by Jochen Markhorst
“People do wonder about what religion means to you,” journalist Ben Fong-Torres boldly states, in an interview for Rolling Stone (February 14, 1974). Dylan often gets the question and usually, up to his much-discussed conversion in 1979, shrugs it off. As he does this time:
BD: Religion to me is a fleeting thing. Can’t nail it down. It’s in me and out of me.
BF: But it seems to be “in” you enough for religious images to become parts of your songs.
BD: It does give me, on the surface, some images, but I don’t know to what degree.
In 1965, on a similar question, Dylan says he is not that much a Bible reader, but he does sometimes browse the Holy Book (“I glanced through it. I haven’t read it”). And after 1979, after the hours in his Bible study club, he analyzes, looking back: “I had always read the Bible, but I only looked at it as literature” (interview with Robert Hilburn, 1980).
After 1980, Dylan boosts his appreciation for the Bible up, stressing, also unsolicited, that he reads the Bible and does recognize it as Truth, but after a short period of more and occasionally less successful gospel, the bard returns to the more superficial processing of “some images” In his songs.
A considerable faction Dylanologists would rather ignore Dylan’s self-analysis or simply deny that self-professed superficiality. Certainly since Slow Train Coming (1979) there are quite a few Christian Dylan exegetes who with laudable stubbornness insist on seeing the troubadour as the Thirteenth Apostle, with sometimes quite awkwardly reading too much into his song lyrics. Retroactively, too. In songs like “All Along The Watchtower” and “The Times They Are A-Changin”, messianic depths and prophetic vistas are discovered, “Shelter From The Storm” appears to be the fifth canonical gospel, the Gospel according to Saint Robert of Duluth so to speak, the “You” in “I Want You” is of course the Lord God, and so on.
The throwaway “Seven Days” from 1976 does not escape that fate either. First of all by virtue of the title, obviously. “Seven days” – aha! the Scripturals rejoice. Seven is a “Biblical number’, and a Dylanologist like Paul Robert Thomas dedicates more than 400 words in his long article on “Seven Days”, An Examination Of Faith Crisis And Apocalypse (2007), to the special meaning of the number 7 in the Judeo-Christian mystical tradition. And once in that tunnel, confirmation can be found in abundance. Although Thomas is cheating a bit too, by the way. He finds it worth mentioning, for example, that the number 7 “occurs no more, nor less than 700 times in the Old and the New Testament” – one has to search pretty long for a Bible translation wherein that is true. In Dylan’s King James Version, seven (plus the derivatives seventh, seventy, etc.) appears only 562 times. In the English Standard Version 483 times, in the Hebrew, ancient source Codex Leningradensis 425 times, and neither Luther’s German translation from 1545 does reach that mythical 700: 559 times the word sieben or a derivative thereof.
To put it in perspective: the number one hundred occurs equally often (553 times in the KJV), as well as the numbers three and four (511 and 448 times), and two even more often (708 times).
Equally dubious is Thomas’ misleading footnote, in which he wants to make the point that the word seven also “appears in Seven Days 7 times!” In the official version (in Lyrics and on the site) it is six times, in the live version on The Bootleg Series 3 (1991) eight times.
However, those errors, whether conscious or not, have little influence on the overall value of an essay such as Thomas’s, of course. Culpable, on the other hand, is the aplomb with which Christian interpreters put forward their paper-thin, a priori truths. Like in this case: that “Seven Days” is a Biblically inspired song because “seven” is a Biblical number.
The latter is demonstrable nonsense. Seven plays a role in every religion, culture and mystical tradition. There are seven chakras, as the Hindus say. Apollo is born on the seventh day of the seventh month. Atlas has seven daughters, Rome is built on seven hills, Islam has seven heavens and seven hells, Buddha walks seven steps after his birth, it is the sacred number for the Cherokee, and so on – apparently there has been through all ages, cultures and religions a universal, human desire to give a special meaning to 7.
Dylan’s choosing of the number may of course be traced to this “superficial glancing through” the Bible. But then again: just as conclusive would be pointing to William Blake, just to turn into another street. The number seven is used 28 times in Blake’s Collected Poems, relatively more often than in the Bible. The parents of Lyca, the Little Girl Found, search seven days for their lost darling, for example. And we do know that he browses through William Blake’s works since the 1960s, since Blake adept Allen Ginsberg forces the seminal English poet and wizard unto Dylan, who then regularly borrows images, idioms, and entire verses. “Blake did come up with some bold lines,” says Dylan in the interview with John Cohen, 1968. In ’92, Blake is still on his bedside table: “My latest thing of just reading was back into reading the William Blake poems again.”
A year later, Dylan even goes yet one step further when comparing Blake with his best songs:
‘Love Henry’ is a remarkable tale with an enigmatic final section in which a murderess tries to lure a parrot to her knee. It opens up a door for another song, Dylan says. That’s what my best songs do. In the last couple of lines, it might just open a door for another song. William Blake could have written that.
(interview with Gary Hill, 13 October 1993)
Or Moby Dick, in which seven is mentioned 27 times in the first hundred pages alone, or Dante’s Inferno with all those seventh circles and seven kings and seven gates and seven heads. Or all those sevens in Chekhov’s stories, which Dylan read shortly before the creation of this song. “Seven days is no joke!” shouts the nervous Psyekov in The Swedish Match (1883).
The point is: it demonstrates tunnel vision to ignore all those sevens in all those other sources Dylan leafs through more than superficially.
