Thief on the Cross: after 3 years of converting the fans this was Dylan’s last gospel song

By Tony Attwood.

As far as I can see (and of course I could be wrong on this) “Thief on the Cross” was the very last of the gospel and other religious songs that Dylan wrote and performed.  Many others had a spiritual theme of course, but the overtly Christian songs as the mainstay of his compositional output from the end of 1978 through to the end of 1981 finished with this piece.

The compositions of those three years were not made up entirely of solid religious songs, especially towards the end, and during this time some other masterpieces 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.

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 any more, 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.

The song itself has a riff that runs through the song is basically the same as in Cover Down Break Through, and this again suggests that Dylan had lost his creative drive in this form of writing.   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)


The song is intended, I believe, 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.   Maybe in a short while.

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

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

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

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.

As a critic writing reviews of all the Dylan songs I find myself asking was it all worth it just to get to that last verse?  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.

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11 Responses to Thief on the Cross: after 3 years of converting the fans this was Dylan’s last gospel song

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    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. Larry Fyffe says:


  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    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)

  4. Larry Fyffe says:


  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    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!

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    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.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    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.

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    *”And sing them loud even in the dead if night”

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    **of night/ medicine

  10. Larry Fyffe says:


  11. Hello Tony, found this one in the altar box but you can listen to it inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box The Bob Dylan Project is “the most comprehensive Bob Dylan archive on the web” so join us inside and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.

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