Dear Landlord

Introduction

The landlord is probably to be seen as a representation of God. Accordingly his property will be the gift of eternal life which he gives out under certain conditions. The beneficiary, or tenant, is the speaker. If the conditions are fulfilled, the gift will become permanent. The song itself is made up of the speaker’s words to God as he attempts to force God into keeping his side of the bargain, while finding excuses for reneging on his own side of it.

 

First Verse

The first verse has the speaker sycophantically addressing God as ‘Dear landlord’, and then pleading that a price not be put on his soul. This plea immediately brings out a bitterness in his character. It seems to imply that God has put a price on everything else, thereby making it next to impossible for the impoverished speaker to scrape by. His soul is the last thing he has and he doesn’t want to have to forego it just because he can’t afford to meet God’s extortionate demands. The payment being withheld is presumably moral, rather than pecuniary as it would be with an earthly landlord. In other words in order to save his soul, and keep his eternal life, the speaker is being expected to live morally.

The excuses the speaker makes for not so doing are that his ‘burden is heavy’ and that his ‘dreams are beyond control’. The burden can be interpreted as those moral responsibilities the reward for whose fulfilment will be eternal life. The claim that his dreams are beyond control looks like a straightforward refusal to accept due responsibility for his own actions.

Next follows what looks like a bribe:

‘When that steamboat whistle blows
I’m gonna give you all I got to give’

The whistle can be taken as death – the summons to confront God in the afterlife. And the steamboat would be the equivalent of Charon’s vessel in Greek mythology used for ferrying souls into the underworld. If the underworld is taken to be hell, the metaphor might seem to hint that hell is the speaker’s likely destination.

The two lines provide evidence of the speaker’s guile. They imply that he’s perfectly happy to pay his debt to God, but only on condition that this is done at the very end of his life. On the one hand this is an audacious attempt at striking a disingenuous bargain aimed at allowing him to pursue an immoral life which will be repented only on his deathbed. On the other, the speaker’s language seems cunningly designed to make him sound both generous and selfless, as if God should be grateful to get even a postponement of what’s his due.

After patronisingly and presumptuously going on to express his hope that God will receive the offer ‘well’ – in other words not treat it with the contempt it deserves – the speaker proceeds to indulge in further criticism. Whether God is up to receiving it well will depend, he tells him:

‘… on the way that you feel that you live’

The hypocritical implication is that God lives immorally, but nevertheless still might be able to receive the offer graciously if only he can manage to delude himself – ‘feel’ – that his existence is not immoral. Not only is the speaker a thoroughly filthy pot calling a sparkling kettle black, but in so doing he provides evidence of appalling tactlessness. Apparently he has no inkling that to criticise the very person one’s trying to influence is likely to be be counterproductive.

 

Second Verse

In the second verse the speaker’s technique for winning over the landlord is again sycophantic. ‘Dear landlord’ and:

‘I Know you’ve suffered much’

At the same time, like Satan, he’s presumptive enough to put himself on the same level as the landlord:

‘I know you’ve suffered much
But in this you are not so unique
All of us, at times, we might work too hard
To have it too fast and too much’

The third line, like the first, purports to recognise the weight God is under, in suffering and having to work too hard, as if his well being is uppermost in the speaker’s thoughts.It immediately becomes apparent, however, that the speaker’s obsequiousness is a cover. Really it’s he himself who’s at the forefront of his mind. In saying:

‘But in this you are not so unique’

he highlights his own suffering. His arrogance is incredible, as if he’s trying to bring the landlord down a peg or two for making the most of his own suffering at the cost of not recognising the speaker’s.

The arrogance is further evident in his use of the phrase ‘all of us’ in the lines:

All of us, at times, we might work too hard
To have it too fast and too much’

It seems designed to enable the speaker to gain kudos for seeming sympathetic and for admitting excess, while at the same time implicating God in the excess. Furthermore, by seeming to admit that ‘all of us’ might work too hard, he gives the impression of graciously coming down to God’s level – ‘Dear God, I know you work too hard, but don’t worry. Even I do that sometimes.’

