The Wicked Messenger. Bob Dylan; Kafka known and unknown.

by Jochen Markhorst

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the station. As I checked my watch against the tower clock I realized it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn’t very well acquainted with the town as yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “You asking me the way?” “Yes,” I said, “since I can’t find it myself.” “Give it up! Give it up!” he said, and swung around, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

(Franz Kafka, Give It Up! 1922)

If on John Wesley Harding the Bible is Das Ich, The Ego, as Freud would say, then Kafka is Das Es, The Id, the engine that is driven by a complex of unconscious desires, emotions, and urges. It defines the uncanny, alienated, dreamlike atmosphere of highlights such as “All Along The Watchtower”, “Drifter’s Escape” and this “The Wicked Messenger”, a stifling discomfort so masterfully articulated in Kafka’s stories, like in the above “Gib’s auf”

Dylan does not often mention Kafka and he seems to have only a superficial knowledge of his work. John Cohen, who interviews him in 1968, specifically asks about Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes, to which Dylan hardly responds. But during a press conference in Rome, July 2001, Dylan states, appreciatively meant: “There’s nobody like Kafka who just sits down and writes something without wanting somebody to read it.”

If anything, this shows some biographical knowledge. True, Kafka did not want his work to be read. During his lifetime he only reluctantly released, on the insistence of admiring friends, a fraction of his work for publication. On his deathbed in the sanatorium he begged his friend Max Brod to destroy all the writings in his study at home (Brod ignored that and deciphered, sorted and published everything – including masterpieces such as Der Prozeß, The Trial, and many parables such as the above Gib’s auf!).

Incidentally, how Dylan comes to his conclusion is puzzling; writers who do not publish their work because they do not want it to be read are by definition unknown, after all.

Nevertheless, despite the presumably superficial knowledge of Kafka’s work, the parallels cannot be ignored. An obvious guess would be that both Jewish writers demonstrate their comparable, superior talent in a similar way because there happens to be a congeniality, a spiritual affinity. Kindred spirits, if you will.

Just like Kafka, Dylan’s grandparents belong to a Jewish minority in the Slavic part of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century (Dylan’s grandparents flee the pogroms in Odessa in 1905, Kafka then lives in Prague). The oppression, being an outsider, the stories, the parables and the use of language from the Torah… it is cultural baggage that is shared by Kafka and Dylan, and perhaps explains the receptiveness of both men to clear but impenetrable storytelling.

In the same interview with John Cohen (together with Happy Traum, published in the October ’68 Sing Out) Dylan reflects on his lyrics for John Wesley Harding, in particular on “All Along The Watchtower” and “The Wicked Messenger”.

Cohen wants to know what Dylan thinks about traditional ballads, and whether he would also consider a song like “The Wicked Messenger” a ballad. Dylan’s answer seems serious, he chooses simple language and speaks in short, clear sentences and the whole is incomprehensible – Kafka could not have done it better:

“In a sense, but the ballad form isn’t there. Well the scope is there actually, but in a more compressed sense. The scope opens up, just by a few little tricks. I know why it opens up, but in a ballad in the true sense, it wouldn’t open up that way. It does not reach the proportions I had intended for it.”

A ballad, as Dylan teaches in the same interview, is actually the antique version of a feature film; a balladeer tells long, drawn-out stories with a real plot and main characters who perform actions about which the public forms an opinion. The plot and the actions are all plainly told, the listener does not have to find his own interpretation, the listener does not have to fill in blanks – it says what it says.

This is in line with the literary theory; there the literary ballad is defined as a narrative poem.

In that sense, Dylan continues, the ballads on John Wesley Harding are not real ballads:

“These melodies on the John Wesley Harding album lack this traditional sense of time. As with the third verse of “The Wicked Messenger”, which opens it up, and then the time schedule takes a jump and soon the song becomes wider. One realizes that when one hears it, but one might have to adapt to it. But we are not hearing anything that isn’t there; anything we can imagine is really there. The same thing is true of the song “All Along The Watchtower”, which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for here we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order.”

Kafka all over again: clear vagueness. Or mumbo jumbo, that is of course also possible. The “time schedule takes a jump” in the third verse? The narrative structure of the third verse is identical to that of the first two couplets, the storyline from couplet 1 to couplet 2 is exactly the same as that from couplet 2 to 3.

Each couplet opens with a wide shot; in the first half of the verse in question, an all-knowing narrator outlines successively the protagonist, his living conditions and the decor. Each verse tells an anecdote in lines four to six, every fifth line expresses an interaction of the protagonist with his environment and every sixth line is a Bible paraphrase:

For his tongue it could not speak, but only flatter can be inspired by multiple passages; flattery is damned in about twenty places in the Bible. Because of the proximity of the word wickedness, Dylan’s King James was probably open at Psalm 5, verse 9: “their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.”

The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning paraphrases another Bible passage in which again the wicked are tackled; Malachi 4:3 “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet.”

And the final line, If you cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any, seems to be inspired by the story of the prophet Micah, the only one of four hundred prophets who predicts that King Ahab will fare badly if he goes to war against the Syrians – all other prophets predict a resounding victory (1 Kings 22). It is not entirely conclusive though; Micha does not bring news, but predicts, and moreover does so at the express request. Ahab knows in advance that Micah never predicts anything good (“I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad.” – 1 Kings 22: 8).

By the way: respected Dylanologists such as Andy Gill and Derek Barker who bend and twist to fit in the prophet Eli (the wicked messenger comes from Eli, after all), seem to ignore that Eli also means “my God”, that Eli is God’s call sign (like Jesus on the cross also calls on Him: Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani – My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?).

