. At the same time it extols the moral virtues of self-sacrifice and, by implication, compassion. The association of these with Jesus perhaps implies that ultimately it’s these which will prevail.

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32 thoughts on “Pay In Blood

  1. Listen back to the song and you may will see, that this song is only another track to talk about failure decisions of life, a lot to suffer, of cause, but also doing as much a man can do. The currency is blood and is the highest price you can pay anyway.

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    • Thanks for your comment Marco. I think I agree with most of what you say here. Regarding your objection to a religious interpretation (which got lopped off – sorry) there does seem to me to be plenty of evidence that it’s Jesus that Dylan has in mind. One bit I didn’t discuss in the original post is the line ‘Man can’t live by bread alone’. This is of course a direct quotation from Jesus (Matt. 4.4), although it seems to have been appropriated by the narrator for his own ends. I don’t think any thorough analysis of the song can fail to take into account all the biblical references, both explicit and implicit.

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      • Dylan songs are rife with biblical imagery. I don’t see anything here to persuasively suggest that the song is about, or in any way related to, Jesus.

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      • Well, John, there are a few things! All the following are in some way or other related to Jesus. Most obviously there’s the direct quote from Matthew 4.4 ‘Man can’t live by bread alone’ – Jesus actual words. Then there are a number of implicit references: ‘stone you to death’ – cf. ‘He who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 8.7); ‘I pay in blood’ – Christians see Jesus’ blood sacrifice as replacing the older pagan blood sacrifices where an animal was slaughtered; ‘the more I die the more I live’ – a reference to Jesus’ sacrificial death resulting in eternal life; ‘the rising men’ – Jesus was nothing if not a risen man; ‘blowing you a kiss’ – A kiss was a pre-arranged signal with which Judas betrayed Jesus; ‘if only you could prove who your father was’ – scandalously Mary became pregnant without help from Joseph, and it was explained by saying God was the father; the narrator here seems sceptical; ‘a drug in your wine’ – Jesus turned his blood into wine at the Last Supper; ‘crossed the line’ – pun on cross, used to execute Jesus; ‘been through hell’ – reference to the apocryphal harrowing of hell by Jesus (Nicodemus); ‘fatten your purse’ – possible reference to the bribe Judas took to betray Jesus; ‘I come to bury not to raise’ – reference to Jesus coming to raise people from the dead to eternal life.

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      • Sure, there are many words and phrases that can be linked to the Bible. That is true of most everyday conversations in English, never mind Dylan songs. What I meant was, what is it, in the lyrics, that makes you think this song is about Jesus? I don’t see anything at all.

        >‘crossed the line’ – pun on cross, used to execute Jesus

        That is *really* grasping at straws.

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      • I don’t think the song is ‘about’ Jesus. What I’m suggesting is that Dylan is using the idea of someone’s personal mental state, put across in his thoughts to which the listener has access, to put forward views about the ways people run their lives. The narrator comes across (to me at any rate) as bigoted and contemptuous of the rights and possibly quite legitimate motivations of other people. Yet he’s blissfully unaware of his own faults. Part of Dylan’s skill is the way he gets the narrator to give himself away, so to speak. One value of a song like this is being able to recognise aspects of the narrator in oneself. He may or may not best be seen as a character from two thousand years ago, but most certainly can be seen as each one of us. Christianity per se is only relevant in that Dylan is able to emphasise, or draw attention to, particular undesirable characteristics of the narrator and their consequences by making us see them in biblical contexts. It seems to me to work well. But if you think that’s not the function of these references, then of course you need to be able to say for each one how it does function in the song. If you can, please do!

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      • >But if you think that’s not the function of these references, then of course you need to be able to say for each one how it does function in the song. If you can, please do!

        Well, no, I don’t think that necessarily follows. You’ve said that “the narrator would appear to be a contemporary of Jesus, and the person being addressed Jesus himself”, and I don’t think you’ve done anything whatsoever to prove or even suggest that this is anything more than your interpretation, presumably one driven by pre-existing interests or predilections. Just because the song contains phrases such as “I could stone you to death…” doesn’t mean it’s set in Biblical times.

        Who knows what it all means, if anything? I’m not saying the song is not related to Jesus; I’m just pointing out that you haven’t presented any evidence that it is.

