Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Bob Dylan played yesterday, April 10th, in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. He delivered a set list that was in keeping with the kinds of shows he’s been doing the last couple of years. Reportedly, the venue was “half-empty” (or, as one may prefer to think, half-full) but this didn’t prevent Bob from delivering a relatively rare second encore, with the song Forever Young. This is the full list of songs he played: Continue reading “Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”

Spirit on the Water: A Return to Paradise

Bob Dylan’s song “Spirit on the Water” from his album Modern Times has been mentioned a few times on this website. It’s difficult for this listener to hear the tune any other way but as a kind of playful love song to God, or perhaps more interestingly as a playful dialogue between the creature and the Creator. I don’t think there’s any need (and at any rate this writer doesn’t have the appetite) to go down line by line and impose a rigorous interpretation. Each time I hear the song I hear something a little different, and that’s one of the great joys of Dylan’s work, after all.

One verse that has gotten close attention here previously, however, is the penultimate verse, the lyric of which goes like this:

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

This gets one thinking just because it seems wrong, or seems like a puzzle demanding to be solved. On the face of it, if the singer is talking about joining God in heaven, then why is he saying that it’s impossible for him to do it, due to the killing of a man? It is biblically pretty much beyond question that even murder does not put one beyond God’s capacity for mercy and for love (though far be it from my intention here to unduly promote the behavior). And how could the singer have killed a man in paradise, anyway?

Well, some time back, a reader named Kim wrote and suggested a really neat way of hearing this verse. She suggested that Bob might be referring to an actual Earthly place named Paradise, e.g., Paradise, Texas (pop. 459). This opens up a new and amusing interpretation; basically, this involves hearing it as a pun which the singer is making to his Creator. He’s saying, “I want to be with you in paradise,” as if making a straightforward prayer, and then comically mourning the fact that he can’t go back to Paradise (the town) because he shot a man there — something that maybe only God knows; i.e., it’s like a private joke between them. Of-course, I’m destroying all possible humor in it by spelling it out, but it fits both because we know how much Dylan loves even the silliest-seeming puns and because we also know how he enjoys Western motifs.

So that’s one way of understanding the verse.

However, another reader, recently coming across the post where that idea was discussed, suggests an alternative understanding. Thanks to Kent for his e-mail:

I saw elsewhere on your site where one reader proposed the idea that the line: “I can’t go to paradise no more; I killed a man back there…” Was referring to Paradise as a town, perhaps in Paradise, TX, etc…

May I also make another proposal: Is it possible that in said line, “Paradise” could be referring to the fleshly desires of the old man, aka sinful nature, and Mr. Dylan is saying that it seems unfair, but he can’t go to “paradise” no more (returning to the sinful nature) because he “killed a man back there,” meaning he put to death the misdeeds of his own body when he became “crucified with the Messiah,” upon his salvation through Him?

That’s a fascinating idea. I honestly think that something like it has flitted through my own mind on listening to the song, but I never stopped to put it into words for myself. The reference would be to the New Testament, and St. Paul in Romans, chapter 6. Here’s part of where he writes on the concept of “dying with Christ” beginning at verse 6 (ESV):

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So, with this in mind, when the singer refers to the fact that he “killed a man back there,” he’s actually referring to the death of that self which was enslaved to sin. This is very interesting and resonant indeed. The idea of paradise as a metaphor for that life enslaved to sin is not as obvious, but, on the other hand, total indulgence of one’s sinful desires can appear like a temptation of paradise. And who on this Earth isn’t sometimes guilty of mistaking paradise for that home across the road?

At a minimum, it’s another fruitful area of reflection to throw into the mix. It’s an illustration of how even the problematic or difficult-to-interpret lines in some of Dylan’s songs of faith can make their contribution simply by compelling one to ponder what they might mean.

Some might say that’s giving way too much leeway to a songwriter who is not getting across his point with sufficient clarity — but around these parts, we just call it a normal day.

