A false prophet is a person who falsely claims to speak for God and who does so for evil ends. The narrator here repeatedly denies being a false prophet yet the title suggests the denial itself is false. Since an extraordinary amount of what the narrator says is open to more than one interpretation, it would be foolish to come down on one side or the other. In any case even attempting to do so might be to miss the point. Instead I will argue that the song shows good and evil to be inextricably combined, so that the narrator both is and is not a false prophet, and that this is something the narrator only gradually, and imperfectly, comes to realise.
The issue, then, is not whether the narrator is good or evil. Rather, I suggest, it is about the roles of good and evil in our lives. The suggestion is that evil cannot be overcome by good because good and evil are aspects of a single reality. Accordingly, sides of the narrator representing good and evil are shown to be engaged in an apparently irresolvable conflict. While the conflict is shown to be internal to the narrator, and by implication to each of us, it is also presented as political. Thus ‘strife’ – the hopeless attempt of good to overcome evil – is shown to be a permanent condition both of the individual and of society.
This piece comprises five main parts divided up as follows:
I The Narrator
II The Guides
III Macbeth (i Gender, ii Ghostliness, iii Three,)
IV The Victims (i Vengeance ii Head And Heart, iii Political)
V Good And Evil (i Garden Of Eden, ii Wilderness, iii Search
. for Perfection, iv Eternity,)
There are at least three reasons for supposing that the narrator is to be identified with the narrator of I Contain Multitudes. The matter is important since there are reasons for taking the narrator there to be both the speaker and the person being addressed – and that these are respectively male and female aspects of his character. If this is so, it supports the view that there are two such aspects to the narrator’s character in False Prophet and that likewise, one or other will be addressing its counterpart.
The first reason for seeing the narrators as identical is that both are presented as having an attitude towards nakedness. In I Contain Multitudes the narrator says:
‘… I paint nudes’
and in False Prophet the narrator dismisses his supposed inferiors with:
”Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold’ (v.4)
Similarly, in both songs attitudes are expressed to victuals. While in I Contain Multitudes the speaker proudly announces he’ll ‘eat fast foods’ and speaks favourably about drinking a toast, in False Prophet the speaker disparages both food and drink:
‘Don’t care what I drink – don’t care what I eat’ (v.6)
That the narrators are the same is further supported by the fact that each claims a similarity to Indiana Jones. In I Contain Multitudes the narrator says:
‘I’m just like Anne Frank – like Indiana Jones’
and in False Prophet he says:
‘I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail’ (v.6)
– such a search being undertaken by Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.
The point is not that the above similarities show that there’s definitely only the one narrator, but that they show there might be.
II The Guides
Initially the narrator’s remark about his guides ‘from the underworld’:
‘No stars in the sky shine brighter than you’ (v.2),
might suggest they’re a positive influence, brightness suggesting light. However, light also characterised Satan before his fall. The guides, it would appear, are good but with at least an inherent capacity for evil. Furthermore, while ‘the underworld’ as the abode of the dead is neutral between good and evil, it has evil connotations when it’s taken to mean the world of criminality. Again, the guides’ brightness seems balanced by a capacity for evil.
While the guides might be taken to represent good and evil, we need to know how this relates to their role as guides. I suggest that what enables them to perform this role is their closeness to each other. There are two ways in which this closeness becomes apparent. First, there’s no hint that they operate independently of each other. And secondly, the closeness is suggested by their names. Their names are derived from two songs, Hello Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, which were released as two sides of the same record. In this respect Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, like the songs, are a unity. They are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. They cannot exist apart. And since they represent good and evil, their guidance amounts to encouraging the narrator to see that good and evil cannot exist apart.
Given the cheery way he greets the guides:
‘Hello Mary Lou – Hello Miss Pearl’ (v.2),
one would expect the narrator to go along with their guidance. However, rather than do so, it would seem (as will be argued for below) that in his own case he refuses to accept that evil will always accompany good. Rather than accompany his guides, he’ll remain solitary – going:
‘… where only the lonely can go’ (v. 3),
in his determination to conquer evil.1
I’m suggesting that the lesson the narrator ought to be taking from the guides is that he is a combination of good and evil. That good and evil cannot be separated has its counterpart in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth to which the song alludes in a number of ways. What the song draws from the play will be considered below.
