NET 2013 part 2: The art of the Dramatic Monologue

An index to the whole series on the Never Ending Tour can be found here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

In the previous post I covered the songs that were played for the last time in 2013, and we spent some time with those wonderful two Rome concerts. Dylan, however, apart from narrowing his setlists, had new songs lined up for the gaps he was creating, songs from his latest album, Tempest (2012). Tempest appeared too late in 2012 to have a major impact on those setlists, but in 2013 and 2014, before the arrival of Frank Sinatra, these new songs came into their own.

Not so the final song on the album, ‘Roll On John’ which, according to the official Dylan website, was played twice at the end of 2013 in London. I, however, can only find one recording, this one from 26th November. It would never be performed again.

Roll On John

This song has always seemed a little loose and mawkish to me, certainly not the best of the album, and along with others I wondered why Dylan would wait thirty years to write this somewhat awkward tribute to John Lennon. At least, everybody assumes it’s a tribute to John Lennon. The second verse in particular is conclusive:

From the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets
Down in the quarry with the Quarry men
Playing to the big crowds, playing to the cheap seats
Another day in the life on your way to your journey's end

But listening to it again now I begin to wonder. In his late songs Dylan sometimes shifts focus, and can hide one thing behind another. I may be drawing a very long bow here, but behind the figure of John Lennon I see another John, John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelations. Commentators have struggled to apply the rest of the song to John Lennon, or account for the ‘island’ mentioned in the third verse. (Manhattan?) But what if the island was Patmos to which John, John the Revelator, was exiled by the Romans as a result of anti-Christian persecution? This John died in exile, but not a violent death:

Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be’

That doesn’t sound like someone dying of a fatal gunshot wound.

The reference to Blake’s Tyger would make more sense if we were thinking of John the Revelator, a spiritual tiger still burning bright. Blake’s interest in the tiger, and maybe Dylan’s too, is as a revelation of god’s power.

Ok, as I said, it’s a hell of a stretch, but you have to stretch those lyrics to fit with John Lennon too. I don’t think it’s a matter of either/or – it seldom is with Dylan, who likes to have his cake and eat it too. Dylan might have had both Johns in his mind when he wrote the song, or maybe John the Revelator ghosting in behind John Lennon. Or maybe I’m just imagining things.

Those looking for a more grounded view of the song are well advised to check out Tony Attwood’s account here.  There is nothing loose or mawkish about ‘Pay in Blood,’ however, which is among the most scary and powerful songs Dylan has ever written. Scary because the persona behind it is a dangerous and violent hypocrite, happy to pay for his crimes with your blood. Good dramatic monologues subtly build a portrait of a character through what they reveal about themselves. What is revealed in this song is a terrifying personality, a dictator in the making, a vampire by inclination, a moral monster.

In ‘Pay In Blood’ we find another version of the unreliable narrator, this time a self-mythologising, self-aggrandising type, a hero (in his own eyes) of Homeric proportions, but underneath it all, another self-serving grifter happy to pay for his crimes with the blood of others. I tried to come to grips with this song here and Tony has had a crack at it here, but like the best Dylan songs it won’t be pinned down easily.

Suiting the subject matter, the music has a militant, ominous feel – expressive of a horrible triumphalism (Trumphalism?) –  and we will get some solid performances of it over the next few years. The music overwhelms you just as the song’s persona would; you have to fight to keep your feet if you don’t want to get swept away by his vile, self-serving rhetoric, delivered to a pounding beat.

The song was performed fifty-eight times over a total of eighty-five concerts. I’ve chosen three, necessary performances, each approaching the song a little differently, with different emphases. The song grew over the year in loudness and confidence.

This first one from Amhurst (6th April), the second concert of the tour, features blues and jazz guitarist Duke Robillard, who played with Dylan until June 30th. There were rumours of clashes between Robillard and Dylan, who would replace him with Colin Linden who would play with Dylan on and off until August 4th. It’s hard to know why Dylan added another guitarist, as he already had Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball.

I like this one because you can hear Dylan feeling out the song, the clear, sweet piano chords underpinning it. It has not yet become strident, and achieves a certain grim grandeur.