Bob Dylan and John Ford: More on the Douglas Brinkley / Rolling Stone interview

bob dylan

I want to continue looking at some noteworthy things that came out of the Douglas Brinkley/Bob Dylan Rolling Stone interview, both the print version and the online outtakes (which are now gone but not forgotten).

There is this from the print article on Bob Dylan’s taste in movies: Continue reading “Bob Dylan and John Ford: More on the Douglas Brinkley / Rolling Stone interview”

Bob Dylan Tells President Sarkozy What He Thinks of Globalism (from 2009 Rolling Stone Interview)

I think it’s actually too much to look at every interesting bit of Bob Dylan’s 2009 Rolling Stone interview all at once, so let’s do it piecemeal. One of the most amusing parts is what may go down in Dylan-lore (whatever that is) as “The Sarkozy Incident.” Bob Dylan was performing in Paris on April 7th while Douglas Brinkley was tagging along to conduct his interview, and so we get a glimpse at something that may happen much more often than we know, i.e., a political leader heading backstage at a Dylan show for an audience with the man himself. The story of what went down when President Nicolas Sarkozy (the conservative French leader) and his wife Carla Bruni met Dylan is conveyed in different parts in the print interview and the online outtakes. And here’s the gist:

[from the print article]

After the show, the Sarkozys wander backstage, anxious to meet Dylan. The French president is attired in a black turtleneck and jeans. In a single swooping motion, Sarkozy seizes Dylan’s hand, welcoming him to France. “It was like looking at my mirror image,” Dylan tells me later, about the encounter. “I can see why he’s the head of France. He’s genuine and warm and extremely likable. I asked Sarkozy, ‘Do you think the whole global thing is over?’ I knew they just had a big G-20 meeting and they maybe were discussing that. I didn’t think he’d tell me, but I asked him anyway.”

[from the online outtakes]

Q: I want to just follow-up on that globalization talk you had with Sarkozy [after his April 7th show in Paris].

Dylan: Yeah, I ask him, I said, “With all these bailouts and stimulus packages, all these bailouts throughout the country. I’m just wondering whether globalism is dead in the tracks? Ya know, is it over?” He doesn’t say yes, he didn’t say no.

Q: Bob, he is a politician…

Dylan: Yeah!

Q: But what intrigued me was you saying that we must get back to being the United States.

Dylan: Oh, and he could get back to being France.

Q: Boy, you’re an individualist, aren’t you? Does globalism therefore get oppressive to you? The global Internet? Global economics? Are you missing what some critics call the older, weirder America?

Dylan: I never thought the older America was weird in any way whatsoever. Where do people come up with that stuff? To call it that? What’s the old weird America? The depression? Or Teddy Roosevelt? What’s old and weird? Well, musically, no. Musically we play a form of American music and that’s not gonna go away. Whatever happens in the world won’t affect that whatsoever. But you know globalism is, I would think, about getting rid of boundaries, nationalities. You’re a part of one big world, no? It might take people awhile to get used to that. I don’t like the trend.

[again from the print article]

When President Sarkozy, looking to make small talk, asked Dylan, “Where do you live?” the quick response was a few simple words: “Right here….No. I’m just joking. I’m from the Lone Star State.” (Dylan ended by giving Sarkozy a Texas-style belt buckle as a gift.)

So, to summarize: Sarkozy and his wife got backstage to meet Bob Dylan. Bob asks Sarkozy point-blank if “globalism is dead,” and tells him that Americans need to get back to being the United States, and then he can get back to being France. Sarkozy gives no quotable answer on this, but at some point asks Dylan where he lives, to which Bob responds, “The Lone Star state,” and then gifts Sarkozy with a “Texas-style” belt buckle. (There’s no word, by the way, on whether Carla Bruni thanked Bob for writing “You Belong To Me” for her.)

After you quit cracking up over all this, what do you say about it? Firstly: Bob Dylan is a heckuva-lot better at choosing meaningful gifts for foreign world leaders than our currrent president. No dumb DVDs from the Bard of Hibbing, but instead a real and concrete piece of Americana. I never imagined, by the way, that among the many burdens of being Bob Dylan was having to meet foreign leaders and give them gifts, but then I guess there’s so much I don’t know.