Although the speaker is trying to give the impression he indulges in wholesome hard work, it’s clear for two reasons that this is a travesty of the truth. First, the parenthetical ‘at times’ and the ‘might’ which follows it (in ‘All of us, at times, we might work too hard’) seems to be a subtly disguised admittance that he, the narrator, doesn’t actually work all that much.

Secondly, his somewhat obscure wording provides a hint about the true nature of this work. The expressions ‘have it’ and have it ‘too much’ are a clear indication that it’s sexual gratification the speaker works ‘too hard’ to achieve. In the light of this the speaker’s tarring God with the same brush as himself seems all the more preposterous.

The verse ends:

‘And anyone can fill his life up
With things he can see but he just cannot touch’

This can be interpreted in two ways. First, it’s an attempt to justify the extent of his sexual activity – touching, as distinct from merely seeing. He does it by belittling what ‘anyone’ can do, as if it would be out of the question to expect him to stoop to that. And secondly, it might be seen as an excuse for a general acquisition of wealth – the collecting of worldly goods which he could simply have admired from a distance. On either account he is yet again being disingenuous.

In addition the word ‘touch’ has a particular significance. It reminds us of the deprecatory use of ‘feel’ used earlier with respect to God in the line ‘Dependin’ on the way that you feel that you live’. Given the sort of touching the speaker indulges in, his criticism of God for the way he ‘feels’ seems all the more hypocritical.

 

Third Verse

In the final verse, after the usual obsequious opening, the speaker uses legalistic language to try to win God over:

‘Please don’t dismiss my case’

His choice of language is once again ironic. Unwittingly he seems to be reminding us of the last judgment, and that ultimately all his wiles are going to be fruitless.

The reasons he gives for God’s not dismissing his case, while superficially sounding plausible, are in fact ridiculous:

‘I’m not about to argue
I’m not about to move to no other place’

To start one’s argument by denying one’s about to argue is to exhibit yet more barefaced audacity. He then tries to give an impression of having consideration for a landlord who would otherwise be losing a source of income if he were to go elsewhere. What he’s really doing is trying to wheedle his way into God’s good books by appearing unthreatening, something which the last two lines of the song will give the lie to.

The declaration that he’s not about to go anywhere else might also be taken as a denial that he’s about to die. If so, he’s conveniently forgetting that his death was supposed to be the occasion of his recompensing God. Alternatively he can be taken to be denying that his destination will be anywhere else than heaven. Both interpretations are laden with irony given the allusions to the last judgment and the underworld, combined with what we’ve seen of his character.

In the penultimate pair of lines the speaker might again be seen to be presumptuously putting himself on the same level as the landlord:

‘Now, each of us has his own special gift
And you know this was meant to be true’

The special gift applicable to both God and the speaker is presumably eternal life. The gift of eternal life is supposed to be held permanently – it is ‘meant to be true’, he says. In laying down the law to God,the speaker is once again exhibiting quite extraordinary arrogance. He’s insisting that the original promise of eternal life should not be rescinded – despite the fact that the conditions imposed at the time have not been fulfilled. It would seem that the speaker is expecting God to be true to his promise to him, while at the same time making excuses for not being true to God.

Armed with the promise of eternal life, or so he thinks, the speaker proceeds to blackmail God:

‘And if you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you’

The chiming of ‘don’t underestimate’ with ‘won’t underestimate’ is designed to create an impression of even-handedness, but nevertheless it’s blackmail. Only if God recognises that the speaker is trustworthy will he condescend to recognise God for what he is. So says this jumped-up Satan.

 

Conclusion

The song can be seen as a representation of human nature in all its pompous stupidity. Believing he’s capable of deceiving God, the speaker succeeds only in presenting himself as a pleading, bitter, self-pitying, cunning, sycophantic, self-deprecating, tactless, patronising, devious, argumentative, condescending, self-aggrandising, briber and blackmailer. Like Satan, he treats God as if he were an equal and thinks he can outwit him for his own ends. And like Satan we can only assume he’s destined for a most almighty fall.

