False Prophet part 2: Shadows are falling but it’s a day without end



by Bob Jope

False Prophet Part 1: ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’

Shadows are falling but it’s a day without end, dragging towards eternity, ships ‘going out’, their journeys unnamed, unremarked upon. Days wearily repeat themselves, full of tellingly unspecified ‘anger’ and coloured by ‘bitterness and doubt’. The near-hopelessness, though, shifts to something closer to a worldly knowingness, the voice of a prophet looking back, one who’s seen it all, who saw, too, what was coming  – ‘I know how it happened – I saw it begin’ – but one who also suffered, martyr-like, in his truth-telling and in his searching, we later hear, for ‘the holy grail’:

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in

If you ‘open your heart’ to someone, you tell them truths, your real thoughts and feelings, because you trust them – but in doing that you’re at the same time rendering yourself vulnerable, opening yourself to another’s exploitation if that trusted person turns out to be anything but trustworthy: you can be taken advantage of, something that’s implied here by the embittered follow-on, sung with a tired sense of seen-it-all beforeness: ‘and the world came in’.

You ‘open your heart’ to or confide in usually one person, not to ‘the world’, but the speaker’s naïve mistake was perhaps to have assumed that his audience would listen and respond with generosity of spirit rather than seizing an advantage, moving in and, as it were, setting up camp *. Perhaps that’s why the speaker now seeks refuge in isolation, the safety of being ‘where only the lonely can go’, the prophet’s wilderness…

(*There’s likely to be an autobiographical note here, of course: the world-addressing, world-admonishing proselytiser – ‘so much older then’ – found himself claimed, owned even, as a voice or ‘spokesman’, a mouthpiece for others and their causes.)

On the other hand, while he may go where ‘only the lonely can go’, he’s not unaccompanied:

Hello Mary Lou - Hello Miss Pearl
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
No stars in the sky shine brighter than you
You girls mean business and I do too

‘Hello Mary Lou’ is pretty harmless pop stuff but Jimmy Wages’ ‘Miss Pearl’ sounds more like trouble:

Miss Pearl, Miss Pearl
Daylight recalls you, hang your head, go home…

Whatever she gets up to at night in her ‘underworld’ before daylight ‘recalls her’ we can only guess –  the admonishing singer sounds desperate –  but Dylan’s False Prophet welcomes his Miss Pearl and Mary Lou as ‘guides from the underworld’, subterranean muses calling to mind Maggie who once came ‘fleet foot Face full of black soot’. Ready now to do business, the three form a threateningly unholy trio – that ‘I do too’ is added with sardonic relish. The Shadow and his ‘guides’ are, as Elvis sang, ‘Lookin’ for trouble’.

That troublesome ‘business’ is intimated in the next verse with its implied declaration of intent, listing the enemies, the targets to be taken on:

I’m the enemy of treason - the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life

Another intriguing trio: treason, strife and life not fully lived.

Treason, an act of criminal disloyalty, typically to the state, is a crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against the nation (or its sovereign). It implies betrayal, and the voice here might well have in mind both personal experience (reminding us of the ‘world’ that ‘came in’ when he opened up his heart?) and something grander: a political leader (I can’t help but think again of that Trumpean silhouette) who betrays his own nation and all that it stands for. ‘Strife’ might well have a contemporary relevance, too, suggesting as it does, ‘angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues’, or ‘vigorous, bitter conflict’: a nation at war with itself – and with a leader at war with his own nation.

The lines, then, condemn betrayal and destructive conflict, while, again, Blake comes to mind in the enmity towards ‘the unlived meaningless life’. Treason and strife are, by implication, life-denying, dark negatives, symptoms or products of the ‘Mind-forg’d manacles’ Blake hears in ‘London’, manacles that a lived, meaningful life would presumably be free of, the ‘chains’ that Rousseau and, later, Marx, saw as denying life and liberty. The speaker’s own freedom is expressed, in fact, in the triumphant separateness of the declaration that follows:

I’m first among equals - second to none
I’m last of the best *

(*Robert Currie’s Genius has a lot to say about this essentially Romantic concept, the creative artist as the One versus the Many, reaching something of an apotheosis in Nietzsche’s notion of ‘Man and Superman’: or ‘Man and The Shadow’?)

