Monday, April 16, 2018

When He Returns: Dylan Drapes Biblical Fervor With Poetic Insight

We were talking, about the space between us all 
And the people, who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion 
Never glimpse the truth, then it's far too late when they pass away
George Harrison, Within You Without You

8 November 1979, San Francisco.
Photo courtesy Bill Pagel Archives
"We were talking, about the space between us all." It's just a statement of fact. We were talking about this. George Harrison put it out there as something that was taking place, that was true and observable. But where he takes it becomes controversial because it can be interpreted as preachy and patronizing.

When I wrote about Within You Without You in 2014 it surprised me to read that there were people offended by this song, for that specific reason.

"And the people, who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion 
Never glimpse the truth, then it's far too late when they pass away."

But then, it's just a variation on the age-old story that Plato illustrated with his allegory about people in a cave who are chained facing a wall of shadows cast there by a fire behind them which they cannot turn and see. These shadows are not reality. In fact, the fire behind them that casts the shadows is not even the real light that lights the world. They must escape their chains and climb out of the cave to see the sun.

Now frankly, I did not see The Beatles' "Within You Without You" as something didactic and harsh. There was no fire and brimstone in the lyrics, nor was there a harshness in the tone of the song. By way of contrast, Dylan did put on the mantle of fire-and-brimstone evangelist at times. If people were touchy about George Harrison's attempts to enlighten, small wonder that there were a few hostile reactions during this Gospel period in Dylan's career.

That Dylan went Gospel should not have been entirely bewildering. He's always been a shape shifter. Why be surprised that one of his iterations would be as a Gospel evangelist? Glimmers of his spiritual interior life had peppered his lyrics for two decades previous.

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Bootleg Series #13: Trouble No More captures the essence of Dylan's spirit during this period from 1979 to 1981. In Plato's allegory, the one who escapes from imprisonment in the cave and sees the true light feels a moral obligation to return to the cave, which in part explains the preaching Dylan did during some of the concerts of that time, which is in itself a bit of an irony because one of the chief criticisms I've heard about his most of his concerts during the Never Ending Tour  is how little he talks. Sometimes he's almost mute, as he was in his 1998 concert in Duluth..

"When He Returns" is the fifth track on Trouble No More. In a nutshell, the song is about the things Jesus will do "when he returns." It's a tenet of Evangelical Christianity that Jesus not only died and was raised from the dead, but that he is coming back again at the end of the age.

The lyrics are interesting because of the manner in which Dylan splices into the story his own very personal feelings. "How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?" In the concerts where he sang this, it is sung with remarkable feeling, some of the words almost painfully squeezed out. It's moving. And when he gets to the third stanza is the "you" here a sermon to the audience? Or is it a continuation of the exhortations to himself? "How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?"

The questions are pointed, but for all of us including himself as he does in other places such as "Heart of Mine" on Shot of Love.

Here are the lyrics. The Bible verses referenced are in parentheses. As he did with the "American Songbook' so has Dylan done with the "Good Book," internalizing it and putting it back out there in his own poetic voice.

When He Returns

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod  (Revelations 2:27)
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God  (Joshua 6:20)
For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears  (Matthew 11:15)
It is only He who can reduce me to tears
Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right (I Thessalonians 5:2)
When He returns

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through  (Matthew 7:13,14)
He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew  (Matthew 24:44)
How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness? (Deuteronomy 1:19-45)
Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask (Hebrews 9:22)
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask
How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned  (Proverbs 19:21)
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne  (Revelations 4:2)
When He returns
Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Within You Without You is also discussed here: