Shot of Love

By Tony Attwood

Much of the commentary over the years has focussed on ..mocked my God, humiliated my friends – a line that relates to the torment of Christ as reflected in Matthew 10:34 and to which I shall return later in this piece.

But there is another place to start – perversely the last verse:

What makes the wind want to blow tonight?
Don’t even feel like crossing the street and my car ain’t acting right
Called home, everybody seemed to have moved away
My conscience is beginning to bother me today

Taking this verse on its own doesn’t necessarily lead us in the right direction, but stay with me a moment on this.   It is the theme of loss and isolation – the traveller has returned home from his journeys and finds the world has changed.  The world continues – the wind blows – but (the singer says) I don’t want to be part of this world.  Everyone has gone, my old world has past me by.  And now I start to get worried about all that I have done and experienced in the past?  How do I cope with all this change?

So we have commentators that see verse two as reflecting 1 John 4:18, while  Verse 3 relates to 1 Corinthians 13:2.   Verses 4 and 5 related to Matthew 5:43-44.  And there’s me saying, no, that is all a step too far.

I admit at once I am far from the best person to comment on this.  I am not a Christian although out of my interest for the way in which Christian beliefs are propagated I have of my own volition studied the Bible somewhat more than some people who follow the faith do.  So I do  have a spot of knowledge.

Starting from my sceptical viewpoint I take the line

Tattooed my babies with a poison pen

and I ask what on earth does this mean?  My babies?   His songs?   His children?

Maybe, but then the uncertainty  is what you get from being allegorical.  If Dylan told it really as it is, he would be about 1% of the writer he has been through his life.  Compare anything we are considering on this web site with Woody Guthery’s “No Church Tonight”

Preacher Bill come to our house,
One Sunday bright and fine,
To fill his belly with sweet potatoes,
Biscuits, chicken and wine.
He took our Nelly back up the barn,
And carried on a sight,
I heard him whisper in her ear,
“There ‘ll be no church tonight.”

Guthery tells us a tale and the understanding is simple: priests can do things they shouldn’t.  But Dylan is way, way beyond this simplicity and that is why his works are so much more worthy of analysis than Guthery.  He takes us somewhere quite different.

Wikipedia suggests that this Dylan line perhaps refers to the “hostility Dylan’s songs had met among the media and in concerts”.  Really?  Is he still thinking back to the “Judas” concert where he played in front of an electric band to the dismay of purists?  After all this time?

Try another approach: this album includes the utterly haunting “Lenny Bruce is Dead” which Dylan claimed he didn’t know why he wrote.  Fair enough – the only people who really understand their consciousness are the Swami’s of the order founded by Adi Shankara, and Dylan’s not in that league.  But all of us have the ability to track back into our inner worlds and pull out a whole range of unconnected issues even if we can’t make sense of the whole thing.

So my point is, if Dylan did this with “Lenny Bruce”, why not with “Shot of Love”?

Some of the links between “Shove of Love” and the New Testament go beyond probability for me (although I reiterate I am not a Christian and therefore approach this from an outsider’s point of view).  Quite how “Mocked my God, Humiliated my friends.” directly relates to 1 Peter 4:8 I can’t tell you.  I leave that to others.

“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.”   So said Bob Dylan as I quoted in the review of Dead Man Dead Man.  So this song perhaps more than any other deserves further and further inspection.

But still, what do we find?

Mostly the song is on one chord.  Only the line “Shot of Love” has a chord change.  Thus it is a melodic song – all the interest comes from the way the melody takes on the word, but the melody itself is not that original or unusual.  It is full of “blues” notes (the flattened third and 7th) and although great fun, is not a triumph of itself.  It is in fact that arrangement that carries us through.  The song in fact is saved by the arrangement.

Let’s look at the words further…

Don’t need a shot of heroin to kill my disease
Don’t need a shot of turpentine, only bring me to my knees
Don’t need a shot of codeine to help me to repent
Don’t need a shot of whiskey, help me be president

I need a shot of love, I need a shot of love

To me it is simple.  If we didn’t have all this talk about Dylan and religion, we’d be back with “All you need is love” –  I need love to make me feel better.  And don’t we all?

