Dylan’s “Ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody” and the reason why the song doesn’t appear on Bob’s official site

by Tony Attwood

This song does present a conundrum from the outset in that it was played 46 times on tour in 1980 but the official Dylan site has no lyrics for the song – although it has a page for it.

And a conundrum because it was a fairly successful song, and the band and singers had obviously rehearsed it fully (not always the case with Bob!) and delivered a well packaged performance that Bob obviously liked.


That doesn’t mean of course that he would then continue with it, but quite why the lyrics were not recorded, and why a version never made it onto any of the official bootlegs is odd.  Or at least, it started me wondering.

I think I’ve got the answer, but rather than just reveal where I got to, I thought I would like to preserve the journey I have just taken to get there.  If you are impatient with me you can of course jump to the final conclusion…

What I did was that I kept singing it over inside my head until at last two answers of sorts popped up.  I can’t say definitively either are true, but I suspect that both have a part to play in what has gone on here.

The first thing that struck me was that part of the music of “Ain’t gonna” is adapted and re-used in Tight connection to my heart in 1983. It’s my no means a complete re-use, but there are similarities.  So my first guess was that after the performances stopped Dylan thought that it was ok as a show tune, but didn’t have enough to stand alone as a studio piece.  But he clearly liked it, so re-used part of it.

Of course they are not identical songs, but rather there are elements that match.  Take for example the music behind the lines

All that satisfies the fleshy needs
I’ve been down that road, i know what it needs.

and compare with the music for

You’re the one I’ve been looking for you’re the one that’s got the key
But I can’t figure out whether I’m too good for you or, or you’re too good for me.

Elsewhere I have come across discussions as to whether Dylan actually wrote this song – although I can find no evidence to the contrary and I can’t imagine him giving the piece so many outings at the time if it were no one of his.

The song also seems to have come with quite a jaunty introduction, at least on the edition we have recorded, and he and the band seem very happy about the whole affair.

The message of the song is straightforward – I’ll do a lot for anyone, but I’m not going to do something that would contradict the message of the Bible, and which would then send me to hell.  Which seems fair enough – a moral code is pretty fundamental to being a human.

One other point to note about “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody” is that the lyrics kept changing and indeed from the recordings we have it seems the arrangements changed a bit as well.    So I suspect  we have a song that Bob was never fully convinced about.  The idea was right, the music was fine, but the lyrics just were not quite what he wanted.

Musically the song has a few twists and turns of its own – the opening repeated phrase over the chords of G D C leaves us hanging, expectant wanting more.  If it ended on a G that would tell us the statement is complete.  If it ended on a D we would know we were part way through and wanted more.   But ending on C is enigmatic.  Is there more or not…

After that the song is a conventional tour around these primary chords until we get the ascending bass line which takes us back to the chorus.   This is the section I think Dylan had in his head when writing “Tight connection”.

As I say, there are lots of variant lyrics around but the opening message is fairly self-deprecatory…

I can manipulate people as well as anybody
Force ’em and burn ’em, twist ’em and turn ’em
I can make believe I’m in love with almost anybody
Hold ’em and control ’em, squeeze ’em and tease ’em
All that satisfies the fleshy needs
I’ve been down that road, i know what it needs.

And so it continues, and all of this is very worth as a confessional…

I can persuade people as well as anybody
I got the vision but it caused division
I can twist the truth as well as anybody
I know how to do it, i’ve been all the way through it
But it don’t suit my purpose and it ain’t my goal
To gain the whole world, but give up my soul.

And I just wonder if after the hot flush of Christian fundamentalism wore off this sort of openness was not quite what Dylan wanted to put forward to the world.  After all not many of us are willing to get up and say

I can twist the truth around as well as anybody

Also I guess the fact that Dylan is quite right when he says

I can mislead people as well as anybody

But then I suddenly realised the implication of what Bob says later, and I think this is the clue to what actually caused this song to be dropped, and then partly re-use a couple of years further down the line…

I can write and steal from people as well as anybody

Now here he’s getting a little too close to the argument about his plagiarism of older songs in some of his works.  Quite possibly one of the corporate lawyers pointed out that if that lyric appeared on the official site, then that was an open door for anyone who wanted to sue Bob for ripping off someone else’s song.   You can just imagine what it would be like in court when the prosecution says, “Mr Zimmerman himself admitted that he is a plagiarist…”

In rush the lawyers and say, “don’t ever put those lyrics up on the official site”.

Here’s a version of the song

Also http://www.needsomefun.net/bob-dylan-aint-gonna-go-to-hell-for-anybody/ claims to have two versions.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here


  1. Mr. Attwood, very interesting reading: it does show that Dylan’s experimenting with the other Abrahamic religion(Christianity): is not that big a jump for the songwriter:”I’ve been down that road…”

    “The moral of this story/
    The moral of this song/
    Is simply that one should not be/
    Where one does not belong.”
    (Frankie Lee And Judas Priest)

    In the end, it’s up to the individual to seek in life and hopefully find a balance between socio-religious demands and one’s own wants and needs, while avoiding getting overly tangled up in the black gowns of Christian Priests (Blake)or the blue robes of Hebrew Priests(Dylan); it’s not about finding what one should be doing, but about what one should not be doing: the answer is blowing in the wind.

