Pay in Blood and the American Imperium

by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

‘The empire never ended.’ (Philip K Dick)

On hearing the news that Donald Trump had declared a state of emergency in order to build his border wall with Mexico, I thought of Bob Dylan and his ‘Pay in Blood’, one the strongest and strangest songs in his 2013 album, Tempest, and that puzzling line in a puzzling song:

 ‘.... I pay in blood but not my own,’

which is what any despot does – the price is always paid in the blood of others. Blood money, I thought, Gangster America. This is the reverse of what Jesus is said to have done, paid for the crimes of others with his own blood. Not so the mafia boss. Not so the slave owner:

‘I'll put you in a chain that you never will break
Legs and arms and body and bone
I pay in blood, but not my own’

In his intriguing book, Why Dylan Matters, Richard F Thomas argues that from the beginning, Dylan has identified America with the Roman Empire, and, since Time Out of Mind in 1997, Dylan has often alluded those three decades leading up to the fall of the Roman Republic, and the founding of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, achieved through bloody civil war, primarily by the general Julius Caesar whose son, Augustus Caesar became the first Roman Emperor. Like America, the Roman Empire was born out of slavery and violence.

‘I’m gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war,’

Bye and Bye

Dylan approaches, this period, and the Homeric period that preceded it, via the poetry of the Roman poets Ovid and Catullus, both outsiders, both outlaws who lived through the turbulent times of the transition from republic to empire. Also Thomas identifies Pay in Blood as a ‘a truly homeric song,’ suggesting that the narrator, one who is completing a long and fraught journey, is Odysseus himself after his return home, after the fall of Troy, another empire:

‘How I made it back home, nobody knows
or how I survived so many blows…’

However, like every framework we devise to understand this song, the Homeric analogy seems only a partial fit, albeit an illuminating one. Tony Attwood, in his post on the song, suggests that it is narrated by an old man (Dylan himself) contemplating revenge against his enemies (those who would call him Judus), another partial fit.  Attwood suggests that in this song Dylan has stretched himself a little too far in the direction of indirection, from a poet who can write very directly when he wants to:

You hide behind walls
You hide behind desks
I just want you to know I can see through your masks

The reference to Masters of War, in contrast to Pay in Blood, appears fortuitous to me, since Pay In Blood could be seen to be dealing with the bloody-minded and contrary will of the despot, the corrupt man of power, and more relevantly, the arms dealer whose profit comes from the blood of others – the Masters of War. Sure, this is another partial fit, but it helps explain what few of the commentaries I have read seem to successfully approach – the air of menace and lurking violence in the song. Taken a whole, it’s an ominous song with a sinister edge. None of the utterances can be taken at face value.

The more I take, the more I give

The more I die, the more I live

So says someone who takes but never gives, and whose greed never dies but only increases. Vampire talk. The empire never ended.

The problem here, as with other songs of the period like Early Roman Kings, is the shifting, uncertain nature of the narrative ‘I’, which on one had seems to speak for one suffering from oppression, personal and political, while on the other hand giving expression to gangster attitudes:

‘I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim
I got dogs could tear you limb from limb’

In addition to the ‘I’ we have a ‘they’ and a ‘you’ further mixing up the pronoun medicine making any kind of framework of understanding a bit of a stretch. Our understanding is further challenged by these puzzling lines:

‘I'm circlin' around in the Southern Zone
I pay in blood, but not my own.’

If however, we take Southern Zone to refer to the southern hemisphere, we may have a lead for cracking these lines. One of the Roman poets often evoked by Dylan is Virgil, with the parallels sometimes too obvious to be accidental. These lines from Lonesome Day Blues could well have come from Pay In Blood, the sentiment is that close:

‘I’m gonna spare the defeated
I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud’

While Virgil wrote:

‘… to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, to tame the proud.’

Of course Virgil was the poet used by Dante as a spirit guide for Dante’s journey through Hell to Purgatory. Emerging from Hell, Dante and Virgil find a ‘hidden path’, leading to an island in the ‘encircling sea’, from which Mount Purgatory rises to the heavens… ‘The thought of what mysterious lands might lie in the southern hemisphere beyond the ocean had a fascination for Dante…’ (see FJE Raby “Some notes on Dante” )

Following these hints, to ‘circle around in the Southern Zone’ suggests being trapped between Hell (‘I’ve been through Hell, what good did it do?) and Purgatory, where the spirit might progress towards Heaven. The spirit of the gangster is therefore doomed to circle forever in the southern zone, unable to move upward.

Be that as it may, the last two verses of Pay on Blood bring us back to the slippery deceptions of the despot, with an implication for the state of union of modern America.