In the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can be seen as two components of what in real life would be a single character. At different points they each exhibit a cruelty they associate with masculinity and a kindness (or naturalness) they associate with femininity. When Macbeth declines to enter into his wife’s plot to kill the king, she criticises him for his lack of masculinity – ‘… when you durst do it, then you were a man‘. In return Macbeth acknowledges her as having an ‘undaunted mettle [that] should compose nothing but males‘. Further, in the play masculinity is shown to be latent in Macbeth, and femininity latent in Lady Macbeth.
In the song the narrator too is presented as having both masculine and feminine qualities, just as he is in I Contain Multitudes (which one would expect, given their apparent identity). He’s showing kindness, which Lady Macbeth associates with femininity, when he says:
‘I opened my heart to the world …’ (v.1),
and displays cruelty, which Lady Macbeth would consider a masculine trait, when for example he dismisses those he considers his inferiors:
‘.. you can bury the rest
Bury ’em naked …
Put ’em six feet under …’ (v.4)
Given the move from the past to the present tense in the two quotations, the narrator – like Macbeth – seems to move from kindness to a latent cruelty. Like his guides, he has an inherent capacity for evil.
At the end of the song the narrator declares:
‘I’m nobody’s bride’ (v. 10)
Since only a female can be a bride, this too implies that he sees his qualities are essentially female. In denying he’s a bride, he’s not denying his femininity but claiming to have put a healthy distance between himself and his supposedly masculine qualities. His kind femine side, he’s ceclaring, is not married to his evil masculine side.
Other things the narrator says allude to the play more directly. There are, for example, two lines which reinforce the idea of a similarity between the narrator and Lady Macbeth. The first:
‘What are you lookin’ at – there’s nothing to see’ (v.5)
echoes Lady Macbeth’s reaction to Macbeth’s horror on seeing the ghost of the man he’s just had murdered.
If, as I’ve suggested, there is both an evil male and a good female aspect to the narrator, then here we have the former addressing the latter. From the quotation, one can imagine the female aspect, like Macbeth, is staring into space appalled having just been confronted with the previously unrealised fact of his cruel, masculine nature.
The second line which reinforces the similarity between the narrator and Lady Macbeth:
‘Put out your hand – there’s nothin’ to hold’ (v.8)
is reminiscent of a scene in which Macbeth tries to grasp a non-existent dagger leading him to his intended victim. The ghostly dagger represents Macbeth’s as yet unrealised potential for evil.
In each case, what the narrator is becoming aware of – but dimly, as if it’s a ghost – is the cruel, male aspect of himself. He’s so appalled, that later on he denies that this part of him represents his true nature:
‘I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain’t no false prophet …’ (v.7)
A third way in which the song echoes Macbeth is in its constant allusion to the number three. In Macbeth the number is associated with evil. There are three witches, and the number three repeatedly occurs in their chants. In the song, allusions involving the number three suggest that underlying the narrator’s goodness is a capacity for evil. The allusions thus help reinforce the idea that good cannot be separated from evil.
Three is associated with the narrator’s good, female aspect. To the extent that he’s female he combines with the two female guides – Mary Lou and Miss Pearl – to form a Holy Trinity. At the same time, in resembling the three witches, they form an unholy trinity.
The association of the number three with the entanglement of good and evil is again evident when the narrator proudly announces:
‘I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life’ (v. 3)
On the one hand it’s clearly good to oppose these three things. On the other, the three-fold focus is on something negative – being an enemy. Enemies by their nature are associated with hatred and derision.
The three things the narrator opposes, when taken together, not only reinforce the idea that he’s a combination of good and evil, as just shown, but make clear his predicament. His avowal that he’s the enemy of ‘treason’, ‘strife’ and the ‘unlived meaningless life’, while demonstrating good intentions, is impossible to put into practice. There will be circumstances in which the first two inevitably clash with the third. A lived and meaningful life, for example, might require him to oppose a tyrant, thus committing treason. However good his intentions, he will be forced into doing a wrong. And if ‘strife’ refers to his inner conflict in attempting the impossible, getting his good side to eclipse the bad, then strife will be permanent.
‘I ain’t no false prophet’ (vs 3, 7, 10)
occurs three times throughout the song. To deny something three times makes the narrator comparable with Peter when he denied knowing Christ three times before the latter’s arrest. Thus if Peter was a combination of saintliness and weakness, so perhaps is the narrator.