  2. Nice to plot your trip your thoughts took before getting to that conclusion.

    Two points that come to mind and I like to share…

    You suggest: ” And I just wonder if after the hot flush of Christian fundamentalism wore off this sort of openness was not quite what Dylan wanted to put forward to the world.”

    I wonder what you mean with this sort of openness, the self-depreciation or openness about himself in general? I always was in awe of the amazing argument that Dylan was the one who opened up lyrics tot pop-music, even the comparison to Lennon, he was supposedly inspired by Dylan. Which is bullshit because Dylan was never capable of openness in his songs about himself as Lennon always was.
    Dylan has a closedness that is quite beyond normal, even though his MusiCares speech and some other interviews of the last one and a half decade shows him more opinionated and revealing in relation to himself. I see Dylan as someone who is not open at all.
    The songs is musically as weak as a lot of other work here. There is a nice lick, around the phrase of the title, and yes I can hear how that could be changed into Tight Connection to My Heart, but that’s about it. The melody and tight don’t allow for lyrics as Dylan can write… It seems here the music comes first, and my hunch about Dylan’s repertoire is that when the music comes first there is quite often not much else coming out. He is just not a composer of licks, melodies etc. I am not saying he doesn’t produce great songs with wonderful melodies, but they are often not the first things he puts out.

    The performance-link you provide however reminded me of why I liked a lot of stuff by Dylan in the early 1980’s. He was a rambling rock-musician, neither splendid, nor slick and smooth, but rough and ready and really really very good, but his shining moments with either new songs or old stuff he performed made me feel happy and strong. To know an artist’s work we should not look at the best pieces, but how he performs when is is just doing his job and the in between work.
    I remember listening for hours and hours to ‘Shot of Love’ while working on lay-out of magazines… Too many songs that kind of rock, but don’t come off the ground, Dylan struggling. Rhythmic boring and sloppy just like the glowing sexy girls banging the tambourine into the wild in the video of “Ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody”. And still I loved it at the time, not today.

  3. Very interesting article. I’ve wondered that myself. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that, as you point out, the hot flush of evangelical Christianity must have worn off. Eternal conscious torment for people who do not believe in something is logically incoherent with the notion of a loving God. I think he eventually was embarrassed to sing it.

    The idea that it could be used in court as an admission of plagiarism is not valid. Dylan writes many songs from the point of view of a character. They are not all first person confessions.

    I’m not sure who transcribed the lyrics, but I think the correct lines are:
    All that satisfies the fleshy needs
    I’ve been down that road, i know where it leads

  4. Thanks Allan. As noted in the review the official Dylan site doesn’t have lyrics, so I tend to take them from another site rather than try and do them myself, not least because being English my transcription of American can sometimes be very faulty. You could well be right in your version.

  5. For some of us, Bob Dylan was the angel with a loud trumpet sent to call the chosen out. Because of him, I found the courage within myself to walk off into the wilderness of 60’s America without knowing whither I went. Listening to the songs of his “Christian period” is like watching Einstein — having suffered a stroke, or come down with dementia or Alzheimer’s — struggling to add up a short column of figures that wouldn’t stump a first grader. But of all his songs from that period, I find few more self-deluded than “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody”.

  6. Closedness? The special thing Dylan has above the resto of te rockstars os speccially this. One time, an spanish journalist met Dylan and the most impressive thing he hoy was the smooth-reptilian touch when they shook their hands. That,s what makes great bob Dylan’s songs. And John Lennon esa another type of crear artist. Who’s better? Don’t mind. Dylan not only changed pop lyrics. He Aldo changed what wr consider today as poetry

  7. First time I heard this on Bootleg 13 I instantly thought Jim Steinman! And once considered in terms of bombastic rock rather than pure Christian fundamentalism the song can take on a different slant. The writer is saying he can influence, twist, persuade, etc and that his visions can cause division. But (assuming it’s a “self portrait”) is he applying this tactics only to he previous work or also to the Christian period?

    This is phase 2 of Dylan’s Christian phase, the white heat is cooling and he starts to mix secular ideas in with religious ones, so who wont he go to hell for? Just the non-believing fans of his previous work, or perhaps also those who feel the ONLY way to avoid hell is through Jesus?

    This all comes with the disclaimers that anyone trying to second guess Bob is bound to lose, and as a person of Faith if I have trodden on any one else’s Faith then I apologize.

    Finally anyone who feels Dylan cannot be open could do worse than replay Blood On The Tracks and Sara from Desire

  8. Dylan describes the work of a sociopath or a psychopath very well here. Pairs nice with “The Future” by Leonard Cohen. I agree with the other bloggers who suggest the fire and brimstone probably would embarrass Dylan now; or, he would feel the statements are too severe given that he is aware of his need for mercy, too. The self righteousness and messianic complex is wearing off. This is evident when he states the evil as action he is capable of. He knows how to do it. He doesn’t separate himself from it.

  9. i think that the emotional side of the song made him sing it. repeatedly.

    I think that the childish naive side of the lyrics made him not to publish it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *