The song is about the nature of God, the relationship between man and God, and whether salvation in the sense of moral regeneration can be achieved. While the song invokes the religious concept of Christ as saviour, it nevertheless implies that moral improvement might only result from human endeavour. On one level the kings of the title represent humanity generally, and in particular those who killed Christ. On another, they are to be identified with Christ and thus humanity is able to take on the role of Christ and become responsible for its own salvation. Unusually, Christ is represented as a flawed human being as well as the traditional God, thereby extending to him the sort of uncertainty felt by Blake about whether the Creator is God or devil. It’s this presentation of Christ which makes further identities possible and underlies the implication that man could be either dependent on Christ or responsible for his own fate or salvation.
The narrator is Christ. The first three verses describe the Roman kings and the final three focus on Christ himself. There is no one temporal setting, nor any one spatial setting. The same events occur in the present day, in first century Judea, and at the beginning of the human race. And they take place in ancient Greece, Judea, Rome and modern America. This suggests that events such as Christ’s crucifixion and possible resurrection are not confined to a particular time and place. They are ongoing processes which affect everyone and for which all are responsible.
The Roman Kings As Humanity
Humanity is represented by the Roman kings and for the most part it is presented negatively. The description ‘early Roman kings’ perhaps suggests that it was with humanity alone that moral power resided before the birth of Christ, himself in some sense a king. There was apparently once a motor cycle gang with the name Roman Kings, but even if it is accepted that the Roman kings in the song behave like a gang, any connection between them and the real-life gang would seem to end there.
The Roman kings as presented in the second verse represent humanity at an embryonic stage – ‘in the early, early morn’ – with their descent of the mountain perhaps being the fall of man (an idea taken up later in the song with the fall of Detroit), or the fall of Lucifer. The kings’ negative qualities are particularly apparent in the third verse where they are described, amongst other things, as destructive, lecherous, treacherous – and conceited:
‘Each of them bigger than all men put together’
In the first verse they are presented as somewhat shallow humans with a penchant for dressing up. But they are also made to seem menacing – they wear ‘sharkskin suits’ suggesting voraciousness, and they’re ‘driving the spikes in’, which suggests cruel violence. The later focus on Christ suggests that these spikes could be the nails used in his crucifixion. At the same time as they’re driving the spikes in it seems they’re ‘nailed in their coffins’ so that their act of killing Christ can be seen as an act of moral self-destruction. By nailing themselves in their coffins they are their own undertakers, appropriately signified by their ‘top hats and tails’.
If being nailed in their coffins is to be taken as meaning they’re spiritually dead, this is supported by their ‘blazing the rails’. The phrase suggests both setting fire to the rails (to be seen as a path through life) thereby destroying lives, and – like the later phrase ‘hell bent’ – associates them with hell fire. One expects trails to be blazed, not rails, and accordingly ‘blazing the rails’ serves as a reminder of what humanity could achieve, but doesn’t. (On the other hand, ‘blazing the rails’ might be taken more positively to mean building a railway – a way through life. ‘Driving the spikes in’ would be part of the construction process.)
It’s noticeable that the descriptions at this stage are all in the present tense. Thus the kings are made to seem to be wearing their loud sharkskin suits at the same time as they’re wearing top hats and tails. The suggestion is that their trivial liking for foppery is part of their undoing. In the second verse the use of the present tense suggests timelessness – as if the acts referred to there are for all time, never starting, never completed, always ongoing. It is now ‘early, early morn’, and the kings are now coming down the mountain. It’s not just that we’re being taken back to an earlier, prelapsarian ‘now’.Rather that ‘now’ is the same ‘now’ in which there are high-top boots and ‘spikes’ – now to be taken to mean running shoes used for a race in which ‘you’ – presumably the listener – try unsuccessfully to get away from the pack as it tears down what is now a running track. Humanity timelessly continues to restrict the moral progress of its individual members as they attempt to get away from vices such as lechery and treachery which render it literally ‘hell bent’.
The Roman Kings As Divine
The song eradicates any sharp distinction between humanity and the divine, and in the case of Christ replaces it with uncertainty. In the second verse we’re given the following description of the Roman kings:
‘All the early Roman kings in the early, early morn
Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn’
Here we see the kings as Greek gods coming down from Olympus bearing wholesome gifts. That the gifts are ‘corn’ perhaps suggests they are also to be seen as a particular god – no longer Greek – Christ. Their coming down the mountain is thus Christ coming from heaven to earth, and the corn is the Eucharist, the ‘bread of life’. Other reasons to associate the kings with Christ include the kings’ being ‘nailed in their coffins’. Not only was Christ nailed to the cross but he speaks as if he’s in a coffin like them when he says:
‘My bell still rings’
In his case it’s a so-called safety coffin with a bell to alert people if he happens to have been buried alive.
In addition the kings consider themselves ‘bigger than all men put together’, a description which fits Christ.
