By Tony Attwood
I’ve been listening to two versions of the song – one from Infidels and one on a You Tube video with the Grateful Dead
The two are completely different. The Dead version sounds like a jam session with everyone doing their thing and Dylan calling out the lyrics without any care that we understand them.
The album version has a totally different feel especially at the start. The riffs of the guitar are very carefully performed and engineered into the overall sound. As is the change of rhythm in the bridge – which after the first verse is lost – but then comes back again before the first instrumental break before vanishing for good.
In short we get a feeling in the first verse that yes, this is a standard 12 bar blues construction but with real variations and additional styling – but then after that first verse some of these finer points in the music are lost and indeed as time goes by more and more of them vanish. However this version never moves fully over to the absolutely standard blues of the Dead version.
But what Dylan does do and what is impressive is to vary the melody throughout the song – it certainly adds a lot to the music and makes it, as a blues song, far easier to listen to than the more hard-core 12 bar on the recording with the Dead.
But what on earth are we to make of the lyrics.? We have here an album produced by Mark Knopfler, a reference to Dixie in the second line, and immediately I thought, ah, “The Sutlans of Swing”, which, you may recall, played “Dixie double four time”, on the Dire Straits first album. And…
And then I got lost.
The opening lines suggest a traditional Dixie band busking in the street for money from passers by, and then Dylan says, “Could be the Fuhrer, Could be the local priest”.
Now since Dixie is Dixieland music – New Orleans jazz of which perhaps the best known early song is “When the saints go marching in” we have to pause here and think, what on earth have we got?
We have a reference to Dixie, a sophisticated 12 bar blues, a reference to a busking band, and the Fuhrer and the priest, followed by the regular end of each verse: “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”
The simple answer is, nothing is what it seems. The priest appears to be a man of God but one only has to look at the number of abuse lawsuits facing the Catholic Church to recognise one implication of Dylan’s lines. Of course the majority of priests are men of pure heart being honourable and decent, but clearly not all. But I am an un-Godly heathen, so I notice stories like that, which doesn’t in any way suggest that this is Dylan’s meaning.
So is this what we are talking about – the abuse of power? Or about the abuse of power by priests. And if so how did Dixie get in their in the first place, unless he’s just having a laugh with Knopfler. And if he is talking about abuse why does the song bounce along in such a jolly way? Unless it is to show us that nothing is what it seems.
To try and see this through, try this. “Sultans of Swing” mentions Dixie but is not about a Dixieland band at all. Knopfler tells us the Sultans play Creole which is a relative of Cajun music. Nothing is what is seems.
The second verse with its “gift of the gab” reference suggests that we are in a world of the storyteller. Which to those of us who don’t believe is what religions are – stories, no different from myths and legends. Again, nothing is at is.
And so as we progress verse by verse for me the message is confirmed – nothing is as it seems, not even the priest who takes hold of people when they are at their lowest, at their weakest, and then uses his power.
The only alternative version I can put together is the more literal one that says that the peacemakers of the world, the outsider trying to solve a major problem, is Satan. Indeed while I was doing the usual background work trying to get my thoughts in order on this song, I found a You tube video which plays the song, shows some of the lyrics, and then has pictures of President Obama. The message was either racist or that Obama was Satan. Either way it was utterly appalling in my view.
Then as we move forwards we get to the end of the world with the “howling wolf” verse which says that “Tomorrow all activity will cease”. The simplistic explanation of this verse is the Book of Revelations and the arrival of Conquest, War, Famine and Death. But that makes no sense in respect of the “Man of Peace” concept. How did we get from the man of peace to war etc? Only by the man of peace being Satan I suppose. But then what does the rest of it mean?
And then suddenly the “Mama’s weeping” verse – she knows her son is giving up the everyday world for the Christian religion, and she is scared. Is that right?
Or is that opening line, “Look out your window, baby, there’s a scene you’d like to catch” telling us that it is just another dream. Or, is it a kick back to Dylan’s surreal songs of years before where nothing means anything. “The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course,” didn’t actually mean that. It was just words.
“Sometime Satan comes as a man of peace” is a Christian concept in that the Devil disguises himself in order to mislead. Was it all about that all the time, and the rest of the lyrics were just there to mess people like me about?
If so, it was successful.
But, I tell you what, I still love the song. It bounces, the music is exciting but controlled, and there are some great lines to rhyme with the final line of each verse. And I still like those opening couple of lines. I’m sure that’s a bit of fun between Dylan and Knopfler.