Doctor, can you hear me? I need some Medicaid
I seen the kingdoms of the world and it’s making me feel afraid
What I got ain’t painful, it’s just bound to kill me dead
Like the men that followed Jesus when they put a price upon His head

OK, Jesus gets a mention, but put the whole song together and it is much more “Hard Rain” than anything else.  Everything is going wrong, and it is hurting me, because there is nothing I can do about it.  Hard Rain is gonna fall.

Following this approach, what we find is that the next verse quite simply says, “I don’t need to explain why I am what I am.  I need to be loved, just like we all do.”

I don’t need no alibi when I’m spending time with you
I’ve heard all of them rumours and you have heard ’em too
Don’t show me no picture show or give me no book to read
It don’t satisfy the hurt inside nor the habit that it feeds

Now let me pause and make another point.  When I was taught literary criticism, and subsequently physics, I found in one place the two subjects were cojoined.  What I was taught in both subjects is that whenever there are several possible answers to a conundrum and you can’t choose between them, you choose the simplest, until other evidence comes along.  So we believe that men did indeed set foot on the Moon rather than it being set up as a giant hoax in a studio, because it fits with man’s exploration first of the earth and then of the solar system.  The conspiracy of the TV stations is a much more complex affair which among other things requires a huge amount of people to keep very quiet about the conspiracy.

So with Dylan.  Understanding this request for love as a request for love is much simpler than trying to link it with a series of verses from the New Testament.

Of course there are significant problems with interpreting Dylan here.  As we have seen so often in his songs he is not logical about time, nor consistent in terms of the point of view.  So it is again here.

Why would I want to take your life?
You’ve only murdered my father, raped his wife
Tattooed my babies with a poison pen
Mocked my God, humiliated my friends

Notice that the mocking of God is placed on an equal footing with the humiliation of friends, yet no Christian writing as a Christian would ever say that.  God and Jesus above all other things.  And still we don’t know what or who those babies are.

But here is a different explanation…

“And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again” (Matthew 10:34).

“Will ye speak wickedly for God? and talk deceitfully for him? Will ye accept his person? will ye contend for God? Is it good that he should search you out? or as one man mocketh another, do ye so mock him?”  Job 13:7-9,

Of course we each choose.  Mine is with the simpler more secular answer, but if you want to follow the Biblical answer, obviously you can.

Next we have the verse that sets us totally among every day life, the feeling that we all get at some time that we just can’t settle, can’t find where we want to be, who we are…

Don’t want to be with nobody tonight
Veronica not around nowhere, Mavis just ain’t right
There’s a man that hates me and he’s swift, smooth and near
Am I supposed to set back and wait until he’s here?

The man who hates him… the critic, the type of maniac that killed John Lennon…

And so we reach that last verse, which is where I started…

What makes the wind want to blow tonight?
Don’t even feel like crossing the street and my car ain’t acting right
Called home, everybody seemed to have moved away
My conscience is beginning to bother me today

As Dylan says, “I need a shot of love,” to which I would reply…

Don’t we all!

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  1. Not being loved is bad, but not loving is worse. The song’s main distress is being unequal to the demands of love–like the men that followed Jesus when they put a price upon his head. Shots are used to kill pain, but also to prompt or enable action. If only the capacity for real love could be given by a shot. Pain is not the problem here, but disability.

  2. A great very underrated song. I think it is really a series of references to “good reasons”(historical, cultural, and of common every day life) to be resentful, vengeful, distrustful, anguished or discouraged as an individual, a race, a nation, a political leader, a follower of a religion, and Dylan’s plea to receive or give a shot of love as a better answer to those reasons. And the great fun thing is the way he weaves poetic powerful images singing it all on this sort of northamerican Indian (a nation with its good reasons for resentment) war ritual musical rythm. Jews, christians, Muslims, afroamericans, every conquered nation could find refferences here. And I believe maybe there is also a little joke in his mentioning of his old friend and collaborator Mavis not “being right” as a love partner. I thank you for your blog; interesting and fun.

  3. “For those who care about where Bob Dylan is, they should listen to” Shot of Love “. It’s my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritual, musical, romantic and whatever. It shows where my preferences lie It’s all there in that one song. “” he told NME.
    A message to someone?
    He previously said that he felt like Gregory Peck who was shot in the back in a movie he had seen.

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