Bob Dylan’s “Death is not the end” Why?

By Tony Attwood

As an atheist I make pronouncements on religious matters with enormous caution, normally just complaining that I live in one of only three countries where the religious authorities sit in Parliament and affect the laws of my country.

But of course with Dylan’s music I am often drawn into religious issues, and so today I find myself remembering a Jewish friend telling me some time ago that the attitude of Judaism to the afterlife is in essence “We aren’t really sure.”

This was backed up by my watching recently Woody Allen’s brilliant movie “Cafe Society” in which it is said several times over, (I think by Ken Stott’s character) that Jews don’t believe in life after death.

Reading around the subject I understand that is a simplification, but the thought came back to me in listening to one of my all time least favourite Dylan compositions “Death is not the end” and wondering quite what made him write this.

My favourite response to such a “why?” question these days is to look at the sequence of Dylan’s writing at the time and in this case we find a sequence of compositions that runs

Now this is one hell of a varied list from the sublime to the ludicrous (in my humble opinion) and in the ludicrous camp I would put both “Tell Me” and this song, “Death is not the end”.

We can see “Death” comes straight after “Lord Protect my Child”, so it is fairly clear where Dylan was going at this moment – but before “Lord Protect” we had “Julius and Ethel”, a right rollicking rocker, and a really good listen.  After we had that most sublime of blues variations “I once knew a man”.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

What’s more the last gospel song had come a year before, and looking at what else Dylan was writing at the time of that song (Thief on the Cross), it is clear that his mind had moved a long way from the period the hard core of Christian songs.

“Lord Protect My Child” and “Death is not the end” must of course be linked, but it is curious that Dylan would record “Death” and release it on an album (although somewhat later) when there were so many other songs of such merit lurking around waiting for him to release his definitive version of each.   I have tried to explain elsewhere why I think Dylan held back on “Blind Willie” for example, but I am completely unable to understand why “Caribbean Wind” (among others) was passed over in favour of this song.

I have heard it said by some fellow musicians that every song can be rescued no matter how bad it is, and so I have been trying to find a version of this song I can live with (if you will pardon the expression at this point).   This is about the best I can find….

There was however ultimately redemption for me – but I’ll come back to that in a minute – I’ll try and finish my review of “Death” first.

The Dylan recording of Death Is Not the End was made in 1983 very soon after it was composed, as far as I can tell, and that means it came at the time of Infidels.  But it didn’t hit the streets until 1988 with “Down in the Groove” – and the recording most certainly is the same one as made originally in that it has Robbie Shakespeare and Mark Knopfler on it (although goodness knows what they thought was going on when they played it through.  At least they only had to play it once).

And that leads to the question – if Dylan could only bring himself to play it once with the band (the recording on the album was done in one take only), and he has never once played it in question, why did he put it on the record?

And while pondering this I also remembered the original cover to Down in the Groove (shown here).  Personally I think they should have used it – but that is another matter.

There are other cover versions around, but they don’t really do too much for me – but the fact that they exist by reputable artists shows that clearly there is something in the song that I am simply not getting.  Not for the first time I am sure.

For me Dylan as a lyricist is at his best when he drops us hints of where he is, and takes us on journeys through images and metaphors.  Not when he spells it all out as with

When you’re sad and when you’re lonely
And you haven’t got a friend
Just remember that death is not the end
And all that you’ve held sacred
Falls down and does not mend
Just remember that death is not the end

Worse, and of course this is just my view, when in this song Dylan does decide to give us some images, they are so everyday, so ordinary, that they take us nowhere new.

When you’re standing at the crossroads
That you cannot comprehend
Just remember that death is not the end
And all your dreams have vanished
And you don’t know what’s up the bend
Just remember that death is not the end

And just when we think it can’t get any more humdrum the next verse opens

When the storm clouds gather ’round you

Of course Bob can’t just deliver such everyday lines throughout so we do, at the end, get a little light relief (as it were) with

When the cities are on fire
With the burning flesh of men

But then that doesn’t link too well with all that has gone before.  As a piece of poetry it just falls flat on its face.  It’s as if Dylan ended “It’s all right ma” with the line “here’s a box of chocolates for Mother’s Day”.

