Shakespeare in the Alley

Show nine--quintessence





Following up on the myths in show eight, this show explores other songs which convey Dylan’s quest for the eternal rather than the temporal. It builds not only on show eight but also show seven in about “Visions of Johanna,” moving on to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” "When I Paint My Masterpiece," et al.





Welcome back, gentle listeners.  Last week I discussed Dylan’s debunking of false myths: the false myth of “True Love,” the false myth of American Righteousness, and the false myth of White Superiority.   This week I want to turn to the true myths, or at least to spiritual quest for transcendent reality which can be expressed only through poetry and myth.   As I have stressed all throughout this series, Dylan’s songs were never  really as political as they were spiritual.   Many of the early listeners were intent on the political implications of his early songs, for there are always political implications to spiritual truths, but Dylan’s concerns were always  more with the timeless than the topical.  His Christian period, which distressed some of his fans, should not have been such a surprise since his concern with the eternal shows up even early in his work.  Here’s an example from the 1963 album The Times They are A-changin’:



               Oh the foes will rise

               With the sleep still in their eyes

               And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.

               But they'll pinch themselves and squeal

               And know that it's for real,

               The hour when the ship comes in.


               Then they'll raise their hands,

               Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,

               But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.

               And like Pharaoh's tribe,

               They'll be drownded in the tide,

               And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.


At the time it appeared that Dylan was using religious references to make political points, but it gradually became clear to Dylan, and later to those listening carefully, that it was the other way around.  There is at least one book devoted to Dylan’s use of the Bible, but his reworking of Christ’s language, even when acknowledged in 1963, was seen too narrowly:


               The line it is drawn

               The curse it is cast

               The slow one now

               Will later be fast

               As the present now

               Will later be past

               The order is

               Rapidly fadin'.

               And the first one now

               Will later be last

               For the times they are a-changin'.


The hypocrisy of both politics and religion was rejected by Dylan in his early folk period.  Another Side of BD, the 1964 album which announces the coming of something different,  makes clear his rejection.  In “My Back Pages” he links the phoniness of the popular love songs which promote the “True Love” myth to the phoniness of politics and religion:



               Girls' faces formed the forward path

               From phony jealousy

               To memorizing politics

               Of ancient history

               Flung down by corpse evangelists

               Unthought of, though, somehow.

               Ah, but I was so much older then,

               I'm younger than that now.


The path leads form phony jealousy over girls (as in the Everly Brothers song “Cathy’s Clown”) to memorized politics of ancient history which is somehow flung down by corpse evangelists, all accepted without thinking.  Dylan pointed the way from such older attitudes to one that was new, young, fresh—and yet really eternal.




The seeds of the eternal, the beginning of the quest for salvation, his word in a 1965 interview, are there in the early folk period, but it is only after Dylan has gotten past imitating the forms of folks songs, borrowing tunes and motifs, that he begins to seriously address the eternal issues directly.  His early period, for all its so-called protest, is basically affirmative in tone.  He has to enter into his Everlasting Nay period in order to free himself to seek that which is above and beyond all the prizes of this world.  He has to rejection everything before he can choose what to accept.   It is only after he has stumbled over twelve misty mountain in the hard rain that he can then bring it all back home in 1965, fusing together traditional folk forms with surrealistic lyrics which break open all the restrictions others sought to impose:




               The kingdoms of Experience

               In the precious wind they rot

               While paupers change possessions

               Each one wishing for what the other has got

               And the princess and the prince

               Discuss what's real and what is not

               It doesn't matter inside the Gates of Eden


               The foreign sun, it squints upon

               A bed that is never mine

               As friends and other strangers

               From their fates try to resign

               Leaving men wholly, totally free

               To do anything they wish to do but die

               And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden


               At dawn my lover comes to me

               And tells me of her dreams

               With no attempts to shovel the glimpse

               Into the ditch of what each one means

               At times I think there are no words

               But these to tell what's true

               And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden


Since Dylan is centrally concerned with truth, and declares that “there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden,” he must be seeking to enter those gates.  His has now become the voice of the prophet.  Like the Jewish prophet Isaiah, he calls out, “Oh sinful nation.”  Like John the Baptizer, his is a voice crying in the wilderness.  He had already compared himself to Simon Peter, whose faith allowed him, if only briefly, to walk on water. 



