The song seems to be a representation of human psychology in that it depicts someone vacillating between reconciling himself with God and continuing his godless ways. The narrator seems to be both a user of prostitutes and perhaps a murderer, but it’s left unclear how much he really wants to turn over a new leaf and whether he in fact does so. There also seems to be a suggestion that human life is a unified whole in which the concept of change cannot apply. There are two main sections to this analysis, ‘The Narrator’s Character’ and ‘Time’, and then a brief summing up.
The Narrator’s Character
The narrator’s character is full of reversals, inconsistencies and misjudgements. He’s also boastful and contemptuous. We learn that it’s night time, and yet that his ‘day has just begun’ – a back to front life perhaps reflecting back to front morals, given what he seems to be doing.
We also learn, in the third line, that he feels in need of help:
‘I need to tell someone’
The person being addressed may well be God since ‘sing your praises’, although a common expression, has religious overtones. The ‘need to tell someone’ might be seen, then, as a need to confess to a crime already committed, a crime implied by ‘I’ve been down on the killing floors’. Alternatively it might be seen as a need to seek help for an unwanted temptation to kill. Either way this inability to cope, this plea for support, is in stark contrast to the bravado of the third verse:
‘I’m in no great hurry
I’m not afraid of your fury
I’ve faced stronger walls than yours’
The language here is full of self confidence – inexplicable in the light of the earlier comment. In the first verse he’s aware that time is short – it’s after midnight – and by implication he’s aware that any need requires fulfilling quickly. Any reference to time is gone in the third verse, however, and with it any concern for speed. Instead a bolshie self assertiveness, totally out of keeping with the previous urgency, takes over.
Not only is what’s said inconsistent, but it’s wholly inappropriate:
‘My heart is cheerful
It’s never fearful’
In the light of his need to confess, or seek help, he should be anything but cheerful. And he shouldn’t boast about not being fearful. His ‘need to tell someone’ suggests a need to be God-fearing which the boast belies.
The boasting continues when he proudly announces he’s been ‘down on the killing floors’. If that’s taken to mean he’s murdered, any pride about it is surely a misjudgement, and more so given that he’s speaking to God. Even if it just means he’s been hardened against fear through experience, the tone is still far from exemplifying the sort of humility appropriate when addressing God. His words are not those of someone seeking forgiveness or reconciliation. They’re evidence of a thorough recklessness.
And what he says in the final verse shows him to be guilty of a disdainful contempt:
‘I didn’t think you’d do‘
This, while implying he’s aware of having misjudged his hearer, suggests that he’s not the type to shrink from dismissing people out of hand. The use of ‘you’d do’ makes one wonder what’s happened to the self-effacing modesty of the opening verse.
Duplicity and Misjudgement
It is, of course, only apparent modesty which is shown even in the first verse. One doesn’t usually need to go ‘searching for phrases’ in order to praise someone. It’s as if the narrator is trying to hoodwink God that he’s about to be praised when really the narrator is bent on ignoring him. It’s the same sort of duplicity that’s we’ll see is present when he later describes his relationship with the girl called Honey. In the light of this lack of modesty it’s hardly surprising to find the narrator in effect challenging God to a trial of strength:
‘I’m not afraid of your fury
I’ve faced stronger walls than yours’
Not only is this arrogance, but it again shows the narrator to be guilty of misjudgement since the only walls to be broken down would seem to be those erected by the narrator himself. The walls are the dictates of his own character which he too easily gives in to. Ironically what he says is true – he has faced stronger walls than God’s; his own. By adopting an inappropriate adversarial stance he’s preventing himself from being able to break through to God.
The mismatch between the appropriately self-deprecatory tone of the first verse and the bolshie tone of the third makes the narrator seems beset by a sort of madness. In fact he seems to admit that he’s mad when he says:
‘The moon is in my eye’
It seems to be a conscious madness, though – one which he could, if he so chose, do something about.
The madness seems to continue in the fourth verse. There may be a sort of perverse logic in condemning Charlotte for her scarlet clothing. Scarlet can represent evil, due to its association with the whore of Babylon. One cannot see any justification (however perverse) for his implied condemnation of Mary too, though. Mary, we’re told, ‘dresses in green’. Green, with its natural associations, ought to set her apart from whatever evil he thinks he sees in Charlotte. Her name too, that of Christ’s mother and Mary Magdalene, is perhaps a hint at the presumptuousness of associating her with evil.
