“Are You Ready?” The Christian side of Positively Fourth Street.

By Tony Attwood

The simple fact that “Are you ready?” opens with, and regularly repeats, the same three word question, over and over and over again, tells us most clearly that this is pure preaching in the gospel music style.   The simple fact that “Are you ready?” opens with, and constantly repeats, the same three chord routine, over and over again, tells us that Bob Dylan was not at his most creative in this song.

“Are you ready?” takes the description of the end of all things from the various Biblical sources (Revelations of course but also Isiah, Luke, Matthew, and quite probably several other sources), and puts it to us.  We are either ready or not.

Of course for people like me the question

Have you decided whether you want to be
In heaven or in hell?

is the troublesome one.  Of course I want to be in heaven – unless heaven turns out to be the heaven of David Byrne’s description with Talking Heads…

The band in Heaven plays my favorite song.
They play it once again, they play it all night long.

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

then I really don’t want to be there at all.  Although the opposite doesn’t actually sound very attractive either.  Perhaps I would sooner be bored still rather than tortured.

The real problem is that I want to be seen as one of the good guys because I’ve behaved in a fairly decent way most of the time, rather than because I have acknowledged Jesus as my Lord and Master.  But then that’s my problem.

Dave Bell wrote that Byrne’s “Heaven” (from Fear of Music) epitomises “pop as Samuel Beckett might write it: tedious, beautiful and desperate”.  Clinton Heylin called “Are you ready?” the “born again equivalent of Positively Fourth Street”.   There’s a live version complete with introduction of the entire band and the justification that “someone’s gotta tell you about Jesus” which takes up the first three and bit minutes.   Quite honestly to me it sounds like a bit of a mess at times… which maybe explains why Bob looks around at the start to make sure everyone is there

But Positively 4th Street?  Well, that comment really made me think quite a lot, and yes Bob is telling us that if we are not with Him we’re against Him with the same decisiveness that he told the recipient of his ire on 4th Street “You just want to be on the side that’s winning.”

And that made me think that curiously, doesn’t a profound belief in the Lord that Dylan held at this time, the belief in a world in which “you’ve either got faith or you’ve got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground” is equal a desire to be on the side that’s winning just like 4th Street.

The problem is that the phenomenally powerful opening of 4th Street…

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there, grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you gota helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that’s winning

is exactly how Dylan’s Christianity comes across to me.  You have to be on the right side in order to get salvation and eternal life, and to gain eternal life you really do have to be on the religious equivalent “the side that’s winning”.  People like me, who just want to be good and decent human beings, are not just left out in the cold, but (in Bob’s version of the Christian message at this point) get kicked out into the furnace (if that is not too much of a contradiction).

Now I have to admit that most of the churchgoers that I have known in my life are not like this – and this is really my point. Dylan’s black and white philosophy in “Are you ready?” isn’t the Christianity I have seen.  Those Christians that I have known could fully understand where I was and what I was, and they had no issue with my lack of faith.

But no, Bob at this time was completely unforgiving.

Are you ready to meet Jesus?
Are you where you ought to be?
Will He know you when He sees you
Or will He say, “Depart from Me”?

And then we have my real problem, when he asks

Am I ready to lay down my life for the brethren
And to take up my cross?
Have I surrendered to the will of God
Or am I still acting like the boss?

Well, actually, neither Bob.

The real 4th Street moment then appears

Have you got some unfinished business?
Is there something holding you back?
Are you thinking for yourself
Or are you following the pack?

And so by that moment we really know where we’ve been put.

Musically it is a very simple blues rap – G, C, Bb, G – it just don’t get simpler than that.  Yes, the message is as simple as the music; the music is as simple as the message.

Dylan first played the song in public on 8 February 1980, and he finally had done with it 18 months later, having played in 30 times in concerts.

I doubt that many people were converted by the question, “Are you ready to meet Jesus?” but rather sadly I suspect a few thought that Bob had lost it – just at the moment Bob thought he had found it.  Problem was, “it” was different in each case.

As he said at the end, “I hope you’re ready.”  I guess I just disappointed him.

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