So what about this globalism stuff? The chutzpah of Bob in just coming out and asking such a question of Nicolas Sarkozy is of-course hilarious—but then what has he got to lose?

Those of us who’ve followed Dylan closely over the years won’t be too surprised by his attitude towards the idea of One Big Happy World, but the directness in his remarks here is noteworthy.

You can go back to Slow Train Coming for his disgust at “Sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings / Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and Paris.” And “Union Sundown” takes the issue on from another angle.

At the Live Aid show in 1985, which was to raise money for people starving in Ethiopia, Bob Dylan showed up, but famously (or notoriously as some may think) used the stage to plead the case for small American farmers who were going bankrupt.

And about a month after September 11th, 2001, Dylan made a remark from the stage, responding to something Madonna had recently said from the same stage:

“I know Madonna was here a few weeks ago telling everybody to think global – and I know a whole bunch of you are doing that – I want to try and tell you: rethink it!” (Staples Arena 10-19-2001.)

On his “Theme Time Radio Hour” show—the one with the theme of “Blood”—Dylan at one point said this:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Those are the words of noted politician and clock collector, Thomas Jefferson.

Of-course TJ said that in the days before we were all citizens of the world, in a global environment, when it was still possible to be a patriot in deed and not just in words. Another example of how the future confuses us. Which is why we stick with our credo: Predicting the past is our way to the future.

There are other examples, but I’m too lazy right now to dig around for all of them. Certainly, his 2003 film Masked and Anonymous presents a nightmarish vision of a future America, where borders have been thrown askew and ethnic rivalries fuel perpetual violence.

Bob Dylan is an American (not to mention a proud Texan!). He likes it that way, and clearly thinks that America stands for something worthwhile, or at the very least it used to. I think that his skepticism of globalization also has roots in the biblical prophecy of a one-world-government headed by the Antichrist. People may pooh-pooh that as they choose, but there is no shortage of evidence that Dylan takes his Bible very seriously indeed.

Now, let’s be straight here, and face the fact that this globalization thing cuts across the usual political divisions. On the left, there is that kind of “think global” feel-goodism — the idea that we’re all citizens of the world, in this together, and borders shouldn’t matter, and we’re all just the same etc., etc.. We should believe in “International Law” and we should have “International Courts” to force everyone to get in line. It’s the never-ending push for centralization which is also a core weakness of leftism generally. The global environmentalist movement pushes these themes too, and it also has roots in Marx’s theories about how humanity is divided by class rather than by nationality: the proletariat versus the rich. History has not really borne out these theories, but in each new generation there are those who latch onto it. It’s a brand of utopianism, and it has been very much in ascendance on the world stage in the last couple of decades. We shall see how it shakes out with the current economic crisis (this was effectively the basis of Dylan’s point to Sarkozy).

On the political right (in America), there is a strictly economic globalism: the belief that the nearer we get to truly free trade, no tariffs, no restrictions on the movement of capital, less restrictions on the movement of labor, etc. etc., the better it will be for everyone. Not all brands of American “conservatives” buy into this, but it has been the prevailing view. (I’m no economist myself, but I’ve generally been more impressed by free trade arguments versus protectionist ones.)

It’s safe to say, based on the record, that Dylan is intensely skeptical of both kinds of globalism. For whom is this more of a problem—those who insist on interpreting Dylan in a Leftist framework, or those of us who are (one way or another) conservative-minded Dylan fans? Well, speaking for myself, I have no problem with Dylan’s views on the subject. I think free trade is generally a good thing, but it’s an area where people can disagree amicably. There is clearly a human cost to free trade, in addition to its benefits. On the other hand, I would suggest that Dylan’s rejection of world-citizen-feel-goodism is fundamentally in opposition to leftist modes of thinking.

