Pay in Blood: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

What is the most appalling word you could say to a young Jewish musician?

Actually, that’s a dumb question, because although I’ve heard most of them, being born and brought up in a part of North London where the insults are still heard, but not being Jewish, I don’t really know the answer.

But I can think of one.  Given that Christianity records that Jesus Chris was killed by Jews and betrayed by Judas Iscariot into the hands of the Sanhedrin priests in return for thirty silver coins, calling a young Jewish man “Judas” must be pretty high on the list of insults.

So when we consider May 17, 1966, the day when Keith Butler, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, shouted the word “Judas” at Dylan.

Dylan replied, “You’re a liar!” and a moment later “Play it fucking loud”.

And there it stayed, a moment in Dylan’s history, until Pay in Blood.   Rolling Stone made it the 9th best song of the year and in reviewing it everyone focuses on the extraordinary lyrics.  But as always with Dylan we need to consider more than this – and particularly more than the lyrics we can make fit into our own preferred interpretation.

The conensus is that this is vicious – the most vicious song ever some say.   “It’s like a pilot pitch for Masters of War” is one of the comments that I rather liked.

The music however tells us something.  What we notice most of the time is the rocking motion of the chords C – F – C.   These chords can rock, because they both contain the note C, which means the bass can on occasion hold the C, and let the chords switch around above.  They rock back and forth in a gentle way that, when you focus on them, seems very odd, considering the lyrics.

Because even with the lyrics this gives us a sense of security, of certainty, of knowing where we are.  But then in each verse, suddenly that is pulled away from us – as indeed it needs to be, because these lyrics are not lyrics to be comfortable with.

The Masters of War comparison is interesting because in that song the music is driven on by the relentless beat that the guitar chords incorporate – it pounds away and won’t let go.  But here the band doesn’t do this, but time and again it lulls us into this security, only to wrench us out by playing two chords that don’t give us a rocking motion at all – D minor and A minor.  Now there’s nothing amiss here – these two chords fit perfectly in the key of C major that Dylan is composing in.  But the jerkiness or these two chords is so different from the lilting rocking motion, it almost throws us overboard.

So we are in a strange world.   Hard difficult words, against a gentle rocking rhythm broken suddenly by two lines that take us to the edge of the cliff, and back.

This is how it works in verse one…   I have written the two lines based on the minor chords in italics.

Well I’m grinding my life out, steady and sure
Nothing more wretched than what I must endure
I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun
I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done
Sooner or later you make a mistake,
I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break
Legs and arms and body and bone
I pay in blood, but not my own.

After this we have a musical pause, which carries on the rocking motion, without any notion that the minor chord disruption in lines five and six happened.  One is left blinking, looking around, asking “what the hell happened there?”

Which is a bit like the “Judas” shout.  At  the time, we all knew what it meant – the expression of the annoyance that Dylan had turned his back on the solo guitar and singer approach of his early days, and ventured into rock with its electric guitars.  Here “Judas” just means, you have betrayed us.  But shouted at a young Jewish guy, it takes on a different meaning.

The image the lyrics give us is of an old man who is bitter about what others have done.  In the song we don’t know what they have done, and if “you” is one person or a group or the government or everyone.

The old man is powerless, but by sitting there, rocking back and forth (like an old timer on the veranda of his southern home looking out across main street in his small town) he is just waiting for that mistake to happen.

From this very first intermission section (lines five and six) we are left wondering.  Who is it Bob?  Who are you targeting this time?

I think that it is viable to think that after all this time it is Dylan’s answer to the “Judas” shout.

My starting point is a Rolling Stone interview with Mikal Gilmore Dylan said, “These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified’.   All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”

Of course arguments have been made that this is a religious song and the blood is the blood of Christ.  The view is that, “Nothing more wretched than what I must endure” relates to Paul’s question in Romans 7:24 “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

But to make this work you have to argue that Dylan has been writing religious songs all the time, so that “Feel like my soul has turned into steel, I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal. . .” is not about psychological scars from betrayal, but rather the scars not healed by the Son of God. (Sun/Son – clever eh?)

This is given depth by the references to stoning to death – which Leviticus is rather keen on for the sin of adultery, which if I read my gossip columns correctly would rather do it for Bob.

The trouble with these arguments is that each one stretches a point more and more.  The sun / Son idea, and seeeing “The more I die, the more I live” not as just a juxtaposition of concepts that every poet worthy of the name can get up to, but instead “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), really does take elasticity too far.  