               Oh, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

               Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?

               I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',

               I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,

               Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,

               Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,

               Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,

               Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,

               Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,

               Where black is the color, where none is the number,

               And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,

               And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,

               Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',

               But I'll know my song well before I start singin',

               And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,

               It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.


Once he knows his song well, once he finds his true voice, Dylan begins a series of songs which paint the fallen and desolate world and which provide a vision of something which lies beyond that world.   His songs are no longer a voice of protest against a particular injustice but an expression of longing for justice to roll down like waters, a longing for a visionary haven which can only be glimpsed now and then.  This earthly domain remains a world of fake morals, loneliness, and false gods, but that’s life:


               Old lady judges watch people in pairs

               Limited in sex, they dare

               To push fake morals, insult and stare

               While money doesn't talk, it swears

               Obscenity, who really cares

               Propaganda, all is phony.


               While them that defend what they cannot see

               With a killer's pride, security

               It blows the minds most bitterly

               For them that think death's honesty

               Won't fall upon them naturally

               Life sometimes

               Must get lonely.


               My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards

               False gods, I scuff

               At pettiness which plays so rough

               Walk upside-down inside handcuffs

               Kick my legs to crash it off

               Say okay, I have had enough

               What else can you show me?


               And if my thought-dreams could be seen

               They'd probably put my head in a guillotine

               But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only.


As Dylan paints his portraits of life during this incredibly creative mid-sixties period the mask of the joker is securely.  The Joker sees the world through dark sun glasses:

I got my dark sunglasses,

I got for good luck my black tooth.

I got my dark sunglasses,

I'm carryin' for good luck my black tooth.

Don't ask me nothin' about nothin',

I just might tell you the truth.



The truth about this desolate world is often circus-like, filled with strange characters, many from the Bible, as in this third verse of “Desolation Row”:



               Now the moon is almost hidden

               The stars are beginning to hide

               The fortunetelling lady

               Has even taken all her things inside

               All except for Cain and Abel

               And the hunchback of Notre Dame

               Everybody is making love

               Or else expecting rain

               And the Good Samaritan, he's dressing

               He's getting ready for the show

               He's going to the carnival tonight

               On Desolation Row


To see the desolation of this world is to feel lost, cut off, alone.  To be caught in this world makes one feel just like tom thumb:




               When you're lost in the rain in Juarez

               And it's Eastertime too

               And your gravity fails

               And negativity don't pull you through

               Don't put on any airs

               When you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue

               They got some hungry women there

               And they really make a mess outa you



These songs of the mid-sixties, the pre-motorcycle accident 18 months of frantic creativity, often express the horror of the human condition, of being stuck inside of desolation row feeling like Tom Thumb.  But these songs are complemented by another series which express the frustration of seeking help which cannot be reached, of striving endlessly and futilely to escape this condition, songs which implore help from some mythic or mystical figure, a god-figure if you will.  The most famous of the songs in the group makes the god-figure, not surprisingly, a musician:



               Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,

               I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.

               Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,

               In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.


               Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand,

               Vanished from my hand,

               Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.

               My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet,

               I have no one to meet

               And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.


Yes, he dreams visions but awakes to find them turned to sand.  This empty street and the visionary world of “Mr. Tambourine Man” stand in much the same relationship as Earth to either Jesus’s Heaven or Budda’s Nirvana.  The distorted view of this as a drug song was common when it was released on Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, but at this distance it should be clear that the drug imagery is metaphoric.  Steven Goldberg calls it an "invocation to his muse," 6 but I find that somewhat pretentious, not because Dylan does not merit association with Homer and Milton but because he is clear in his choice of traditions, and the aristocrat literary tradition is not his choice.  "Mr. Tambourine Man,” if placed in a tradition, must be seen in relation to songs of the down-in-out, the hobo, the immigrant and the rejected lover, those who find no meaning left in the world, and so look beyond this world.  Since I lost my baby, I almost lost my mind, so play it again Sam, until the sun shines on my back door: that musical tradition is more relevant than the classical tradition in which we find Milton's muse.7


Wilfred Mellers, the British musicologist, comments that “Mr. Tambourine Man” “is the first great Dylan tune, no longer definable in term of sources” (McGregor, p.401). It is notable for more than its originality, however.  The melody reinforces so fittingly the sense of the lyrics. The song is about the search for that which will give meaning to life, that reference point from which things can be measured or understood, and the tune is itself a quest for the root note of the tonic chord.  Ironically the song begins with that note accompanied by the subdominant chord, yielding an urgent sound, a sound seeking resolution which is not found until the end of the verse, where the note, an octave lower, is found and resolved in the tonic chord. 


               Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship,

               My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,

               My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels

               To be wanderin'.

               I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade

               Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,

               I promise to go under it.



The speaker in "Mr. Tambourine Man" is more than a down-and-out lover, though, he is a lover of what E. E. Cumming’s called "manunkind," an artist who finds the modern world desolate.  "The ancient empty street's too dead for dreamin'"; there are no myths, no taboos, no restrictions for the modern man.  He is "wholly, totally free to do anything . . . but die," as Dylan says in "Gates of Eden."  This is negative freedom from restraint: "And but for the sky there are no fences facing."  This theme of freedom is central to understanding Dylan's songs, as I made clear in the opening show when discussing “To Ramona.”


While this song is best seen in the tradition of other down-and-out songs, it does draw upon a wide variety of sources, including, in the third verse, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”  The Tambourine Man is seen as one who lives in Plato’s perfect world of ideas which contrasts with our world in which we take for reality what are merely of shadows:



Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun,

               It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run

               And but for the sky there are no fences facin'.

               And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme

       To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind,

               I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're

               Seein' that he's chasing.



Yes, our world is but a shadow of Plato’s ideal world of ideas.  Not that Dylan is really a Platonist.  He has never been one to adhere strictly to any set of rules for long and surely he would not ban poets from his ideal republic.  But in the sense of seeing this world as a place filled with illusions, he is with Plato and Buddha and Christ—or at least he want to be.  He wants his “skippin’ reels of rhyme” to be in response to the eternal “tambourine in time.”


The last verse opens with another of those lines that encourages a drug reading, but I take it metaphorically, just as I do the other images in this somewhat psychedelic song.


        Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,

               Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,

               The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,

      Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.

      Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,

               Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,

               With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,

               Let me forget about today until tomorrow.


               Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,

               I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.

               Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,

               In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.



If that first image of “disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind” evokes a drug experience, the next one, “Down the foggy ruins of time” evokes studying history, something it is clear that Dylan has done, though, as with drugs, on his own, not with the professors.  Neither is what this song is about.  The Tambourine Man is being asked to do for the speaker more than what drugs or studying history, or anything else can do:  to take the speaker beyond the shadowy existence of this life into ultimate reality.  He wants to join Kazanzakas’s Zorba, dancing “beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the wave so he can forget about today until tomorrow.  That closing line prefigures the wonder expression “Tomorrow keeps time around” in the song I will end this show with, “When the Deal Goes Down” on the 2006 album Modern Times.




But before we get to that song, let me turn to another song focused on a god-figure, but one with a much different tone than that in “Tambourine Man.”  It’s from the Basement Tapes, and I name this show quintessence in allusion to this song.  Quintessence was, in medieval philosophy, the fifth and highest essence, above and running through the four basic elements of earth, air, fire and water.  Have you guessed it yet?  


That’s right, I’m talking about “Quinn the Eskimo.”  Like the Tambourine Man, Quinn is another evocation of a mystical figure who is in touch with the ultimate reality, but this song is from the view of the thief while “Mr. Tambourine Man” is from that of the joker.  Here the tone is much lighter.  No reason to get excited, as the Thief tells the Joker.



               Ev'rybody's building the big ships and the boats,

               Some are building monuments,

               Others, jotting down notes,

               Ev'rybody's in despair,

               Ev'ry girl and boy

               But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here,

               Ev'rybody's gonna jump for joy.

               Come all without, come all within,

               You'll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn.



Hardly in need of analysis, this song was written in 1967 during the basement tapes period while Dylan is on recess from the obligations of fame and fortune.  The songs from the basement of Big Pink provide preparation for Dylan to write that supreme album, John Wesley Harding , released in 1968.   It is in many ways his finest achievement, but I will skip past it now and devote the entirety of next week’s show to that one album.  It is a supremely spiritual album but for now, let’s move on to the New Morning album in 1970 which includes one song devoted overtly to the god-figure:


               Father of night, Father of day,

               Father, who taketh the darkness away,

               Father, who teacheth the bird to fly,

               Builder of rainbows up in the sky,

               Father of loneliness and pain,

               Father of love and Father of rain.