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8 thoughts on “Dear Landlord

  1. I usually agree with the Bible references, but in this song I heard it was written about his contract with manager Albert Grossman and Dylan wanting a higher % of his growing songbook. Since Dylan stayed with Grossman at his guesthouse in Woodstock it seems to make sence.

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    • Thanks for your comment George. If Grossman’s the landlord, who’s the tenant? Dylan? If so, he’s presenting himself in a very poor light! As far as I can see there’s no evidence at all in the song that it’s about anything other than what I’ve suggested. For some reason people always want to relate the songs to actual events in Dylan’s life. For some people Albert Grossman’s supposed to be the diplomat with the shoulder-borne cat in Like A Rolling Stone, but I can find no evidence in the song for that either. I suspect that some people, at a loss for how to interpret a song, seize on the one or two people (out of thousands) in Dylan’s life they’ve heard of and jump to the conclusion that the songs must be about them. That isn’t to say that Dylan couldn’t have real people and events in the back of his mind when writing. I’m sure he does. It seems highly unlikely to me that the songs are about those things, though. If you’re interested I say a bit about this in the Note About The Interpretations.

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  2. When I first read your analysis I was deeply skeptical: why the questioning of God? Why the tone of hostility? However I have second thoughts.
    Suppose “John Wesley Harding” is mainly about an argument with God, an argument about the perils of seeking freedom in all its guises, an argument about the limits of free will itself. As I understand it this is the core issue that Saint Augustine struggled with: choose sinful freedom; choose submission to a righteous deity. The fact that the second song on the album deals with the assertion of freedom (Tom Paine) and the third references Saint Augustine is consistent with this interpretation. Indeed all of the songs on “John Wesley Harding” rock back and forth between these two extremes with the possible exception of the last two songs that seemingly reject struggle between opposing emotions. But then perhaps they too are about struggle, sinful temptation versus commitment to stable marriage and family.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts Carl. I haven’t thought much about how the songs fit together, so I shall ramble! I agree that the songs you mention could be seen as about the extent to which freedom of choice is acceptable. Taking the album as a whole, though, I wonder if the main theme isn’t human weakness. There are lots of types of weakness, although dissimulation figures a lot, as does wilful misrepresentation of others. Whether or not the object of an attempt to deceive is God may not matter; concepts like salvation and eternal life may have application outside of religious contexts. What matters is that that for some reason people deceive, and in representing a variety of such deceptions the album can be seen as presenting the subtleties of human psychology.

      Only some narrators are deliberately attempting to deceive. Others, I suspect, may not even realise they’re engaging in deception. With respect to this, it’s interesting that you see the last two songs as different in some way from the rest. I used to, and thought it’s because they’re simpler. But they clearly aren’t, or at least if they are it’s only on a superficial level. Both ‘I’m a Lonesome Hobo’ and ‘I’ll be Your Baby Tonight’ involve deception of others, but whereas the speaker in ‘I’m a Lonesome Hobo’ knows exactly what he’s up to, it’s doubtful if the speaker in ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is fully aware that he’s scheming. Rather he comes across as self-deluded to the point of madness.