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      • Well John, what I’ve presented is my interpretation; I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. And of course it may be wrong. Nevertheless it’s the best I can come up with at the moment, and until someone comes up with a better one, I’m afraid it’ll have to do.

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    • Thanks John. I’ve tried to make that a bit clearer. The narrator addresses the other person in the present tense (‘You’ve got the same eyes your mother does’ etc) which suggests he’s around at the same time. If I’m right that this other person is Jesus, then the narrator must be a contemporary of Jesus. Nevertheless the modern idioms used (e.g. ‘pumping out the piss’) bring the song into the present so emphasising that the issues it raises are of wider significance. I suppose one could take it as a modern-day narrator going over in his mind what he would have said to Jesus had he had the opportunity, but that might be being too literalistic. I’m not sure it’s necessary.

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  2. Excellent analysis, David, and thanks for tackling this most difficult song. I think you have caught the emotional tone of it, which is both mysterious and threatening. And after all, from the Christian point of view, we could say that we don’t pay for our sins with our blood, but with the blood of Jesus. I think you are right, this is a monologue, and I’m reminded of other monologue songs that have been misunderstood, such as ‘Sweetheart like You,’ which seems to be narrated by a denizen of one of Dante’s levels of hell. Thanks for this!

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  3. Jesus paid the ultimate price for the sins of humankind, so his followers may effectively pay for their own redemption in blood — but not their own — in the form of accepting Jesus Christ as savior.

    If the narrator of ‘Pay In Blood’ is in fact explaining his own thinking — and I agree with you insomuch as the song seems to deal with varied thought processes — then the narrator is not only “sworn to uphold the laws of God” but he’s also acknowledging the law made anew by Christ when stating that he “could” stone someone to death though he now seeks to enchain an elusive antagonist.

    Who is the antagonist, or the hunted man in ‘Pay In Blood’? He’s just any old bad guy and the narrator is the good guy. The narrator is a Cosmic cop of sorts and the bad guy is whoever you want him to be — this is a classic example of a stratagem contained within a Bob Dylan song.

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    • Yes I agree there is a subtle difference between ‘I could stone you’ and ‘I’ll put you to death’ and it does seem to support the interpretation in your second paragraph. He also says ‘I got dogs could tear you …’ and he doesn’t actually say he’s going to use whatever’s in his pocket. I wonder if threatening to break someone’s lousy head is the language of a ‘cosmic cop’ though.

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  4. I’ve got something in my pocket that makes my eyeballs swim, and it’s not a weapon. It has to do with a certain combustible spice known to this earth.

    Another interesting point about the violent imagery in the song is that none of it actually takes place; again I believe it’s an aspect which deals with thought processes. There is not one violent action described in ‘Pay In Blood’ that actually plays out, it’s all hypotheticals.

    The narrator says he has “dogs to tear you limb from limb.” The written lyrics include the word “could” instead of “to” but I hear him say, “to tear you limb from limb” in the recorded version. Either of these words, “could” or “to,” suggest the dogs are there as a deterrent and they’re not actually being violent in the moment — but they sure would be ready if a situation arrived.

    One of the phrases that stands out to me as portraying the narrator as a good guy, or a cop as it were, is: “sooner or later and you’ll make a mistake.” Cops wait for criminals they can’t catch to make a mistake. And of course, “I’m sworn to uphold the laws of God” sure sounds like a good guy’s thoughts or words.

    Another thing I wanted to mention is your commentary on “rising men” in the song. I believe he actually says, “rowdy men.” And now that I’ve just checked, the written lyrics also note “rowdy men.” I picture a Christian soldier in this song as the narrator, a gruff man on a mission. Not necessarily a cop with a badge per se, though he could be, but someone who is sworn to uphold an ethos of good orderly direction, and believes that Christ paid the debt of humankind’s sins.

