by Paul Robert Thomas
Previously published in this series…
Few people have taken Dylan’s conversion account without a pinch of scepticism. After seeming to take Dylan’s account of the experience at face value, in the opening page of chapter 27 of Behind The Shades Clinton Heylin joins company with Paul Williamsin seeing Dylan’s surrender to Christ as a response to ‘woman trouble’ and goes on to say “If Dylan was on the run from the Triple Goddess, he would need the protection of a strong, patriarchal religion”.
Likewise Dylan’s conversion is referred to by Williams in the early pages of his essay ‘What Happened’? (lately republished in Watching the River Flow) as a flight from suffering and frustration, divorce and the conflicts of his pronouncedly dual nature: “When he finally lost faith in the ability of woman to save him…. His need for an alternative grew very great indeed, and he found what people in our culture most often find in the same circumstances: the uncritical hospitality of Jesus Christ”.
I can’t help hearing a note of mild contempt, or perhaps it’s bitterness, in Williams’ voice when I read that -directed both at Dylan, who I suspect Williams felt deeply let down by, and Christ, and Williams makes Christ seem to be pretty undiscerning in his choice of disciples and betrays a poor grasp of the challenge and truth to be found in Christianity”. However, as Williams’ essay proceeds it shows a willingness to, at least, grapple with the problem (to him) of Dylan’s faith and it still stands as the best essay I’ve read to date on Dylan’s relationship with his Lord. However, if anyone should come under scrutiny for the flavour of Dylan’s early days as a Christian it is Hal Lindsey, whose hysterical and wholly inaccurate reading of ‘Revelation’ and The Old Testament influenced Dylan enormously as is shown in his ‘gospel raps.
I believe that both Slow Train Coming and Saved are best understood by the new sense of peace and an unbridled, unreflecting, digestion of The New Testament, and the early excitement and awe it produced in Dylan spiritually and creatively. It’s also important to take into consideration the ‘literalism’ which is a hallmark of branches of the Christian church such as The Vineyard Fellowship, and the way it Imbues contemporary events with biblical significance either by scriptural ignorance or deliberate misreading. I suggest that Dylan’s fierce attacks on unbelievers and his obvious disgust with his past relationships, which he now saw as ‘ungodly’ but didn’t seem ready to take personal responsibility for, are a product of the erroneous teaching he may have received at The Vineyard ‘Bible School’ . To return to Clinton Heylin – “Before he embraced the uniquely Californian brand of Christianity advocated by the Vineyard Fellowship, Dylan could not be described as a fundamentalist. Indeed he does not seem to have immediately considered his vision in Tucson to be a ‘born again’ experience. Only when the born again’ creed was outlined for him did he recognize the nature of his vision…..”
The ‘born again’ creed of this particular fellowship would have been very specific about who was and who wasn’t saved and would have put great emphasis upon Dylan to renounce his past life and loves as being fully corrupt, evil and now dead, buried with Christ in the waters of Baptism. Doubtless he would have been warned about being ‘yoked with unbelievers” Turning from his sins Dylan seemed to be dumping them upon all those which ‘threatened’ the W.A.S.P. Way from China and Russia to Sheikhs with “fancy nose rings” and perhaps most damning and cruel, his former wife.
I had a pony her name was Lucifer
Dylan’s comment on Sara? (Miss Ex?) (The refrain ‘how much longer’ echoes psalm 13 and The Prophets addressing God (YWH) on behalf of Israel.)
In Kabbalah, Satan has been referred to as an Ass. I have wondered if Dylan also saw evil personified in the ‘pony’ as ‘Whore of Babylon’ and might be using this image of evil (pony/whore) as 1 believe he uses ‘she’ in Seven Days. Maybe, maybe not. I think that, again, in New Pony and Seven Days the images are being used in two ways. There are the manifest meanings and the hidden, religious, meanings. With reference to Seven Days I have already mentioned that ‘She’ might refer to Sara but I believe that ‘She’ might also refer to the coming baffle between the forces of darkness and light, and I can believe that Sara may have been viewed, with a lot of other women, as a symbol of temptation and false religious values. But the inner, hidden meaning of this ‘She’, I believe, has Dylan identifying ‘the ungodly’ in a much wider sense taking in all ‘unbelievers and man-stealers’ within Christianity, ‘talkin’ in the name of religion’ and beyond, in other religions and with the prime enemies of America, identified by Hal Lindsey as Russia and China. The biblical ‘evidence’ for Russia was probably suggested by Daniel 7.5 and Revelation 13.2 which both refer to the enemy appearing as a bear or having characteristics of a bear (in Revelation the beast was ‘like a leopard, with paws like a bear’). Likewise the identification of China is based on a misunderstanding or ‘wild guess’ which places an interpretation of a passage in Revelation 20.7-8 out of context. Dylan’s gospel raps are wholly misleading biblically, suggesting that he had been led to conflate the two passages and even add a nation called ‘Rus…..’ which I have searched in vain to find in my Bible and Concordance. Yet in Seven Days Dylan believes Lindsey’s interpretation of these symbols and tells the story of his faith against the backdrop of an imminent apocalypse.
