Man of Peace: From Dylan to Lucifer riding down Niagara Falls

by  Jochen Markhorst

In May 2018, television company Fox announces that after three seasons the plug is to be pulled from the popular series Lucifer. The announcement provokes the predictable  protests, sadness, indignation and the inevitable #savelucifer action, but Fox does have a point: the series has weakened, diluted, Americanized since the first episodes.

The premise, based on the stylish, layered graphic novel series Lucifer from DC Comics, is intriguing: after all those millennia Lucifer has had enough of his role as Satan, as Ruler of Hell. He takes on a human form and establishes himself in Los Angeles, in the City of Angels, as the elegant, attractive nightclub owner Lucifer Morningstar…

In the first episode of the TV series he gets involved in a murder crime, he helps the charming detective Chloe Decker to resolve that crime and from then on he is her consultant.

Lucifer Morningstar is attractive, catches crooks, steals the heart of Chloe’s six years old daughter, never lies, is genuinely outraged by amoral behaviour, rewards the good and punishes evil – Satan comes as a man of peace.

The television adaptation is quite a bit earthier than the source, that graphic novel, but the underlying dilemma also pops up in the first season of the TV series: exactly why does the fallen angel Lucifer stand for Evil, why is ‘Satan’ a synonym for bad?

Lucifer, too, explicitly wonders about that: I do punish evil, right? And I have been doing so for centuries and centuries. Hell is a penal institution – you would not think that the warden of a prison is Evil himself, right? And to the reproach that he at the very least entices to sin, Lucifer also has a reply: you have received the great Divine gift of Free Will. It is not me who commits those sins; you really do that yourself, out of your own Free Will and always with the choice of not doing it.

The poet Dylan seems to thematize the same dilemma in “Man Of Peace”, one of the  highlights of Infidels (1983), and to share those same questions. Satan, the narrator  teaches, can appear in any possible form. In extremis as the Führer, but just as easily as the local clergyman, as a boring neighbour or even as a philanthropist, and not just any philanthropist, no, a Great One – one in the Bill Gates category, something like that.

At that point, in the sixth verse, the listener starts wondering: where is Evil? If this Satan relieves famine, builds schools and transports medicines to Africa, and also “knows where to touch you” and apparently has a “tender touch” at his disposal … then why is he blameworthy, why should we avoid him? If only there were more Satans!

The last verse does not answer those questions. On the contrary: now the poet is getting close to sheer worship. Or blasphemy, depending on your look at it. At the very least, he suggests that Satan is a follower of Jesus. He follows a star, the same star the Three Wise Men from the East followed, the star that leads to Jesus. That star is, to enlarge the confusion, the planet Venus, also called the Morning Star: Lucifer.

Following that last line of thought, the poet here even tells us that Satan is our guidepost, the Man Of Peace that leads us to Jesus. Finally, the job description Man Of Peace completes the ambiguity: thus, the poet positions him as the pacifist opposite of Jesus, who, after all, did not come to bring peace, but the sword (Matthew 10:34).

Complicated enough, this theologically difficult question about the nature of the fallen
angel Satan, but the poet does not write a flaming pamphlet. That provocative refrain of “Man Of Peace” is a reflective setting in which the rhyming and reasoning language artist Dylan plays out his rhetoric, winking and aphoristic one-liners.

The first lines, for example, seem to be a friendly nod to his producer and guitarist Mark
Knopfler, to his first hit “Sultans Of Swing”. Where Mark Knopfler sings:

South of the river you stop and you hold everything
A band is blowing Dixie, double four time

Dylan sings:

Look out your window, baby, there’s a scene you’d like to catch
The band is playing “Dixie,” a man got his hand outstretched

In the second and third verse the comparison with the artist Dylan himself is inevitable. His radio program Theme Time Radio Hour and his own oeuvre already demonstrate it, but the amazement by and admiration for the man’s encyclopedic knowledge of songs from all ages and genres is also a recurring refrain among biographers and interviewed session players.

And that same harmonica-playing omniscient singer now sings he got a harmonious tongue / He knows every song of love that ever has been sung.

Just like a self-mocking portrait looms up from the following verse: First he’s in the background, then he’s in the front / eyes are looking like they’re on a rabbit hunt.

In this way casual observations become aphorisms, such as the notion that good intentions can be evil; a stripped paraphrase of the expression that tells us the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Or the especially bizarre notion that he can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull.

A sample of the Nobel Prize winner’s “pictorial way of thinking”, but even by his standards a rather frantic, surrealist metaphor for mind games, for the psychic games that Satan can play with his victims – and for the games that the poet Dylan plays with his audience.

And not for the first time.

After “Jokerman”, the opening song of Infidels, it is the second song on this album in which the poet sows confusion about the identity of the protagonist, and also in the omitted masterpiece “Foot Of Pride,” and more explicitly in another highlight of the record, “I And I”.  There Dylan plays around in that fogginess.

The remarkable lyrics are being carried by a beautiful, propulsive stomp, thanks to the unbeatable rhythm section, the duo Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar. They lay out the concrete floor for that dynamic, slightly neurotic rhythm guitar by Knopfler, who plays a catchy copy of his part on “Skateaway” (Making Movies, 1980), his unique variation of chicken-picking – not with single notes, but more percussive, with whole and half chords.

That works even better if you have a tandem like Sly & Robbie behind you.

The musical setting inspires beautiful covers. The Swedish country rockers from Georga produce a gritty, Creedence-like gem, but unfortunately they insist on singing everything in Swedish (“Civilklädd Präst” on Rakt In I Min Famn, 2014).

Better known is Joe Perry’s contribution to the Amnesty album Chimes Of Freedom (2012). Even more crunchy and filthy, and in the documentary we see the sincere love of a
seasoned Dylan fan, so it is a real pity that the Aerosmith guitarist cannot sing that well – the sly instrumental coda is the highlight.

The Holmes Brothers are immaculately good. Also with a swampy Creedence Clearwater Revival approach, rugged and irresistible. The vocal qualities of the brothers are of course beyond dispute and their sweaty mix of gospel, soul, blues and funk is created for this song, for this steamy “Man Of Peace”. With compliments to the producer, to Dylan disciple Joan Osborne, to whom we owe this best-sounding, rough-haired, sharp-edged album by The Holmes Brothers: Speaking In Tongues.

 

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