Which all goes to show that he is not and never has been a political leftist, Q.E.D, game-over, rest in peace. Of-course that old debate is never over, because the media shorthand for Bob Dylan always has him as fundamentally a lefty folk/protest singer and a prince of the “counterculture,” no matter what the evidence to the contrary. It goes on, but with this interview, Dylan has once more demonstrated the untruth of that perpetual caricature.

And another slice from this interview with Douglas Brinkley in Rolling Stone (the print article):

Like the dour-faced farmer in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, Dylan seems to have the American songbook in one hand and a raised pitchfork in the other, aimed at rock critics, politicians, Wall Street financiers, back-alley thieves, the world wide web – anything that cheapens the spirit of the individual. His nostalgia is more for the Chess Records 1950s than the psychedelic 1960s. He believes that Europe should lose the euro and go back to its old currencies – “I miss the pictures on the old money,” he says. If Dylan had his way, there’d be Sousa bands on Main Street and vinyl albums instead of CDs. Teenagers would go on nature hikes instead of watching YouTube. “It’s peculiar and unnerving in a way to see so many young people walking around with mobile phones and iPods in their ears and so wrapped up in media and video games,” he says. “It robs them of their self-identity. It’s a shame to see them so tuned out to real life. Of course they are free to do that, as if that’s got anything to do with freedom. The cost of liberty is high, and young people should understand that before they start spending their life with all those gadgets.”

And, lest we skip over it, there’s also this from the Brinkley interview:

I never thought the older America was weird in any way whatsoever. Where do people come up with that stuff? To call it that? What’s the old weird America? The depression? Or Teddy Roosevelt? What’s old and weird?

The “people” who “come up with that stuff” are, or is, Greil Marcus. He coined the expression — at least as far as I’m aware — in his book “Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.” The book was even later renamed as “The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basment Tapes.”

It seems to me that perhaps Bob just delivered an extremely economical review of that book.

Addendum 5/1/2009: In the interests of fairness, let me print this response from an anonymous reader, titled “What You (And Dylan) Forgot About”:

From the Anthology of American Folk Music liner notes, in an essay by Greil Marcus entitled “The Old, Weird America”, Greil Marcus himself quotes Dylan (speaking on some critics’ complaints that his lyrics are incomprehensible):

“‘All the authorities who write about what it is and what it should be,'” Dylan said, “when they say keep it simple, [that it] should be easily understood — folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s weird….I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs.”

So the expression does have a root in Dylan. But perhaps Bob can be excused, as it was an awfully long time ago…

Bob Dylan on Being an Honorary Texan and on George W. Bush

The new Rolling Stone interview with Bob Dylan conducted by author Douglas Brinkley — which consists of varying content in the print magazine versus the online “outtakes” — has a whole bunch of funny and delightful and interesting bits. So much so, that it calls for a mega-post to deal with it, which I’m not up to doing at this moment. But from where we sit we would be remiss if we did not immediately highlight the passage in the print interview where the name of former president George W. Bush comes up.

Dylan talks a lot about the state of Texas in the interview, including about the “independent-thinking people” that he says come from there. Picking it up at one point:

“I think you really have to be a Texan to appreciate the vastness of it and the emptiness of it,” Dylan says. “But I’m an honorary Texan.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well,” he says, “George Bush, when he was governor, gave me a proclamation that says I’m an honorary Texan [holds hand up in pledge, laughs]. As if anybody needed proof. It’s no small thing. I take it as a high honor. ”

Brinkley goes on to ask Dylan something more (we’re not told the exact question) about George W. Bush:

Almost every American artist has taken a piñata swipe at Bush’s legacy, but Dylan refuses. He instead looks at the Bush years as just another unsurprising incident of dawn-of-man folly [Brinkley’s characterization, of-course –Ed]. “I read history books just like you do,” Dylan says. “None of those guys are immune to the laws of history. They’re going to go up or down, and they’re going to take their people with them. None of us really knew what was happening in the economy. It changed so quickly into a true nightmare of horror. In another day and age, heads would roll. That’s what would happen. The rot would be cut out. As far as blaming everything on the last president, think of it this way: The same folks who had held him in such high regard came to despise him. Isn’t it funny that they’re the very same people who once loved him? People are fickle. Their loyalty can turn at the drop of a hat.”