As shown earlier, the narrator utters the phrase ‘I ain’t no false prophet’ in verse seven to deny that his ghostly, cruel aspect represents his true nature. He cannot bear to think that any cruelty isn’t mitigated by goodness.
And as just shown, in verse three after saying:
‘I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life’ (v. 3)
the narrator also uses the phrase, in effect to show that he’s better than he can possibly be.
The third and final occurrence of the denial that he’s a false prophet, in verse ten, follows the lines:
‘You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile – something’s got to give’ (v 10)
The narrator recognises that when his kind, female aspect greets with a smile his unkind, male aspect, the latter must give way if he’s to count as good. But it can’t give way if the narrator is to remain a complete human being.
The number three is present once more when the narrator declares:
‘I’m first among equals – second to none
I’m last of the best’ (or ‘blest’) (v. 4)
Again on the surface this speaks favourably for the narrator. First, second and last – and yet all equal; he could be being presented as the three members of the Holy Trinity.
Since the narrator is ‘first’ and ‘last’, this would seem to make Christ’s saying ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’ (Matt 20) apply to the narrator. It’s good to have the humility to be last and be raised to become first – and so the narrator is saying he does. But it’s bad to have the arrogance to put yourself first and then be reduced to being last – and that’s the narrator’s position as well. The positive in him is counteracted by the negative.
Evil, it would seem, always accompanies good. And the upshot of this is that however much the narrator might strive to replace the evil in his nature with good, he is destined to fail.
So far, I’ve suggested that the narrator prefers to associate himself with the supposedly feminine qualities associated with Macbeth rather than the masculine ones of Lady Macbeth. I’ve also suggested that the song shows that to expect someone to be wholly good is to expect too much. Good and evil are inextricably mixed. Sometimes, though, it’s not just that evil inevitably accompanies good, but that it takes the place of good. The narrator’s character suffers either from a bias towards evil or from a hopelessly one-sided outlook. That this is so will be apparent from a consideration of the narrator’s victims.
In the song the narrator openly declares he’s:
‘… here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head’ (v7)2
The announcement is stark and would seem to suggest that in this case his cruel, masculine aspect is in control. There’s little to justify vengeance beyond, perhaps, an appeal to the Old Testament God.
That this vengeance is to take the form of murder is lent some support by the narrator’s boast that he’s:
‘… second to none’ (v4),
for this same phrase is used in Murder Most Foul to characterise an act of assassination.
That he and the guides are intent on murder is also apparent from the line:
‘You girls mean business and I do too’ (v2),
the word ‘business’ anticipating another phrase from Murder Most Foul:
‘Business is business and it’s murder most foul’
And if there were any doubt about the narrator’s murderous intent, the ‘I do too’ will serve to allay it.
The implication is that, for all his leanings towards kindness and his attempts to lead a worthwhile life, the narrator sometimes gives in to his cruel, masculine side.
ii Head and Heart
There’s a further reason for seeing the narrator’s attitude to vengeance as demonstrating the cruel, masculine side of his character.
His aim, he announces in verse seven, is to:
… bring vengeance on somebody’s head‘ (v7)
While the expression is colloquial, in context it alludes to the opposition between ‘head and heart’ – or thought and emotion. It suggests that the narrator, or an aspect of him, is opposed to thought.
That rather than siding with thought he sides with the emotions, or heart, is apparent from his saying:
‘I opened my heart to the world’ (v.1)
In verse seven, then, the emotional – in this case vengeful – part of him wants to destroy the head, the part associated with intelligence. It wants raw emotion to succeed over thought.
As if to reinforce the narrator’s opposition to thought, his focus tends to be away from the head towards the feet. Thus his guides are:
he wants people buried:
‘six feet under’,
and he boasts of his ability to climb a mountain of swords on his:
If the narrator’s emotional, in this case vengeful, aspect is bent on subjugating the more intelligent, supposedly male part of himself, then there’s a lack of balance. A purely, or predominantly, emotional outlook is not always appropriate.
The song need not just be taken as concerning a battle between different aspects of an individual. It can be interpreted on a vaster political level.
The ‘goodbye’ in the narrator’s greeting to a stranger:
‘Hello stranger – Hello and goodbye’ (v. 9)
has an ominous ring, perhaps suggesting that the stranger is going to be eliminated as a threat. It’s the immediately following line which, if taken literally, suggests that the context is now political:
‘You rule the land but so do I’ (v. 9)
The stranger, it would seem, is a political rival – but won’t be for long.
