Wednesday, July 22, 2015

When the Deal Goes Down -- Another Dylan Confession of Faith?

"When the Deal Goes Down" is the fourth cut on Dylan's 2006 release Modern Times, an album that received immediate critical acclaim and praise from his fans. The album reached number one the week it was released and was Dylan's first album to reach number one since Desire thirty years earlier.

While listening to the album recently I became curious who the "you" was that this song seems directed toward. That is, was it a person or something higher? Each stanza closes with the line "I'll be with you when the deal goes down" so that it begs the question, what is the deal and who is the you.

One of the songs on the album New Morning is "If Not For You," which seems addressed to a woman ("Babe, I'd lay awake all night...") but feels like something more could be meant, and in the hands of George Harrison it indeed comes across that way as Harrison himself was well into his own spiritual quest as evidenced by some of the other content on his All Things Must Pass. I get the feeling this latter is how Dylan is performing it here.

"When the Deal Goes Down" is sung in a waltz-like cadence that is both gentle and evocative. The syllables vary from line to line, but the cadence is maintained in the way he sings it.

The song open with a lyrics that point to the ancient wisdom. The Bible at one point states, "God is light" and in Old Testament vernacular God is referred to as the "Ancient of Days." The combination of these two identities merge into the first reference, "the world's ancient light."

In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I'll be with you when the deal goes down

The song in some ways is like a Psalm of David. By using the word prayer here Dylan is investing religious language into this modern song. And the statement  "we live and we die" carries massive amounts of weight as well. It's a song about big questions.

We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

In the second verse he again pulls an image from the Scriptures: "the same thorny crown." Does Dylan do things like that by accident? Sometimes his symbols flow into a song from who knows where, but this seems too deliberate.

The third third verse speaks to other matters on the road of life, including references that could easily be taken from this section of the Sermon on the Mount. God takes care of his sparrows and the flowers of the field which are here today and gone tomorrow. Why to you worry so oh weary traveller? And indeed, like a vision from the skies "you" come to my eyes...

The moon gives light and shines by night
I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O'er the road we're bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

In many of the Psalms the author (often David, but not always) begins by laying out his complaint. He is trapped and frustrated, in a miry pit or he's envious of the success of evil men, or in some other quandary. But by the psalm's end he has the right perspective back again. He sees the situation from the point of view of eternity, and has regained his peace or joy. And so it is here, after expressing his very human struggle, he gets things back in perspective.

The song is sung melodic and slow, with no hint of lament. "You'll never see me frown" he says and closes this last verse with candor, "I owe my heart to you", and confidence. "And I'll be with you when the deal goes down."

I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard a deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

More could be said about the deafening noise, the rose and other Biblical allusions (eg. Rose of Sharon), but these are enough. In the end, what's the deal? It's a transaction.

What's striking to me about "When the Deal Goes Down" is how different in character it is from the explicit directness of his mid-career Gospel period. He's not preaching to anyone here. He's just speaking with tenderness to Someone he loves.

What I hear Dylan saying is that although we live in a world where things have changed, in the midst of it all the old time stories still live.

The lyrics to this song are Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music


Anonymous said...

The song is made all the more poignant since Dylan lifted the tune from "where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day" which was Bing Crosby's signature song.

Ed Newman said...

Interesting. Here's YouTube vid of Bing a-singing that one....