               Father of day, Father of night,

               Father of black, Father of white,

               Father, who build the mountain so high,

               Who shapeth the cloud up in the sky,

               Father of time, Father of dreams,

               Father, who turneth the rivers and streams.


               Father of grain, Father of wheat,

               Father of cold and Father of heat,

               Father of air and Father of trees,

               Who dwells in our hearts and our memories,

               Father of minutes, Father of days,

               Father of whom we most solemnly praise.



Quite different from those we have just heard, this song quite clearly is no longer by a Dylan wearing the joker’s mask.  He is well into his moderate man phase wearing the mask of the thief.  But perhaps some of you gentle listeners missed show three where I discuss the two masks of the joker and the thief.  Let me explain briefly.  In show three I outlined Dylan’s five decades of song writing as a fluctuation between two views of life,  the joker’s and the thief’s.


I take these names, of course, from “All Along the Watchtower,”  where the joker says, “There must be some way out of here,…there’s too much confusion.”  The thief answers, “No reason to get excited.”  The artist always wears a mask.  In one phase Dylan the artist wears the mask of the joker, the other in which he wears the mask of the thief. 


So as we move from Dylan’s Tambourine Man to the Father of Night, we move from the Dylan who wears the mask of the joker to the Dylan who wear the mask of the thief.   The Thief  uses a much more traditional image, that of father, for the spirit which is in touch with reality, the spirit which in fact is the source of all reality.  Unlike “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Father of Night” is not an exploration of the frustration of separation from a higher reality but a song celebrating  the “father of whom we most solemnly praise.”  Both songs are part of the quest for a higher spiritual Truth, but each is spoken from behind a different mask.  Each mask is worn for a time, then changed for the other.  And sure enough, by the mid-seventies the Thief’s mask is put aside for that of the Joker’s.  The next god-figure is that of an unnamed senor, and the song is in the Joker’s voice of frustration:



               Senor, senor, can you tell me where we're headin'?

               Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

               Seems like I been down this way before.

               Is there any truth in that, senor?


               Senor, senor, do you know where she is hidin'?

               How long are we gonna be ridin'?

               How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?

               Will there be any comfort there, senor?


               There's a wicked wind still blowin' on that upper deck,

            There's an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck.

               There's a marchin' band still playin' in that vacant lot

        Where she held me in her arms one time and said, "Forget me not."


               Senor, senor, I can see that painted wagon,

               I can smell the tail of the dragon.

               Can't stand the suspense anymore.

               Can you tell me who to contact here, senor?



Yes, the mask of the joker is dominant on this 1978 album, Street Legal. He returned in 1975 with the Blood on the Track album and remains until the turn to born-again Christian.


            Well the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled

            Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field.

               A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring

 She said, "Son, this ain't a dream no more, it's the real thing."


               Senor, senor, you know their heart’s as hard as leather.

               Well, give me a minute to get it together.

               I just gotta pick myself up off the floor.

               I'm ready when you are, senor.



 Clearly this song is in the voice of the joker.  The mystical god-figure in this case is simply addressed as “Senor.”  The closing verse juxtaposes a Christ image, that of the overturning of the tables of the money changers in the temple, with the world of modern recording technology that Dylan inhabits.

               Senor, senor, let's overturn these tables,

               Disconnect these cables.

               This place don't make sense to me no more.

               Can you tell me what we're waiting for, senor?



We have heard it so many times:  This place don’t make sense to me no more.  It is the cry of the world-weary pilgrim caught in the Slough of Despond.  It’s the voice of the joker, lost in the rain in Juarez when it’s Eastertime too.  It’s the voice of Jesus saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  It’s the voice of the pilgrim in the old hymn: “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.”



The voice of the joker gives way to that of the thief again in 1979 when Dylan becomes a born-again Christian rumored to have been baptized in Pat Boone’s swimming pool.  The Thief, as always, using traditional language and musical forms, looks forward to that time when He returns:


Opening of “When He Returns” on Slow Train Coming 1979

               The iron hand it ain't no match for the iron rod,

               The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God.

               For all those who have eyes and those who have ears

               It is only He who can reduce me to tears.

               Don't you cry and don't you die and don't you burn

            For like a thief in the night, He'll replace wrong with right

               When He returns.