Pay in Blood (A)

The next two are both from November, and show how far the song has come in terms of ominousness. This one’s from London, 27th Nov.

Pay in Blood (B)

This one from Blackpool, 22nd Nov, however, shows the direction it will move in 2014 – louder and more strident.

Pay in Blood (C)

‘Duquesne Whistle,’ co-written with Robert Hunter, kicks off the album. This jaunty song, most certainly playful, takes us back to the early days of jazz and jump jazz, a ‘choo-choo shuffle’ as the Sydney Morning Herald described it, with echoes of Jelly Roll Morton, one of the founders of jazz piano.

‘The song piles up evocations not to invite understanding but to situate the listener. The opening few bars provide misdirection with both sound and tempo, yet they open Dylan’s world and provide just one more indication of where he’s going. Wherever this train track leads, it must be worth going’ “Bob Dylan’s 20 Best Songs of the ’10s and Beyond”. Spectrum Culture. 2021-02-19. 

Tony Attwood has argued, I think persuasively, that the song evokes a tornado: ‘Late in the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 2011 a huge multiple vortex tornado struck Joplin and Duquesne, Missouri.  It was the third tornado to hit the area since May 1971. It killed 158 people, injured some 1,150 others, and was the deadliest tornado in the US up to that point since 1947 and was (at the time) the costliest single tornado in U.S. history… As for the whistle, tornados are associated with a whistle sound – which comes from the inflowing winds.  Hence ‘Duquesne Whistle’– the opening track of an album called Tempest.’

Not only that, it’s worth pointing out that tornados are often described as sounding like an approaching train, and the idea of a train whistle lurks behind the music and imagery. Again, Dylan gets it both ways, both a tornado and a train.

This song was played at almost every concert in 2013, with little variation in the performances. I’ve chosen just two performances, the first from Stockholm (13th Oct):

Duquesne Whistle (A)

And the second from London, 27th Nov:

Duquesne Whistle (B)

It wasn’t until October that another great dramatic monologue from Tempest, ‘Long and Wasted Years’ was played live. To get behind this song I suggest you imagine a woman being accosted by a barroom drunk, who addresses her as if he knows her, was in fact married to her at one time, but none of that is certain. Maybe he was just a friend of hers, or maybe she’s a complete stranger. What is certain is his bitterness and despair. The song ends with some of the most devastating lines Dylan has written:

I think when my back was turned
The whole world behind me burned
Maybe today, if not today, maybe tomorrow
Maybe there’ll be a limit on all my sorrow

We cried on a cold and frosty morn’
We cried because our souls were torn
So much for tears
So much for those long and wasted years.

At least, those are the lyrics as written on the official Dylan website. But what he sings is:

I think when my back was turned
The whole world behind me burned
It’s been a while
Since we walked down that long, long aisle

which is much more powerful in the context of the imaginings of the persona.

‘Long and Wasted Years’ comes close to being a talking song, driven by the drunken lurch of the music which seems to stagger from verse to verse. In later years Dylan would put on a drunken intonation when singing it, but in 2013 he was still feeling the song out, feeling out the persona behind the song. As in all great dramatic monologues, we have an unreliable narrator who gives himself away at every turn:

I ain’t seen my family in twenty years
That ain’t easy to understand
They may be dead by now
I lost track of them after they lost their land

Hmm… the thought occurs that he lost track of his family because they lost their land, revealing him to be a shallow, venal man. A vengeful man too:

My enemy crashed into the dust
Stopped dead in his tracks and he lost his lust
He was run down hard and he broke apart
He died in shame, he had an iron heart

Hmm… who has the iron heart? There’s little pity in the persona’s heart.

Grotesquely, he wants the woman to dance for him, or perhaps with him, evoking a song made popular by the Beatles in the 1960s.

Shake it up baby, twist and shout
You know what it's all about
What are you doing out there in the sun anyway?
Don't you know, the sun can burn your brains right out

Note that sudden shift after the second line from a leering sexual invitation to nastiness so typical of the drunk. (The extreme heat of the sun may tie in with the line ‘the whole world behind me burned’ offering us a glimpse of an overheated world.)