Heylin suggested that “Dylan’s intent all along may have been to show the rich vein of music he listened to when growing up in Hibbing,” and that might be true.  But Heylin’s subsequent argument that a period of writer’s block was causing him difficulty is not held up by the quality of music that Dylan presented around this time.  The list of songs written before and after this one shows how much unused material Dylan had at his disposal at this time, any of which he could have put on the album.

The only other explanation that I have come up with as to why this song was ever written, let alone released, is that Dylan, at the time of the putting together of “Down in the Groove” was going through the musical equivalent of self harm.  As an explanation it is unusual, but possible. But then so is almost anything.

So not for me, as you will have gathered.  But doing the research for writing up this little note on this song, I did come across “Death is not the end” by Shut up and Dance which is also not to my taste, and nothing to do with Dylan but was a distraction.  And finally to rescue my sanity (and to distract from the fact that I shut my hand in my car door yesterday morning and I am now bandaged up and finding it hard to type, so I am not really having the best of times) I did indulge myself by playing my favourite Waterboys track.

Therefore, just in case you find “Death is not the end” as little to your taste as it is to mine, spare a few moments to enjoy something quite different.   (And in case this is the first review you’ve ever read on this site, I would assure you, it doesn’t normally get as negative, or as lateral, as this).



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  1. Death is not the end because the world goes on without you….there may be no Heaven but who knows: someday in the future everybody may come to live in a Promised Land here on Earth….that will be when the metaphorical Messiah comes.
    Religions take the Bible too literally; it is a masterpiece of art.

  2. The above is in no way intended as a critique of Mr. Attwood’s review,
    but rather as a look at the song from a different point of view,ie,that the Bible itelf
    is a great work of art, a masterpiece….of man, not of God. In other words, the Holy Book is about ‘the Word of God”, as the biblical writers metaphorically put it, language being rather distinctive to the human species.

  3. Larry and Tony you guys made my day

    Larry with his acknowledgement that the Bible is a human effort to converse about the ‘Word of God’, and indeed it is a piece of art, and Tony I really love your approach to take explore and explain songs thru those that were written before and after.

    Here’s the good and the bad news Tony.
    I don’t believe for a second ‘that every song can be rescued no matter how bad it is’, No way. This only works when there is musically at least a little hook or riff or brief melody line embedded in the song. Or a phrase or a few words that come out of the mouth in a memorable way (melody, rhythm, etc.)
    The Waterboys version is attractive because what we hear is almost a sing-a-long-dance-party number, and this is because of the melody and chord changes, which is something quite remarkable for Bob Dylan. It fits the Waterboys sound and music, in my mind’s eye I see myself dancing with the women from the farms and the village in old dresses while a little band plays on a broken wooden stage – a hundred or more years ago.
    To a music like that Dylan made the proper decision to give us some images, they are so everyday, so ordinary, that they take us nowhere new. Sing-a-long dance songs rarely provoke new thoughts and images. You may think that “as a piece of poetry it just falls flat on its face. It’s as if Dylan ended “It’s all right ma” with the line “here’s a box of chocolates for Mother’s Day”.”
    You maybe right, but don’t forget he is also a song and dance man. Which means sometimes he might just come up with a very funny little song. Though Dylan never dared to write and publish something like ‘Her Majesty’ like Macca/The Beatles, but I love his Christmas Album because that’s where he goes wild and funny without proper poetry.
    Dylan has put himself far too often in a hole of seriousness and disaster, whereas maybe he can be a funny guy. Tony I think, as a fan here it is you who puts him in a cardboard box put the handcuffs on and tell to bugger off, open up the cardboard box again and don’t bring it down to the junkyard – cherish this little and start dancing and singing, with your wounded hand waving in the air and be happy man Tony
    There is Dutch comedian/singer who used Dylan’s song ‘Death is not End’ reworked it into a song that still has the melody, rhythm and the idea of ‘Death is not the End’ – he however came up with new provoking and funny analogies. Here it is… oh it is also about the idea that some religions suggest there is life after death and some don’t.
    I thank God there is no life after death.

  4. Hi,

    I love this site and always look forward to your posts.