There’s more irrationality. On the one hand the narrator uses prostitutes, and on the other he appears to condemn the practice. That he uses them is clear:
‘A girl named Honey
Took my money
She was passing by’
And that he condemns the practice would seem apparent from his murdering, or intending to murder, two of them and their client.
Given his relationship with Honey, it’s also utterly hypocritical of him to condemn one of the other girls as a ‘harlot’ since he doesn’t use any such pejorative term for Honey – presumably in an attempt to avoid condemning his association with her. At the very least, just as he was prepared to hoodwink God earlier, here he’s hoodwinking himself about the morality of his behaviour.
The hypocrisy apparent here is further in evidence when we consider his dealings with a character called Slim:
Who’s ever heard of him?
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud’
The implication is that Slim deserves to die because he’s having a relationship with two women simultaneously. This seems quite extraordinary given that the narrator himself appears to be two-timing. His date with the ‘fairy queen’, together with the Honey incident, would make the narrator every bit as worthy of condemnation as Slim.
Implicitly, then, his condemnation of Slim is a condemnation of himself. And it’s this which is brought out in the line ‘Who’s ever heard of him?’ It’s intended as a rhetorical question, but it has an answer. The narrator has heard of him. He’s heard of him because to all intents and purposes he is Slim. If Slim deserves to die, morally if not literally, then so does the narrator.
It may be a conscious or unconscious realisation of this which causes the narrator to deny responsibility for the Honey affair. He’s clearly prevaricating about his association with her. If it’s past midnight, it’s extremely unlikely that she was just ‘passing by’ as he somewhat gratuitously informs us. It’s far more likely that he went out of his way to procure her. Instead of admitting this, he tries to pass it off as fate – her ‘passing by’. It’s not just fate he blames, though, but her. He didn’t offer the money, he wants it to be thought; she ‘took’ it – his money, as if it wasn’t by then hers. He blames fate, and he blames Honey, but he doesn’t blame himself.
If the narrator is hoping to reform, his boastfulness, contempt, arrogance, pride, hypocrisy and general duplicity don’t make this seem likely. It’s also far from clear that he’s prepared to do what’s required to bring it about. This is suggested when we compare his words with those used about the watchman in ‘Tempest’. Whereas the latter, we’re told, ‘tried to tell someone, ‘ the narrator here declares ‘I need to tell someone’. The expressions are identical but for one crucial thing – ‘he tried‘ has replaced ‘I need‘. Whereas the watchman is making an effort – albeit in his dream – and doing so for the general good, the narrator here not only seems to bypass opportunities to do good, but seems to be concerned just for himself. Neither attitude bodes well if at least a part of him wants to achieve reconciliation with God.
A further contrast with ‘Tempest’ is apposite. Just as a character there waits for ‘time and space to intervene’, the intervention of time would seem to be a theme here too. It’s relevant to the question about whether the narrator achieves salvation. Only if there is separate past, present and future (the intervention of time) is reform possible, because reform involves change across time. The song seems to present time as a unified whole, however, which would render the required change out of the question. One of the passengers in ‘Tempest’ is Calvin, the exponent of pre-determination and, at least on one level, his spirit would seem to be present here.
The importance of time is hinted at in the title, where each of the three words is to do with it. It’s supported too by the fact that these words get repeated in the first, second, fourth and final verses as part of the refrain ‘It’s soon after midnight’. The main point being made would seem to be that time is short if the narrator is to achieve salvation. It’s noticeable that the only verses in which the refrain does not appear – the third and fifth – are the ones in which the narrator’s bravado suggests that he’s banished all thought of urgency. In the final verse, with the reappearance of the refrain, time – urgency – is back with a vengeance.
It might strike one as curious the way the wording of the title is used when it’s repeated in four of the verses:
‘It’s soon after midnight’
Strictly speaking it can’t be soon after midnight. The word ‘soon’ is future-looking, at least in the way it’s normally used. It means that something is going to happen, albeit in the near future, but nevertheless in the future. Even in an expression about the past, like ‘It was soon to happen’, we’re told the event had still to come about. To say ‘It is (it’s) soon after midnight’ is therefore contradictory. It’s what one might say on being told something is going to happen soon and, impatient for it, you rhetorically retort ‘It’s soon now‘ – meaning that the time for it to happen has already arrived. The identity of the times picked out by ‘is’ and ‘soon’ implies that the present moment both is and isn’t after midnight. Two distinct times, the present and the future, have been fused into one.