What he says is plainly true; although, of-course, not all of George W. Bush’s supporters came to despise him. (He has never been held in contempt in this space, and never will be. Disagreements on a few issues do not justify contempt for a man of such character and decency as Dubya.)

As for his being named an honorary Texan by Bush: it makes me feel like a terrible failure that I never heard that this had happened, and so had never mentioned it here. Of-course, it’s not the kind of thing that would get a lot of attention in the media. That’s why Bob Dylan himself had to tell us about it. Belated congratulations to him. A high honor indeed.

“Spirit on the Water” and a Place You Might Call Paradise

Regular readers of the writings in this space might not be unfamiliar with the suggestion that there is a way of listening to a great number of Bob Dylan songs — especially his work of the last couple of decades or so — such as to hear them as a kind of dialogue with Him who we can just call the LORD, ecumenically-speaking, and in the tradition of the Bible in English. My own appreciation of this originally came out of reading the deeply insightful writing, on Bob Dylan’s work, of Ronnie Keohane.

There’s plenty of this to be heard, should you be so inclined, on Dylan’s most recent LP, Modern Times. One example that could hardly escape even the most secular or agnostic of listeners is “Spirit on the Water”.

The first verse goes:

Spirit on the water
Darkness on the face of the deep
I keep thinking about you baby
I can’t hardly sleep

You don’t need a degree in Bible-ology to know that the first lines of this song reflect and reference the first few sentences of the Bible, and of the book of Genesis.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

So, if you take the first verse of the song at face value, the singer is addressing this song to that very Spirit on the water. Taken in that way — as a love song to the Creator — it’s easy to see the meaning and poignancy of verses like this one:

I’d forgotten about you
Then you turned up again
I always knew
That we were meant to be more than friends

There are so many ways in which people can forget the existence, and miss the presence, of the Creator. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy to make one forget, even if one happens to believe in the first place. Yet, the persistence of reminders (Then you turned up again) is arguably one of the greatest constants of all. The steady twinkling of a distant star, the sublime strokes of a masterpiece of art, the unasked for kindness of a stranger, the bells of some church in the distance, an inner knowledge that will not be quieted: Then you turned up again.

In certain of the verses of this song, a listener may also wonder if the perspective has changed, and if — instead of the singer addressing his Maker — what we hear is the Creator addressing his creatures:

Sometimes I wonder
Why you can’t treat me right
You do good all day
Then you do wrong all night

You can go through all of the verses of the song in this way, and they resonate one way or another according to this theme.

There is one verse, however, that arguably sounds a jarring note. It doesn’t seem to make any kind of biblical sense or any kind of normal sense. That’s this one:

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

What’s that about? The singer saying to his God, “I wanna be with you in paradise,” is straightforward enough, we may think. But that he can’t go “back to paradise” because he “killed a man back there”? How is that? Is not the LORD a forgiving God? And how is it that the singer was in paradise before, and killed a man there at all?

Others may have found a way through it, but I never could figure it out. That’s why I’m hugely indebted to reader Kim for sending me the following in an e-mail:

I am probably just stating the obvious, but I will do so anyway: he can’t really just be talking about heaven [in this verse]. I’m thinking he’s also talking about Paradise, TX. Makes sense to me, anyway. What do you think?

Well, I think that it is a pretty brilliant perception, and one that certainly wasn’t obvious to this listener.

Paradise, Texas, had a population of 459 according to the 2000 census (and as reported by Wikipedia).

It is not, however, the only town or city called Paradise in the United States, as a long look at an atlas or another quick visit to Wikipedia would reveal. There are also the following:

Paradise, Arizona
Paradise, California
Paradise, Kansas
Paradise, Kentucky
Paradise, Michigan
Paradise, Montana
Paradise, Nevada
Paradise, Pennsylvania
Paradise, Utah
Paradise, Washington

There are also towns and cities called Paradise in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and England.

