When He returns; the one Dylan performance that could convert a sinner such as me.

By Tony Attwood

If there were a Dylan Christian song that could convert me I guess it could only be “When He Returns”.  But it is not the album version that moves me, for there I find the piano part horribly overdone – so much so that all the twiddles, the quick arpeggios, the sudden introduction of bass notes, then scampering away to the high trebles – it is all the work of Beckett showing off, and of the producers saying, “hey look Bob can write a piece like THIS!!!”

But fortunately there exists a totally different live version – and this is the piece which if I were convertible to Christianity could be used to convert me.


Watch out though – for there are other versions that really could send me scampering off in the opposite direction.  But this time, the piano part works because Dylan is less of a virtuoso pianist and so stops the piano trying to steal the shown.   Wiki reminds us that “The final take, described by Heylin as “perhaps Dylan’s strongest studio vocal since ‘Visions of Johanna’,” was selected as the master.”    And not for the first time I disagree – it is this live performance that is Dylan at his finest both as a pianist and as a singer.

The song was only played 46 times between 1979 to 1980, and then got just one later revival in 1981, which is a tragedy given the quality of the show noted above, but I guess Dylan felt that the feeling of the song was not what he wanted to project thereafter.

However I would argue that for a piece as superb you don’t have to follow the message to be able to perform it – at least not in my book.

However Dylan also is quoted as saying to Bono that “I didn’t like writing them, I didn’t want to write them,” so the whole situation is hard to judge.  But I think he did enjoy writing this and I am certain he enjoyed that particular performance.

Just listen to the end of this performance as Dylan slides his right hand up the keyboard – it is a moment of utter jubilation at what he knows was a superb performance of a great piece of music.  Pianists do that when they know they’ve got the performance right (not that I ever had many occasions so to do, but trust me, I’m a pianist).

But here’s a funny thing.   As soon as I heard this song I thought to myself “Restless Farewell” and indeed in one of two of the other live performances that are available on line you can here elements of that “So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road”.

The funny thing is Heylin says, “By the second verse he has resumed leafing through Matthew (perhaps after a quick listen to Restless Farewell).

Many before me have plotted the movement between the Gospel of Matthew and the Revelation of John in this piece and indeed in much of Dylan’s writing at the time, so I don’t need to revisit that journey here, but out of it all he does come up with some utterly superb lines.  Whoever thought that rock n roll could one day lead us to

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask

Heylin, as always, is concerned with the detail of recording, and suggests that Dylan might well not have sung over the pre-recorded piano part – as most writers suggest.   But the issue of Restless Farewell – the last song on Times they are a changing – and When He Returns, the last song on Slow Train, are more important than the order of events in recording, so that’s where I want to go.

The musical link is to be found with the line “But the bottles are done And we’ve killed every one” which musically relates to “Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn” – although this link is made clearer in some of the live versions than on the record.

But if you just look at the lines from the Parting Glass (the Irish folk song origin of Restless Farewell) such as

“But since it fell unto my lot, that I should rise and you should not”,

you perhaps can imagine those being part of “When He Returns”.

But what is so utterly fascinating here is that the Parting Glass is a song of good memories but is also a song of desperate utter sadness that one is constantly moving on, never managing to keep hold of all the goodness one has.  It thus fitted into the main theme of the Times they are a Changing collection (which only the title song reverses), that times actually are not changing, but constantly repeating and repeating.

As I mentioned in my review of Restless Farewell… at the end the restlessness of the traveller goes, the apology to the women he’s hurt passes by, and it is his lifestyle that is justified by the claim that this is just the way he is.

But to stay as friends
And make amends
You got to have the time and stay behind
And since my feet are fast
And point from the past
I’ll bid farewell and be down the line

But now, all these years later, resplendent in his conversion of faith, Dylan says quite the opposite – we are not trapped by our past we can be saved by conversion to the one true God.

And curiously, isn’t that how Restless Farewell, diverting from its Irish origins, ends?

Well a false clock tries to tick out my time

at the start of that verse points to some sort of dramatic change in life and he continues…

To disgrace, distract, and bother me
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
And the dust of rumours covers me
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick
So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn

That straight slick arrow is not defined – is it his protest songs? – those of us who pondered such matters at the time thought it probably was.  But here we are 22 years later and the straight and pointed arrow becomes

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod

Now there is not this eternal vision that life will continue as is, forever, but rather it will change – and how it will change…

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

And to show us that he hasn’t forgotten how the old songs go Dylan continues

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through

So whereas in Restless Farewell he simply bids farewell and heads down the road, now with his new thinking he is able to ask

Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?

So now the wanderer, forever going down the road leaving others behind, is told to stop the wandering forever because there is no escape.

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask

Of course the traveller in Restless Farewell had no actual plan, he just felt the need to keep moving just as Robert Johnson did, to escape the blues falling down like hail.  But it is all pointless.

Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns

It is for me, the masterpiece of the era, but it took a recording of a live performance (which of course I didn’t hear until so many years later) to allow me to understand exactly what Dylan was saying.

Thank goodness for the internet.


Recent Posts

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When He returns; the one Dylan performance that could convert a sinner such as me.

  1. Andy Muir says:

    Yes, When He Returns at the end of the Toronto ’80 video is utterly mesmerising. Interesting stuff on the echoes of “Restless Farewell”.

    A small aside. “Parting Glass” is nearly always referred to as Irish but it was also the default Scottish “farewell song” before being replaced by “Auld Lang’s Syne” and, when researching its origins, the earliest mention of it I could get back to was as a traditional Scottish song. This pre-dated the first Irish mentions. However, it is some years since I pored over documents detailing the roots of such pieces and more information may have come to light since then or the libraries I visited may not have held the entire story.

    Not that I expect us ever to know conclusively the first origin of songs traded back and forth between the Scottish and Irish folk communities, nor that it makes any difference to Dylan’s use of the song, but these things are of interest in their own right and I wonder if anyone else has pursued the history of “Parting Glass” further.

    I was at a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V this summer and my jaw proverbially dropped when some actors picked up guitars and started to sing “Oh all the money…” to the well kent tune.

  2. Rolf Säfström says:

    Thank you so much, mr Attwood!
    Thanks for all the articles I have read about Dylan songs.
    The last one, about “When he returns” , was interesting, especially the video of the amazing performance!

  3. Felix says:

    You do the song justice. One of the most rewarding things for me about being able to appreciate songs such as these is that one usually finds himself as an outsider, even within those who “get” Dylan, for being able (or willing) to get inside these compositions. Makes the connection that much more intimate. But I can say that about much of his work within a broader context. There are those who get him and many who simply can’t hear him b/c they another kind of voice. When he went Gospel, he removed distanced himself from accessibility that much more. But ironically his songs were actually more public than ever. That is, to me, they were written for the purpose of testifying publicly, almost as an act of obedience, a public act in response to a very private, personal transformation. But Dylan was still Dylan and he wasn’t going to sound like anyone else… I think this is an inspired work and it will continue to touch people’s hearts. Those who can hear will hear. I hope that we can surrender our crowns. I like how you set the ethos of Restless Farewell in dialog with this song. There are only 2 roads a man can take in the end. His own road that takes him to where he and the “Fates” decide, or the one that leads to Calvary… Restless Farewell is a tradition-imbued, poetic defense for the former while WHR is a tradition-imbued turning away from it, a “seeing through it”, hence, “take of your mask.” The 2 do form a perfect circle and several others of course can be paired in such a way but few of us have seen it done this well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *