Dylan’s Christian Anthology part 2: False Prophet & My own version of you

This article continues from Dylan’s Christian Anthropology: An exploration of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Part 1 – multitudes

By Kevin Saylor

Thematically, “False Prophet” shares some things in common with “Jokerman,” Dylan’s great song about messianism. The man who was hailed as a prophet from a young age and labelled against his will the spokesman of his generation is once again playing with his public image. The song is titled “False Prophet,” but repeats three times the phrase, “I ain’t no false prophet.” Why not make the entire five word phrase the title? Is the speaker a false prophet who claims like all false prophets to be true? Or is the song, in the voice of a true prophet, calling out false prophets? Is the double negative significant or merely colloquial? Or is the point that claiming not to be a false prophet is not the same thing as claiming positively to be a prophet? As with any lyric, at issue is the degree to which we are to relate to or distance ourselves from  the persona singing the song. In this case, I suspect the persona sympathetic, a voice claiming no prophetic mantle, but willing to speak the truth as best he sees it. It is the voice not of someone who has all the answers, but of someone willing to be honest.

What does this honest voice have to say? The song begins: “Another day that don’t end, another ship going out/ Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt.” In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dylan mentions Moby-Dick as a novel that profoundly influenced him. Perhaps we are aboard the Pequod along with Ishmael who tells us, “the world’s a ship on its passage out.” The same speech also mentions The Odyssey. Perhaps we are with Odysseus traversing perilous waters. Perhaps this is one of the “distant ships sailing into the mist” from “Jokerman.” Perhaps we are with the reluctant prophet Jonah. To whom does the “anger, bitterness, and doubt” belong? To the singer, the world, or both?

The verse continues, “I know how it happened, I saw it begin/ I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.” If the antecedent of “it” is “another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt,” then “it” begins in Eden with man’s first disobedience. In the second line of the couplet, Dylan uses an allusion to signify a meaning the opposite of the passage alluded to.

At the end of The Stranger, Camus’s narrator Meursault says, “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.   For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” (emphasis mine). Such a feeling could not be more at odds with the voice of Dylan’s song which is alive to hope, searching “the world over for the Holy Grail,” and open to a reality that he in no way finds indifferent. Meursault gets it wrong; the proper response to Original Sin is an open heart of love not a closed heart of hate.

Nevertheless, the singer of “False Prophet” does have adversaries. He tells us, “I’m the enemy of treason, the enemy of strife/ I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life/ I ain’t no false prophet, I just know what I know/ I go where only the lonely can go.” I take it that we ought properly to be the enemy of treason, strife and the unlived meaningless life. These lines could have come from Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a song clearly indicative of Dylan’s own position. An honest voice goes where only the lonely go because honest voices are often unpopular and refuse to court favor. Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” is a heartbreak of a song, but it ends on a note of  hope: “Maybe tomorrow/ A new romance/ No more sorrow/ But that’s the chance/ You’ve got to take/ If your lonely heart breaks.” Even in a world of anger, bitterness and doubt, we have to take a hopeful chance on tomorrow and new love.

On this track, greed is again condemned. We are told to “Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold/ Put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls.” We also hear, “Put out your hand, there’s nothing to hold/ Open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold/ Oh, you poor devil, look up if you will/ The City of God is there on the hill.” The values expressed are explicitly those of Augustine’s City of God, not the City of Man. Lust, too, is condemned again: “Hello stranger, hello and good-bye/ You rule the land but so do I/ You lusty old mule, you got a poisoned brain/ I’ll marry you to a ball and chain.”

The devil, who is both strange and well-known to the wayfaring pilgrim, rules the land precisely because we repeatedly surrender our wills to our various lusts.  We say “Hello stranger” to the devil because even if we manage to drive him away for awhile, he returns like an old friend, whether we want him to or not. The Carter Family song, “Hello Stranger,” contains the line, “I’m prison bound, I’m longing to be free.” Such is the sentiment of all of us who are enslaved to sin.