    There are many answers to your question, why?, several of which have to do with Dylan’s deep and insufficiently explained melding of traditions defined as “Jewish” and “Christian” though Jesus obviously was a Rabbi who was addressing an existing tradition, not a proto-Pope. One must know the entire Bible and Jewish intellectual traditions dating back to the fall of the Temple in 70AD to really “get” Bob. Most of his fans, me included, don’t.

    The most salient answer to your question, I think, is that Bob is addressing “atheists.” He wants you to know what he believes to be true and he wants you to be saved or at least awakened to what G-d requires of you. I would imagine he’s alarmed by the extent to which his most fervent public fans are “atheists” just as he was alarmed to be called Judas that famous time. Anyway, and here I speak not as a believer, Bob asks the question not for himself, but for those who need to hear it. He’s a prophet and a visionary and always concerned with questions of justice and eternity and generous too in reaching out to those who might be awakened but prefer to wear blinders yet keep coming him to him for answers. Most of us in the end, as far as Bob is concerned, are Mr. Jones. But since ’79 and possibly JWH he’s been pointing a way out for those who will not see and not just pointing his finger, as he often did in the 60s.


  5. Dylan questions both the Judiac and Christian traditionally established doctrines but unholds the spiritual values he finds in both. It’s the hypocrisy of those who claim to be ‘religious” that he criticizes, those who are really praying to the ‘golden calf.’

  6. I first heard this song in a version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on their album “Murder Ballads”. Singing along with Nick are people like PJ Harvey and Shane McGowan, and it comes across as brilliantly ironic, at the end of a very bloody and cynical album. I imagine them having to hold back their laughter in the recording studio. I didn’t know at the time that it was written by Dylan; it was a bit of a shock when I saw his name on the sleeve notes and realised the original intention was most likely serious…

  7. It’s a great song. Another great wordsmith, Nick Cave, recorded it also.

    I don’t think there’s a single lame line in it. Not all lines must be poetic, there is beauty in every day descriptive language, it’s how it’s used and context.

    Death Is Not The End is a triumphant uplifting and wonderful song.

  8. Have you never heard “The Preacher and the Slave”? That anthem by Joe Hill has stood the test of time because it was ridiculous, and everyone knew the song.

    Growing up in northern Minnesota (though rather west of Hibbing) and not long after Dylan I instantly recognize the ‘Tent Song’ style of this piece. And, like Hill’s piece, it is a parody that, read literally, is bitter. Nick Cave’s interpretation is the one which springs to mind, slightly broken due its dragging pace you feel it is being sung by an audience too deaf from old age to keep time. Much like those interminable hymns sung in scandinavian lutheran churches in tiny little towns in rural Minnesota.

    The saccharine clichés of the summer revival preachers, the childish imagery, simplistic metaphors, these are all condemning the audiences who attend such theatre, who throw money in the baskets these evangelists pass around, who rush the stage to be “born again” in the final call and prayer. And Dylan only had this well of contempt to draw from because he must have been dragged to them.

    How early can you recognize that the ‘adults’ around you are fools? How conflicted does that leave you?

    Dylan did not create a sprightly spiritual, it is not lovely and enjoyable music. But it does not make it the less aesthetically pleasing. And that bitter refrain, implying your suffering is never ending, is just as barbed a hook as Hill’s, and as likely to stay in your head.

  9. I think this irony shows the meaning of the song. It’s a joke to be sung. No hope for you, death isn’t the end, you’ll suffer forever.

  10. Yes I am rather aware of that possibility Marty – but of course if I changed my views and believed just to avoid damnation, that wouldn’t work either. And there is nothing in me that makes me believe.

  11. Thank you, Trev Gibb. These were my thoughts as well but I was unable to articulate them. Well said. Simplicity and ” everyday language are underrated.

  12. All the simple ‘every day’ are not klichés to those considering to commit suicide. And when you have gone through that dark period and feels life returning with even more joy, than you knew before – there is no religious meaning to Death is not the End – it just the way life is … of course you can choose to leave – but life will still be here.
    Ok: death is real – as in the streets where you together fight for justice – and you might get killed – still: Death Is Not The End .

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