By Tony Attwood
This is the song that Dylan really liked and held on to from the Christian period – not a song about what happens to those of us who have not converted after the Second Coming, but a simple piece of rhetorical questions about the arrest of Jesus. It lasted 23 years on the concert tour getting 329 outings – and you don’t play a song that many times unless you really, really like it.
It is also one of very few songs that Dylan has written (in fact as I write this I am struggling to think of any others) in which the form of the music is set to follow the form of the words. For here we have a step by step progression of the chords rising upwards through the keys, to reflect (as I see it) the step by step movement through the garden and onwards.
It is a tough thing to achieve – to balance the words and that relenting push upwards, and even harder when you have some gospel singers in tow. That Dylan makes a fair fist of it, is a great tribute to his writing skills, even if (at least to me, if to no one else) after a while it all gets a bit much, this endless, step, step, step.
Music can be step by step, but generally speaking the effect is all very unsubtle. There is no gentle glide between chords, but the remorseless climbing of the ladder until you have gone through the whole octave and start again.
And in many ways that’s the problem. When you are doing something like this and starting again and again it seems endless and ultimately musically pointless.
Allen Ginsberg said that when Dylan and he, and some others, had been out trick or treating on All Hallows Eve he had had a harmonium with him, and played the chord sequence there. And you can understand why, with the guys in masks going around and larking about. It is suited for the representation of the supernatural beings in masks scaring inhabitants.
But does that really make it suitable as a song about the arrest of God’s son? I’m really not too sure. As you have probably gathered by now, for me it just grates.
Let me try and explain a little.
The opening line has the chords B, F#, G#m, G+
Now we are in the key of B, and those first three chords are just fine and dandy – your regular chords from the key of B. What we then have is G+, and if you have been with me through quite a few of these reviews, you might be taken aback by the “+”. In fact I can’t think when else Dylan uses an augmented chord – which is what the + stands for.
Instead of play G, B, D (the notes that make up the chord of G) they play G, B, D#.
Now even if they played G, B, D this would be a sudden jolt, because the chord of G has no place in a song in B major. But to play G+ is to emphasise the step even more. It is this one moment that defines the whole remorseless movement upwards, which I am not overwhelmed by.
In fact, I can just see Ginsberg and the troupe making an exaggerated step forward like a bunch of clowns in the circus each time they get to G+.
So my problem is that the music is too artificial for such a profound subject. By the second line we seem to have got ourselves into E flat, by the third we’ve leaped into G, which we then suddenly stay for two lines when the jump up to A, and then another leap we are in B which is where we started.
For me, as a small-time musician, it is pretty horrible – the sort of fun and games one has with children who have just learned to play barre chords on the guitar, or how to move the hands upwards chromatically playing chords on the piano. There is no subtlety at all; it is a musical exercise.
But clearly Dylan loved it, and loved the arrangement created around the piece. It most certainly is a very un-Dylan song musically, and as I say I just can’t think what else it comes from and what it leads into. But then when taking giant steps what else can you do but take giant steps?
Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone said in relation to religious works like this “he’s too inventive, too big for the genre”, but if that is so here, I would say, it is the wrong sort of invention.
The last song I looked at before writing this review was “Things have changed” which has just four chords in it, and which runs smoothly throughout taking us around the subject of dislocation. It works beautifully, and deserves the Oscar beyond doubt for the subtlety of music and lyrics combined.
Here there is no subtlety either in lyric or music. Indeed if I strip out the repeats the opening verse reads
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?
Did they hear when He told Peter, “Peter, put up your sword”?
You don’t need 20 odd chord changes to put that message across – in (of course) my opinion. If I set out the rest of the lyrics below with the repeats taken out, it becomes a simple song, and generally speaking in song writing simple songs don’t benefit from complex musical arrangements….
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?
Nicodemus came at night so he wouldn’t be seen by men
Saying, “Master, tell me why a man must be born again”
When He healed the blind and crippled, did they see?
When He said, “Pick up your bed and walk, why must you criticize?
Same thing My Father do, I can do likewise”
Did they speak out against Him, did they dare?
The multitude wanted to make Him king, put a crown upon His head
Why did He slip away to a quiet place instead?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
He said, “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth”
Did they know right then and there what the power was worth?
But on the other hand Bob Dylan is the genius who has written many of the greatest songs of the 20th century. I’m just a guy who amuses himself writing commentaries upon them, so what do I know?
Bob Dylan open discussion group on Facebook. Or go onto Facebook and search for “Untold Dylan”
- Index of all the songs on the site
- Dylan’s best opening lines: an index
- How Dylan writes songs, and other articles.
- Dylan’s songs in the order they were written.
- Watered down love. A review of Dylan’s song, and what Pope John Paul II had to say about Bob’s writing.
- The New Covenant: Covenant Woman. One of Dylan’s more confusing songs.
- You changed my life: why Dylan’s song was left behind
- Blessed is the name: Dylan loved to sing it but never recorded it
- Saving Grace: the origins and meanings within Bob Dylan’s song.