The song would seem to span the period from Jesus’ birth to just before the last judgment. At the same time it charts the attempts and failures of one person, perhaps representative of mankind, to do what is required to achieve salvation. It is both despondent and hopeful. It dwells on human weakness, but the hope of ultimate salvation is never completely lost. These two ideas, weakness and hope, are presented through the enormously rich imagery which can nearly always be taken to simultaneously represent either idea. A considerable amount of the imagery in this song occurs in the other songs on the album. While the interpretations offered here are, I think, consistent with those later occurrences, they are – in the light of those other occurrences – far from exhaustive. For that reason what follows, while indicative of the huge complexity of the song, will fall far short of a comprehensive interpretation.
Thunder on the mountain, and there’s fires on the moon
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go
Four places figure in the first two lines – the mountain, the moon, the alley and ‘here’. Although the mountain has connotations of Calvary, Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount and, possibly, Parnassus, it can more readily be taken as the mountain upon which the Norse god Thor beats with his hammer – the hammer mentioned in the final verse. The fires perhaps represent the destruction wrought by Thor’s thunder. That they are on the moon suggests that for the most part they are, like the mountain, distant, presenting no more than a threat.
The expression ‘the alley’, on the other hand, suggests closeness and familiarity. The phrase ‘a ruckus in the alley’ presents a rich picture of seediness and small-time violence, but there is no further detail to be had; nor is it required. Here the effects of Thor’s thundering are seen as much less remote, but still not yet actually ‘here’, where the sun is expected.
The word ‘sun’, in ‘and the sun will be here soon’, is ambiguous. On the one hand, because it is introduced by ‘and’ rather than ‘but’, it suggests a source of continuing misery and destruction, presumably through its intense heat. On the other, as the propagator of new life, it suggests a respite from that. As with Donne, ‘sun’ can also be read as ‘Son’- Son of God. In this way it is Jesus, and as such represents the way to a new moral life. ‘Soon’ tells us Jesus’s coming is fairly imminent and therefore an antidote to the moral destruction associated with Thor. Again there is ambiguity. It could be his first coming by which he provides the means for salvation, or the second, the last judgment — when he will punish those who ignored him first time. The sun, then, represents both love for mankind and justice – hellfire – for the wicked. It will become apparent that it is this latter interpretation which is uppermost in the narrator’s mind.
Just as the sun is capable of dual interpretation, so is the moon. The moon is associated with destruction through its fires, and is thus a symbol of evil. But normally it is not fires we see, but the reflected light of the sun – the Son/Jesus. Thus the moon can be seen to reinforce the ambivalent attitudes of the narrator in being a symbol both of evil, and of potential salvation.
The third line tells us of the narrator’s decision to act, and to do so in a way that comes naturally to him. He needs to act fast – ‘today’, ‘grab’- or it will be too late because Jesus will already have returned. Notice that he expresses himself in the future tense – ‘gonna’ – rather than the present; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That this action involves playing music, indicates that the narrator has something in common with Dylan himself. The reason he gives for his action is ‘there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go’. ‘Hot stuff’ seems to take up the idea represented by ‘fires on the moon’, namely moral destruction. ‘Everywhere’ suggests the omnipresence of evil. (The line is reminiscent of Mephistopheles’s wishfully thought ‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it’.) ‘Hot stuff’ also suggests sexual temptation and so looks forward to the Alicia Keys reference in the next verse.
I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee
There is ambiguity in the Keys reference. The ‘hot stuff’ is supposed to be everywhere the narrator goes. However he cannot find Keys, which may indicate that she represents something other than, and in addition to, omnipresent moral degredation. She was once associated with it – she was born in Hell’s Kitchen – but subsequently took up a career in music. Perhaps this has been her saving grace in the way that the narrator hopes the trombone will be his.
Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you’re trying to run me away
The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say
The beginning of verse three can again be taken in two ways. The narrator’s soul is ‘expanding’, we are told. On the one hand this has connotations of expansiveness in the sense of generosity. However things expand when they get hot, so we can gather from this implicit reference to hell fire, that the narrator has not totally freed himself from evil ways. The ‘you’ may well be God (or Jesus). If so God will ‘sort of understand’ – understand the narrator’s attempts to be generous, perhaps, but not his failure to commit himself wholeheartedly to good. It is God who the narrator then accuses of inconsistent behaviour in bringing him here and running him away. ‘You brought me here’ can be taken as meaning God was responsible for his birth, or his being in the ‘here’ of the alley and the ruckus. What the narrator seems perplexed about is that God, in the narrator’s view, is ‘trying to run me away’ – bring about his death.
On the surface, then, this seems to be an expression of bewilderment about the human condition (cf ‘We live and we die / we know not why’ in When the Deal Goes Down). But it can also be seen as the narrator disingenuously blaming God for his moral death in the sense of his own moral failings. The narrator blames God, rather than himself, for the writing being on the wall – that is, for the inevitability of his demise. ‘The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say’ – throughout Modern Times things which are said, rather than seen, are not to be trusted or believed. Here, the poet hints, we should not believe – as the narrator does – in the inevitability of human moral failure. The narrator is seeing God/Jesus as the cause of his evil propensities and not as a means of overcoming them – the sun as burning heat, rather than as the propagator of life; as punisher rather than as saviour.
