Bob Dylan's "Ain't Talking" -The Old Testament revisited - an analysis-PART 5- Final part
Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Talking”- The Old Testament revisited- an analysis by Kees de Graaf - 5th and final part.
In this final part we analyze the remaining verses of this masterpiece and wrap this whole thing up.
“It's bright in the heavens and the wheels are flying, fame and honor never seem to fade.
The fire's gone out but the light is never dying, who says I can't get heavenly aid?” It seems as if the lonesome pilgrim is now suddenly taken off his legs and for a while freed from his wretched earthly existence, he is shown a heavenly vision. The scene is reminiscent of the vision the prophet Ezekiel once had when he was in exile at the river Chebar. The heavens were opened and Ezekiel saw visions of God (Ezekiel 1:1). Ezekiel saw spinning wheels; their appearance was like the gleaming of chrysolite (1:15). The chrysolite of the wheels reflected the fires that were between the cherubim (1:13, 10:7), as if the wheels themselves were on fire. The wheels in the vision of Ezekiel represent the Spirit of the Lord. These wheels (like the Spirit of the Lord) are always in action, unstoppable, maneuverable in all directions, never missing its target, always fulfilling the will of God. The pilgrim, raised into heaven, is now in a place where the power and wealth, the wisdom and might, the honor and glory of the Almighty God is everlasting and omnipresent, a place “where fame and honor never seem to fade”.
“The fire's gone out but the light is never dying”. A fire may be an expression of apocalyptic wrath and judgment like in Dylan once said: “This Wheel’s on fire, rolling down the road, best notify my next of kin, this wheel shall explode”. In the song: “ Changing of the guards” (from the album “Street Legal” which may be seen as a prelude to Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in 1979) Dylan seems to have come to terms with the judgmental character of the word “fire” when he says: “Peace will come, with the tranquility and splendor on the wheels of fire”. Although the fire of judgment – through divine atonement – has gone out, the light, however, will forever remain and will never die. God is Light (1 John 1:5). The Light that will never die is the shining glory and omnipresence of God.
Although it was the Roman poet Ovid who once said: “Who says I can’t get heavenly aid when a God’s angry with me?” the wretched pilgrim, when he concentrates on that shining Light ahead of him, finds great comfort in this bright shining Light of God, and against all odds he exclaims: “who says I can't get heavenly aid?” The pilgrim is near the end of his trail and he knows that amidst the darkest hour of his painful pilgrimage, he has nowhere left to go but to throw himself upon the mercy of God: “I know the mercy of God must be near” and as a last resort, he trusts his fate in the hands of God.
“Ain't talking, just walking, carrying a dead man's shield, heart burning, still yearning, walking with a toothache in my heel”. After this uplifting verse, the narrator is thrown back into the harsh reality of things. “Carrying a dead man’s shield” is a way of describing how people avail themselves of useless weaponry – like a dead man’s shield - as if that would protect them from any danger. Here the remedy (a dead man’s shield) is worse than the disease and in spite of the poet carrying this shield; it cannot prevent death from coming soon.
“Walking with a toothache in my heel” is inspired by the nineteenth-century minstrel song Old Dan Tucker in which we hear that Old Dan “died with a toothache in his heel”. Within the context of the song- the Old Testament revisited - “walkin’ with a toothache in my heel” may refer to Genesis 3:15,”He will strike at your head; while you strike at His heel.” It expresses the struggle, the pain and agony, of the poet’s long journey from the mystic Garden of Eden, from which he was expelled, to his destination, the mystic Garden of John 20, the place where the tomb was from which Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
“The suffering is unending, every nook and cranny has it's tears, I'm not playing, I'm not pretending, I'm not nursing any superfluous fears”. The downfall of man not only caused man to be expelled from the Garden of Eden, but with his fall man also dragged down the whole of creation. Romans 8:22 says that ‘the whole creation has been groaning in travail”. This causes the pain and suffering to be unending and unlimited. Pain is all around. The pilgrim is confronted with the tears of decay in every nook and cranny he passes by. It was Paul Simon who wrote in the song “Born at the right time”: “The planet groans, every time it registers another birth”.” I'm not playing, I'm not pretending, I'm not nursing any superfluous fears” emphasizes that the pain and agony the creation has to go through will not be taken away in the near future but, as we are nearing the end of the world, things will get worse; the worst fears of the poet will come true, there is a lot of pain ahead of him and nobody and nothing will be able to escape from it. We are all boxed in until the end of time.