The effect of this is two-fold. First, the identification of present and future moments reinforces the urgency with which the narrator needs to act. It suggests that the non-presence of action at one time is likely to mean the non-presence of action at a later time. The current ‘now’, the present ‘now’, is the only time for action. An action put off will never be performed. On the other hand, and paradoxically given the foregoing, the fusing of present and future means it can never be too late to act, because the time for doing it never goes away no matter how late it is. Midnight might be the official cut off, but even ‘after midnight’ the deadline has not passed. On the one hand the narrator must act now, and on the other, even if he doesn’t, all is still not lost.
A comparable fusing of times occurs in the penultimate verse:
‘Two timing Slim
Who’s ever heard of him?’
A pun on ‘two timing’ suggests that, in addition to being in more than one relationship, the character exists in two times simultaneously.
It’s worth noting too the effect of the question ‘Who’s ever heard of him?’. At face value it suggests a contempt similar to that expressed by the phrase ‘you’d do’ in the line ‘I didn’t think you’d do’ in the final verse. However, it’s also significant that the very process by which the information (that no one’s heard of him) is given, is the very process which makes it no longer true. You can’t take in that you haven’t heard of someone without at the same time having heard of them. Or, to put it another way, the present having-heard-of-them has become fused with the past not-having-heard-of-them, to make the past and the present one.
A possible implication of this is perhaps that even at a time of present guilt, past innocence is still in some way the case. Equally, at a time of present innocence, past guilt is still the case. Accordingly the earlier ‘killing floors’ murders will exist in the present, and these murders will in some sense be the murder of the two girls and Slim.
Something similar is going on in the immediately preceding lines, except that it seems to be the present and the future again which are being fused
‘They chirp and they chatter
What does it matter?
They lie and die in their blood’
Clearly if people (presumably Charlotte and Mary, and possibly Slim) are actively chirping and chattering, they’re unlikely to be lying and dying in their blood. However the use of the present tense in the quoted lines makes it so. One would expect the deaths to be in the future relative to the chirping and chattering, but they’re being treated as if they’re simultaneous with it. The effect is to make what might be no more than a contemplated future murder have the importance of a murder being committed now. Even a present time of innocence can still be imbued by future guilt.
A further fusing of different times is accomplished in the final verse where there’s a renewed urgency:
‘It’s now or never
More than ever’
Literally this cannot be the case. It implies that it’s been ‘now or never’ before, yet the whole point of the expression is that it’s only applicable once. What we’re being told is that a unique ‘now’ has been in the past – and that that ‘now’ has reappeared in, while being distinct from, the present unique ‘now’. The present ‘now’ is a combination of a past moment and the current moment.
Previously when past and present were fused, it seemed possible both that past innocence could co-exist with present guilt, and that past guilt could co-exist with present innocence. The latter seems to apply again here. Since the ‘more than ever’ implies the narrator’s been in exactly the same position more than once before, and presumably rejected God at what he thought was the last opportunity for reconciliation, it seems quite likely this final rejection will simply be repeated. The opportunity – the final opportunity – will be missed. If reconciliation couldn’t be achieved before, it is not going to be achieved now. The past rejections have worked their way into the present to become the present rejection. The present is not an escape from the past.
Like in many Dylan songs, the narrator seems on one level to be a representation of human nature. Weak and desperate for support, he’s immediately capable of becoming proud, contemptuous, cruel and hypocritical. He’s fully aware of what’s required of him, and wants to satisfy the requirements, yet at the same time he’s procrastinating. Ambiguity about whether he’s just committed murder, or whether he’s still contemplating doing so, make it uncertain whether he’ll manage to redeem himself.
However even if he has succumbed to committing murder again, further ambiguity about time makes it unclear whether or not he is finally lost. This ambiguity cuts across the straightforward view of a person attempting but possibly failing to reform. Instead, ambiguity about time makes his life seem a unified whole – an interrelated whole in which the temporal parts are not wholly distinct. What has happened, is happening and will happen all acquire their natures from each other. Given this, whether the narrator is actually able to change his moral outlook is unclear, for without the usual temporal distinctions the concept of reform would appear not even to make sense. Equally, though, if the narrator is able to take decisions, the decisions he takes will be for all time – past and future. Though reform requires change across time, decisions may not. It may be oversimplifying, then, to conclude that his fate is pre-determined.
30.11.15. Modified 1.12.15