Thunder on the mountain, rollin’ like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music coming from
I don’t need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day
The fourth verse has the thunder of the song’s opening line ‘rollin’ like a drum’. The drum can be taken as a symbol of base, savage instincts – the association is with war and, closer at hand, the impetus to get involved in a ‘ruckus’. ‘Rollin’’, an image which recurs in the song and constantly throughout the album, suggests movement or the attempt of Thor to reach the narrator. It succeeds too well; the narrator is seduced and decides to go to Thor – ‘sleep over there’. Sleep – another constantly recurring image – suggests lifelessness, inactivity, being one step away from death. (cf. ‘Sleep is like a temporary death’ in Workingman’s Blues.) The narrator has opted for Thor, or moral death, rather than Jesus. The trombone has been replaced by the drum.
The claim that he doesn’t need a guide is on one level ironic since he has chosen the wrong path. He doesn’t ‘know the way’, if this is taken as the Way (as in ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’). The ‘I’m your servant both night and day’ of the verse’s final line seems to be a declaration of allegiance to Thor. However, it too contains irony. Earlier, day was associated with the sun – Jesus. This indicates an ambivalence in the narrator’s disposition, with more potential for following Jesus than he thinks.
The pistols are poppin’ and the power is down
I’d like to try somethin’ but I’m so far from town
The sun keeps shinin’ and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need
The context is still local violence (the lighthearted ‘poppin’’ of the pistols reminiscent of the lighthearted ‘root-a-toot-toot’ in the traditional, but tragic, Frankie and Albert). The ‘power is down’, indicates on one level a power cut resulting from the violence, and on another the presence of a god (cf. ‘prayin’ to the powers above’ in Spirit on the Water) – though it is ambiguous whether this is Thor or Jesus. It is up to the narrator to decide which he wants to it to be.
Time has moved on because the sun, which was expected, is now present. We have perhaps moved from the time between the Fall and the birth of Jesus to the present day. The dual influence of Jesus and Thor is reasserted by ‘the sun keeps shinin’’ and ‘the North Wind keeps pickin’ up speed’. The reference to the North Wind reminds us of the narrator’s earlier decision to ‘grab my trombone and blow’. This indicates that he has decided to give his allegiance to Thor. However, that the narrator is not beyond hope is indicated by the fourth line’s self-abnegation and concern for others.
I’ve been sittin’ down studyin’ the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today
Clearly then, the battle for the narrator’s soul has yet to be won. Nevertheless, his commitment to ‘the art of love’ – Christian love – rings hollow, as is indicated by the awkward scansion of his mindless cliché ‘I think it will fit me like a glove’. He is more concerned with loving women than loving his neighbour. Just as Alicia Keys represents both moral worth and degradation, so love can be both Christian and hedonistic. His attitude to women seems chauvinistic. It is selfishness, or chauvinism, which, ironically, is what is actually ‘the matter with this cruel world today’, if only the narrator realised it. In these lines we are getting an impression of a flawed character – of someone prepared to act according to the dictates of Christianity, but failing to see what that involves.
The word ‘today’ which closes the verse adds to the irony. It reminds us that it was on an earlier today (‘today’s the day’) that the narrator had decided to take a more positive approach. The word ‘say’, in ‘do just what I say’, is also important in that it again indicates that the narrator’s view is not to be trusted – as is borne out by his complacency about love, his chauvinism, and his inability to understand his own responsibility for the world’s problems.
Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing
We are now told that the thunder is ‘rollin’ to the ground’ – meaning perhaps that it, or Thor, is getting near. In fact, if he has carried out his decision to ‘sleep over there’, the narrator has approached it. Nevertheless, the narrator will ‘get up in the morning’; he is determined now to be active and no longer morally and spiritually asleep. The ‘hard road’ is the morally good life, and the king, to whom it leads, is the king of heaven. He is going to walk the ‘hard road down. The ‘down’ is ambiguous, suggesting an ambivalent outlook. It associates his action with both Jesus and Thor by way of ‘the power’ which is also ‘down’. It could refer to Jesus having come down from heaven, or to the thunder ‘rolling to the ground’. It is apparent, then, that the narrator’s new outlook remains fragile. This is further emphasised when he says ‘I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing’, thus indicating his failure to recognise that all betrayal is a betrayal of Jesus’ love.
Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman’s church, said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows
By the eighth verse the positive outlook has been all but destroyed. The narrator throws in his lot with the ideal of war. And he intends not just to raise an army, but ‘raise me an army’, the egotistic ‘me’ showing he has drawn back from the Christian selflessness of the sixth verse. This egotism is further made apparent in the ‘my’ of ‘my army’. His earlier chauvinistic attitude to women is reinforced by his reference to them as ‘bitches’, this callousness being made all the more apparent by the fact that, from the reference to orphanages, we can tell they must be dead. The economy of the writing does not allow us to be told the manner of their deaths, but it seems unsurprising in the context of the war-like goings on that the narrator now espouses.