The problem is that Dylan doesn’t need to do this sort of long-distance expansion of notions, because he is perfectly capable of saying what he wants to say.  “Come you masters of war you build the big guns” is about as direct as you can be, as is “You’ve gotta serve somebody”.

The poetry and metaphors of the Bible are beautiful (except perhaps when it comes to casting out people who approach the house of the Lord in clothes made of two cloths) but Dylan is a fine poet himself, and he doesn’t need obscure half references – especially not after Trouble.   Remember the verse….

Drought and starvation, packaging of the soul, Persecution, execution, governments out of control, You can see the writing on the wall inviting trouble. 

You don’t come through a religious conversion and write lines like that and then place loads of Biblical references that only the intelligencia will get, in a song a few years later.

So ok, “You’ve got the same eyes that your mother does, if only you could prove who your father was. . .” could be a reference to the virgin birth, but from what I know of Dylan’s journey I’d say he’s simply calling the person a bastard.

In the Old Testament, as I (an atheist) understand such matters, the blood is the soul – the soul is in your blood.   “It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life”.  Yes, its our old “stone them to death” pal the Book of Laws  (Leviticus 17:11).  “I pay in blood, but not my own” is, in this interpretation, the rejection of one’s own blood being the key to one’s soul, because we don’t have souls.  We have what we make of ourselves, our morality, our decision to be good, kind, loving, helpful people.

So, for me, the interpretation of this song as a Christian commentary makes no sense at all at any literary level.  And it fails at the musical level.

But as an old man looking back on that notorious “Judas” shout, it does make sense musically and lyrically.

Dylan in this song is the free-spirit, independent thinker, rocking in his rocking chair on the veranda, cursing those who have caused him problems and anguish in the past.

I take this view as the opening instrumental section gives no hint of any anger to come – but old men sitting in their rocking chairs can be vicious in their commentaries.   “You’re gonna get it, not me” is the message as he rocks back and forth, back and forth.

Sooner or later you make a mistake, I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break

This is an old man’s revenge.  For Dylan, the meaning is that he has the music, the music that he has created and which will live for hundreds and hundreds of years after he is gone.

Now I must admit I don’t get every reference – I’ve puzzled over the Southern Zone for some time, but without much luck.  There is a book called The Southern Zone which is about drugs, (but that would have been “I’ve circled around the Southern Zone”) and I think we can be fairly sure this is not about the Palmar Sur Airport in Costa Rica.   southern zone, is receiving international status with a $42 million expansion to the national airport, Palmar Sur Airport

But other lines are wonderful in that constant rocking rhythm, “Low cards are what I’ve got” is superb, followed by “But I’ll play this hand whether I like it or not”

Yes there is the reference to God in the song, but there’s also, Someone must have slipped a drug in your wine, You gulped it down and you cross the line”.   

But as always with Bob, you pay your money and take your choice.

Index of reviews.

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7 Responses to Pay in Blood: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Oded says:

    You are one of the dest dylanologists ever! thanks so much, once again.

  2. Oded says:


    Not that it 100% works for me, but just to strengthen your point, Dylan changes 2 beautiful lines in the lyrics (at least since 2013 Tour, and up until 2015),
    so instead of:
    You got the same eyes that your mother does
    If only you could prove who your father was

    You get
    Life is short, and it don’t last too long
    They’ll hang you in the morning, for singing a song
    Check it out

  3. Ron Doub says:

    Nothing quite so ironic as an atheist attempting to interprete a believer’s poem

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Ron I can think of plenty of things far more ironic than that. In fact, come to think of it, I am not sure where the irony is. If only people sharing the same view interpret each other’s work, how do we ever get to see the deeper meanings that impact on the majority? For the majority are always excluded if only people of like mind can comment on each other’s work without it being ironic.

  5. Bob says:

    So ok, “You’ve got the same eyes that your mother does, if only you could prove who your father was. . .” could be a reference to the virgin birth?????

    No, come on. He isnt Judas.

    This is a reference to Obama, who reversed his morals and rules the nation.

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    Some evidence or theoretical base would be nice Bob.

  7. IshKaBiddle says:

    It’s Obama? really?

    If you really believe that, then it’s probably about you.

    The really great thing about analysing Dylan’s songs is, like analysing Lennon’s songs… simple.

    You don’t have to do it.

    All you have to do is dig it.

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