Despite all the ambiguity and vagueness, within “The Wicked Messenger” it is more likely that the wicked messenger (Proverbs 13:17) comes from God, and not from the prophet Eli. When asked by whom he is sent, he only answers “with his thumb”, because his tongue could only respond with “flattery”. Strange, but traceable still within the Old Testament culture and the Jewish tradition, in which one is not allowed to speak the name of God.

Like all lyrics on John Wesley Harding, the form has a classic, elegant simplicity, yet it is different. Almost all songs (eight of the twelve) consist of eight-line couplets with the rhyme scheme abcb-defe; a classic ballad form, indeed.

But “The Wicked Messenger” has six-line couplets and a rather unique, “open” rhyme scheme: abcdbc. That fourth, surprisingly non-rhyming line contributes to the open character, which Dylan may refer to when he talks about “jumps” to “open” the ballad.

Unusual, but not entirely unique. Maybe Dylan copied “For Once In My Life”, until then actually the only song with this rhyme scheme. That heartbreaker from 1965, according to authority Ella Fitzgerald a beautiful tune, only reaches the canon after Stevie Wonder scores a huge hit with the song (October ’68), but in this late summer of 1967 the walking jukebox Dylan may have heard the Tony Bennet version, or the Four Tops or The Temptations, who all score a little hit with this song in ’67.

There are more indications that Dylan the poet has found this distinctive rhyme at W.H. Auden. Dylan has already written “As I Went Out One Morning” for this same album, whose form, rhyme scheme, weird meter and title all have been copied from Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”.

Indeed, Auden’s “In Schrafft’s” apparently had a comparable effect.   Dylan borrows the structure (the, on this album, unusual three six-line couplets) and, in particular, the different abcdbc rhyme scheme for “The Wicked Messenger”:

Having finished the Blue-plate Special
And reached the coffee stage,
Stirring her cup she sat,
A somewhat shapeless figure
of indeterminate age
In an undistinguished hat.

It takes quite some time before Dylan himself recognizes the special beauty of the song. The dissatisfaction he expresses in that interview with John Cohen (“It does not reach the proportions I had intended for it“) is not false modesty: it takes no less than twenty years for the song to pop up on his set list, and then it is still thanks to the persuasiveness of the men of Grateful Dead that he plays it at all. Jerry Garcia is rather fond of the song, that’s why – in 1975 Garcia already plays it ten times with his hobby project Legion Of Mary, for example.

The version with Dylan, July 12, 1987 in New York, is a driving, dynamic and enthusiastic performance, but Dylan dismisses the recording for Dylan & The Dead (maybe because he makes one mistake in the lyrics), plays it two times more (both times in Italy) and then puts the song back in the bottom drawer.

But in the twenty-first century he rediscovers the song again and he plays “The Wicked Messenger” more than a hundred times. In viciously rocking, sharp versions, destroying much of the deceptive domesticity of the original from 1967, but no less attractive.

Dylan is suddenly even to such an extent charmed that he selects the song for his film Masked And Anonymous (2003). In the original script, the full song lyrics are typed out, but eventually a charming live performance of “Diamond Joe”, the traditional he already plays on Good As I Been To You (1992), appears on that particular spot in the film. It is unknown why Dylan commits this intervention (like “All Along The Watchtower”, “Trying To Get To Heaven” and “Standing In The Doorway” all reach the script, but not the final filming), but is likely that the filmmaker Dylan does not want interference; the ambiguity of “The Wicked Messenger” pushes the film interpretation somewhat too blatantly to messianic distances, probably. To distances he avoids with a “Diamond Joe”, anyway.

The song is fairly popular with colleagues and that produces enough beautiful covers. The soulful adaptation by Rod Stewart with his Faces, the opening track of their debut First Step (1970), is rightly praised.

Patti Smith opts for an ominous, solemn and gradually derailing approach, pushing the song in a completely different direction – which suits the song well (Gone Again, 1996). In terms of atmosphere comparable to the garage sound the Black Keys pour over it, on the successful I’m Not There Soundtrack (2007).

Dylan himself will be touched by Marion Williams’ version, by one of the best gospel singers of the twentieth century. Williams’ “Blowin’ In The Wind” from ’66 is already one of the few successful covers of this worn monument, her “I Shall Be Released” is superb, and especially her unparalleled, brilliant reading of “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” (1969) is goose bumps inducing. Her “The Wicked Messenger” comes close to that – from the magnificent 1971 album Standing Here Wondering Which Way To Go, an intersection of the best that gospel, soul and blues have to offer, and whose title song should be the soundtrack to Kafka’s “Gib’s auf!”


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  1. I actually do not believe that Dylan writes laboriously encrypted, secretive texts that “in fact” mean something else. Most of his lyrics don’t tell a story, are not epic, but rather are lyrical, express impressions, feelings or a human condition. I think Dylan is sincere when he says: I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening (liner notes Bringing It All Back Home).

    Sketching impressions, as it were. Similar to impressionists such as Renoir or Monet, although the atmosphere, the impressions of John Wesley Harding may be more comparable to the surrealism of De Chirico or Margritte. Comparable to painters, in any case, whose paintings do not “mean” anything, but evoke a dreamlike, alienating and enigmatic atmosphere – just like Kafka does in his work, by the way.

    Anyway, when Dylan writes lyrics that mean something, he is usually fairly clear (“Hurricane”, “Only A Pawn”, “Neighboorhood Bully”, and more) and does not hide his message behind ambiguous metaphors, misty symbolism or vague language.

    In short: I think that Dylan here already succeeds in this endeavor eight years later, expressed when talking about “Tangled Up In Blue”: I wanted that song to be like a painting.

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