Dead Man, Dead Man

By Tony Attwood

Has Dylan ever constructed another song which ends with a fade repetition of one line?  Writing this I can’t remember any, but now I’ve thought to look I’m sure to find many.

Dead Man fades out with, “Ooh I can’t stand it I can’t stand it” and in the end that is the part that influences me most of all, as I try to unravel this song – a song that at first listening seems like it should unveil its secrets easily, and yet which turns out to be an extraordinarily tough nut to crack.

The three religious albums from Dylan (of which this the last) have produced a significant amount of debate as to the meanings and direction – and we also know that Dylan took a lot of time getting the album to sound as he wanted.  But there is little comment to suggest that Dylan re-wrote the songs.  The songs were there – he just took time to get them to sound right.   So, we know we’re dealing with a finished composition which at least makes life easier.

It is argued in some places that the song is song to Christians who are adjusting Christian teaching to fit their own lives.  The argument is that these Christians are living in a hypothetical world which I must say I rather like as a phrase, although I’m to sure what it means.

But I do agree with the thesis – it is about the profession of Christian beliefs, while behaving in a way that is utterly contradictory to Christian forgiveness.  And, through a most circuitous route (as I’ll reveal in this article) I’ve ended up thinking about Pearl Harbour, and the American response to that, which was ultimately the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

OK that’s a long journey.  I’ll try and explain…

It is widely argued that the song is part of Dylan’s move from Christianity, the last of the three albums dealing with the theme.  OK, so we know the overall context.  But is this a case of an evangelist telling the world to turn to Jesus and reject the Devil?  Or a comment on the way America, the American people, and US government have turned Christianity upside down in following rampant capitalism?

Or something a lot more bizarre?  Here’s a thought: take the reggae style, think of Haiti and the voodoo religion.  Then think, “Dead Man, Dead Man, When will you arise?”

That thought just occurred to me when writing this.  Of course there is no context beyond the fact that it is in the musical style of the region – it doesn’t fit what we know of Dylan at the time, and the other music he was producing, but I include the point just to show how hard it can be to get to the bottom of all this.   Putting forward a case to say this song is about Haiti is possible – although let me stress, I am not going to do that here!

But the choice of reggae is interesting.  The only other reggae based song I can think of is “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” from “Slow Train Coming”.  Dylan knows how to do it, but doesn’t seem that interested.  If there are other reggae arrangements sung by Dylan do let me know – I find it an interesting theme.

Uttering idle words from a reprobate mind
Clinging to strange promises, dying on the vine
Never being able to separate the good from the bad
Ooh, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it
It’s making me feel so sad

Dead man, dead man
When will you arise?
Cobwebs in your mind
Dust upon your eyes

I would find it very hard to say that the “Dead man” in the chorus is Jesus, for a devout believer would surely not suggest that Jesus had “Cobwebs in your mind.”   It just doesn’t work for me.  But if not that, what?  Is it that the first two lines are asking when the Second Coming as depicted in the Book of Revelations will occur, while the last two lines of the chorus are about the government?  It’s a bit obscure, but it works.

This album was released in August 1981.  In an interview in 1983 with New Musical Express (the UK based weekly rock music magazine) Dylan said, “To those who care where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to “Shot of Love”. It’s my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. It’s all there in that one song.”

OK that takes us in one direction, but between April and May of that year Dylan recorded  Infidels which takes us somewhere else.  His statement suddenly seems less definitive than he appears to make it seem in that interview.

By 1997, things were different.  In an interview with Newsweek Dylan said, “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else…I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity.”

So can we divine anything from all this?  That Dylan learns from his own creative process?  Almost certainly yes, just as virtually every highly creative person does.  If he ever communicates with a higher plane he does it through composition.  I can believe that.

But we must also note that Shot of Love opens side one of the album of the same name, Dead Man side two.  So although Dead Man is not as important as Shot of Love, it is important.

Musically Dead Man is simple.  Basically two chords (I and V), in both chorus and verse.  Bass and drums give us the reggae feel, the bass being particularly well played, never over done, often giving us just a taste of what’s there – sparse to the point of disappearing and yet returning to define the underpinning of the song.  It is a superb performance with superb production.

But still, hearing it afresh now, that opening verse comes across as an attack on the most powerful and overtly Christian country, and its handling of its affairs.  So there we have a meaning, but immediately that meaning doesn’t seem to work so well in verse two, the opening line of which is particularly difficult.

Satan got you by the heel, there’s a bird’s nest in your hair
Do you have any faith at all? Do you have any love to share?
The way that you hold your head, cursing God with every move
Ooh, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it
What are you trying to prove?

Certainly on the reverse of the album cover Dylan could be said to have  a bird’s nest in his hair. Is it that?  Or… a bird’s nests are built usually in trees and the are organic growing things serving the purpose of continuing the species.   Who or what is he talking about here?  People in general who say, “For God’s sake!”  The man with cobwebs in his mind?  It is an issue that is hard to resolve for the moment.

Verse three adds to the thought that the song is about contemporary American politics, but it can also be about the whole country.

The glamour and the bright lights and the politics of sin
The ghetto that you build for me is the one you’re living in
The race of the engine that overrules your heart
Ooh, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it
Pretending that you’re so smart

This also now seems to be about everyone preaching everything as the way forward to solving all the problems of the world.  “I am right – don’t listen to everyone else.”  Suddenly the thought is there – is he talking about contemporary evangelical preachers who collect vast sums of money from their followers, and live the high life on it?

What are you trying to overpower me with, the doctrine or the gun?
My back is already to the wall, where can I run?
The tuxedo that you’re wearing, the flower in your lapel
Ooh, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it
You want to take me down to hell

This takes us back to politics.  I’m left with the line “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” the phrase, and eventually the song, which came out of Pearl Harbour.  The peace and the machine gun.  Only as I try to balance the two contradictions of the love expressed in the New Testament and the need to fight on occasion for all you believe in, does this song start to make sense.  In a way we are all living the contradiction, wanting a peaceful, honourable, decent, honest society to live in, and instead forced to live in a world of corruption and greed.

No one knows the answer, which is why we have the line “Pretending you’re so smart”.  No one really can do this balancing act of how the Christian full of brotherly love behaves when faced by Pearl Harbour or the Nazis.

With this in mind, I looked forwards to what happened next.

This song was recorded two years ahead of “Blind Willie McTell” but who knows (without Dylan telling us) when he first started to sketch that masterpiece with the lines:

“Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is”

So I finally struggle to the conclusion.  Dead Man Dead Man (1981) was a stepping stone along the way to Blind Willie McTell’s “power and greed” statement in 1983.   To me that is the only interpretation that works.  It is an expression of dislike of a supposedly Christian government, and all that it does to defend its power.

I appreciate you may disagree – I just put this forward as the hypothesis that seems to work most for.

Index to all the songs.

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2 Responses to Dead Man, Dead Man

  1. Patrick Sludden says:

    Hi Tony, if I recall correctly Bob done a couple of songs ‘reggae’ style on the 78 tour. Knocking On Heavens Door and Don’t Think Twice are performed reggae style and are on’Live at Budokan’

  2. Linda Carter says:

    Dead man = old man nature is what we as Christians are to reckon dead and let the new man, after Christ, prevail. It’s a constant struggle to renew the mind and be lead by the spirit of God. I believe that’s what Bob was talking about.

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