The use of ‘sons’ – reminding us of the Son – for the orphan soldiers is, however, a further reminder that spiritually all may not be lost. Indeed in the next line the narrator claims to be behaving as a Christian by attending church. Nevertheless, we are told that he ‘said’ his religious vows, not ‘made’ them as normal English requires; the choice of ‘said’ indicating untrustworthiness or insincerity. The milk of the final line may well symbolise wholesomeness, physical and moral, but the exaggerated claim to have ‘sucked the milk out of a thousand cows’ again shows that he cannot be trusted. The narrator’s choice of the phrase ‘sucked the milk out of’ is telling in that it carries decidedly unwholesome overtones of violence reminiscent of the structurally similar ‘beat the cr*p out of’.
I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain’t no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams
The ninth verse seems to begin with the aftermath of a dispute. Time has moved on again for the ‘good woman’ has been acquired. However she has apparently, in the face of the narrator’s chauvinism, achieved a measure of equality. The narrator admits ‘I got the porkchops, she got the pie’. That equality extends to the narrator’s judgement of himself and her – ‘She ain’t no angel and neither am I’. However this acceptance of male/female equality lasts no further than the end of the line. Now the woman is accused of greed, hypocritically in the circumstances. The narrator’s mind then apparently transforms this greed into ‘wicked schemes’, which he presumably sees as directed against himself. In making this unaccountable transformation, the narrator reconfirms himself in his chauvinistic ways.
Further unintentional self-condemnation on the narrator’s part comes with his dismissive attitude towards the woman’s dreams. That ‘dreams’ is the word used for her aspirations is significant since it has positive connotations (as opposed to, say, ‘nightmares’), and in that it therefore represents a bridging of the day/night divide. By dreaming, she is turning the wrongdoing represented by night, when dreams occur, into a desire for good. It is this desire for good that the narrator admits to not caring about.
Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down
We then see a change of attitude to the thunder. The thunder is no longer an attraction but ‘a mean old twister’. The narrator claims to feel betrayed because punishment (at the last judgement perhaps) is about to be inflicted on him. Women are now respectfully called ‘ladies’, showing an abatement of his chauvinism, and that he is not beyond redemption. However, true to his egoistic outlook, the narrator initially sees the wrath of the god as bearing down on him alone. Then, true to his chauvinistic outlook, he sees only women – not men – fleeing the god’s fury.
The advice to ‘roll your airplane down’ would seem to be self-directed. Previously the thunder had rolled – ‘like a drum’ and ‘to the ground’. And the ‘power’ was ‘down’, so in rolling the plane down the narrator is throwing in his lot with the god. The ambiguity about whether the god is Thor or Jesus is resolved here. Since he has dismissed Thor as a ‘mean old twister’, we can assume that it is Jesus whom he is now espousing, in an attempt to escape his wrath.
Everybody going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again
The penultimate verse begins with an admittance that the fleeing is not just confined to the women – ‘Everybody going’. The narrator’s selfishness reappears in the ‘I want’ and ‘Don’t wanna’, of the first two lines. Fear of retribution has caused the narrator to follow the crowd and adopt a Christian outlook. He does it because it is expedient. To do otherwise would be taking an unnecessary ‘chance’. His insincerity, or self-delusion, comes out when he says ‘I did all I could, I did it right there and then’ – a ludicrous claim to righteousness. A Christian life requires more than a one-off good act. Equally absurd is his ‘no need to confess again’, a futile attempt to convince himself that he is morally upright.
Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer’s on the table, the pitchfork’s on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself
The song ends, on one level, with the narrator seeming to commit himself to Thor (or Mammon) rather than Jesus. In going ‘up north’ – origin of the wind associated with Thor – he turns his back on Christianity. He has no intention of doing the harvesting he announces he is going to do – ‘harvest’ having associations with bringing souls to Jesus. This is clear from the pitchfork being ‘on the shelf’ – out of reach. What is in reach is the hammer, Thor’s hammer. Nevertheless the hammer, symbol of Thor, and perhaps (via gavel) of judgment, is ‘on the table’. There is still a chance the narrator will decide to reject the opportunity to take it up. As such, it need not represent the narrator’s final rejection of a Christian life.
Overall, then, the song is in part a representation of the complexity of human nature. The only character, the narrator, is realistically three dimensional. He is neither all-good, nor all evil. He tries to do what he considers right, but does so for the wrong reason. He deceives himself into believing that his motives are the right ones, and he has no appreciation of his own failings or their impact on others. He gives in to temptation, he is chauvinistic and hypocritical. However, the song is also about the possibility of salvation for the human race, as represented by the narrator. No matter how much he seems to have rejected a morally good life, the hope of salvation is never completely lost.