Bob Dylan's "When the deal goes down" -lyric analysis - Part 3 - final part
Bob Dylan’s “When the deal goes down” – lyric analysis – Part 3 – Final part- by Kees de Graaf
In this 3rd and final part we take a closer look at the verses 3 and 4 of this song and we draw a conclusion.
C. Verse 3
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.
“The moon gives light and shines by night, I scarcely feel the glow”. This line is inspired by Henry Timrod’s poem “Two portraits” where it says: “Still stealing on with pace so slow, yourself will scarcely feel the glow”. The moon, unlike the sun, is not a source of light so it does not produce any light but it only reflects the sunlight to the earth. Also unlike the sun, the moon does not radiate any warmth to the earth so you cannot feel any glow. The whole expression is therefore poetic. It is used to express a feeling. The sun and the moon represent an important place in Biblical apocalyptic literature. At the day of the Lord, Judgment day, “the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood” (Acts 2:20). The Apocalypse, what will happen on the so called Latter Day, is also a main feature in Dylan’s works, e.g.: “Darkness at the break of noon shadows even the silver spoon, the handmade blade, the child’s balloon, eclipses both the sun and moon” and “the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide”.
Here however, the word ‘moon’ is not used in connection with the Apocalypse, it does not foreshadow any immanent doom. On the contrary, the word ‘moon’’ is used here in a positive way. The moon shines by night and it gives light by night. This moon is not supposed to harm you, but to protect and to guide you, like it says in Psalm 121:5, 6: “The LORD is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night”. The warmth of the sun and the glow of the moon are a demonstration of the favour of God towards mankind but the poet hardly feels this favour right now, he feels depressed, lonely, cold, deserted by God and man, and that is why he says: “I scarcely feel the glow of the presence of God and man”.
“We learn to live and then we forgive, O'er the road we're bound to go”. We do not know by nature how we should live. Through a process of trial and error a man grows up from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to maturity. We try to learn from whatever crosses our pathways of life. But that is not enough to learn to live. Life is an art. Life is a continuous growing process which takes a lot of pain and agony. No matter how marked a man’s life may be because of all the hardships he has experienced in his life time, when left on his own, man is unable to learn to live. The poet needs help from above to learn to live. (cf.” Who says I can’t get heavenly aid” – Ain’t Talking). We already found out that true wisdom only comes through strife. The same may be said of ‘learning to live’. When a man is left on his own, the process of learning to live is bound to fail because a man does not look in the mirror in the proper way. His judgment about himself is biased. He is incapable to see what he looks like and who he really is. He does not see that by nature a man is full of revenge, unwilling to forgive and full of envy. Like it says in Proverbs 14:30: “A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones”. The first phase of learning how to live consists of an ever growing awareness of how much a man has been forgiven. Like it says in the LORD’s prayer: “forgive us or debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”(Matthew 6:12). Once a man has realized how much he has been forgiven, he starts to live, he learns to live. The more he learns to live, the more he is capable to forgive others. ‘’True love tends to forget” Dylan once wrote, we may also say: ‘true love tends to forgive’. It is the reason why the poet states that first we must learn to live and then, only then, we can start to forgive. True life, true love starts where a man begins to forgive. The ability to forgive is something we can only acquire from heaven; it is a gift from heaven.
It all happens “O'er the road we're bound to go”. It all has to do with the ‘destiny thing’, we talked about earlier. As said Dylan strongly believes in destiny: “Every step of the way, we walk the line, your days are numbered, so are mine”. It is true; there is an element of tragic and intransparency in the word destiny and the way in which Dylan uses this word in his works. (“There ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down”- in ‘Foot of pride’- or “some on their way up and some on their way down” – in ‘Can’t wait’) Elsewhere Dylan calls it the ‘foggy web of destiny’. At the same time Dylan has made it clear through all of his works that destiny and ‘’the road we’re bound to go’ does not take away a man’s responsibility for the deeds he does and the choices he makes. Dylan has always made a clear distinction between good and bad, right and wrong based on Biblical principles of love and social justice. Here he wants to emphasize that it is essential that one first has to learn how to live and only then one may start to forgive and that these are necessary processes on the road we are bound to go. It is a process guided from heaven. It may be a painful road but it is nevertheless a road which will ultimately lead to glory: “There ain’t but one train on this track” and, “all rails leading to the west”; it is a slow train coming but this train is bound for glory.