The thief is the adopter of traditional forms while the Joker takes them and bends them in strange and bizarre ways.  This song, as Wilfred Mellers, the British musicologist, points out, uses the style of the white hymn.  Thus Dylan’s use of piano. (154)  The concept of the second coming of Christ is just as traditional as the central image in the next song on the 1980 album Saved.  The rock of ages becomes a “Solid Rock”:


OPENING OF     SOLID ROCK  on saved  1980

               Well, I'm hangin' on to a solid rock

               Made before the foundation of the world

               And I won't let go, and I can't let go, won't let go

          And I can't let go, won't let go, and I can't let go no more.


These songs are from the period when he wears the mask of the thief, and in this particular reincarnation of the thief, the intense, born-again Christian version, he comes down hard on his alterego the joker, on his Infidels  album in 1983:


               Standing on the waters casting your bread

               While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.

               Distant ships sailing into the mist,

   You were born with a snake in both of your fists while

a hurricane was blowing.

               Freedom just around the corner for you

               But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?

               Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,

               Bird fly high by the light of the moon,

               Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman.





Never fear, Dylan will again put on the mask of the joker.  It’s most clear in 1997 on the Time Out of Mind album.   He doesn’t call on another god-figure as in  Mr. Tambourine Man or Quinn the Eskimo or Father of Night or Senor, however.  Instead he continues with songs that, like “Desolation Row” and its kind, make it clear that this place is filled with sorrow and desolation because of a fading memory of an unnamed “you.” 



               The air is gettin' hotter, there's a rumblin' in the skies.

               I've been wadin' through the high muddy waters,

               But the heat riseth in my eyes.

               Everyday your memory goes dimmer,

               It doesn't haunt me like it did before.

               I've been walkin' through the middle of nowhere,

               Tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door.


               When I was in Missouri, they would not let me be.

           I had to leave there in a hurry, I only saw what they let me see.

               You broke a heart that loved you,

               Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore.

               I've been walkin' that lonesome valley,

               Tryin' to get to heavenbefore they close the door.



In another song on this album he gives us the pledge of Christ to the world disguised as a love song.    It’s a beautiful love song, my wife’s favorite.  And it is a love song, but it is so much more.  We can’t forget that the church is Christ’s bride.  Listen to “Make You Feel My Love” as Christ’s plea to humankind.


             I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue

               I'd go crawling down the avenue

               Oh there's nothing that I wouldn't do

               to make you feel my love


               The storms are raging on the rolling sea

               and on the highway of regret

               the winds of change are blowing wild and free

               you ain't seen nothing like me yet


               I could make you happy, make your dreams come true

               nothing that I wouldn't do

               go to the ends of the earth for you

               to make you feel my love.

++or whole song


He lists many of the sacrifices of Jesus: going hungry which Jesus did for forty days, being beaten black and blue, crawling down the avenue, which Jesus did with a cross on his back, even the Great Commission to the apostles is echoed in “go to the ends of the earth for you.” 


In the final song on Time Out of Mind he portrays that perfect place as the highlands:



               Well my heart's in The Highlands, gentle and fair

               Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air

               Bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow

               Well my heart's in The Highlands

               I'm gonna go there when I feel good enough to go


He closes his 2001 album with a song to humankind, referring to us as sugar babe:



Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one

You got a way of tearin' the world apart, love, see what you've done

Just as sure as we're livin', just as sure as you're born

Look up, look up, seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn

Sugar baby, get on down the line, you ain't got no sense nohow

You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now




Yes, the Joker dominates the first two albums of the three major albums at the turn of the millennium.  But on the third, Modern Times, the Thief’s voice is heard again. Let me end this show with a focus on the finest song on Dylan’s 2006 album.  




In the still of the night in the world’s ancient light

   Where wisdom grows up in strife

My bewildered brain toils in vain

   Through the darkness on the pathways of life

Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air

   Tomorrow keeps time around

We live and we die, we know not why

   But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down


This wonderful song, “When the Deal Goes Down,”  reminds me of the good ole Protestant hymn with the chorus that proclaims,  “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I’ll be There.”  Dylan’s more enigmatic phrasing returns to the ambiguous pronoun ‘you’ which leaves for us to decide who the “you” really is.  But I hear god-figure again.