The history of the song gives little reason to think that Dylan has given much love to this, neither to the thought he attaches special value to it. Ron Wood, the Rolling Stone who receives the song as a gift for his solo album Gimme Some Neck, tells Dutch journalist Jip Golsteijn about it in an interview for De Telegraaf (18 August 1979):
“Seven Days is not written specially for me. Dylan never writes songs especially for others, he only writes for himself and the others come naturally. That’s the way it is. I came across Seven Days in a very special way. A year ago I spent a private evening playing with Bob at home. Almost every song he ever wrote and more. Eric Clapton and Jesse Ed Davis were also there. We had hours on tape. Seven Days had my special interest, because I happened to have sung lead there. Bob said, “If you want it, you can have it.” That was that. I have kept that cassette with me all the time and listened to it at least once a day. I definitely wanted that number on Gimme Some Neck. Sure, I could have filled my album with only my own songs, but I think that a Dylan song is not out of place on any album, from anyone.”
By then, “Seven Days” is already a while old – Dylan plays it for the first time during a rehearsal in April ’76, and Eric Clapton confirms that he didn’t want the song (and instead got “Sign Language”). During the second Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan plays it a few times (the third performance later appearing on The Bootleg Series), and then it is enough. Up until twenty years later, in any case; in 1996 the bard rejoices both American and European fans with set lists full of surprises. Songs like “This Wheel’s On Fire” and covers like “New Minglewood Blues” are having their debut, old chestnuts are reeled out, like “John Brown” and “Obviously Five Believers”. And “Seven Days” suddenly pops up again. He plays it thirteen times and then the song is put, this time indefinitely, back in the drawer.
Defensible (Dylan has enough songs in this category), but still a pity. “Seven Days” is potentially a pleasant, up-tempo rocking wake-up call, and that’s how Dylan uses the song. In Utrecht ’96, for example: at the end of the set, after “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “She Belongs To Me” (second evening).
The text is indeed open enough to allow a multitude of interpretations:
Seven days, seven more days she’ll be comin’
I’ll be waiting at the station for her to arrive
Seven more days, all I gotta do is survive
… but then again not too dizzying; the rhyme is lazy and a bit unimaginative, that last clause is just weak, hardly more than filler.
To a slightly lesser extent one can criticise similarly the follow-up:
She been gone ever since I been a child
Ever since I seen her smile, I ain’t forgotten her eyes
She had a face that could outshine the sun in the skies
Again: nicely “open”. The “she” can be, at the listener’s discretion, understood as a childhood love, or a mother figure, or an abstraction (“zest for life”, for example), or, indeed, a purpose in life: the narrator expecting a guru like Jesus with happy excitement. With a small leap the scripturalists can point to a Bible reference: a woman clothed in the sun, Revelation 12, as the Madonna is often depicted, with a face surrounded by a halo.
But then again: at least as likely the poet Dylan in 1976, when he is only superficially browsing the Bible and borrowing “some images” from it, receives this particular image from William Blake, from his famous painting The Great Red Dragon And The Woman Clothed In The Sun (ca. 1805). Which incidentally is indeed Blake’s illustration to Revelation 12.
Anyway: it is a poetic, Dylan-worthy image, but hardly compensates for the weak, preceding verse Ever since I seen her smile, I ain’t forgotten her eyes. An amateur poetry line illustrating once again that Dylan’s spring is dry, in ’76 and throughout most of ’77.
After the playful, slightly silly bridge (Kissing in the valley / Thieving in the alley) the lyrics offer one more intriguing image: my beautiful comrade from the north.
Intriguing, because comrade is a loaded, unusual personage in songs at all. Joan Baez uses it once, just like Peter, Paul and Mary, both times in serious, heavy anti-war songs (“I Saw The Visions Of Armies” and “Cruel War” respectively), and otherwise only The Beatles once, ironically (“Back In The USSR”) – but Dylan is familiar with the uncommon character designation thanks to the classic “Streets Of Laredo”, which he will later implicitly honour in his Nobel Prize Speech as one of the songs that taught him “the folk lingo”. It also has a sinister connotation therein; in Eddy Arnolds Laredo the comrade is the cowboy who dies, so brave, young and handsome.
And intriguing because beautiful comrade from the North seems to refer to his own classic “Girl From The North Country”, of course.
But the really remarkable thing concerns the music, strangely enough. Dylan’s songs are generally not particularly distinctive in terms of catchy riffs, swinging licks or exciting instrumental intermezzi, but in “Seven Days” there is actually an atypical, attention-grabbing riff, which is granted a moment to shine, all alone in the spotlight: that descending line after the bridge, followed by a tutti – it is even played three times, by Dylan in ’76.
There are some covers, and most of them are fun. The best known is Ron Wood, the “owner” of the song, who colours it with attractive, Stones-like grease, but he is unfortunately a very limited singer.
The Australian legend Jimmy Barnes cannot be accused thereof, in his old-fashioned rocking, packed version from 1987 (on Freight Train Heart). Three guitars, female choir, organ and piano – it comes close to what The Boss would do to the song.
Joe Cocker likes it to be drier and slightly unfurnished, inserting an alien, but not unpleasant, reggae atmosphere (Sheffield Steel, 1982).
The swampy, Little Feat approach of the short-lived band from the Minneapolis songwriter Kevin Howe, The Revelators, with exciting slide guitar and pleasantly varying arrangement (Blackie Ford’s Revenge, 1994) is exciting. His timing could have been better, by the way: the violinist of the original, Scarlet Rivera, is playing along on a next album, on Natchez Trace (2012).
The circle is now rounded off by another veteran of the first hour: Rob Stoner. The multi-instrumentalist, who plays on bass, the very first rehearsal of “Seven Days” (and the subsequent six performances during the Rolling Thunder Revue II), records a very catchy, tight rockabilly version with a high Sun Records quality in 1980, for his unjustly ignored album Patriotic Duty. Hard to find, but worth the search.
Rob Stoner: https://soundcloud.com/rob-stoner/seven-days
What else is here?
An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here. There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan. The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.
We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
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.