“Ain't talking, just walking, walking ever since the other night, heart burning, still yearning, walking ‘til I'm clean out of sight”. It seems that the nearer the pilgrim comes to his ultimate destination, the more diligently and hurriedly he keeps on walking, not allowing himself any night’s rest. But suddenly the camera zooms out. The picture of the pilgrim walking in the desolate landscape, in the last outback, at the world’s end is getting smaller and smaller, giving us the same impression as in Dylan’s song “Highlands”: “I’ve got new eyes, everything looks far away”. In the end, a small tiny figure disappears in the distance, behind the corner, in the last outback, and here the song could have ended, but it doesn’t, two important verses are to follow.
“As I walked out in the mystic garden, on a hot summer day, hot summer lawn, “Excuse me, ma'am” “I beg your pardon, there's no one here, the gardener is gone”. There can hardly be any doubt that this verse is based on what we read in John 20:11-18. The first thing that strikes us that it was “on a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn”. In the first verse of the song he walked out “tonight” in the mystic garden. It was in the cool evening breeze of the Garden of Eden where Adam had his fatal encounter with God. But here in this mystic garden, on the day and at the place where Jesus was resurrected from the dead, it all happens in full broad daylight; it is ‘’on a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn”. “In the Summertime, when you were with me”, an occasion where the poet seems to have had an encounter with Jesus, simmers through here.
As said this verse is based on John 20-11:18, but when you take a close look at John 20:11-18 there is of course a difference. The ‘madam’ is obviously Maria of Magdalene but whereas in John 20:15 Maria Magdalene initially mistakes Jesus for the gardener; here in the song Dylan has Maria say something different than in John 20. In John 20: 15 Maria says: “Sir if you have carried him (Jesus) away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away”. Here Dylan has her say: “I beg your pardon, there's no one here, the gardener is gone”. We do not find Maria saying this in John 20. Now Dylan connects an event which took place earlier that day with this event. Earlier that day – at dawn – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre (Matthew 28:1).Then an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and said about the resurrected Jesus: “He is not here” (Mathew 28:6). The lyrics here have something similar: “there’s no one here”. But instead of saying: “Jesus is gone” which is what one would have expected Maria to say, Dylan has Maria Magdalene say: “The gardener is gone”. Why does Dylan do that? The first reason may be a poetic reason. The poet doesn’t want to force an open door. He wants you to think about it and to draw your own conclusions; it may be an intentional elusiveness. Dylan said about that in his 2004 CBS 60 minutes interview: “They (the songs) change their meanings for different situations that a person is in and they hold up because they are so wide, there so many levels in them”. The second reason may be that the word “Gardener” is used in the Bible to refer to God. In John 15: 1 we read: “I (Jesus) am the true grapevine, and my Father is the Gardener” (New Living Translation).
“The gardener is gone” does not mean that the gardener, Jesus, God, is dead and that the narrator has lost all hope of redemption. On the contrary, “The gardener is gone” means that Jesus is no longer here on earth but has gone to heaven, to rule at his Father’s right hand. To reach that one sweet day when he will stand beside King, the narrator, against all odds, has to keep on walking, to last outback at the world’s end, just like the final verse says:
“Ain't talking, just walking, up the road around the bend ,heart burning, still yearnin
In the last outback, at the world's end”. Once again, but this time for the last time, the camera zooms out. He slowly disappears “up the road around the bend, walking till he is clean out of sight”.
“In the last outback, at the world's end” This line is again inspired by the Roman Poet Ovid, we find an almost identical line in his “Black Sea Letters”, Book 2, Part 7, Line 66. "In the last outback, at the world's end" evokes the image of a lonely pilgrim who tries to cross the Australian continent. It reminds us too of Patrick White’s novel "Voss" . Voss set out to cross the Australian continent in 1845. He and his party headed inland from the coast only to meet endless adversity. The explorers met with drought-plagued deserts which stretched out endlessly and where all vegetation had withered, followed by waterlogged lands until they retreated to a cave where they lay for weeks waiting for the rain to stop. "In the last outback, at the world's end” on the one hand shows the utter forlornness of the poet and on the other hand, that his dreadful journey is almost accomplished. His journey started in the Garden of Eden and ended in the mystic garden, near the tomb where Jesus resurrected from the dead. Here on earth ‘the gardener is gone’ that is why he has to keep on walking, but has found consolation as if he says: ”we gonna meet again, some day on the avenue, tangled up in blue as long as I have to keep on walking!”.
I’d like to finish with a quote from Michael Anton Miller’s book called ‘Hard Rain, Slow Train: Passages about Dylan’:
“I haven’t been talking at all, if talking means speaking to others. I’ve been speaking only to myself in my songs, my way of walking through this life”. A Dylan song is therefore best understood as an artistic rendering of an extremely intimate self-conversation”.
We have finally come to the end of the analysis of this song. We hope to have shed some new light for you on this complex, intriguing and brilliant song. If you want to read all 5 parts of my analysis, I put all five parts together in one PDF file. You can find this on my ‘Bob Dylan page’, elsewhere on this website. As always, please feel free to respond to this article……….