But that is not the end of the story. The devil may rule a fallen world, but “the prince of the world will be driven out” (Jn 12.31). We are also told, “You don’t know me darling, you never would guess/ I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest/ I ain’t no false prophet, I just said what I said/ I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.” “Ghostly” makes us think of the Holy Ghost, explicitly named in other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Who is infinitely more powerful than the devil, even if the ways of God seem to have little traction in the world. The somebody on whose head vengeance will be brought is that lusty old mule with a poisoned brain.

There are numerous images of violence and revenge in the lyrics, but they tend to be directed at clearly wicked figures, i.e., they demonstrate an active and aggressive resistance to evil. A final clue to the song is the line “Don’t care what I drink, I don’t care what I eat.” This passage alludes to Mark 7:15 (and possibly the early Church arguments of kosher dietary regulations). In the gospel Jesus proclaims, “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” This means that the key to freeing oneself from sin and imprisoning the devil with a ball and chain comes from the spirit operating inside of a person, not adherence to the minutiae of the law or any externally imposed  code of conduct.

“My Own Version of You” has been one of the most commented on and possibly the most misunderstood song on the album. Most reviewers have seen the song as a humorous bride of Frankenstein tale about creating a perfect partner.

Others have found Dylan speaking to that part of his audience that has always wanted him to remain still steadfast, still unchangeable from the time of going electric in the mid-sixties to going country in the late sixties through overtly gospel albums of the late seventies/early eighties to his most recent reworking of the Great American Songbook and the ever-evolving arrangements in concert of songs considered sacrosanct. According to this reading, Dylan, the great and original writer, is singing about creating the taste by which he is to be relished. A more interesting view discovers a song about the folk process itself, i.e., about how Dylan takes various parts from various places to bring to life something new and greater than the sum of its parts.

Numerous aspects of the song militate against any of these interpretations. For one, this is clearly a golem tale, and in the classic golem narratives, however benign the intentions of the creator, the outcome is usually tragic. The most famous gentile version of a golem tale is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein is a man of science attempting to discover the secrets of life in order to benefit mankind, yet his experiment goes horribly awry. I take it, then, that the song tells a story about a deeply misguided attempt to bring someone–or perhaps actually something–new to life. We are not to identify with the persona behind this song.

As with “False Prophet,” the title to this tune is somewhat unexpected. The phrase (with some variation) “I’ll bring someone to life” is repeated eight times in the song, while the title, “My Own Version of You” is sung only once at the end of the first verse.

A golem is not the recreation of someone particular; Frankenstein did not revivify a new version of an old friend or lover. But the song’s persona wants to recreate an improved version of a unique “you,” someone he has previously known, although it is “someone [he’s] never seen.” How can you know someone well enough to create a new version of him or her if you have never seen that person? “You” must refer not to a particular human being but to a concept or to an invisible entity. Thus, I contend, the song is best heard as a cautionary tale about the creation of false idols and the Promethean impulse to remake the world. It is, in fact, Dylan’s greatest anti-utopian song since “Gates of Eden” where Aladdin held a time rusted compass blade along with his dubiously wish-fulfilling lamp while sitting side-saddle on a golden calf next to Utopian hermit monks who are taken so seriously by those outside the gates of Eden but laughed at by those inside.

The song begins with the narrator spending “the summers into January…visiting morgues and monasteries.” We might think that he is searching the past (morgues) and religion (monasteries) to discover the blueprint for his new creation, but this is misleading because he goes on to say “to hell to all things that used to be.” He clearly is not mining the wisdom of the ages but wants to bring to life something utterly unprecedented. He tells us “it must be the winter of [his] discontent,” an obvious allusion to Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most dastardly villains, and another clue not to sympathize with the persona. Now, there is nothing wrong with being discontent with a broken world, nor is there anything wrong with, as he says later, wanting “to do things for the benefit of all mankind.” However, it is a most dangerous presumption to think that anyone, whatever the intentions, can bring to life a creature capable of eliminating our discontentment.

