Dylan’s “When You Gonna Wake Up?” No argument, no explanation, no German philosophy

by Jochen Markhorst

The successful comedy Bruce Almighty from 2003, with Jim Carrey in a starring role, will never get the status of a real classic. Director Tom Shadyak allows just a little too many corny jokes, banalities and sugary feel-good moments in the film. But it is a semi-classic. About five, six scenes survive in the collective memory, casting Morgan Freeman as God is a direct hit that has raised Freemans status to Olympic heights and above all: beneath all those pranks and Carrey’s overacting the script offers real depth, universal dilemmas and a well-nigh philosophical layer.

The be-the-miracle dialogue of God and Bruce could have been such a highlight, but alas: on the film set an overdose of saccharin is added and in the cutting room the most shiny accents are dropped.

The desperate, overburdened Bruce uses his Divine powers to, in Heaven’s name, answer all prayers, to satisfy all wishes, which of course creates a complete pandemonium. Intense fightings in the city, fires break out, an angry mob looting its way through the streets.

Bruce stands there, sees God as he originally found him, mopping. God looks up at Bruce, not surprised to see him.

BRUCE: They’re all out of control. I don’t know what to do.

GOD: You mind giving me a hand with this floor first?

Off Bruce’s look. . .


Bruce’s sleeves rolled up, mopping next to God.


“Poor man wanna be rich,
rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied
‘Til he rules everything…”

(to Bruce)

Springsteen. I like a little Boss in my head while I’m workin’

They finish up. God looks back at the sparkling floor,satisfied.

GOD: There we go. Wonderful thing. No matter how filthy something gets, it can always be cleaned right up.

God collects Bruce’s mop.

BRUCE: What happened? I gave everyone what they wanted.

God sets the mops down.

GOD: Since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?

God singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” while mopping, it provides an alienating, yet appropriate, witty and symbolic charge to a scene that is a lot more tedious in the final, stripped version. But the central message remains, of course, maintained and identifies exactly the same human shortcoming as Dylan’s “When You Gonna Wake Up”:

Do you ever wonder just what God requires?
You think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires

Further comparisons between the song and the Bruce Almighty script are unfavourable for Dylan. Morgan Freeman is in any case a much more sympathetic, forgiving God, but distinctive is above all: this God provides answers, does not only tell what He does not want, but also reveals what indeed does please Him.

Dylan’s long indictment, on the other hand, breathes the same discontended, short-sighted world view as Jim Carrey’s character before his purification. Displeased, the poet lists a long series of wrongdoings. Innocent people in prison, perverts in the church, criminal doctors, thugs with political power, aggressive men and gossiping women … all proclaimed from a high horse as if the Prophet of Doom Dylan denounces a disease of the time. But, of course, this is not a sharp reckoning with the zeitgeist or a biting analysis of our society; these are all excesses and imperfections that we already know since the Fall. Times may change, but people will not.

Unusual is the swipe at Henry Kissinger, who to the poet apparently symbolizes short-sighted politicians who bring more misery than prosperity. Admittedly, despite his Nobel Peace Prize (1973), Kissinger is not undisputed, but a ‘polluter of thoughts’? An activist Communicator of Truths with Dylan’s intellect and poetic super talent certainly could have chosen a better signifier than the arch-diplomat Kissinger.

Apart from that, the choice of a well-known politician, who has already been pushed to the background at the time of the song’s publication, seems inconsequential because of its ingrained datedness; after all, part of the strength of Dylan’s Nobel Prize-worthy song lyrics is due to its timeless power. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” remains relevant because the young poet is so wise to address nameless senators and congressmen, and not to name the hallway blocking governor George Wallace, “Pay In Blood” transcends the centuries by mirroring anonymously Julius Caesar’s Rome and twenty-first century America, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” endures decades through nonfashionable visual language with universal power – all those Olympic qualities which are lost by elevating to metaphor such a timebound character like Kissinger.

A little more complicated is the choice for Karl Marx as an example of the stranglehold of ‘counterfeited philosophies’. Marx? Fake, phony, false? There is a strong case to be made against Marx’s ideas and the consequences of his reflections, but he was most certainly an original philosopher and, moreover, the most influential in our history. No philosopher has changed societies so radically and turned cultures so drastically as this German.

The aversion of the awakened Christian Dylan is probably due to Marx’s poignant religious criticism (‘opium of the people‘). If so, than the narrator does not recognize the essence of that criticism; it is anti-religion, not anti-God. Marx may have been an atheist, but he had no strong opinion about private belief in a Supreme Being. Very much though about how churches, religions and Christian politicians abuse that private belief – and that is an opinion Marx shares with Dylan, paradoxically enough.