Michael Goldberg’s thoughts come to mind here:

The funny thing about ‘False Prophet’ is that when Dylan sings, “I ain’t no false prophet/ I just know what I know,” he could be indicating that he’s actually the real thing…In this new song he also sings,

“I’m the enemy of treason…
“Enemy of strife…
“Enemy of the unlived meaningless life.”

That final line is a theme of the Beats, as I was recently reminded when I read three books by the novelist/memoirist Joyce Johnson, who in her youth was Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend when On the Road, written in 1951, was finally published in 1957. “Enemy of the unlived meaningless life.” It’s as relevant today as a philosophy of life as it ever was.

The triumphant note is sustained in the next snarled insistence:

you can bury the rest
Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold
Put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls

The implication seems to be that ‘the rest’ are those whose (‘unlived meaningless’) lives have been dedicated to – and wasted – on material, earthly pursuits, falling in love ‘with wealth itself’ (‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’). Wrong-footing us again, though, a sudden, challenging question, ‘what are you lookin’ at?’, turns into an ambiguous reassurance, ‘There’s nothin’ to see’: he’s invisible now, but, as I suggested earlier, there’s a possible dark undercurrent here, the invitation to ‘walk in the garden’ on the one hand possibly innocently meant but on the other calling to mind the wily serpent (hinted at in the wind’s winding movement, ‘encircling me’)in the Garden of Eden, not actually invisible but, of course, the Devil in disguise, something picked up on a few lines later:

You don’t know me darlin’ - you never would guess
I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest

Again we’re left wondering about the voice, its tone (Inviting? Reassuring? Deceitful? Boastful?) and its intention: who, exactly are we hearing and ‘What was it [he] wanted?’ Unsettling us still more, the swaggering shifts into vengeful mode again:

I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head

That ‘somebody’s head’ is particularly unnerving – somebody could be anybody – and the ‘ghostly appearance’ is now still more insubstantial, ‘nothin’ to hold’ where a hand should be. The threat of vengeance, on the other hand, is horribly actualised or particularised, stuffing with gold the mouth of the ‘poor Devil’ who can, perhaps, only look up and see, not ever reach or experience the City of God – the new Jerusalem, or Paradise: Paradise lost to Adam and Eve, corrupted by Satan – who himself was hurled out of Heaven:

Put out your hand - there’s nothin’ 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

This already cryptic, allusive song (addressed by whom, and to whom?) concludes on yet another dense and enigmatic note, loaded with questions:

Hello stranger - Hello and goodbye
You rule the land but so do I
You lusty old mule - you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain

You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile - something’s got to give
I ain’t no false prophet - I’m nobody’s bride
Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died

Ambiguities, uncertainties abound: the voice of a/the Devil, or a/the Devil addressed? Hello – and goodbye –  to a stranger who rules the (strange?) land –  ‘but so do I’? Once again: ‘I and I’? And that stranger is now a poison-brained ‘lusty old mule’ who’s threatened with marriage, but not a marriage to a wife, instead – vengeance again – an ironic, punishing  ‘ball and chain’, calling to mind, for me, Shakespeare’s Lucio who’s punished by, in his words, marriage to ‘a punk!’(By delightful chance, Cockney rhyming slang for ‘wife’ is not, of course, ‘ball and chain’ but ‘trouble and strife’,  while in Janis Joplin’s song, Love is the ‘ball and chain’ that drags her down.)

The voice, meanwhile , telling us again that he’s no false prophet, adds that he’s ‘nobody’s bride’ (not ‘Nobody’s Child’), whereas, we might remember (and Dylan reminds us in ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting’) the church is the ‘bride of Christ’ in John’s Gospel. Mischievously, too , the voice, the Prophet or Seer – Blake’s eternal Bard – not only can’t remember when he was born but, weirder still, ‘forgot when I died’.


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