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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  1. 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. 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. “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. For me these lyrics and others on the Slow Train album are somewhat immature. I am no poet, but wrote lyrics like this when I was in college. Perhaps this is just another way of what Mr. Attwood already pointed out by comparing these lyrics to “It’s Alright Ma…”.

  5. I grew up listening to the Slow Train album- I feel like its part of me. I used to be a very serious Christian, but left that in my 20’s. Here’s my take on the album:

    It’s a blues/gospel album from an alternate universe. I think of Dylan on this album not as genius folk poet Dylan, nor as grizzled balladeer Dylan- nope: bear with me on this: You’re living in a Western town at the turn of the century. Maybe a few hundred people living there. One day a preacher rolls into town. He’s not very talkative- keeps to himself- something dark about him- you think you see him in the saloon a few times gambling and when he talks you think you can smell alcohol on his breath. Then the posters go up: tent revival meeting this Sunday out at desolation row. You go. This album is what you get.

    OK, what do I mean by that. That Dylan is in drunk, somewhat crazed apocalyptic tent revival preacher mode here- but believe me, I mean that in the most complementary, powerful way that only Dylan could embody.

    First, he gives us a full double barrel blast of what’s wrong with the world. He’s not holding back or couching anything in vague imagery: “you got gangsters in power and law breakers making rules”. “all non-believers and men stealers talking in the name of religion”. “masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition”. etc etc etc. Wow, awesome. I think he nails it on this.

    Second, he gives us crazy apocalyptic imagery that, if not palatable to all, is incredibly intense and interesting poetically: “There’s a slow train coming’. Up around the bend.” “when men will beg God to kill them, and they won’t be able to die”. In the same way that one could read something from the book of Revelation and think “wow, that’s completely nuts, I’m not sure how I feel about that!”- but it sticks with you. It adds to the richness of the stew.

    Third, he throws in stuff that Christians who are not as complex, real, or deep as Dylan is would never dream of putting in their songs: “I got a God fearing woman, one I can easily afford, she can do the Georgia crawl, she can walk in the spirit of the Lord”. Wow, awesome- he just referenced an old blues euphemism for sex and the spirit of the lord in the same line! “Well my baby went to Illinois with some bad talking boy she could destroy. A real suicide case but there was nothing I could do to stop it”- This stuff is why the straight preacher back in town tried to warn everyone not to go to the tent revival- he knew it wouldn’t hew strictly to dogma!

    Fourth, the booze that he’s on is the zealousness of the recently converted. Dylan didn’t grow up with Christianity. He hadn’t had a lot of time to reflect critically on it or (perhaps more importantly) on the Christian community he was surrounded by at the time. Nope, he was ALL IN. He was, as they say, drunk in the spirit, and it made this imho a very very interesting album. Think about it. Take the unique poetic genius that is Dylan, with all his knowledge of folk, gospel, blues, inject all the apocalypse, judgementalism, mysticism of Christianity, all its good AND bad parts in their rawest form, then put MARK KNOPFLER on guitar!- this is what comes out.

    I hope you don’t mind me reflecting a bit on your original essay too. I’ll preface this by saying that to find someone else who loves Dylan and takes his lyrics somewhat seriously is, by itself, a huge joy! Thank you so much for reflecting and posting.

    If its not obvious by what I wrote above, I feel that comparing Its Alright Ma Dylan to Slow Train Dylan is little bit like apples and oranges. Its Alright Dylan gave birth to Slow Train Dylan who gave birth to etc etc etc. He’s a restless poetic genius who changed lyrics to lots of Blood on Tracks songs as they were being recorded. He’s on another level, and to a certain extent you have to take each manifestation on its own terms.

    I agree with you 100% that When You Gonna Wake Up is not warm and welcoming. On the contrary its insanely wrathful. But seen with certain eyes, that’s what makes it so powerful. If I leave out the specifically Christian parts of that song, which I admit is weirdly easy for me since I grew up with it, its not only more true now in the age of Trump than ever, its a needed panacea to all the insanity. What I wouldn’t give for a 2020 Slow Train Coming album- lets leave the Christianity out of it this time, but imagine a younger, or maybe just a different, Dylan openly raging about what he’s seeing out there.

    On to specifics:

    You didn’t interpret “The rich seduce the poor” literally, so why would you interpret “the old are seduced by the young” literally? In my view, (which of course with Dylan is probably not worth 2 cents), these lines speak to our culture idolizing youth and wealth. That’s it.

    As for disconnect between music and lyrics, to me the music is perfect. It’s soulful, dark, it’s “been hit too hard”. it’s “seen too much” to quote another Dylan song.

    Finally, when Dylan says “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts”, he isn’t pointing that at you, the listener, specifically, he’s again raging at what he sees out there in the world at large. Note that the next line is “Karl Marx has got you by the throat and Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up into knots”- did you take this also as meaning you personally? I think he’s just saying- there’s so much nonsense out there- how can you guys let this B.S. control you- how can you swallow all this uncritically? Again, super relevant in the Trump era.

    Well, thanks for reading my wall of text pertaining to a super old post- feel free to email me if you want to discuss Dylan some more!

  6. Be watchful
    And strengthen the things which remain
    That are ready to die
    For I have not found thy works perfect before God
    (Revelations 3:2)

  7. That is, the song directs its criticism at artists who rest on their laurels – Dylan himself even- as expressed in the translation of a Russian Jewish Shelley-like poet:

    But if -if- songs are sung out to the end
    With all the heart, with all the breath in the lungs
    Almost everything vanishes. And what remains
    Is the desert vastness, the stars, the one who sings

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