These associations of the kings with Christ suggest that they and the humanity which they represent are themselves Christ-like. What traditionally Christ does in terms of salvation, humanity too can achieve. It’s not just that humanity is hell bent, therefore. Humanity and Christ are one.
The language used to describe the kings, while making them seem frightening, also suggests a divine status. They’re ‘blazing the rails’, they operate ‘by night’ and they’re ‘speeding through the forest’. These descriptions are reminiscent of those applied to the Creator in Blake’s ‘Tyger’. The tiger is ‘burning bright in the forests of the night’ suggesting it has both the heavenly quality of light and the hellish qualities of burning and darkness. Blake expresses uncertainty about the nature of the Creator, and the same sort of uncertainty applies to the Roman kings. The Roman kings by implication have the same ambivalent status between God and devil, or between salvation and damnation. (When the line from the ‘Tyger’ is quoted in ‘Roll On John’, ‘forests’ becomes singular – ‘forest’ – suggesting it’s the speeding Roman kings the writer has in mind even there. In ‘Tempest’ Blake is one of the passengers on the Titanic who ‘gambled in the dark’ – again suggesting uncertainty.)
It would seem that to some degree divinity does characterise the Roman kings. This is important in that it allows them to be not just the cause of wrongdoing but its cure. With respect to their own redemption they can play the role of Christ.
Uncertainty About Christ’s Divine Status
In Verse Two:
The picture Christ gives us of himself is likewise ambivalent. Traditionally held to be fully man and fully God, he seems in the second verse to be a man with no divine status or at least with doubts about it. The dramatically ironic reference to Good Friday is the first indication of this:
‘Tomorrow is Friday, we’ll see what it brings’
The horrible implication is that he has no firm idea what it will bring – his own trial and execution. This, then is Christ the man, a man without omniscience.
In Verse Four:
In the fourth verse, too, Christ appears as man and expresses uncertainty about his divine status:
‘I keep my fingers crossed, like the early Roman kings’
Since the Roman kings were described in language borrowed from Blake’s ‘Tyger’, their uncertainty would seem to be about their moral status – whether they are to be seen as evil or good, as fit for hell or salvation. In keeping his fingers crossed like them, Christ seems to be expressing doubt about his own status as God while remaining hopeful that he is.
The uncertainty continues:
‘I can dress up your wounds with a blood-clotted rag’
Although the ability to ‘dress up’ makes him seem like the Roman kings in their garish outfits, it’s pertinent that it’s wounds he dresses up and, furthermore, that it’s other people’s wounds. This alone makes him God-like, at least when compared with the Roman kings who dress up only themselves.
The line makes Christ’s possible God-like status becomes apparent in another way too. Using a blood-clotted rag for the sake of appearance would be to practise a human deceit. But if the blood clotted rag is a way of dressing our (or at least the addressee’s) wounds by the shedding of his own blood, it signifies a God-like ability to make possible our salvation. Nevertheless it remains significant that Christ says that he can ‘dress up your wounds’ and not simply that he can dress them. The doubt about his divinity remains.
The rest of the verse presents Christ as man rather than as God . It seems to be the man who is responsible for coarse language:
‘I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag’
The historical Jesus did consort with prostitutes but he is not normally represented as having sex with them or treating them so disdainfully. What’s more, he seems to be wanting some sort of recognition for his sexual prowess:
‘If you see me coming…
Wave your handkerchief in the air’
This attitude would make him have more in common with the lecherous kings than with God, although at the same time the lines could perhaps be seen as an exhortation to surrender to the will of God.
That the significance of Friday is lost on him is again suggested when he says:
‘I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings’
He speaks as if he’s in a coffin’ – and glad it’s a safety coffin. His concern may be to rise from the coffin, but there’s no sign he’s expecting to rise from the dead.
In Verse Five:
The fifth verse starts with the speaker sounding like a Roman king, a man, rather than God. Without actually threatening to take life, he announces he’s capable of doing so:
‘I can strip you of life, strip you of breath,
Ship you down to the house of death’
On the other hand, while ‘strips’ has sexual overtones reminding us of his Roman-king-like nature, at the same time it makes him an opposite of the Roman kings. Whereas they ‘dress up’ he ‘strips’.
And that he thinks he may be God becomes apparent as the verse develops:
‘One day you will ask for me,
There’ll be no one else that you’ll wanna see’
The implicit self-comparison with the emperor Nero, who famously fiddled while Rome burnt, might suggest man-like qualities:
‘Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings’
However the adoption of the ‘fiddle’ metaphor also suggests he’s about to turn the tables on Nero. Nero reputedly let Rome burn so that he could blame the Christians and so destroy them, as hinted in the third verse:
‘They destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well’
Christ’s fiddling is for the opposite purpose:
‘I’m going to break it wide open like the early Roman kings’
‘Break it wide open’ is a curiously constructed phrase. One normally breaks things up and, perhaps, leaves things wide open. It’s both positive and negative, implying both destructiveness and welcome. In destroying what the Roman kings, and particularly Nero, stand for – human egocentricity and the destruction of Christianity – Christ intends to open up a route to salvation. That at least supports the view that he sees his status as divine.
