By Tony Attwood
I’ve been listening to two versions of the song – one from Infidels and one on a You Tube video with the Grateful Dead
The two are completely different. The Dead version sounds like a jam session with everyone doing their thing and Dylan calling out the lyrics without any care that we understand them or not.
The album version has a totally different feel especially at the start. The riffs of the guitar are very carefully performed and engineered into the overall sound. As is the change of rhythm in the bridge – which after the first verse is lost – but then comes back again before the first instrumental break before vanishing for good.
In short we get a feeling in the first verse that yes, this is a standard 12 bar blues construction but with real variations and additional styling – but then after that first verse some of these finer points in the music are lost and indeed as time goes by more and more of them vanish. However this version never moves fully over to the absolutely standard blues of the Dead version.
But what Dylan does do and what is impressive is to vary the melody throughout the song – it certainly adds a lot to the music and makes it, as a blues song, far easier to listen to than the more hard-core 12 bar on the recording with the Dead.
But what on earth are we to make of the lyrics.? We have here an album produced by Mark Knopfler, a reference to Dixie in the second line, and immediately I thought, ah, “The Sutlans of Swing”, which, you may recall, played “Dixie double four time”, on the Dire Straits first album. And…
And then I got lost.
The opening lines suggest a traditional Dixie band busking in the street for money from passers by, and then Dylan says, “Could be the Fuhrer, Could be the local priest”.
Now since Dixie is Dixieland music – New Orleans jazz of which perhaps the best known early song is “When the saints go marching in” we have to pause here and think, what on earth have we got?
We have a reference to Dixie, a sophisticated 12 bar blues, a reference to a busking band, and the Fuhrer and the priest, followed by the regular end of each verse: “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”
The simple answer is, nothing is what it seems. The priest appears to be a man of God but one only has to look at the number of abuse lawsuits facing the Catholic Church to recognise one implication of Dylan’s lines. Of course the majority of priests are men of pure heart being honourable and decent, but clearly not all. But I am an un-Godly heathen, so I notice stories like that, which doesn’t in any way suggest that this is Dylan’s meaning.
Heylin got to the same conclusion by a different route writing of “Narcissus the false Messiah, shimmering from the same stagnant pool” and quotes Dyylan’s interview in 1984 sayying “You can’t be for peace and be global. It’s just like that song “Man of Peace”. None of this matters, if you believe in another world. [But] if you believe in this world… you’ll go mad ’cause you won’t see the end of it.”
Which takes us to Matthew 10:34: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace but a sword.”
So the end is nigh, and we need to be careful not to be misled from this belief by any great works of humanitarianism. It doesn’t matter what you do, the beast will howl and the poor will rise up to inherit the earth, not through Bill Gates supporting charities but rather because of decisions taken long ago by God. It doesn’t matter what we do, the future is preordained.
As Dylan later said (quoted in Heylin again) “People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if He was here. That’s my idea of it, anyway.”
And yet Dylan only performed a song which, according to the commentary above, 41 times between 1984 and 2000. With such an important message (at least for Bob, if not for infidels like me, seems a bit odd.
So we are talking about both the abuse of power deliberately, and the use of power to do good – which to me seem polar opposites and yet here are equally irrelevant.
The second verse with its “gift of the gab” reference suggests that we are in a world of the storyteller. Which to those of us who don’t believe is what religions are – stories, no different from myths and legends. Again, nothing is at is.
It is also possible to evolve a meaning to the effect that the peacemaker of the world, the outsider trying to solve a major problem, is Satan. Indeed while I was doing the usual background work trying to get my thoughts in order on this song, I found a You tube video which plays the song, shows some of the lyrics, and then has pictures of President Obama. Hmmm…..
Then as we move forwards we get to the end of the world with the “howling wolf” verse which says that “Tomorrow all activity will cease”. The simplistic explanation of this verse is the Book of Revelations and the arrival of Conquest, War, Famine and Death.
And then suddenly the “Mama’s weeping” verse – she knows her son is giving up the everyday world for the Christian religion, and she is scared. And that I guess is my problem. I’m with her on that.
Or is that opening line, “Look out your window, baby, there’s a scene you’d like to catch” telling us that it is just another dream. Or, is it a kick back to Dylan’s surreal songs of years before where nothing means anything because in the end only belief does you any good. And there’s my personal problem. For me it is far better to try and be a good person while alive, because that’s all there is. In this song the message seems to be that such a life is irrelevant. Only belief matters.
“Sometime Satan comes as a man of peace” is a Christian concept in that the Devil disguises himself in order to mislead. And Bob seems to like that notion and of course I can’t share that. But, I tell you what, I still love the song. It bounces, the music is exciting but controlled, and there are some great lines to rhyme with the final line of each verse. And I still like those opening couple of lines. I’m sure that’s a bit of fun between Dylan and Knopfler.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of 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 all 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 recently started to produce 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.
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.