Thief on the Cross: after 3 years of religion this was Dylan’s farewell

By Tony Attwood.

Completely revised 27 May 2020

As far as I can see (and of course I could be wrong on this) “Thief on the Cross” was either the very last of the gospel and other religious songs that Dylan wrote and performed, or else in this song he is saying that the original message of Christianity has been stolen by the Christians.

One way or another this is the last of the religious songs – after which Dylan took a break from songwriting and recording.  So we could argue that he was still a Christian at this point, but then lost his Christianity in the coming months.  But this seems uncomfortable to me – this is such an upbeat song.  If you have Doubts do you really write a song like this?

The compositions of those three years were not made up entirely of solid religious songs, especially in the second and third years.  Other masterpieces of utter magnitude occur, such as Caribbean Wind but there were also, towards the end, one or two religious songs that really don’t seem to me to work at all, either as celebrations of Christianity or as valid pieces of music in their own right.

And we must also consider this: just before this song was written Bob wrote “Lenny Bruce is Dead”.  Does one really move from writing that to a fully religious song?

Added to which the year contained other songs that might be interpreted as religious, or might not – the case is arguable, and so I get the feeling as time passed Dylan was doing two things: trying to push himself to create further religious songs to show his faith was still there, but finding himself drawn to much more successful songs which were either non-religious or ambiguous on the subject.

These last two full-on Christian songs of Dylan from this period of high-intensity religious writing were not, to my mind, very successful.  It is as if his heart really wasn’t in it anymore, and it is interesting that neither of these final Christian songs from the period have lyrics that appear on the official website.

As for Thief on the Cross it got one live play on 10 November 1981, and that was that.  The urge to create new Christian songs had run its course.  Or that was a deliberate epilogue.

The song itself has a riff that runs through the song is basically the same as in Cover Down Break Through, which suggests either that Dylan had lost his creative drive in this form of writing, or he is deliberately wrapping the era up.   Here is the one and only recording of the song that exists recorded in New Orleans.  The band is Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar), Fred Tackett (guitar), Steve Ripley (guitar), Al Kooper (keyboards), Tim Drummond (bass), Jim Keltner (drums), Arthur Rosato (drums), Clydie King, Regina Havis, Madelyn Quebec (background vocals)

If you want the Christian interpretation, the song is intended to draw us towards thinking about good thief on the cross next to Jesus; a thief who had been brought low by despair.   There is perhaps a flashback to the Watchtower with the joker and the thief, and this is something I have been meaning to consider more for some time.

There were two thieves on crosses, in Luke 23 one of whom declares that there is no divine presence, everything is hopeless.   In Luke the good thief attempts to convert the bad thief while the Son of God is also being crucified.

There’s a thief on the cross his chances are slim
There’s a thief on the cross I wanna talk to him

So that makes it look like a straight Christian song.  Except, except, except, consider this line from Lenny Bruce

Maybe he had some problems, maybe some things that he couldn’t work out
But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth and he knew what he was talkin’ about
Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads
He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds
He’s on some other shore, he didn’t wanna live anymore

How does that, in one song, relate to this in The Cross

Well everybody’s been diverted
Everybody’s looking the other way
Everybody’s attention is divided
Well they may not afford to wait
There’s a thief on the cross his chances are slim
There’s a thief on the cross I wanna talk to him

Back to Lenny Bruce

They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had

Wanna ask him ’bout his mother
Wanna ask him ’bout his ways
Wanna ask him ’bout to talk to himself
If it’s time it didn’t go too well
There’s a thief on the cross his chances are slim
There’s a thief on the cross I wanna talk to him

Now over the 10+ years of writing these reviews I have become more and more disdainful of commentaries that tell us Bob means exactly this or that and we can prove it.  So I am not going to try and prove anything, just raise some doubts.

Well, everybody’s not too excited
Don’t be too surprised
Head for the town and you can see it well
And it’s rising in his eyes
There’s a thief on the cross his chances are slim
There’s a thief on the cross I wanna talk to him

Now there’s winning, ruling and readin’
Everybody goes sinning by the rules
There’s a secret to excite you
Whether Iran or Mexico
There’s a thief on the cross his chances are slim
There’s a thief on the cross I wanna talk to him

And that was it – the end of the gospel era.

Except I really must offer you, dear reader, this recording and no matter what your view of Thief on the Cross, listen to this.  Is this a man who believes in the fundamentals of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion.