‘How I made it back home, nobody knows
Or how I survived so many blows
I've been thru Hell, what good did it do?
My conscience is clear, what about you?

I'll give you justice, I'll fatten your purse
Show me your moral virtue first
Hear me holler and hear me moan
I pay in blood but not my own.

You get your lover in the bed
Come here I'll break your lousy head
Our nation must be saved and freed
You've been accused of murder, how do you plead?
This is how I spend my days
I came to bury, not to praise
I'll drink my fill and sleep alone
I play in blood, but not my own.’

If, at the start penultimate verse, we are with Odysseus, also a king with a violent agenda, the Sacker of Cities as he was known, and with some special pleading on his own behalf as to what a rough time he’s had, we soon arrive at the classic promises of the dictator:

‘I’ll give you justice, I’ll fatten your purse/Show me your moral virtue first’.

All would be dictators promise justice and a nice flow of dirty money, just show your cards first, your, ha-ha, moral virtue. And while I holler and moan about how hard done by I am, my struggle, I pay for my power with your blood. ‘I pay in blood but not my own’ being the last word in the cynicism of the rich and powerful, the arms dealers and moneylenders.

In the last verse, after a grim promise to smash ‘your’ personal life, comes the next classic claim of the despot –

‘Our nation must be saved and freed.’ On his terms of course, and your blood will be the price.

We could take this line at face value, as if it came direct from the old, protest Dylan, but in the mouth of a greedy gangster, it serves a more cynical purpose. In the next line, ‘you’ve been accused of murder…’ we begin a shift towards Mark Antony’s hypocritical and self-serving speech in Shakespeare’s Play Julius Caesar:

‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them…’

It is Brutus who is accused of the murder of Caesar by the manipulative Mark Antony, and we find ourselves at that crucial moment in Roman history when the republic became the Empire, born in blood. In the final two lines of the song, the vampire lies down alone after having sucked out the blood of the nation, and piously repeats his mantra, I pay in blood but not my own, which has become a source of pride to him.

Who knows if Trump will have to pay for his wall with the blood of others, or America is poised, with this state of emergency he has declared, to morph from a republic into something less savoury, but Bob Dylan can be spine-tinglingly mysterious and prophetic at times. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall was written just before the Cuba crisis, High Water, which predicts the flooding of New Orleans, was written before Hurricane Katrina. I have a friend who swears that these lines from Angelina,

‘There’s a black Mercedes rolling
Through the combat zone’

foretell the death of Princess Diana. Let’s hope that Pay in Blood, with its gangster talk, and its hint in the last verses of political mayhem, murder and power grabs is not one of those songs. An American Imperium? Feels a bit late in history for that, but where Bob Dylan, who has the blood of the land in his voice, and America is concerned, all bets are off.

‘Another politician pumping out the piss
Another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss.’

Pay in Blood

That just about says it all.

Hope you enjoy this recording from 2016. It’s a powerful performance with some significant changes to the lyric. And can anyone hear what he sings instead of ‘body’ in the line, ‘legs and arms and body and bone…’

Kia Ora

You might also enjoy: Pay in blood: the meaning of the music and the lyrics


  1. Also words to this song given on different Dylan lyric sites have lots of mistakes in them.

    Dylan’s lyrics are ambiguous enough that they can be interpreted as foreseeing all kinds of future happenings like the Bible – only without the benefit of back dating.

  2. An Untold commenter is positive that “Sweetheart LikeYou” is about the death of Lady Diana.

    Perhaps unfairly, I pulled a Monty Python routine on him.

    He’s gone now.

  3. Thanks Larry,
    I ran into all sorts of variations on Dylan lyric sites when writing this post, so I just went with the performance version.

    Note those pesky lines, that gave Tony trouble in his post on the song, about having the same eyes as ‘your’ mother have gone for the infinitely sharper: ‘They’ll hang you in the morning and sing you a song…’

    I agree that Dylan’s ambiguity is a breeding ground for all sorts of nonsense, often tending towards conspiracy theories of some kind, but every now and again we get a flash of something that gives us a shiver of foreboding. It get it when I listen to A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, a song that will stay prophetic until that last wave that drowns the whole world..

  4. Yes indeed:

    Write the things down which thou hast seen
    And the things which are
    And the things which shall be hereafter
    (Revelations 1: 19)

    Accompany with appropiate music.

  5. Thanks Steven, it is a toughie, but I kept coming back to the powerful emotional charge it carries, it’s overall threatening tone. Like the best Dylan songs, it’s sort of inexhaustible.

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