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  3. I think the ‘Landlord’ could certainly be conceived as God, particularly the God of the Old Testament tradition who is very much a ‘personality’ to be addressed directly and reasoned with – even bargained and argued with. There are plenty of characters in the Old Testament who do just that without any necessary implication that they are a ‘bad’ person for doing so. The idea that it is an impertinence to question God (or argue or bargain with Him) is, I think, seeing things more from a Christian than a Jewish perspective, and it is the latter from which I feel Dylan is writing here. Yes, the final lines could be seen as an almighty piece of cheek addressed to God, but remember that in the Old Testament Jacob physically wrestles with God and, far from being condemned for doing so, ends up as a Jewish patriarch! I can’t myself see the speaker in Dylan’s poem as a necessarily bad, or devious or guileful person. To claim that his ‘burden is heavy’ is surely only another way of saying ‘life is hard’ and perhaps it is hard for him. Is not life hard for everyone at some time or other? As for having dreams beyond his control, this need not imply wanton hedonism: only that his ability to dream, or desire, outruns his ability to fulfil his desires. Surely this is true of nearly everyone in our material world, and hardly a very negative reflection on his character. To say that it represents a “straightforward refusal to accept responsibility for his actions” does seem a very harsh conclusion!
    However, I don’t think we should be closed to the idea that the ‘Landlord’ could also be conceived as a purely human figure: anyone, in fact, who we feel has some measure of control over our life in ways that we don’t always appreciate. “Please don’t put a price on my soul” may sound like a piece of religious imagery, but it could equally well be an appeal to anyone who is seeking to ‘own’ you, or buy you out in some way. As the old song ‘Sixteen Tons’ puts it, ‘I owe my soul to the company store.’ (The artist/manager relationship actually fits this very well. The artist has his dreams, his artistic purpose, his ‘integrity’ while the manager is interested only in using those things to translate into cash.)
    I would suggest that the poem oscillates between an address to God and an address to a human person. Some lines are more appropriate to one, some to the other. So while ‘I’m gonna give you all I got to give’ might seem a very appropriate sentiment to express to God, it is immediately followed by ‘And I do hope you receive it well/Dependin’ on the way you feel that you live’, which can only with great difficulty, I think, be related to any known concept of God at all! In this respect it reminds me of a number of Leonard Cohen songs that also inhabit this ‘borderline’ area. I think if we push any one view too far it leads to distortion. For example, whilst I would agree that the ‘steamboat whistle’ might well indicate death, or at any rate some kind of departure, I simply can’t feel any connection with Charon ferrying the departed across the Styx and it seems to be pushing things much too far to try and make them relate.
    Overall, I do like this song – particularly as a song, where the voice and the music enhance the words to satisfying effect. As words flat on the page I feel we only get part of its meaning. But that of course is the wonder of song, whether it’s Dylan or any other writer whose words are set to music.

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  4. Thanks for your reply Ken. I’m inclined to agree with a lot of what you say.You may well be right that it’s the Old Testament God that’s represented especially if, as you say, it was usual for OT characters to argue with him.

    I agree, too, that the landlord can’t just be taken as God, in particular because of the line ‘Dependin’ on the way you feel that you live’. It’s difficult to see how this could be applicable to God. As you say, the addressee may well oscillate between God and a real landlord. Nevertheless since our dealings with real people are in a sense our dealings with God, it can still be that the song is about human relationships with God – or, at least, with whatever the traditional idea of God might be used to represent. Conscience perhaps.

    I’m not sure I agree with what you say about the speaker not necessarily being bad, devious or guileful. I don’t see him as unduly so, but see him as a representation of a typical human being. He has faults, and the way he behaves can be instructive. Related to this, I can’t see why the speaker should be made to say ‘my dreams are beyond control’ if it were not being implied that he has a dishonest motive in saying this. Otherwise it’s redundant. We all know we can’t control our dreams so, if it’s to be taken at face value, it just doesn’t need saying.

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  5. Always room for thought inside a dylan song. I took Dear Landlord to be more about the Government than God or religion. Especially the line ‘I’m not about to argue
    I’m not about to move to no other place’
    / I took that as saying I am not marching in protest and I do not buy the ‘love it or leave it’ nonsense. / Certainly there are (as usual) some lines that fit the theme better than others. But overall when I hear the song I hear Landlord as anyone who ‘lords it over’ others. Whether through laws or possession of property, money or power.
    thanks

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  6. Thanks for commenting Jack. I certainly think individual lines might support that interpretation. What’s difficult with this song is finding an interpretation which fits everything. As another commenter suggests, the narrator may oscillate between addressing God and a human person. It might be, then, that he can be seen as addressing government too at certain points, as his mind wanders from one concern to another. Or it may be that we have reason to see certain lines as applying to government even though that was not the speaker’s intention, or Dylan’s either perhaps.

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