by Paul Robert Thomas
I hope here to show how this song draws heavily upon an interpretation of the New Testament Book Of the Revelation and the Old Testament apocalyptic literature.
Working on an early draft of this article, however, I soon found that I could not stop making connections which I had never expected. I hope that they are of interest to the reader.
It’s my belief that Seven Days is in Dylan’s ‘apocalyptic tradition’ a world view which seems to go deep into him and through which, I believe, he interprets events in his own life as well as world events. But both Christian and Jewish apocalyptic is ultimately the story, or promise, of salvation:- in Judaism through the coming of the Messiah and in Christianity through the second coming of The Lord Jesus Christ.
I believe that Seven Days demonstrates a particularly Christian eschatology suggesting that Dylan was ready and willing for that ‘slow train’ to pull into his station and may have accepted the Christian gospel, with a particularly ‘fundamentalist’ (sic) view of ‘the end times’, some three years before the date given for his baptism and public acceptance of Jesus as his saviour.
If Christ hadn’t already put his hand on Dylan then, I propose that Seven Days suggests that Dylan was already troubled in mind enough to be ready and responsive when that time came. However, I believe that Dylan also blends Kabbalistic ideas with the primarily Christian symbolism. If my feelings about this song, its inspiration and subject matter, along with my speculations concerning Dylan’s spiritual health and emotional well-being are right, then I find it surprising at how little attention has been paid to the song by commentators and ‘Dylanologists’, for even those few who have made an effort to address Dylan’s conversion to Christianity seem to have overlooked the significance of this song as evidence of Dylan’s spiritual preoccupations.
To begin with I want to explore the background to this song before looking at events in Dylan’s life around the time of its composition and then, finally, to explore the song with special attention to the identity of ‘she’, the central character of this song. In fact I believe that ‘She’ stands for two opposing forces.
To allow for the validity of more than one interpretation I want to state that while Seven Days can be taken as a simple song about frustrated love, concerning perhaps Dylan ‘waiting for his true love to return’, as Clinton Heylin has suggested in Behind The Shades, it might be more profitably enjoyed by revealing it’s ‘anagogical’, (hidden, mystical) meaning which, I believe, is present beneath the song’s apparent meaning.
For although the song can be appreciated by taking it at face value it suggests more if we consider the apparent hyperbole and obscurity in Dylan’s lyric and ask why it’s there. The only way I can give Mr Heylin the benefit of a doubt is if he is willing to concede that Dylan’s ‘true love’ need not be Sara or any other woman or, that if it is, the song deals simultaneously, with both secular and sacred love.
In Precious Angel (and, perhaps, in Saving Grace) Dylan appears to address the woman he loves and, simultaneously, his Lord, a characteristic his work shares with some of the poems of John Donne, e.g. The Extasie or Self Love from Songs And Sonnets. To understand what I am moving towards in my own reading of this song, pause for a while and listen to the live version of Seven Days on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. Something is happening here but before I present my own views as to what I think it is I want to present a brief history of this song.
Background and Context
Seven Days was copyrighted with Rams Horn Music in 1976, which doesn’t help us too much with the date of composition, but, according to Ron Wood, Dylan tried this song out in the studio some 5 months after the end of the Desire sessions, (during the Eric Clapton sessions, which produced Sign Language, at the Shangri La Studios, Malibu, in late March1976.) As Ron Wood tells it, Dylan tried out a version of Seven Days: “he played it for me and Eric in the studio and we recorded it. There’s a copy of that somewhere around” and “That’s where I got Seven Days from. Bob said to Eric, though I was there too – he said “You can have this song if you want it”. And I took him up on it and Eric didn’t”. (Clinton Heylin confirms these dates in Day By Day 1941-1995). Ron Wood goes into detail to explain how, after these sessions, Dylan retired to a tent with a girl in a plaster-cast and, if the story isn’t apocryphal, it suggests that although Desire appears to have been Dylan’s attempt at a reconciliation with Sara, it was unlikely to work!
In Lyrics 1962-1985, Seven Days is the last song of particular note shown before the material which made up the sessions for Street Legal. (Coincidentally, perhaps, it is also placed on The Bootleg Series CD immediately before a trilogy of specifically religious songs – making up a quaternity?) which began in April 1978, apparently a full two years of no musical output or known lyrics, and the finished album from those sessions I believe, heralds the emergence of a man who seems to be totally lost, alone and definitely in need of a ‘shot of love’ – but a love more enduring and powerful than the physical world could offer.
“He started to write Street Legal when we were together. He would show me some of the songs that he was writing, (it was) practically the entire album… it started when we were on the farm… He was very down. Don’t forget he was suffering when I met him. He was in a bad way. I brought him back to life. He was practically dead, this guy was shot emotionally and he had to get away from all the pressures in Malibu and the farm was really where he got back on his feet again. But then that custody case was so vile and so treacherous”
The above words by Farida McFree, who had known Dylan since 1975 and who became his woman during and after his battles with Sara are quoted by Clinton Heylin in Behind The Shades and, allowing for McFree’s lack of modesty in portraying herself as Dylan’s salvation, they have the ‘ring of truth’ to them if we consider such songs from Street Legal as the brooding desperation of Senor, the frightening loss of peace and control in the hymn of No Time To Think and the long cry of despair, surely called out to God as much as Sara, which ends the album with Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).
FAITH & ROOTS
“I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non Jewish …I’m not a patriot to any creed. I believe in all of them and none of them. A devout Christian or Moslem can be just as effective as a devout Jew.”
“I follow God, so if my followers are following me, indirectly they’re gonna be following God too, because I don’t sing any song which hasn’t been given to me by the Lord to sing,”
“Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up”, Ibid 1980.