The most commented on couplet in the reviews occurs at the beginning of verse three: “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando/ Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando.” I’ll admit there is some comedy to this image, and I would never want to deny Dylan’s humor. There is also something of a carnival vibe to the music, but the mood is ominous house of mirrors more than “Monster Mash.” Plus, what he explicitly intends to create is not some lover for his life but a violent gangster. He thinks that if he can “do it up right and put the head on straight/ [He’ll] be saved by the creature that I create.” This imagery conveys excellently the inherent violence and danger in the Utopian longing to manufacture an entity with salvific powers. What could be more misguided than to believe you can create the being that will save you, when clearly only the Being who created us can redeem us. The persona’s proposed creature is another golden calf (albeit one with mafia connections).

In the next verse he claims that he will both do the impossible and do it without any risk: “I’ll get blood from a cactus, gunpowder from ice/ I don’t gamble with cards and I don’t shoot no dice.” This alchemic miracle will result in “someone who feels the way that I feel,” some idol, that is, created in the singer’s own image. When he “get[s] into trouble” with “No place to turn,” he asks himself “What would Julius Caesar do.” Obviously, this question riffs on the once ubiquitous, “What Would Jesus Do.” The persona of the song might take Julius Caesar as the JC to whom he holds allegiance and turns for advice, but Bob Dylan turns to a different JC when he “hit[s] the wall.”

Admittedly there is something seemingly ludicrous about the conjunction of personages in the following verse: “I’m gonna make you play piano like Leon Russell/ Like Liberace, like St. John the Apostle/ I’ll play every number that I can play/ I’ll see you baby on judgement day.” But this same confluence of music and religion recurs later in this same song and on other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Dylan is up to something more than rhyming for laughs. St. John’s depiction of final judgement continues into the next verse, set at the “Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street,” where the persona sings that he will “balance the scales” without getting involved “in any insignificant details.” Apparently, in bringing someone to life, the singer intends to balance the scales of justice for all time, to right all wrongs immanently and imminently, initiating a post-apocalyptic secular millennium. With a goal that high, one fears, all details become insignificant, anything being justified in order to balance the scales of perfect justice.

The ninth verse again confounds religion and music: “You can bring it to St. Peter, you can bring it to Jerome/ You bring it all the way over, bring it all the way home/ Bring it to the corner where the children play/ You can bring it to me on a silver tray.” There are multiple allusions to unpack in these lines. Jerome might be St Jerome, but he also might be Jerome Green, a member of Bo Diddley’s band, who wrote “Bring It to Jerome,” a song urging a straying woman to bring herself and his money back home.

The lines also hint at Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” which features a similar theme. In the prophets, when the people stray from God to pursue false idols, Israel is often compared to an unfaithful woman. So, if St. Peter holds the true keys to heaven, then Dylan as author (as opposed to the persona singing the song) suggests that the attempt to create a new, alternate path to salvation is a form of harlotry.

Furthermore, the third line alludes to Cat Stevens’ “Where Do the Children Play,” a song about the cost of the relentless pursuit of progress and the unintended consequences of technological innovation even when pursued with, in Dylan’s persona’s words, “decency and common sense.” “My Own Version of You” ends with the singer proclaiming that when he brings someone to life, he will “Do it with laughter and do it with tears.” The final verse of the Stevens song concludes, “Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry? Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?”

The drive to create a new version of a saviour always results in a tyrannical concentration of power. In the final verse of “My Own Version of You,” the persona ominously declares, “Show me your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife.” Dylan struck a similar chord in 1974’s “Dirge”: “So sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine/ The naked truth is still taboo wherever it can be seen.” The lines also evoke Dylan’s own album, Bringing It All Back Home, which contains, “Gates of Eden.” Finally, the verse alludes to John the Baptist. Here the persona is cast as Herod, the man who, in order to maintain his own power, must silence the true prophet who proclaims the necessity of repentance because the true Kingdom is coming. Hence we have yet another reason not to trust the persona.