“More frailer than the flowers these precious hours, that keep us so tightly bound”. This line is inspired by Timrod’s poem "A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night" who has “A round of precious hours Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked and strove, with logic frailer than the flowers” Earlier we came already to the conclusion that the “You” of “I’ll be with “You” when the deal goes down”, is supposed to be Jesus or God. Accordingly, the “us” in “that keep “us” so tightly bound very likely must be the poet and Jesus or God. Dylan says in ‘’Precious memories”:”In the stillness of the midnight, precious sacred scenes unfold”. On the one hand Dylan seems to have had – and there is enough reason to believe that he still has - a very close and tight relationship with Jesus; these are those precious hours when he is closely connected with God. On the other hand this relationship is at the same time also fragile and frail, even frailer than the flowers. This may be caused by the fact that once a widely acclaimed public figure like Dylan has made a controversial choice, a lot of counter forces may come into action to pull him into the opposite direction, just like Dylan elsewhere says: “A lot of things get in the way when you’re trying to do what’s right’. As far as his faith is concerned such controversy and public pressure may easily lead him into a crisis with God or Jesus. We have good reasons to believe that he is hanging on to his faith, no matter how frail his relationship with God may be at times. This pressure is put into words when Dylan says: “I look away but I keep seeing it, I don’t want to believe, but I keep believing it”. God from his side keeps on knocking at his heart’s door when he goes on to say: “You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies”. This line is again inspired by Timrod who has in his poem: "A Vision of Poesy - Part 01": “A strange far look would come into his eyes, as if he saw a vision in the skies". A vision may generally be described as a religious or mystical experience of a super natural appearance. The poet needs reassurance that he is still on the right track, he needs strengthening of his wavering faith and somehow he gets a heavenly signal, a vision, that gives him power to go on and not give up on the deal he once made with God.
D. Verse 4
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
“I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes, I followed the winding stream”. Roses are ancient symbols of love and beauty. As an expression of how much he misses love and being loved Dylan wrote “Everybody got all the flowers, I don't have one single rose” in the song “I feel a change coming on”, but here he finds at least one rose to pick up and poke through his clothes as he follows the winding stream. The stream is ever winding, so you don’t know what is ahead of you and you can’t see what is behind the bend. Amidst the uncertainty of a dark and grim future, it is difficult to follow the track; he therefore needs help and reassurance from above. As he follows the winding stream the rose is here a symbol and token of God’s continuous love, support and guidance for the poet. This heavenly guidance enables him to endure all the hardships and temptations which he encounters as he follows the winding stream, on his way to the place where he will be with God and the place where at last the deal will go down. In Biblical imagery a stream or a river is an expression of the abundance of life God gives. Dylan once wrote in “Father of Night” that it is the heavenly Father who “turneth the rivers and streams” and elsewhere “God knows there is a river and he knows how to make it flow”. If you follow the stream or the river you are bound to reach the sources of life. There you will find that stream, that river, “bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb”(Revelation 22:1). That is the place where the deal will go down.
“I heard a deafening noise, I felt transient joys, I know they're not what they seem” The album ‘Modern Times’ is full of Biblical imagery, including some violent imagery taken from the Old Testament. Dylan has been preoccupied with the Apocalypse for almost his entire career. As far as his thinking on the Apocalypse is concerned it would seem that the book of Revelation has had the most impact on Dylan’s works. This book has been a major source for his apocalyptic tainted material. This line reminds us of Revelation 19: 6 and 7 where it says: “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder peals, crying, “Hallelujah!” For the Lord, our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come”. All the elements of this line are reflected in those two verses of the book of Revelation. ‘Deafening noise’ is the sound of many waters and the sound of mighty thunder peals. The “transient joys” which the poet feels is the joy of the outcry: “Hallelujah” and “let us rejoice”. At the same time this joy is ‘transient’. ’Transient’ means that the vision from the sky and the subsequent outburst of joy and euphoria only remains for a brief moment, in the same way when Dylan wrote in ‘This dream of you’: “In a curtain gloom, I saw a star from heaven fall, I turned and looked again, but it was gone”. A vision from the sky doesn’t go on for a long time. It is transient, it is here, than there and the next moment it is gone again. The vision is enough however, to strengthen the poet so that he can go on.