You might say that there’s a lot of people out there who really have their own little slice of heaven.

Who can tell to which town or city called Paradise the singer in this song might be referring, if indeed he is referring to a town or city? I don’t personally know how to pick one over the other. But just introducing the idea that it is an actual geographical real-world location to which he is referring changes everything, doesn’t it?

Consider: Bob Dylan loves citing place-names in his songs. We know this. Especially American place names, from Baton-Rouge to Corpus Christi to Boston-town and so many others. You could almost recreate a map of America from his songbook, if all other records were lost. And, for that matter, he also loves foreign place names, from Tangiers to Buenos-Aires to Gibraltar and beyond.

So how does it alter the sense of this verse if the singer is referring to a real town or city called Paradise? Assume, as we do here, that he is addressing the words to God. What the verse then becomes is a four line joke, a gag, a pun — and we also know how much Bob loves his puns — that is directed towards none other than the Creator Himself:

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

As befitting this sweet song of love, the singer says, and God hears, “I wanna be with you in paradise.” No problem there, God thinks. But then the singer goes on, “it seems so unfair,” because he can’t return to paradise, owing to the fact that he “killed a man back there.” He can’t go back to Paradise, the town, because he killed someone there, and now there are wanted posters on the walls, and a price on his head. (As Mrs. C. observes, it is like a vision from the Old American West, where you have to get of town to evade the sheriff and the crimes you committed in that particular locality. Places with great names like Tombstone.) The singer doesn’t provide us with these details, of-course. But then, after all, the song isn’t addressed to us. The singer is serenading the One who knows all those details already. God knows that this guy singing the song once killed a man in Paradise (Texas, Montana, Nevada — you name it). The joke, the gag, the pun, is on God Himself.

Making a joke to God is kind of audacious. And it can also be understood as a particularly intimate expression of love, can it not? It is only the most devoted who can joke to one another in this way, daringly making light of past transgressions.

Understood in this manner, the affectionate and playful nature of the song is asserting itself all the more in this previously confusing verse. Not every verse is without some mystery, of-course, even within this way of understanding the song, but that is as it should be. Every line doesn’t have to be nailed down and explained away. It is enough that there is nothing that is discordant or contradictory to this sense of the song, and that can be said, I think, if paradise is, after all, just Paradise (with a latitude and a longitude).

And that’s very nice indeed.

Bob Dylan: An Unintelligible Bellhop in a Wild West Hotel

In the Canadian newspaper London Free Press, James Reaney writes on Bob Dylan’s recent show in London, Ontario. Guitarist Paul James (with whom Dylan has history) replaced Stu and Denny for the first several tunes. Reaney regrets that photographers were not allowed: “So you’ll have to take my word that Dylan was wearing a big white cowboy hat and a black suit with red trim that made him look like a bellhop in a wild west hotel.” That’s an interesting way of describing Bob, although I can’t imagine it’s quite the effect he’s going for. Reaney also writes this:

This reviewer has decided to accept Dylan’s decision to play around with his famous words. When he wants a line to be heard clearly — say, the slashing “I hope that you die” from Masters of War or the self-mocking “You think I’m over the hill” from Spirit on the Water or the menacing “How does it feel?” from Like a Rolling Stone — it could be heard.

“Unintelligible,” Dylan said clearly during the band introductions, one clue that this master artist and joker can be heard when he needs to.

Dylan said “unintelligible”? What’s that about? Well, let’s check the tape, which I happen to have. Click below for Dylan’s band intro and remarks – my transcription of the relevant part is below that.

So, after introducing Denny, Stu and Donnie, Bob says (to the degree that it’s intelligible, of-course):

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a journalist backstage, and he’s asking somebody, “Is he always so unintelligible?” Unintelligible. Does anybody out there think I’m unintelligible? [Pause, indistinct crowd reaction. Bob laughs.] Tell me the truth now!

Pretty funny stuff. The way he rolls that word around, “unintelligible,” sounds a little W.C. Fields-esque to me. In any case, just priceless.