The lines which follow suggest that in addition to being a rival in the traditional sense, the victim represents a class:
‘You lusty old mule – you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain’
Since a mule is a hardworking, useful animal, it can perhaps be taken as representing workers generally – Marx’ proletariat. It’s brain has been poisoned – perhaps by religion, the ‘opium of the masses’ – so that it’s too trusting and accepting of its lot.
The second line’s ‘ball and chain’ is reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto’s appeal to the world’s workers to unite – ‘You have nothing to lose but your chains!’ On this view, the narrator represents the ruling class’ determination to keep the proletariat subjugated. In this way he’s setting himself up against ‘Mister Marx with his axe’ in the next song, My Own Version Of You – the axe being the way of cutting through the chains.
Whatever the claims of the working class, it’s obviously inappropriate to see class conflict purely from the perspective of just one class. Once again the narrator seems inappropriately one-sided in.
V Good And Evil
i Garden of Eden
While the word ‘it’ in:
‘I know how it happened – I saw it begin’ (v.1)
is ambiguous, one thing it could refer to is the fall – either of Satan or of man, because in each case the fall was the beginning of evil and misery. That might mean we should see the narrator as God or Satan (i.e. with Godly or Satanic properties) since both were witnesses to the fall. If he is both, then he combines good and evil.
That the ‘it’ refers to the fall of man, and that the narrator is both God and Satan, would be supported by the invitation to:
‘… walk in the garden – so far and so wide’ (v.5),
– assuming that the garden is the garden of Eden. That the narrator at this point is God is indicated by the similarity of the language here to that used in the bible:
‘And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day’ (Gen. 3,8 – italics in source).
In the song too it’s ‘the cool of the day’ insofar as the narrator feels ‘a cool breeze encircling’ him.
That the garden is ‘wide’ associates it with the world (as in ‘world wide’) and thus suggests that the concern of the song is good and evil in the world.
We cannot assume that the narrator is just being presented as God, though. The narrator’s earlier references to knowledge in the phrases:
‘I know how it happened’
‘I know what I know’
suggest that he is Adam or Eve. This is because it was their acquiring forbidden knowledge that brought about the fall.
The knowledge was of good and evil. Having acquired both, Adam and Eve are lumbered with both – as are mankind whom they represent. In other words, any attempt by the narrator to return to a prelapsarian state of perfect goodness will be thwarted because there is no such thing any more. Perfect good only exists when there is no knowledge of evil. It’s as if good and evil are two aspects of a single reality which can no more exist independently of each other than left and right can exist independently of each other.
Evidence that the narrator comprises both good and evil occurs again when the narrator, having bribed a victim with gold, apparently offers the City of God:
‘Oh you poor Devil – look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill’
On the one hand, if the phrase ‘Oh you poor Devil’ is taken literally to mean ‘Oh you poor sinner’, the lines could be a genuine attempt to convert the addressee – the cruel, male aspect of the narrator – to God.
On the other, however, they’re also reminiscent of Satan’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness when Jesus is offered all the kingdom’s of the world. The victim is offered a heavenly existence – the City of God.
iii The Search For Perfection
The song opens on a note of despondency:
‘Another day without that don’t end – another ship going out
Another day of anger, bitterness and doubt’ (v.1)
The phrase ‘another ship going out’ might be a metaphor for the days just alluded to. The narrator seems to think the ships might as well not go out and there might as well be no more days. He seems inert, as if he’s incapable of finding value in anything. He can’t make things happen, he just watches on.3 Since he later declares he’s previously been active:
‘I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail’ (v.6),
the despondency seems to be new. The search was for an unachievable perfection represented by the Holy Grail, but he’s stopped searching now and is just passively hoping perfection – the triumph of good over evil within himself – will come about of its own accord:
‘… something’s got to give’ (v. 10)
Although he’s unaware of it, his outlook has developed, however. While he doesn’t consciously accept that perfection is unachievable, his thoughts show a development in that direction. Whereas once he dismissed the imperfect out of hand:
‘Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold’ (v. 4)
by the end of the song he’s prepared to compromise with evil:
‘Open your mouth – I’ll stuff it with gold’ (v.8)
Like Aneurin Bevan he’ll use gold, for which he showed contempt in verse four, to mitigate a worse harm.4 He’ll at least no longer be plaged by an unfulfillable desire to eliminate one half of himself.