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    • I agree with you that none of the violence occurs, and I think that may well be significant. It’s an interesting observation and, now you’ve pointed it out, it seems quite obvious! In the light of that, it occurs to me that it might be the wrong approach we’re taking in pitting my interpretation against yours. There’s no reason in principle why the song shouldn’t be open to more than one interpretation. If two (or more) interpretations can stand together, and even complement each other, that’ll make the listener’s experience all the more rewarding. I haven’t thought about this very closely yet, but it might be the case that when Dylan changes the words, as he often does, it’s to make the song more amenable to a particular interpretation. He seems to sing ‘ragged beggar’ rather than ‘angry beggar’, for example, on one version on Youtube (which irritatingly I can’t find again) and I’m trying to work out the implications of the change. Since ‘angry’ and ‘ragged’ have very different meanings, each might suit a different interpretation. The same might be said for ‘rowdy’ and ‘rising’. Dylan’s site seems to have stopped posting Pay In Blood lyrics, but of four other sites I looked at, three have ‘rising’. Again, it would be interesting to see if Dylan in fact changes from one to the other. There’s a series of quite major changes on his Hamburg 19.10.13 performance, and for all I know he may have made other changes on other occasions, so that alone may mean we shouldn’t expect to come up with a single definitive account of the song’s meaning. Anyway these are just random, late night thoughts.

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  5. Thanks David, looking forward to reading your thoughts when time permits. Hey, if you want to just delete my two posts with the smileys, that would be fine with me. Was doing a bit too much scrolling back and forth there… So yeah, anyway, great website, David! I do enjoy most of your analyses.

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    • I’ve deleted those posts – but I think your point about the ‘something in my pocket’ is worth considering. Also it may be that the perhaps deliberate vagueness of ‘something’ allows different interpretations of it to fit with different interpretations of the song.

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  6. Thanks for clearing out those two posts, David. Will check back over the weekend to see if you’ve had time to reply again…. Enjoy your weekend!

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  7. Pay in blood is addressed to the Jewish people from Dylan’s Christian perspective. “Our nation must be saved and freed’ is obviously a quotation attributed to Isreal. In ‘Scarlett Town” he writes , “help comes, but it comes too late.” This is an explanation from a recent Jewish author on why many Jews have lost their faith because of the Holocaust. As in the Psalms, narratives frequently switch many times in a Dylan song and any phrase is not necessarily part of any narrative. It could be a quotation, a reference simply dropped in. There are no rules. I have read that a current scholarly Jewish Rabbi knows knows Dylan as a still practicing Jew and I understand Dylan as a Messianic Jew.

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    • Thanks for commenting Dorothy. I think you may be right that a phrase is not necessarily part of any narrative, and it’s probably a mistake to try expect everything to fit together perfectly. It seems likely to me that Dylan is still a practising Jew, and that he combines this with Christianity. Whether that’s the case or not, though, it may well be that this song concerns Judaism more than I’ve allowed in my original post.

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  8. Thanks, David. As for, “you’ve got the same eyes as your mother does’ – the Jewish lineage is determined thru the mother. Only by the Jewish mother can it be certain that the baby has Jewish blood. “If only you could prove who your father was,” might further apply to this true lineage determination, or could it be referring to God the father? How do you know the father if you don’t know the son? Jesus said, “no man can come to the father except thru me.” But then again, just before Tempest was released, a man claimed to be Dylan’s son. His mother was friendly with Dylan at the time he was with Suzy Rotello. Dylan did not respond to or acknowledge the man’s claim.

    To me, it always feels like I am listening to him first hand and I always delight in the questions that I am left with.

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    • Yes I would think ‘If only you could prove who your father was must be a reference to Jesus’ divine lineage. Whether it also might be seen as a reference to his Jewish ancestry I’m not sure. It might be that that Jesus is essentially being accused of being un-Jewish by the narrator for not seeming to accept that ‘our country must be saved and freed’. It may well be significant in other ways, though.

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  9. After watching Narcos on Netflix, I realized these lines could have been spoken by Pablo Escobar to his countries elite. Just like in Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power). But it’s more likely the American Son, in all his diversity, addressing the Father, in all his complexity. Like the new president in Masked and Anonymous.
    Right away, in the song, the tables are about to turn. The one rising up will be as cruel as his master.
    In Pay In Blood everybody pays with the blood of others. All are sinners, proud and rigid. Unredeemed.

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  10. Thanks for your thoughts David. I don’t know the films, but if you’re right it would show that the song has a significance which goes beyond its immediate subject matter. That wouldn’t be surprising since often Dylan songs provide insights into human nature generally.

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