“I know they’re not what they seem” refers again to that same Revelation 19:6: “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a multitude”, etc. What John he Revelator saw in his vision was of such incredible awe, magnitude and beauty that it was hard to put this into intelligible words and images. “I know they’re not what they seem” means that the reality of what is being described in this metaphor is always incredibly more beautiful and splendid than one can ever imagine. It is like it says in 1 Corinthians 2: 9: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of a man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”.
“In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain, you'll never see me frown” 1 Corinthians 10:26 says that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”. It is His domain and Jesus is in command of the earth. (See Matthew 28:18)Earlier we already argued that this is may be a good reason why Dylan calls Jesus ‘’the Commander in Chief”. In spite of the fact that it is Jesus’s domain, the domain is full of disappointment and pain. Paul writes in Romans 7:22: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now”. The creation suffers the pangs of childbirth. This causes a lot of pain and anguish. But it will not stay that way. It is just like a woman who no longer remembers the anguish of labor when a child is born (John 16:21), or just like Dylan said in “In the Summertime” almost literally quoting Romans 8: 18: “But all that suffering was not to be compared with the glory that is to be”. It is the reason why Dylan now concludes: “You never see me frown”. He does not have any second thoughts, no matter how painful his existence here on earth is. He submits to the will of God, he is hanging on, knowing deep down inside, and in spite of all the sufferings, that in the end things will turn out as planned and everything’s gonna be alright, although there were times when he did not know what ‘’all right” even meant.
“I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true, and I'll be with you when the deal goes down”. The deal he made with God is not a business deal, a deal in which the personal attitude of the parties towards each other is not relevant. In this deal, in this covenant, it is essential that the parties give each other their heart. In this deal, this covenant, God is the first and the last. He takes the initiative. God graciously calls man from the darkness and invites him to enter his Kingdom of light. The only thing a man must do is to surrender his heart to God. That is why the poet says: “I owe my heart to you”. It is the same as if he would say: “I owe God my love and dedication and in essence that is the only thing I have to do to make it work and to make it possible that the deal will go down. That is the only truth in the world that counts; the rest is only of secondary interest.
Chris Gregory in his commentary on this song writes: “What makes the song so moving is the way it depicts a struggle for, and perhaps a final attainment of, a kind of grace, or spiritual enlightenment, achieved not through any conventionally ‘religious’ path but through making a personal ‘deal’ with the spirit of creativity”. I disagree with Chris Gregory. Where did Dylan say that he made a deal with ‘the spirit of creativity’? And what is ‘the spirit of creativity’ exactly? Can you make a deal with such a vague notion as ‘the spirit of creativity’? In the first part of my analysis I referred to the 2004 60 minutes CBS interview, in which Dylan made it convincingly clear that he made a bargain, a deal with the Commander in Chief on this earth and in a world we can’t see. There are very solid reasons to assume that this Commander in Chief is Jesus or God. The whole interpretation of the song stands or falls with the interpretation of the “You” in “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down”. It is true, Dylan makes art which can stand on itself and may be interpreted in various ways. This makes his work accessible to believers and non-believers; it also makes his work subject to a large variety of debate. Personally, I am convinced that there is consistency in his work and that the frame work of his thinking, also in ‘Modern Times’, is drawn from the moral principles of the Bible. Gregory and others feel that a Christian interpretation of the songs in the album ‘Modern Times’ is only ‘wishful’ thinking. With this analysis I hope to have shown that a Christian interpretation is as valid as any other interpretation. Finally I would like to say the following: ‘Let the echo decide who is right or wrong’.
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