Then there’s that verse which makes us think of Dylan himself. I would caution against ascribing anything this persona says to Dylan, whoever he may be, but given his early love affair with sunglasses, and his youthful fondness for wearing them at night, this verse is suggestive:

I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes
There are secrets in them that I can't disguise
Come back baby
If I hurt your feelings, I apologise

Again a sudden shift after the first two lines. We’re not sure what he has to apologise for – maybe those ‘secrets’ hidden behind his shades.

Like ‘Pay in Blood’ this song is a masterpiece of character creation. Not pleasant characters at all, either of them, characters full of bile and self-justification. But unlike the dark villain of ‘Pay in Blood,’ the confused drunk of ‘Long and Wasted Years’, wearing his wounded heart on his sleeve, provokes a kind of fascinated pity. If we’ve spent any time in bars at all, or alcohol-fuelled parties, we’ll know that character; we’ll have met somebody like him somewhere back along the line.

I think the song would come into its own in later years, and we can look forward to that. In the meantime I’ve chosen this early performance from Stockholm (22nd Oct) as a fine early example of the song, with hints of how it could develop.

Long and Wasted Years

For those who like to see Dylan in action, there is this cool video spliced cleverly together from three concerts, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Berlin. We see Dylan beginning to act out the song. Note the little stagger at the end. Compelling.

I’ll be back soon with more from 2013.

Until then

Kia Ora




  1. A cold-hearted “Christian” fundamentalist murdered John Lennon… Any analyst attempting to equate Lennon to one or both of the above mentioned biblcial Johns is indeed being too “imaginative” (though it’s been done before).

    Blake’s Tiger/Lamb symbolism, referenced in a number of Dylan’s songs, depicts a ‘two-headed’ figurative God.

    Dylan’s spiritual beliefs can’t be pinned down.

    In a number of his most striking songs since 2001 Dylan has adopted the dramatic monologue form as a way of entering and articulating alternative personas, intimations of the ‘multitudes’ he celebrates on his most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, quoting Walt Whitman in its opening song, itself a kind of overture whose leitmotifs echo through the collection: ‘I Contain Multitudes.’
    As Robert Langbaum argued in The Poetry of Experience: ‘The standard account of the dramatic monologue is that Browning and Tennyson conceived it as a reaction against the romantic confessional style. This is probably true. Both poets had been stung by unfriendly criticism of certain early poems in which they had too much revealed themselves; and both poets published, in 1842, volumes which were a new departure in their careers and which contained dramatic monologues. The personal sting was probably responsible for Tennyson’s decade of silence before 1842; it was almost certainly responsible for the disclaimer attached by Browning to his 1842 Dramatic Lyrics: “so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.”’

    Dylan’s ‘utterances of so many imaginary persons’ range from the wry, worldly wisdom of ‘Floater’ to the embittered ‘Working Man’s Blues’, from the aching, guilt-driven ‘Nettie Moore’ to the sometimes snarling husband in ‘Long and Wasted Years’, adopting voices to articulate alternative and sometimes extreme viewpoints, and to give life to personas he’s created to express those viewpoints.
    A crucial feature of the dramatic monologue form, Langbaum wrote, is that as we read we ‘suspend moral judgment’, as we do when reading or listening to, say, a Shakespearian soliloquy. A speaker as chilling and malevolent as Othello’s Iago, for example, compels our attention in his ingenuity and exuberance, his dynamic theatricality, to the point where we can enjoy his performance, however much in retrospect we condemn its purpose, his malign intentions. Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ is a perfect instance, a monologue spoken by a wife-killer who even slyly boasts of his crime as he charms us – and his immediate audience – with his display of connoiseurship.
    Adopting, or adapting the dramatic monologue form comparably enables Dylan to inhabit ‘extreme’ personas and to articulate voices other than his own, like his Florida-based Ancient Mariner in ‘Key West’, voices that intrigue and compel as we listen, caught up in their worlds for as long as their songs demand, entertained by their world-views however skewered and idiosyncratic they might be – like the voices we experience, too, in Dylan’s recent book, The Philosophy of Modern Song.

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