“What will you do when Jesus comes?” And what was Bob Dylan telling us with the song?

By Tony Attwood

The songs listed as being written and recorded after the work with Jacques Levy are of a very different style and approach from all that went before, and indeed it is not clear if this song is actually a Dylan original, or something he heard and re-worked.  Most likely it was just a song that popped into his head without him quite knowing where it came from.

But along with “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” this song came out of the period after working with Levy and turned up on Renaldo and Clara.  It appears at 1 minute 37 seconds on this recording.

Dylan said in the Rolling Stone interview about the movie that it is “as if the songs themselves were trying to communicate with each other, as if they were saying goodbye to each other,” and maybe that is the point – that at this point reviewing the songs as individual units starts to break down.

The writer Penelope Gilliatt said to  the film maker Buñuel in an interview, “Your films make one wonder what’s going on in people’s minds,” and he replied, “Dreams, and also the most everyday questions: ‘What time is it?’ ‘Do you want to eat?'” and that seems to be (to me at least) where we are in Renaldo and Clara and where we are in this song.

In the Rolling Stone interview Dylan also said, “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”  Here I guess he is inspiring us to think about the unthinkable – the end of the world, the Second Coming, the descent into hell for us unbelievers.

Dylan also described the film, in the Rolling Stone interview, as being post-existentialist, and that notion has caused me to ponder for a while.  What exactly is post-existentialism?  I’m not 100% certain, but here’s where I have got to…

Existentialism posed the questions such as, “What is the meaning of living?  What is the point in carrying on existing?”

It asked these questions at a time when people had stopped automatically believing in God – and thus the questions needed to be asked because the old certainty of religious answers had vanished.

But that left the question how do we find meaning in a world like that we have now?  The answer seems to be, that maybe we don’t have to.  Just possibly, our postmodern culture has saved us from asking ourselves this question.  Chris Hughes in Blasting News suggested that the post-existentialist now experiences a life in which, “We need life to be occupied 24/7.  We need to worry about work, money etc, because these worries distract us from existential worry.  Only, if we find living difficult and troublesome, do we forget to ask, what is the point of living?  The awkwardness of living provides an escape from the awareness of the futility of it all.  The tedium of living needs to be horrible so that we don’t have to confront the horror that, in the end, it may all be pointless anyway.”

So when Jesus returns for the Second Coming there is every chance that we’ll be so busy with the mundane reality of life that we don’t even notice.

The Dylan interview in Rolling Stone does give a lot of insight into what is going on in the movie – a movie which we might remember had a very short life span in cinemas after the critics universally panned the piece as a mishmash.   And yet it is clear from this interview just how deeply Dylan and his fellow film makers were thinking about what they were creating.

It is interesting therefore that Heylin notes the song as quickly descending into “the shopping list school of poetry”.  Yet the interview with Dylan in RS suggests there is so much more going on in the film that it would seem impossible for the song not to have a deeper significance.

And in effect the movie makes reviewing the song as an individual element, rather than as part of the movie, quite impossible.  It was part of the total concept that the movie explored, rather than a film track.

The lyrics that Heylin so objects to

What will you do when Jesus comes
Will you kick Him out of the street
Will you drive Him into the heat

are exactly right as questions to be posed in a movie that moves beyond the point of asking questions about the point of living.   We do indeed avoid the questions by being too busy to worry.

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk

What else is on the site

1: 500+ reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


  1. Excellent review, and it sheds a good light how we work our selves into oblivion… and are too ocupied (with what?) to recognize the genius of for instance that meaningful experimental film Renalo and Clara. In the late seventies the hippies had got too lazy and the new generation was just dancing on disco or wrecking themselves with punk (that at least led to some interesting new wave).

  2. To Biglith,
    I would be a little bit more careful to just claim that the returning of Jesus is just a myth. At least this Jesus said of himself: I am the way, the truth and the life. And if you make the effort to get

  3. to know him better, you may find out a lot more about him, which is definitely not so ridiculous.

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