The next verse quotes Shakespeare’s most famous line, “Can you tell me what it means to be or not to be.” Hamlet suffers from a metaphysical despair–a belief that the world is so fundamentally corrupt that removing his regicide usurper uncle from the throne will do nothing to relieve the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

As Marcellus, a royal guard, estimates the situation, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This is a political evaluation. If some specific thing is rotten in the state, that thing can be removed, restoring the state to health. Remove Claudius and heal Denmark. But as Hamlet assesses matters, “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right.” For Hamlet, the entire age, not something but everything, is broken, and he has the Messiah complex that he is the one chosen to set it right.

The singer of “My Own Version of You” possesses a similar complex, and in order to bring to life the creature that will set things right, he is willing to “use all of [his] powers.” This too is a sinister quote. In Godfather 2, when Kay wants to leave Michael and take the children with her, he says, “I’d use all my power to keep something like that from happening.” The persona is once again associated with gangsterism and the willingness to use any force or coercion to achieve his goal, which is tied to the very nature of existence: what it means “to be.”

In the following verse he claims that he can “see the history of the whole human race.” As previously quoted, he has already said “to hell to all things that used to be.” He does not look to the past for guidance. Rather, the line conjures ideas of historical dialectic and being on the right side of history. It is the progressivist claim to be able to sweep the past into the dustbin of history and finally usher in the perfect society. It claims to take a godlike view of history, seeing past, present, and future simultaneously. But, as creatures embedded in time, participants in the continuous flux of history, we can never stand outside of it to see it whole. Such a claim is more  evidence of hubris on the part of the persona.

The lyric suddenly shifts to address slavery, “Stand over there by the cypress tree/ Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery/ Long before the first crusade/ Way back before England or America were made.” Whatever playful humor there might have been in the opening verses has clearly fallen by the wayside. Dylan’s bona fides on the race issue are solidly established. Civil Rights is the one cause he has consistently and firmly stood behind. As a student of the Civil War Dylan knows the high price America has paid and continues to pay for for its violent refusal to abolish an unmitigated evil.

But, at the same time, as an American Jew, Dylan knows very well that the United States is not a uniquely racist nation nor did dead white Anglo-Saxons invent slavery. Dylan knows classical history as well American history. Slavery existed throughout the ancient world. And he knows the history of his people. In his song about the State of Israel, “Neighborhood Bully,” he sings, “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone/ Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon.” Bigotry and slavery have existed throughout the world since time out of mind. They are the consequence of human sinfulness and the lust for power that afflicts people of every place and every color.

In “Precious Angel,” Dylan sings to an African American lover, “you know our forefathers were slaves/…/But there’s violence in the eyes, girl, so let us not be enticed/ On our way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgment hall of Christ.” The path from slavery to true freedom leads to Christ. But the persona singing “My Own Version of You” seeks to find his own means of balancing the scales that have been tilted since the days of Troy and before.

The scene again suddenly shifts from Troy to hell, “Step right into the burning hell/ Where some of the best-known enemies of mankind dwell/ Mr Freud with his dreams,/ Mr Marx with his axe/ See the rawhide lash rip the skin from their backs.” I find it amusing that the reviews tended to focus on the Pacino/Brando pairing rather than the far more interesting Freud/Marx tandem.

Apparently the reviewers did not want to look too closely at this complex and serious song. Freudian psychology and Marxist dialectic are both named as forms of hellish slavery. They claim to provide a full explanation of human behaviour and historical progress not based on Christian anthropology and Providence. Dylan dismisses all such claims as “enemies of mankind.” The persona, however, engages in a similar, but rival, project. Like all millenarians, he wants to assert that every previous attempt to create a new version of God has been damnably flawed, but that he finally has come up with the “necessary body parts” to bring to life a perfect being. For Dylan it is just one more attempt to create a false idol in our own image.