In Verse Six
The doubt about Christ’s divine status continues in the final verse. The mountain which the Roman kings descended from, godlike, is now the mountain of Christ who was timelessly present on it when Detroit fell. Viewed from outside time, it can be taken either as Calvary or heaven. If the mountain is Calvary, the suggestion is that the demise of the Roman kings- or the immorality they represent – is underway. If it is heaven, the fall of Detroit under the hand of the Roman kings can be seen as the fall of man. The picture we’re getting is of a Christ who witnesses man’s early demise and then intervenes to put matters right by way of his death on Calvary. However, it’s also the case that the fall of man and man’s redemption are being presented as two sides of the same coin. This would again suggest that man might be able to make amends for his own fall. There is no need for the divine intervention of Christ.
The verse continues:
‘Ding Dong Daddy, you’re coming up short’
Whilst ‘Daddy’ seems to make the addressee God the father, ‘Ding, dong’ seems to make it Christ’s possibly dead self in the safety coffin. The contemptuous tone now is in part the result of there seeming to be no possibility of salvation. Instead of rising from the dead, Christ sees himself as a corpse – no longer even a man – whose only hope of life is a somewhat pathetic bell. (There may also be an allusion to Blake’s Nobodaddy.)
The tone too, contemptuous and crude as well as critical, suggests it is Christ the flawed man speaking. Given the context, he’s presumably criticising his father for failing to prevent the excesses of the Roman kings in Detroit. His response, to put God on trial in a Sicilian court, suggests a viciousness which associates him with the Roman kings. And ironically what he threatens God with is in fact what the Romans do to Christ. His behaviour makes him much more man than God.
However all is not what it seems. it is in fact the case that the Christ operating here is both man and divine. His act of trying God, and the Roman kings’ act of trying him, can be taken as one and the same act. When God goes on trial, Christ will be on trial – provided Christ is God. The Mafia overtones of ‘Sicilian court’ suggest the trial of God is going to be a fix just as Christ’s trial was actually fixed. And so, by acting as a Roman king Christ brings about a trial and hence the salvation he criticises God, his father, for doing nothing about. Both the manhood and the divinity of Christ are involved in his pursuit of salvation for mankind.
The song ends:
‘I’ve had my fun, I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake ’em all down like the early Roman kings
The expression ‘shake ’em all down’ is perhaps a portmanteau expressing the concepts ‘shake things up’ and ‘send the evildoers down to hell’. Christ is renouncing the flawed ways of men and declaring his determination to stamp out immorality. But whether he expects to do this as God or man remains uncertain. The identification with the Roman kings in the second line suggests that it’s not like them so much as by way of them that he’s going to act. It remains open whether this requires him to be divine.
At the same time the use of ‘all’ in ‘shake ’em all down’ suggests it’s the Roman kings themselves who are going to hell because the focus of the song has been not just Roman kings but ‘all the early Roman kings’. This would require Christ to be acting independently and perhaps therefore as God. However the ‘all’ could equally refer to ‘all the women’ who go crazy about people they know to be disreputable. Or it could refer to the ‘all‘ who were killed when Detroit fell – the whole of humanity if Detroit’s fall is the fall of man. In these cases it remains open whether ‘Gonna shake ’em all down’ requires him to be divine.
The subject of the song seems to be man’s fall from grace, his far from perfect subsequent lifestyle, and the way in which he can return to moral perfection. The speaker is Christ, but a Christ who seems unsure about himself and of how salvation is going to come about. The temporal and spatial settings suggest that both the fall of man and the process of salvation are ongoing, which makes the role of Christ unclear. They also suggest that salvation should not be seen just as the fruit of Christ’s death two thousand years ago, but as the result of present day endeavours.
That the time and source of salvation may be more fluid than the traditional view holds is likewise suggested by the ways in which those dealt with in the song are variously identified with each other. The bird representing the Holy spirit acts ‘like the early Roman kings’. Christ behaves as they behave. God the father is also the corpse of Christ in the coffin. The Roman kings are the destroyers of both Rome and Detroit. They are pagan gods coming down the mountain, and at the same time they are Christ coming down to earth; and Christ on Calvary. They are also the listener. And crucially the listener is also Christ. If Christ is not divine, the Roman kings – the listener – will have to rely on themselves to achieve salvation. This might be possible given their own divine status. And if Christ is divine, it’s through their identity with Christ that they might achieve their own salvation. Nevertheless if Christ’s own uncertainty about his divine status is warranted, then it remains uncertain what his involvement can be in man’s salvation.