The wording of the opening line:
‘Another day without [or ‘that don’t’] end …’ (v.1)
suggests that events need not be viewed just from a temporal perspective. It’s not just that the day doesn’t end, if the line is interpreted literally, but that there have been other such unending days before. A series of unending days requires that they overlap, or else each succeeding day would put an end to the immediately preceding one. Thus the days which occur do so outside of time. There’s no sense in which they precede or succeed other unending days. In this sense they are eternal.
From the narrator’s position in time, though, the eternal is inaccessible. Misery, in the form of ‘anger, bitterness and doubt’ (v. 1), as well as ‘treason’, ‘strife’ and the ‘the unlived, meaningless life’ (v. 3), will continue. Nevertheless, while his despondency is still present in the last line of the song:
‘Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died’ (v. 10),
there may still be hope. I suggested above that this might be a matter of accepting that perfection is impossible. The further suggestion now is that this applies only in the temporal world. It would seem that the narrator ‘s life can also be viewed from an eternal perspective since in order to be able to remember one’s birth and death, one would have to exist outside time. From that perspective there’s a possibility that evil and suffering need not be permanent.
Nevertheless, despite this intimation of eternity, the memory lapses referred to in the quoted line suggest that the narrator continues to remain in the temporal world with all its imperfections. He doesn’t have, or perhaps doesn’t yet have, eternal life.
On this interpretation, the concern isn’t whether or not the narrator is some mysterious evil figure – a biblical false prophet – out to delude humanity. Insofar as the narrator might be such an evil figure, doubt is cast on his existence. There’s ‘nothing to see’. In any case, it’s doubtful whether we could recognise him as a false prophet, it being in the nature of false prophets to hide their falsity.
Instead, I’ve suggested,the song concerns how far it’s reasonable to expect good to overcome evil in normal life. The answer would appear to be that it isn’t. It’s not just that the narrator appears to be a mixture of good and evil, but that there’s doubt as to whether the concepts good and evil can ever be accurately applied independently of one another. To be ‘the enemy of treason’ seems fine until one is confronted with a tyrant. And even stuffing one’s opponent’s mouth with gold might be acceptable if it’s done for a laudable reason. Aneurin Bevan thought it was. Rather, while good and evil can be distinguished, they seem inextricably combined so that neither can exist without the other.
Rather than being characterisable outright as good or evil, the narrator can be seen as hosting a continual battle between traits pulling him towards one or the other. He recognises that the two have to go together (‘I sing songs of love – I sing songs of betrayal’), but also can’t accept their co-existence (‘… something’s got to give’). He’s thus in an impossible position, striving for an absolute good which can’t be achieved, at least in the temporal world. However, by the end of the song the narrator seems at least unconsciously to have accepted the need for a compromise between good and evil. The song ends as it began with a suggestion of an eternity (that is, the world understood in a non-temporal way) in which the apparently unending miseries and moral inconsistencies of temporal existence are capable of resolution.
- Only The Lonely: a characteristic of Rough and Rowdy Ways is to give song titles meanings they didn’t originally have. Just as Hello Mary Lou and Miss Pearl are song titles, so is Only The Lonely the title of a Roy Orbison song.
- There’s may be another echo of Macbeth, and perhaps also the Merchant Of Venice, in the phrase ‘another ship going out’ (v 1). The phrase can be seen as relating to the narrator’s desire for vengeance. In Macbeth vengeance tends to take the form of murder. The witches plot revenge on a woman by sinking the ship of her innocent husband and Macbeth gets revenge on Macduff by having Macduff’s wife and children murdered. In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is waiting for one of his ships to return so that he can repay a loan to Shylock. If it doesn’t, Shylock will get his revenge by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
- In Murder Most Foul someone says “Son, the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.” It hasn’t. Every age is the age of the anti-Christ, if the anti-Christ is interpreted as the propensity for evil in all of us, so it can’t have just begun with the murder of Kennedy. And there’s evil, not because the age of the anti-Christ has just begun of its own accord, but because every age has its people who bring evil about.
- In 1948 Ernest Bevan explained how he was able to bring about the National Health Service in Britain despite opposition from doctors out to protect their lucrative private contracts. His did it by buying them off or, as he put it, ‘by stuffing the doctors’ mouths with gold.’