The series continues…

An index to all our articles on Rough and Rowdy Ways appears here.

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  1. He who is sure that his interpretation of a Dylan song is the correct one commits the ‘sin’ of ‘hubris’. The capitalized ‘Original Sin” the writer of the otherwise thoughtful piece pops into the article with no attempt to explain what
    the concept actually means. Yet unresolved by Christian theologians, the tangled-up dogma is merely taken for granted.

    It might be sais that, by way of analogy, God is Victor Frankenstein – Man created He God in His own image – maybe woman too, though Shelley decided against Victor doing it – but capable of thinking and feeling on their own they were -John Calvin goes as far as to claim that the flaw of freedom led humans into total depravity, somewhat akin to Gnostic thought, but even therein sex is considered by some to be a curse. Under Judaism, it appears that Man is considered imperfect but not inherently sin-prone from birth. According to most Christians if they weren’t , Jesus would not be needed to save them. So was Judas on God’s side doing Almighty’s bidding or not? (Masters Of War). When push comes to shove, in the end all the juggling interpreters of the Bible, and of Dylan’s song lyrics, are ‘dressed like men”.

  2. To avoid the possibilty of a passive interpretation that God be created by heaven and the earth, some Judiac scholars assert that “God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth” is how Genesis 1:1 (not “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”) ought be translated; to them, to assert that the human Jesus is eternal like God is a form of idol worship.

  3. The following lyrics can be interpreted as a humourous shot at John Calvin, if not at the concept of “Original Sin” in general:

    Temptation’s not an easy thing, Adam given the devil reign
    Because he sinned I got no choice, it run in my vein ….
    I’m pressing on to the higher calling of my Lord
    (Bob Dylan: Pressing On)

  4. Another brilliant article. One of the best I’ve ever read on this site. Keep ‘em coming.

  5. No one really knows what Dylan’s spiritual beliefs are, and often an analyst will impose his/ her own religious beliefs on his lyrics that other listeners/readers do not find anywhere explicitly stated ….Dylan never uses the term ‘original sin’, for example ….if he had done so, the above interpertation would certainly be more convincing.

    The problem is it’s difficult to tell whether or not Dylan (with his Judaic background), is taking a satirical poke at religious or secular assertions.
    Or maybe it’s just his persona speaking?

  6. Great essay – valuable insights. The religion angle is inescapable. I find “False Prophet” to work well if Satan is understood as the speaker. All the endless anger, bitterness and strife began when Satan “opened his heart to the world, and the world came in” back when the world began. Similarly, “My Own Version…” works well when understood as the creation of an idol.

  7. Very thoughtful and convincing insights on both songs. Paraphrasing Joan Baez, if you want to go there, Dylan can take you to deep places. Thanks for all the intelligence and energy. It is interesting how much Dylan means to so many of us.

  8. Originally, I thought this lyric is about the process by which identity is created. But further listening lends to the likelihood that he’s also talking about his creative process (e.g. taking or “stealing” “parts” from this and that in his process of creating identity). We all do that, most of us less consciously than Dylan, perhaps.

    The narrators in Dylan’s previous songs often seemed to be between the protagonist and a woman. On this album the narrator seems to mostly be addressing the muses. And in this song, he not only talks to the muses but reports on their absence.

    “I wish you’d taken me with you wherever you went”

    vs the prosaic chatter (the anti-muses) in the mind that distracts from the focus when we’re in touch with muse:

    “They talk all night and talk all day
    Not for a minute do I believe a word they say”

    and the problem when we’re uninspired:

    “Well, I get into trouble, then I hit the wall
    No place to turn, no place at all
    I’ll pick a number between a-one and two
    And I ask myself, “What would Julius Caesar do?”

    If he’s run into creative trouble writing a song, he might ask the above question, but more likely ask Charlie Patton rather than Julius Caeser. But this album is full of classical allusions (as well as the usual suspects from the Delta).

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