License to kill: Bob tells us the moon landings were not such a good idea.

By Tony Attwood

Why does Bob have this thing against the space exploration programme?  Why does he believe that we are all doomed?

While such a belief comes, I guess, out of both the Old and New Testament, when those are removed from the equation, I find it hard to grasp what can lead him to this conclusion.

Like all living creatures we have evolved (unless of course you are a creationist in which case we were created as we are and the work of Darwin and the whole notion of the endlessly modified DNA is a fairy story), and we evolve by exploring, experimenting, challenging, trying, doing.  If we stop that a large part of our humanity goes.

Now of course that sort of experimentation could well become our downfall as we bring back to earth an alien virus that does us all in, but even so, does that risk mean we should not experiment?

It is the fundamental difference between the era before the 16th century when all knowledge was that which was in the Bible, and thereafter when men like Copernicus and Galileo observed and theorised, without being restricted by the Christians, except when forced to recant as for example was Galileo.

Turning back the clock and stopping scientific exploration seems impossible – and to me unreasonable.  I want modern medicine to be available to myself and my family.  And actually I am interested in what it is that holds galaxies together and what forces the universe to expand ever faster.  Oh and I quite like the fact that my house stays warm in winter, and I can play my Bob Dylan CDs while typing this on my PC.

So in this song I am not with Bob at all.

Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don’t change soon, he will
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon

OK, it’s Bob’s point of view, and I just don’t get it at all.  And why should I?  He’s not writing for me after all.  He’s got this woman who pops up in the chorus, and … well, I don’t know.

It is of course possible that mankind is


 hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies

but actually that’s not right, because the scientist (if we are still speaking about the scientist) is the last person who just believes his eyes.  If I look across a football pitch and see a man at the other end of the pitch looking 2 inches tall, I don’t think he has shrunk – I don’t believe my eyes only, because I accept the scientific explanation that there is a thing called perspective.  And I know we have perspective because it gives an evolutionary advantage.  We can take in and understand the distance, and see events far away as one unit, and we can deal with the person or animal right up close to us.

So by the time we get to


Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled
Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way

I’ve lost it.

I have read the interpretation that says this is what you get with a Godless world.  Man just does his own thing and in the end blows it all up.  Maybe, and certainly looking at climate change (in that I do not follow the official line of President Trump that it is all an invention of the wind farm industry and natural causes) it could be true.  Yes, some days I fear for the future my grandchildren will have.

But I also know Bob has talked about his disapproval of the space exploration programme.

I do appreciate that

Now he worships at an altar
Of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled

is a reflection of man’s ability to destroy himself, but it is not all a matter of philosophy and prayer.  At least not in my book.

Anyway, if you are interested, there is a studio version on line – which looks to me like it is mimed.

The Letterman TV show version is more fun.  Here are three songs including Licence


Or if you prefer just Licence on its own.

As for the music, yes it is a very effective and clever use of primarily just three chords (C, Am, G, and later F) with a D minor thrown in, in the middle 8.  But somehow the music doesn’t redeem the lyrics, and the lyrics don’t uplift the music.

And what Dylan said, at a concert in January 1986 in Sydney, really didn’t do anything to make me fell better about the piece:

“These people had no business going up there. Like, there’s no enough problem on Earth to solve.  So I want to dedicate this song to all those poor people, who were fooled into going up there.”

Fooled Bob?  No, they were scientists.  And without the scientists you wouldn’t have a microphone.  Or a pain killer for a headache.  Or a recording studio to work in.


The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there


  1. With everything that Dylan has absorbed over the years I don’t think an analytical view of his lyrics/music can tell his truth. What I hear in this simple yet wonderful song is his basic faith combined with oblique references to the myths of Icarus and Narcissus and a vision of his world. The changing repetition of the woman in the chorus has beauty and genius. Bob Dylan’s music is meant to be felt.