As a critic writing reviews of all the Dylan songs I find myself asking how can one move from Lenny Bruce to “Thief”?  I am not sure.  Listening to all these songs and trying my level best to write honest and informative reviews of them all I know I have not been converted, but maybe that was not the point.  I have been more entertained than I expected to be in going back across these songs, and I have been brought to an absolute masterpiece played perfectly with When He Returns but as a non-Christian I have found it often a struggle because sometimes I do feel, as in these last couple of songs, the music is not that good.

This is the last song I have listed for 1981, and after this it appears Dylan took a long break both from writing and from touring.  When he did return it was in a completely different mode with  Jokerman – which maybe tells us something.

And we are left with this thought

Maybe he had some problems, maybe some things that he couldn’t work out
But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth and he knew what he was talkin’ about
Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads
He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds
He’s on some other shore, he didn’t wanna live anymore

That, in the end, is what moves me to say that Thief on the Cross is about the loss of the fundamental message of Christianity.  The validity, the truth, the real understanding, comes from people like Lenny Bruce, who challenge us to think again.

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  1. Throughout his works, Dylan is more consistent than thought by many listeners of his lyrics.
    The repentent thief on desolation row, on the cross, says that everybody’s in the same boat: “The Titanic sails at dawn/
    And everyone’s shouting/
    Which side are you on?”

    Dylan, using the persona of the same thief, in his song entitled “Luke 23:14”, sings:
    “Dost not thou fear God/
    Seeing thou art in the same condemnation?”
    (I like the thief’s version better, to tell the truth)

    As I’ve pointed out in reference to many of his songs, Dylan maintains a tension between having
    faith in an ideal wold-to-come and showing it through one’s works or deeds in the here- and- now.
    In follow-up verse, Dylan strums along with: “For we receive the due rewards of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

    Christ on his own cross pities the poor immigrant on the other cross though the thief repents only in his despair: “Everybody says, ‘Are you going my way?’….Help comes but it comes too late”(Bob Dylan: Scarlet Town)

  2. Little Boy Bobby Blue sounds the alarm:

    “”No reason to get excited now, the thief he kindly spoke/
    ….So let us not talk falsly now, the hour is getting late'”(All Along The Watchtower)

  3. Dylan is more than willing to listen:

    “There’s a thief on the cross/
    …I wanna talk to him”
    (Bob Dylan: Thief On The Cross)

    Dylan’s sardonic sense of humour; better to take advice late than never!

  4. And the ‘Jokerman’ is not about nothing as some posters claim. It’s just that, as everyman Frankie Lee laments: “Nothing is revealed”.
    Even Moses did not make it to the Promised Land, but “there arose not a prophet since…Moses whom the Lord knew face to face”(Deuteronomy 34:10).
    Dylan, in his lengthy fight in the Watchtower with the Existentialists -who claim that life is meaningless if not outright nihilistic – seeks a purpose in life that does not place him in a position where he does not feel comfortable.

    In the song ‘Jokerman’, whether the jokster is considered God, the Son of God, or a Dylan persona, or Dylan himself, the theme remains the same: the Joker says to the Thief, (elsewhere)”There must be someway out of here”

    Dylan seems to think that ‘good works’ is at least a means to personal salvation.

  5. Dylan says you can have my prophet, if I can have yours:

    “Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands/
    Where the sad-eyed prophet/
    Says that no man comes”

    Moses got to see the Promised Land from afar,
    but never made it; the Messiah did not come.

    But perhaps it’s just a silly love song in the mode of William Shakespeare

    “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums/
    Should I put them by your gate/
    Or sad-eyed lady should I wait?”

    To wit:

    “Make me a willow cabin at your gate/
    And call upon my soul within the house/
    Write loyal cantons of cotemned love/
    And sing them into the dead of night”
    (Twelfth Night, Act 1, sc 5)

    Dylan likes to mix-up the medecine.

  6. All have sinned
    Except Christ, the Redeemer.
    Some see Truth and Repent and believe.
    This is the second birth.
    Dylan well understood this. He knew our works are as filthy rags in God’s sight.

    If he turned away from Christ it was not from a misunderstanding of the Faith.

    I Believe.

  7. Don’t let me drift too far,
    Keep me where you are
    Where I will always be renewed
    And that which you’ve given me today
    Is worth more than I could pay
    And no matter what they say
    I believe in you

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