Superficial and failing all in all, all those reproaches, observations and accusations in the couplets. But the real miss is the refrain. ‘When you gonna wake up‘ has the same self-indulgent, pedantic connotation that characterizes trolls on internet forums and discussion platforms. No arguments, no constructive, thought-provoking or inspirational explanations, but only ‘tis not‘ and at best idle phrases like ‘just listen‘, often in capitals and with three or more exclamation marks as ‘comments’.

A lttle sad is the unfounded superiority such a twit tries to emit: “I understand something that you do not understand and I am right to such an extent that I do not have to explain it.” Or, usually if there is religion in play, the helpless, meaningless defense: “You can not understand that.”

A similar reproach can be held against the edifying intention of “When You Gonna Wake Up?”. Okay, preacher, we wake up. Now what? What should we see, understand, acknowledge? We already know all the reported suffering and injustice from the couplets, we have been fighting it for centuries – with varying success, that is true. But still: that does not require awakening or awareness, we really do know that.

In any case, as can be understood from the continuation of the chorus, we should ‘strengthen the things that remain‘ – again a meaningless, unnecessary stating of the obvious. That is what we do. It is human. Both physically (everything we build is maintained, we try to make better, to strengthen), as well as metaphysical: our understanding of the ‘real’ reality is sharpened, tested, fought and rebuilt over the centuries. We build walls, go to war for it and we even descend to terror, that big is our obsession with the notion that we need to ‘strengthen the things that remain‘.

Most embarrassing is the similarity with hollow internet nitwits in the last verse:

There’s a Man up on a cross and He’s been crucified
Do you have any idea why or for who He died?

(In live versions sometimes There’s a Man up on a cross and He’s been crucified for you / Believe in His power that’s about all you got to do of You know who He is and you know why He died, or variations thereof).

Insight and wisdom insinuating words without sharing any insight or wisdom, just like those indignant Caps Lockers are doing in the comment sections.

But it is actually a very complicated question, both theologically and philosophically. Why did Jesus die? “For our sins,” we all learned obediently in Sunday school and we all can rattle off well. But what does that mean? No theologian, church father or exegete can answer that satisfactorily. The original sin is not a biblical concept at all, just to turn into the first dead end street. Yes, from the inscrutable chapter Romans 5, with some juggling, something like an inherited sin and something about the mercy of Jesus Christ could be crafted. Clever boy who knows how to extract from those words ‘why and for who He died.’

No, even that final episode from Dylan’s song does not reveal to what we need to wake up, which insights we will receive.

Despite all naivety and mushiness of Morgan Freemans God, Bruce Almighty does convince. This preacher does give answers, after all. Of course, that be-the-miracle basically does not go much deeper than an unsophisticated aphorism like change the world, start with yourself, but at least it does not hide behind empty, complacent ‘advice’ like Just Wake Up and at least he does reveal ‘what God requires’: be the miracle yourself, do not seek help from above, but give help down.

The music saves the song. Like all songs from Slow Train Coming, the enthusiastic Dylan and the old master producer Jerry Wexler put this song in a particularly attractive jacket, too. The funky, übercool arrangement, the great horns and the soulful organ all work great, but the alternative approach of the live versions, such as the two versions of The Bootleg Series 13: Trouble No More (2017), the one rough and rocking (Oslo ’81), the other (Toronto ’80) with an exciting, tight drive, is just as successful; the song remains compelling.

The lyrics, however, remain equally daunting; the song is hardly covered. The only noteworthy interpretation is more an adaptation than a cover, but still an extremely nice adaptation: the one by Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs, one of the most successful gospel quartets of the past decades. It is a soulful version, carried by the superior singing of the four men in a Slow Train Coming-like arrangement (2006, Soulful Healing, which also offers an irresistible “In The Midnight Hour”).

But then again, the gentlemen come from Tupelo, Mississippi, from Elvis’ birthplace. Elvis, Dylan, Jesus … maybe not the Holy, but surely a Holy Trinity.

Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs:


You might also enjoy “When you gonna wake up”: a tale of doom and despair”

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  1. You explain quite nicely my problems with Slow Train Coming as an album: for the first time in case of Dylan the lyrics are baffling to say the least, and just downright one-dimensional in my humble opinion, yet the music shines in most cases, and his singing causes me problems as well, as never before or after, too forced and off pitch often, I seldom manage to listen further than the first side of the elpee, with the title song as the only one to give me the chills in a good way…

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