“… the resurrected Christ. You’re not talking about some dead man who had a bunch of good ideas and was nailed to a tree.”
“Walking with Jesus is no easy trip, but it’s the only trip.” Ibid 1980.
“My so called Jewish roots are in Egypt. They went down there with Joseph, and they came back out with Moses… we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check up on Elijah the prophet. He could make it rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah – see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah – these are my roots, I suppose … Am I looking for them? Well, I don’t know. I ain’t looking for them in synagogues with six pointed stars shining ‘down from every window, I can tell you that much.” Ibid 1981.
“I want to sing about my hero,” Dylan’s introduction to In the Garden from his Hard to Handle video 1986.
Dylan, born a Jew, was initiated into Torah and the writings of the prophets in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, which took place on May 22 1954 in accordance with orthodox religious practice.
In 1953 he had spent the first of five summer holidays at Camp Herzl, Wisconsin. And whilst there is no proof that his family was rigorously orthodox they made up part of the small tightly knit Jewish community and so resisted assimilation and, perhaps, went to the trouble of calling in a Rabbi from outside Hibbing to instruct Dylan in Torah – something which Dylan was later to speak of as a mysterious act of providence. Dylan showed an early fascination and preoccupation with New Testament themes and imagery – and particularly with the stories concerning Christ.
It is Christ’s crucifixion which marks the climax and end of an early song, Long Ago Far Away and the figure of Christ as Judge appears in Masters of War not, as someone has suggested, ‘blasphemously’ (through Dylan’s assertion that the warmongers are beyond forgiveness) but in accordance with Christian justice and eschatology which does not teach unconditional and universal salvation – something which makes Paul Williams, for one, uneasy. (Personally I feel uneasy at the thought of the warmongers of these days, and of two world wars, surviving their deeds, in this life or the next).
“Vengeance is mine” saith the Lord. On the other hand, some of the psalms encourage us to hate the wicked and Dylan can, at times, hate with a fierce sense of righteousness. But I digress. Perhaps the most telling of Dylan’s pre-1979 songs to deal with Jesus is Sign On The Cross. Appearing to contain elements of confession, autobiography, doubt and conflict this extraordinary song seems to place Dylan before his future saviour with a mixture of fearfulness, identification and hope.
Written around 1966/7 the song is disarming to the listener. The way the song is performed on the circulating tape makes it come over like a young Blind Willie Johnson song, intense and bluesy, the message gaining in force with each chorus.
But in the ‘break’, when Dylan sing-talks a sermon to his ‘congregation’, the listener might wonder if Dylan is fondly parodying some old black preacher or group like Brother Potter or, more accessibly, Rev Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown. The break seems spontaneous, Dylan making up the words as he goes along, but could the parodic element be an attempt to hide the truth about his feelings towards Jesus, the Christ, the Saviour? The ‘sign on the cross’ is not, in spiritual/blues tradition, the sign put up on Pilate’s orders to mock Jesus and the Jews by proclaiming Jesus King of The Jews’ but the suffering body of Christ crucified calling out in anguish, to ‘Abba God’, “Eli Eli lema sabacthani?” which is most often translated as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from Psalm 22.
However the literal sign, referred to above, may well have added poignancy for Dylan, for in his identification with Christ, which by this time, was conferred as much from without as from any empathy Dylan felt with the crucified ‘son of God’, had he not seemed a king, a prophet and leader? I invite speculation. What of the lines “Yes I know in my head / That we’re all so misled,” in the context of the whole song? Misled in the sense of wanting to accept Jesus as Messiah and God Incarnate or misled in the sense that some Jewish scholars have described Jesus and, subsequently his followers? St Paul wrote of Jesus that he was a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the gentiles.” (1 Cor 1.23-25)
Jesus as Messiah is completely contrary to Judaic belief which teaches that the Messiah is still to come and will be God’s chosen one but will be mortal. There is simply no way to accommodate a Trinitarian concept of God which allows equal divinity between a man however righteous, and YWH. But it seems as though Dylan was unable to wait for ‘The day of The Lord’ and in desperate need for spiritual direction, renewal and fulfillment. Exactly what the events were which led to Dylan’s surrender to Christ, when the final act of capitulation to the message of the gospels took place, and how, must be open to speculation or taken from Dylan’s own words, some of which head this section of my discussion.
The account of the physical effects of his encounter with Christ are unexceptional in the literature concerning religious conversion, from St. Paul to many of the studies presented by William James in his seminal study of the psychology of conversion The Varietiess Of Religious Experience. Paul Williams’ attempt to find a purely psychological reason for what he seems to infer was an emotionally charged choice of ‘Sara substitute’ reads even more implausibly now than when he first wrote it, what he might have made of it if Abraham had died 11 years later than he did’. … … … ”
Dylan’s conversion cannot be looked upon as the act of a man ignorant of his religion. In preparing for Abraham Zimmerman’s funeral David, Dylan’s brother was astonished at how much Dylan knew about Jewish religious ceremonial, ritual and practice. Likewise, he was impressed by his elder brother’s presence and demeanour which is suggested as having something of the quality of the patriarchs about it. Remember, this was in l968 and David Zimmerman describes Dylan as having the dignity and bearing of a man of fifty.
The picture which suggests itself is of a man who is certain on his own level, of a place within his own religious tradition. Psychology might talk about repression, denial and an unconscious search for a father who wouldn’t, couldn’t, desert him, but such security was available to him through the reassurance of Judaism and the promises given to the patriarchs that God would never break his covenant.
The article continues tomorrow…
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