Verse one has him waiting, in ‘the fullness of time’, as the title might suggest, for deliverance. The insertion of the word more suggests he had already waited for Renewal and ‘The Day of The Lord’, The Messiah, and had begun to look elsewhere than in the faith of his fathers. Verse two suggests either an increased impatience for the coming of the Messiah, or perhaps a preparation for the Church, (of which The Virgin Mary is typo-logical) and The Return of Christ. With reference to The Virgin Mary, Dylan featured a statue symbolising her which is visited after the moment beside Kerouac’s grave in the film Renaldo & Clara. Dylan appears to pray before this statue and lay flowers on it.
In the third line of verse two of Seven Days Dylan refers to the ‘positive’ ‘She’ who ‘had a face that could outshine the sun.’ Is this an allusion to the Messianic Nation, God’s Bride Israel, restored to her full glory as promised by his native religion since childhood, a theme constantly alluded to in The Psalms and Prophets. But the line also suggests a possible source in Revelation 10.1 which refers to an angel whose ‘face was like the sun’ and in The Transfiguration of Jesus (Mat 17.2) when Jesus’ face shone like the sun. Sun means presence in Leviticus 19.32. 1 am reminded of The Shekinah here, the divine light, God’s Glory, a manifestation of God’s presence.
In verses one to three Dylan has already made his way to the ‘station’, has prepared himself
I been good, I been good while I been waitin’
Maybe guilty of hesitatin’, I just been holding on (to a solid rock?)
The approach of redemption is near, he’ll get on board that slow train just as he hinted that he would when he recorded the 1965 gospel hit by The Impressions, People Get Ready which Dylan recorded in the Autumn of 1975, (the composition time of Seven Days?). This song, featured in Renaldo & Clara was also released on a promotional E.P. (and I implore you to read the three-plus pages devoted to Dylan’s rendition of this song by Paul Williams in Bob Dylan Performing Artist 1974-1985). Since settling in Israel, the word ‘station’ evokes in me the ‘stations of the cross’ along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem which marks the possible route which Jesus trod on the way to Golgotha, (and I can’t help adding, that David Zimmerman had married a Catholic in 1966 – ‘walking the stations ‘is a catholic practice at times of penitence – Advent and Lent.). From the top of his hill, at the time McFree has talked about, Dylan might well have wondered if he was gonna make it, “all I gotta do is survive”. By the time of Saving Grace he had found his answer. But returning to verse two another interpretation of ‘child’ suggests itself, that of spiritual childhood such as is found in Isa 10:19 and l.Cor 13:11. Thus “She would come only when Dylan had gained enough maturity or knowledge to make an intellectual as well as emotional response. However in the letters of John from The New Testament, the apostle addresses his congregation as ‘children’ – children of God. Finally if ‘She’ is Israel/Judaism, the daughter of Zion, this line might refer to Judaism’s departure as the primary influence on Dylan since his baptism.
“I ain’t forgotten her eyes”
The ‘eye’ may be used figuratively as reflecting the soul, as an image of discernment and Judgement according to Biblical Concordances, Commentaries and Jewish symbolism. In The Gospels it is the lamp of the whole body. And Revelation refers to the Lamb having 7 eyes, Christ is the Lamb and the eyes are the seven churches.
The chorus of the song mixes apocalyptic conceit with Dylan’s personal circumstances prior to redemption (personal and universal)
There's kissin' in the Valley Thieving in the alley Fighting every inch of the way Trying to be tender with somebody I remember In a night that's always brighter than the day
The kissing could symbolize joy and celebration in the valley of Jehoshaphat which Joel prophesied would be the place of the final judgement. The next two verses might refer, in contrast, to the desperate behaviour of the unrighteous or might just refer to Christ who will come like a thief in the night (Revelation 4.5) and I wonder if the ‘fightin’ every inch of the way’ might refer to the hardships of The Way (following Christ) or to the desperate struggle in trying to resist a mounting revelation to Dylan that the Messiah might have already come – and would return –
The Iron hand it ain't no match for the iron rod The strongest wall will crumble and fall To a mighty God
How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice? How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?