This is a much more complex and philosophical song than the Protestant hymn “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” of course, but the refrain line at the end has that sense about it.  Verse one has set the tone with its closing lines: we live and die, we know not why, but I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.  The meditative tone continues in verse two.



We eat and drink, we feel and we think

   Far down the street we stray

I laugh and I cry and I’m haunted by

   Things I never meant or wished to say

The midnight rain follows the train

   We all wear the same thorny crown

Soul to soul our shadows roll

    And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down



Verse two introduces the motif of journey and path: straying down the street, riding the midnight train.  Here the man-made path, street, leads us astray it seems.  The train, a perennial image in Dylan songs, is a communal means of transportation.  We roll along together, soul to soul, or at least our shadows do.  As with the shadows in “Mr. Tambourine Man,” of course,  all we know is shadows until the deal goes down.


The opposites that make up life—feeling & thinking, laughing and crying—all the regrets of life, these make up the thorny crown we all wear.  The phrase “soul to soul” like the “invisible prayer” in verse one reinforce the spiritual concerns which dominate the song, not to mention the Christ allusion in thorny crown.


But some may want to read the “you” in a romantic sort of way, a tendency encouraged by the way the melody seems to echo the romantic Bing Crosby song "When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day."   Yes, gentle listeners, some of you may have also seen the music video of “When the Deal Goes Down,” perhaps still available on YouTube, which features Scarlett Johannson.  But is that video in a romantic mood?  Not really.  She is not presented as lover.  As what?  A girl visiting family, going on a boat ride, looking at the sky.  The video is as  ambiguous as is the song.


The third verse, however, opens with images which make it plain that the speaker is not talking about romantic love, for nothing says romantic love in a song like moon:



Well the moon gives light and it shines by night

   But I scarely feel the glow

We learn to live, and then we forgive

   O’re the road we’re all bound to go

Frailer then the flowers, these precious hours

   That keep us so tightly bound

You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies

   But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down


Here again we get the journey/path motif.  No need to say “road of life,” much better to say “the road we’re all bound to go.”   The frailty of life on that road, the preciousness of the time we have on that road binds us together.  This verse closes with the lines which most nearly express the idea of the ‘you’ as a god-figure:  “You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies.”  Many Christians see the second coming in similar terms.  Dylan has gone through many stages of exploring both Jewish and Christian religious traditions, but in this song he remains poetically ambiguous, open to various readings, but there is no doubt about the refrain line of this song ultimately referring to that which is spiritual and eternal.  Even the quest for beauty is part of this earthly domain of pain and suffering, as is clear from the opening of the final verse.  Just as moon says romantic love, rose says beauty.



I picked up a rose and it burnt through my cloths

   I follow the winding stream

I heard a deafening noise, I felt transient joys,

   I know they’re not what they seem

In this earthy domain full of disappointment and pain

   You’ll never see me frown

I owe my heart to you and I’m saying it true

    I’ll be with you when the deal goes down


In this closing verse the street, the road, the train tracks –all man-made paths—give way to “the winding steam,” nature’s own path.  And that path leads, inevitably to a “deafening noise”; we all must go over the falls when the deal goes down.  The transient joys of this life, which lord knows Dylan has experienced much of, are not what they seem. 



But this precious hour is up, it seems.  I hope that this show will help you listen to some of these songs with new ears.  Next week at this time I will devote the entire show to Dylan’s most carefully constructed, tightly written album, the 1968 masterpiece John Wesley Harding.  This album takes us on a step by step poetic tracing of the transition from the mid-sixties outlaw figure who felt stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues to the moderate man who says “Shut the light, shut the door, You don’t have to worry anymore, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”  Until then, this Bill King saying, I’m so glad you came around.



6McGregor, p. 336.

7Wilfres Mellers comments that this “is the first great Dylan tune, no longer definable in term of sources” (McGregor, p.401). The music is notable also because it reinforces so fittingly the sense of the lyrics. The song is about the search for that which will give meaning to life, that reference point from which things can be measured or understood, and the tune is itself a search for the root note of the tonic chord.  Ironically the song begins with that note accompanied by the subdominant chord, yielding an urgent sound, a sound seeking resolution which is not found until the end of the verse.


"Visions of Johanna" is covered in chapter one ofThe Artist in the Marketplace, my dissertation on Dylan's poetics. This chapter is online. Click on the title.

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