A Journey Through “Hell Time” With a Forgotten Dylan Gem
By Steve Watson
Bob Dylan wrote “Band of the Hand (It’s Hell Time Man)” as the theme to a 1986 film of the same name.
In the film, a group of prototypical troubled teens are shipped off to an isolated island as part of their rehabilitation. There, a laconic Vietnam veteran named Joe teaches them urban combat skills. The boys learn to shoot, fight, lay in ambush, and blow things up. Once they are fully indoctrinated in the ways of street vigilantism, the team leaves the island for the city and proceeds to take down a ruthless drug dealer. Somehow, the entire experience is supposed to successfully reintegrate the kids into everyday society.
This review is about the song, its place in Bob Dylan’s canon, and the possibilities of what was going on in Dylan’s head at the time of writing and recording. However, it is not possible to interpret the song without a bit of background on the film and its place in that particular period of American history and culture.
Band of the Hand (the film) is a drama, with only a few 1980’s style laughs thrown in, but its entire premise is absurd to the point of being a cartoonish. What treatment center teaches teens to be killers, or leaves a group of them in a single man’s care? In Reagan’s America, it is much more likely these teens would have been rounded up, shipped far from their home states, and placed in privately owned, for profit group homes. There they would have been subjected to sleep deprivation, verbal and psychological abuse, and endless rounds of group therapy designed to demoralize and humiliate them.
They certainly would not have been allowed time to socialize or become a coherent killing machine. And even in the arch conservative, mad dog America of that period, no one was insane enough to weaponize kids who already had a propensity for antisocial violence.
Dylan and his backing band step into this fantastical wonderland with an aggressive, bluesy jam that loosely follows the movie’s plot. The story goes that Dylan recorded the song in between shows on a tour. The whole thing was thrown together in a couple of days, but there was still time to enlist Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers along with a female backing chorus. A relentless guitar hook opens the tune and drives the mantra-like refrain, with backing vocals from Stevie Nicks and others:
In the music video, clips from the movie confirm that Hell time is indeed upon us. Explosions, fistfights, showdowns and gunplay illustrate Dylan’s angry lyrics denouncing street crime and pledging to cleanse the evildoers with righteous violence:
The witchcraft scum exploiting the dumb
Turns children into crooks and slaves
Whose heroes and healers are real stoned dealers
Who should be put in their graves
Dylan also finds time to excoriate the political machinations that make drug dealing and thuggery possible:
It is vindictive stuff, a fire and brimstone sermon, with, curiously, no religious overtones to be found. “Band of the Hand” passes judgement using secular language. It also finds secular solutions to those problems, in some of Dylan’s harshest language this side of “Hurricane:”
We’re gonna blow up your home of Voodoo
And watch it burn without any regret
We got the power, we’re the new government
You just don’t know it yet
The song is devoid of symbolism or nuance, like most of Dylan’s output from that time. “Band of the Hand” is a right wing political screed with none of the restraint seen in, for example, “Union Sundown” (from Infidels). The story it tells is a literal one. The line about being the “new government” reflects the military buildup and aggressive excursions of America under Reagan’s leadership. This is in keeping with the “America first” stance Dylan took (or pretended to take) for a few years during the 1980’s.
The tune is perhaps best viewed as the halfway point of Dylan’s decade long transition from the Christian trilogy that ended with Shot of Love in 1981. By 1989, the songwriter was creating bleak sonic landscapes that showed a dark worldview with no hope of redemption.
“Political World” was perhaps the most overtly political song from Oh Mercy; in it, Dylan is far more interested in summarizing the cold facts of American life than he is in offering up any sort of solution. Except for the happy aberration of Under the Red Sky, this pessimistic outlook would continue until Dylan’s second wind that began with “Love and Theft” in 2001.
A brutal urban war zone serves as the setting for both film and song. Like Joe and his students, who form a guerrilla army to fight for justice, the Dylan of 1986 still had enough fire to threaten the people who created that war zone. “Band of the Hand” just may be the last gasp of Dylan’s social commentary. He certainly still takes jabs at a complacent and corrupt society—witness “Pay in Blood,” from 2012’s Tempest album—but lately he seems happier exploring the Great American songbook and confounding the public’s expectations. At 76 years old, he has certainly earned the right to enjoy himself and play what he likes.
It is a shame “Band of the Hand” never showed up on any Dylan anthology or collection of one-offs. It is available on iTunes as part of the film soundtrack. Intrepid Dylan devotees may also find the 45 record containing the song through an online retailer or a thorough search of local used record bins.
And it is (at least for the moment) here
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.