Is this the Iron hand of a Godless nation or of a proud and stubborn Dylan, and could the ‘mighty wall’ be the ‘images’ (protest singer, seer, mystic, prophet , messiah) Dylan had become imprisoned by? To return to the final verse of the chorus, ‘Night’ might be interpreted as a time of ignorance and unbelief (Rom 13.12). A ‘night brighter than the day’ might be Dylan reviewing his previous public persona and notorious arrogance as Luciferian. For Lucifer was the greatest of angels, ‘Lucifer’ means light) but fell by refusing to accept his subordination to God. His opposite is not Christ but the Archangel Michael.
Verse 4 is the verse which I have already identified as dealing with the second ‘She’, Christ’s (and Israel’s adversary). The reality of the final baffle for Dylan has been dealt with above and according to the Dylan of 1979 ‘The End’ was imminent:
“The world as we know it now is being destroyed, sorry, but it’s the truth. In a short time – I don’t know, in 3 years, maybe 5 years, could be 10 years, I don’t know there’s gonna be a war. It’s gonna be called the war of Arrnageddon. It’s gonna be in the Middle East. Russia’s gonna come down first. Anyway we’re not worried about that. We know there’s gonna be a new kingdom set up in Jerusalem for a thousand years. That’s where Christ will set up his kingdom, as sure as you’re standing there it’s gonna happen.” (Dylan on stage in San Francisco 25/11/79 immediately prior to performing Solid Rock).
And in Toronto 20/4/80
“Anyways, in The Bible it tells a specific thing in the Book of Revelation that just apply to these times, and it says that soon at that time it mentions a country to the furthermost North which has as its symbol the bear… Russia’s gonna come down and attack the Middle East.”
Hence Dylan’s phrase “my beautiful comrade (friend) from the north”, friend because it’s action will usher in the Last Judgement and The New Jerusalem. I feel compelled to point out that this interpretation of Dylan’s is again pure Hal Lindsey whose book The Late Great Planet Earth seemed to have been required reading in the Vineyard Fellowship’s bible induction (I almost wrote indoctrination) programme.
It seems obvious to me that Dylan was to radically develop a more sophisticated understanding of Christianity on a personal and a political level with the release of Infidels and a deepening of his understanding of New Testament theology, and I have no proof but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he has found a more profound peace in his life and coupled his study of the New Testament with a study of Kabbalah. I glean this from his involvement with CHABAD and the Lubavitchers. However some have seen in his album Under the Red Sky a restatement of apocalyptic views. Maybe.
The last time that I saw Dylan perform Seven Days was on the second night of his Liverpool concert 27/6/96 after he had introduced the band and, diving into the intro, he was laughing and made a comment which no one seemed to understand but which amused him. Smiling he nodded towards the direction of where Clinton Heylin and Larry ‘Lambchops’ Eden were standing and then proceeded to turn in a performance which was totally lacking in conviction or timing and, more significantly, perhaps to show ‘where he is at’ spiritually these days, he omitted verse 4 concerning my beautiful comrade from the North” – the coming of Armageddon, apart from this and a repetition of verse one he kept faithfully to the words as printed in Lyrics and didn’t repeat the lyrical changes he had made back in Tampa Florida (21/4/76), as preserved on The Bootleg Series.
What a performance that is! Full of menace, mystery and power with delivery and timing fantastic – just listen to the way Dylan draws out the word “Days”, it seems to represent eternity and he ends it with a sort of cry and this song, this performance, is introduced with masterful, Dylanesque understatement “Uh this is a somewhat new song called Seven Days”. The word ‘somewhat’ occurs just once in the Bible in 2 Cor 10:8. St Paul writes “For even though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord has given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed: that l would not seem as if l would terrify you… (KJV). In Tampa the song ended with a loud bang of drums. At Liverpool it simply fizzled out. “(Which) is the way the world ends?” – T.S. Eliot nearly said that.
Footnote: Interestingly the number 7 appears in Seven Days 7 times!
- Behind The Shades. Clinton Heylin, Penguin Books
- In Search of Bob Dylan. John Bauldie, Wanted Man
- Cruden’s Concordance To The Bible (KJV), Lutterworth
- The New Jerusalem Bible, Darton Longrnan and Todd
- The Holy Bible (Authorised Version), Oxford
- The TANAKH, Jewish Publication Society
- The Soncino Chumash. Socino Press
- Saved! The Gospel Speeches. Clinton Heylin. Human Press
- The Holy Kabbalah AE. Waite, Oracle Publishing
- Watching The River Flow. Paul Williams (Onimbus Press)
- Bob Dylan in His Own Words. Christian Williams, Ommibus Press
- A Life In Stolen Moments Day By Day 1941-1995 Clinton Heylin, St Martin’s Press.
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