Bob Dylan’s “When you gonna wake up”. A tale of doom and despair

By Tony Attwood

Dylan is on occasion brilliant at telling us all what is wrong with the world, without him saying exactly what, how, where, when, why….  The songs don’t spell it out, but allow us to see the picture even though it is not fully painted.  A perfect example to my mind would be…

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more person crying

That single set of five lines conveys so much about the inter-relationship between the individual and the world we find around us that it takes a lifetime to explore every nuance.

Take on the other hand

You got innocent men in jail, your insane asylums are filled
You got unrighteous doctors dealing drugs that’ll never cure your ills

and if you feel like me you might well think, well, yes, ok, and…

You got men who can’t hold their peace and women who can’t control their tongues
The rich seduce the poor and the old are seduced by the young

And at this point you might well think, we yes “the rich seduce the poor” is rather a good way of expressing everything that is wrong with capitalism in five words.  But “the old are seduced by the young” – really?  And how exactly?  If I am to take other lines in the song literally (and that surely is the intention) how am I, a man of what I might perhaps describe as “mature complexion” being seduced, literally or metaphorically by my children or grandchildren, or by young people in general?  I am not quite sure how.

Thus for me the problem is that “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts” is Bob telling me how to think and what to think, and not doing it in a very exciting or interesting way; he is narrowing the focus down to a single door through which he says I have to travel.  When on the other hand in the past he offered the profound message of caution against everyone who tells us what to think

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call

Here, he was opening up a wave of possibilities and options rather than closing them down.

So in “When you gonna wake up” you have Dylan descending into the “private reasons” he earlier told us could be seen in the eyes of everyone who tells us how to behave.

The whole point of “It’s alright ma” is that life is about people describing the world and telling us how to behave and what to believe.   Interestingly the line “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts” could have come from the days of “Its alright ma” and the instruction not to follow leaders, along with the injunction “That it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.”  But now everything is reversed.  The “counterfeit philosophies” are not the ones that liberate us to think our own thoughts and follow our own lives, but rather the original thoughts that told us to do those very things.

That philosophy encoded in “Its alright ma” seems to remind us that it’s not the world that is the issue, but the way you see the world, and Dylan, it seems to me, was often making it clear that we could all see the world in many different ways – it’s up to us which world we can live in.

Now he’s telling us that there is one and only one way to see the world.  And woe betide you if you see it in the wrong way.

My vision of the world, or put another way, the world in which I live, agrees that

You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules

But the rest of it, it just is (for me, and I am not saying this is how it is for anyone else) just another preacher telling me how to live my life, rather than letting me try to be a decent fellow who does a little bit of good in the world.  So when Bob asks

When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?

I just want to tell him I woke up sometime in my teenage years, and I’ve been pretty much awake ever since.

Musically, there is an interesting point to note in the song, in that it is primarily built around minor chords.  The verse is Am, Dm7, Am Dm7.  The chorus does through in a passing G and F but mostly it is the minors, the chords mostly associated with the sad and depressing.

But it is not the music that is depressing particularly, it is just the message.

Thus there seems a disconnect between the music and the language.  If one looks at the lyrics alone Bob seems angry with me, the listener.  After all saying, over and over and over again, “When you gonna wake up?” is not warm or welcoming, nor is it the sort of abstract at a distance warning of “It’s alright ma” which at least ends with the “life and life only” notion that, well, that’s just how it goes.

For me there is a horrible intolerance in this song, and that is of course the problem with people who believe that they are absolutely right and that there is one thing that is going to sort out everything.

Maybe there is something in me that makes me not want to obey, something deep inside that tells me that “don’t follow leaders” is actually a pretty decent way to run the world, as opposed to the descent into a dreadful fear of what happens at the end of time, when God pulls the plug and says, “right, you didn’t believe in Me so you’ve had it,” and I suffer eternal damnation.

I am sorry that Bob felt such that he wanted to write “Sometimes I just feel so low-down and disgusted,” on Slow Train, but yes I know what he means.  But then I toddle off to a dance or just remind myself that it is not the world, but the way I see the world, that makes it seem like this.  And I’m ok again.  Sometimes it takes a few days, but mostly just half an hour.

So for me, where a song like this gets stuck, as with where a philosophy like this gets stuck, is that it has an absolute certainty that I must have the unearthly power to sort out my life.  But then if the New Testament is right, there’s no point having any debate, because the future is fixed: the Second Coming is coming, and that’s that.

While It’s alright ma leaves me (and I guess a lot of other people) thinking and pondering and questioning and hopefully wondering about their own lives and how they treat others, this song tells us how it is all going to pan out.

On the surface, It’s Alright Ma is doom laden from head to toe.  But the message really is that we can come out of that and escape because we can see the world in different ways, and we can each make a difference to other people’s lives.  But “When you gonna wake up” tells us only of certainty and the end.  And for most of us (atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Jew) that is going to be a pretty depressing end.

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5 Responses to Bob Dylan’s “When you gonna wake up”. A tale of doom and despair

  1. hans altena says:

    After your very lucid juxtaposition of Precious Angel and the brilliant Carribean Wind, where his creative mind literally opened up again (for a bit at least), you plough on through the turgid lyrics that Dylan wrote in the wake of his so called conversion (only Slow Train Coming has some sparks of inspiration for me, and a beautiful groove, while When He returns is a moving Gospel song, a good foray into that tradition). I don’t know how you can persevere. For me, who has some more understanding of Christianity maybe, being brought up in a fundamentalist church, I see some worth in Dylans struggle with God, yet I can only attribute his black and white believe to the desperate longing for salvation he had in those days and the lack of depth and blind enthusiasm which marks the conversed in their first days of fresh initiate (as I saw happen with my brother when he returned to the faith as a newly born, as he called it). Still, in the end it led him to depths of wisdom which yielded the album Tempest for instance or the masterpiece Ain’t talkin’. For there is mystery in the contradiction between freedom of humanity and the troubling notion or suspicion of there being a perfect finished plan in the universe, an unsolved problem which merits some thinking over and that yielded many a literary jewel in this world (just try reading Thomas Mann for instance).

  2. dylan fan says:

    I found it interesting that Dylan chose to sing this as an opener on his tour of China.
    It wasn’t by chance that he put it there.

  3. dasher says:

    “Thus for me the problem is that “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts” is Bob telling me how to think and what to think”

    This isn’t what he is saying. Just because there are ‘counterfeit’ philosophes, doesn’t mean that there aren’t several valid ones.

    The listener isn’t you in particular, but the society at large that is allowing the gangsters in power. And he wants to know when we’re going to demand change.

  4. I was shocked when I read it in Revelation 3:2…oh that Bobby!

  5. Will Thomas says:

    Wake up!

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