by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Nothing really matters much It’s doom alone that counts (Shelter from the Storm)
It seems that there is a convenient Bob Dylan quote for just about every occasion. My poor partner has had to put up with this time out of mind. We’re in a traffic jam.
‘Okay,’ she says, ‘What’s your Dylan quote for this one?’
‘That’s easy – there must be some way out of here…’
Some habits are hard to break and some you just don’t want to. I was put in mind of Dylan lines when I read in The Guardian about a movement among women and couples to choose not have children because of “climate breakdown and civilisation collapse”.
I remembered these lines from ‘Masters of War’ written in 1962.
‘You've thrown the worst fear That can ever be hurled Fear to bring children Into the world For threatening my baby Unborn and unnamed You ain't worth the blood That runs in your veins’
Of course these lines spring straight out of Cold War anxiety. We tend to forget how terrifying the prospect of nuclear annihilation was, and indeed, there was a lot of talk at the time of how wrong it might be to ‘bring children into the world.’ Although most went ahead and did so.
I suggest that there is an Apocalyptic vein that runs through Dylan songs, especially the early ‘protest’ songs, that is perfectly suited to our contemporary anxieties. Dylan’s language is in this case specific enough as well as open-ended enough to stay relevant after 50 years.
In 2004 ‘Masters of War’ was seen as too radical for a high school band to play. Can you imagine the Secret Service busting a high school band rehearsal because they thought the song advocated killing the president, George Bush! These masters of war are still there, still calling the shots, the situation has not changed except to get worse, so the song itself can’t fade into history; history won’t let it.
The specific yet open-ended nature of these lyrics can also be found in the lines:
‘You that hide behind walls You that hide behind desks I just want you to know I can see through your masks’
What walls are these, exactly? The walls of the room? the wall of prejudice? the Berlin Wall? Hadrian’s Wall? Trump’s imaginary wall? the walls of silence? The walls are both real and metaphorical at the same time. These walls resurface again in 1997 in ‘Cold Iron’s Bound’, another anxiety ridden song:
‘The walls of pride, they’re high and they’re wide You can’t see over, to the other side.’
In this instance, when we look over the walls what we see are young men and women, part of a movement known as Extinction Rebellion, making the most painful decision they will possibly ever make. And once again Bob Dylan anticipates the headlines.
Dylan began dropping the ‘fear to bring children’ verse from later performances of the song, but it sounds as strong as ever in this gutsy 1978 performance.
However, the song doesn’t necessarily need a young, angry voice to deliver the message, as this 2005 performance testifies. Dylan, at 64, sings with power and conviction. He misses out the ‘fear to bring children’ verse in favour of repeating the first verse at the end of the song. A passionate and heartfelt performance with Dylan on the piano.
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