  2. O my God man-I’ll never understand how so many intelligent people-you are supposed to be intelligent if you are a scientist, am I right??-can be so daft. Look at the bottom of a rocket. That is something no one can argue away with a paltry understanding of a text: you have to destroy and scorch the Earth behind you to leave it. IT DOESN”T WORK ANY OTHER WAY!!! If you’re receptive enough to listen to a song at least post a review AFTER YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT’S BEING SAID!!! No he’s not talking about the same person when he sings:
    Well he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
    Are you so vain that he’s poking at your profession?
    And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
    All he believes are his eyes
    And his eyes, they just tell him lies
    And the verse that deals with religion talks about how people just go to Church to perform lip service. When the preacher mentions that the oppressed and desperate of the world have Jesus as a friend-that’s their mirror. They can go home then because they got what they came for. These are some very deep lyrics that you are completely ruining because you are admittedly incapable of grasping them. The world needs these lyrics-look what it gets in their absence!! And you have nothing better to do than besmirching something we all need and can grasp onto. I weep for you and your boring conservative mind, and curse you for the atrocity you’ve committed with your review.

  3. Paul Fitzgibbons, one of the most interesting things I have learned in the 12 or so years of running this site is that people who disagree with the writer fall into two camps. Those who are able to make their points without calling the writer names and suggesting they are stupid, and those who use evidence, calmly to point out where the writer is wrong.
    The former group tend to provide no evidence beyond the evidence of their own eyes, the latter use scientific analysis.
    In the case of the scorched earth of which you speak however, the launch platform I looked at had a solid rocket booster ignition Overpressure Suppression System to reduce the effect of pressure caused when the solid rocket boosters ignite. A water spray system provided a cushion of water directed down into and around the primary flame hole beneath the solid rocket boosters, and a secondary water spray blocked the path of pressure waves to decrease the intensity of pressure at the launch site.

    If you have ever seen a space shuttle launch, the white smoke is steam from those millions of gallons of water evaporating. The actual exhaust smoke from the solid rocket motors goes out the other end of the launch pad through the Flame Deflector System.

  4. Blaming space exploration for man’s misdeeds and doom is misguided. Exploration and expansion is in man’s nature since our beginning.

    However, replace the idea of space exploration with use of oil, and the song makes perfect sense. Dylan misplaced his use of man’s technology In the wrong place. The problem of climate change was brought to general knowledge by Al Gore in the US presidential election. The problem has only grown worse, and much worse sine 2016 when Mr. Attwood wrote this piece.

    Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
    And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
    All he believe are his eyes
    And his eyes, they just tell him lies.

    These lines from Dylan are truer than ever with Donald Trump in office, and dictators who have no regard for the planet or those who live on it.

  5. Bob Dylan is a prophet. Could he envision Trump in 1983? No, but he sensed him:
    “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
    And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled
    Oh, man is opposed to fair play
    He wants it all and he wants it his way”

    Same with the misinformation and manipulation that has taken over the minds of so many Americans:
    “…he’s afraid and confused
    And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
    All he believes are his eyes
    And his eyes, they just tell him lies”

    But what do I know? I’m just a woman on the block. (no, not JLo.)

  6. Some interesting interpretations of “Licence to Kill”. What I heard – or thought I heard – was a description of the way political leaders – with the authority to make decisions regarding the invasion of and attacks on another country for whatever reason – oversee armies comprised of people ultimately provided with permission to kill the “enemy”. The woman “on my block” to me represents the average, reasonably intelligent person who cannot understand why wars occur, and keeps asking who will have the courage to stop the insanity of warfare. The current situation in Europe is a tragic example of what happens when someone believes they have the right to invade and kill at will. Soldiers on the ground, trained to follow orders, implement the “Licence to Kill”. And who can stop this from happening? This is an interesting song with so many layers of meaning, and I think this is why Dylan’s writing was correctly identified as worthy of, and acknowledged by, the Award of Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.

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