Bob Dylan's 'Soon after Midnight' - an analysis - Part 1.
This song from the album ‘Tempest’ really is a very great song. This precious gem captured and mesmerized me from the first minute I heard it. The music has this typical joyful 1950’s doo-wop swing and Dylan’s voice sounds really sweet and gentle and we hear some great phrasing too!. At first glance, it looks like a simple love song, but as the song starts to grow on you, you find out that there is much more to it and, as is so often the case with Dylan, in the end things are not what they seem.
In his 2012 RS interview Dylan said that ‘Tempest’ wasn’t the record he set out to make. "I wanted to make something more religious," he said. "I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread — than it does with a record like I ended up with."
If we interpret ‘more religious’ as more ‘gospel’ like’ – albeit not ‘gospel’ like in the same manner as during Dylan’s so-called Christian era 1979-1981 - then we have good reasons to assume that ‘Soon after midnight’ may have originally been intended to be one of those religious songs which Dylan had in mind for this more ‘religious’ album. This idea is supported by the fact that this song starts off as a psalm: “I'm searching for phrases, to sing your praises” but as the song progresses Dylan’s well spring of creativity takes him somewhere else but then again –as we will see - in much deeper waters than one would expect, because the song –even if it may sound as a simple love song at first glance – is suffused with Biblical imagery. Also, lyrically the song starts off in a bright and positive mood and although the two bridges of the song reveal some dark undercurrents which give the song an obsessive and even hostile trait, these elements cannot prevent the song from ending in an equal positive mood and in such a way that the overall joyful and even exalted spirit of the song is maintained. The question is: what is this song about? I think that overall, the song is more about ‘the’ ideal woman or bride than about ‘an’ ideal woman or bride, which does, however, not necessarily mean that there are no personal, autobiographical, undercurrents in the song, reflecting the poet’s personal lifelong quest to find this ideal woman or bride. In this quest for the ideal woman or bride there are both physical and spiritual elements of this quest pictured but in the end –as we will see - these elements melt together. In other words, in this song, in the quest to find the perfect bride, there is a struggle going on between lust, infidelity, and disloyalty on the one hand and chastity, fidelity, and loyalty on the other hand. In this respect Dylan must have been inspired by the Bible where we see the relation between God and His people – or between Christ and the church for that matter - described by some of the same metaphors Dylan uses here. God (Jesus) is the groom and his people (the church) are the bride. The Bible reveals that over and over again, God’s chosen people were disloyal to Him and acted like a harlot. In particular the prophets describe this metaphor in all sorts of varieties, see for instance the book of Hosea (e.g. Hosea 4:15) and Ezekiel. But in spite of this continuous adultery, God’s burning love keeps on searching the bride’s heart, till in the end He finds her and cleanses her and makes her ready for the eternal marriage (Rev. 19:7,8).
Therefore, as we are getting nearer to the end of the poet’s life, this song is an ultimate and successful attempt to bring the life long quest for this ideal woman or bride to rest. In the first song of the album, ‘Duquesne Whistle’ we hear the final whistle of time blowing and indeed, this whistle is ‘Blowing like my woman's on board’. In the end he has found her and has come to terms with his woman and he is now ready to enter into eternity with this ethereal woman.
Apart from the Bible there may be other sources which inspired Dylan to create this song. Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ may resonate, especially in the song’s title and also maybe the 16th century ballad ‘Tam Lin’. But as far as other sources are concerned Edmund Spenser’s poem ‘The Faerie Queene’ may have been the most important influence, as we will outline later on in this article. Let’s first delve deeper into the specific words of the song.
“I'm searching for phrases, to sing your praises, I need to tell someone” is reminiscent of “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime, could never do you justice in reason or rhyme” which Dylan wrote in the song ‘Mississippi”. The question is who does Dylan address here? It may be God because “to sing your praises” is a terminology which occurs quite often in the book of Psalms and such an eulogy is invariably addressed to God, e.g. Psalm 144: 9. “I will sing a new song to you, O God! I will sing your praises with a ten-stringed harp”. Above we wrote that the two bridges of the song reveal some dark undercurrents which render the song a trait of animosity. We also see this phenomenon frequently occur in the book of Psalms, sometimes even within the same Psalm, e.g. “To sing your praises” of Psalm 144:9 goes with Psalm 144: 11 where it says “Save me! Rescue me from the power of my enemies. Their mouths are full of lies; they swear to tell the truth, but they lie instead”. In this song “to sing your praises” goes with “They're lying and they're dying in their blood” and with “I'll drag his corpse through the mud”.
Yet we have good reasons to believe that “I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises” is not primarily addressed to God but to his (ideal) woman, wife or bride. Such language is not at all unusual in the Bible, in fact the book of Songs is full of such praises addressed to a woman or bride, e.g. Songs 6: 9 where a young man says: “The young women see her and praise her; even queens and royal concubines sing her praises”. In this song, one may say that in a certain way Dylan follows the same route which the Bible follows in finding the perfect bride, a long and narrow road indeed, on which a number of women pass by – some of them ‘as whorish as ever’- till at last the true bride is found in Dylan’s favorite Bible book the Revelation of St John, Chapter 19 verse 7: ‘Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself’.
Therefore, this first verse of this song shows us the final result of his quest to find this woman. The poet has reached the end of the trail and he can hardly believe that at last he has found her. Her beauty is so exuberant and her serenity so overwhelming that he cannot find the right words to express his exaltation, therefore when he says ‘I need to tell someone’ he actually intends to say that he wants the whole world to know how intensely happy he is with the outcome.
In this first verse it looks as if the end of time has just begun, that is why he now says: ‘It's soon after midnight, and my day has just begun’. Some see in the song’s title ‘It's soon after midnight’ a direct reference to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in which Bottom has an encounter with the Fairy Queen after midnight. This seems the more likely because later on in the song the poet has a date with the fairy queen. Although Dylan has Shakespeare’s play resonated in the song’s title, we feel that the poet predominantly wants to express something else, at least in this first verse. ‘It's soon after midnight, and my day has just begun’ may express that the Latter Day has just arrived. At midnight a new day has begun. It is ‘his’ day and this day will never end. This spiritual matrimony will last forever. The idea that Christ will return at midnight – as bridegroom to meet his bride, the church, - is wide-spread within the Christian tradition and is based on Matt. 25:6 where it says: ‘At midnight they were roused by the shout, 'Look, the bridegroom is coming! Come out and meet him!'
But before this day will finally come, a number of obstacles have to be overcome, a number of women pass by and these women try to distract him from the road. This theme is also dealt with on the Tell Tale Signs song ‘Marching to the City’ where it says: ‘Once I had a pretty girl, she’s done me wrong, now I'm marching to the City and the road ain't long’ The first woman that passes by is ‘A gal named Honey’ .The Urban Dictionary says that the name ‘Honey’ is a nickname for a beautiful girl who has just about everything. Deceived by beauty as he may have been, he soon found out that this woman was not in for a lifelong relationship of enduring love but that only ‘she was passing by’. Her ‘love’ was selfish and superficial. She is the kind of woman who –after a brief period of infatuation - comes and goes and shows no genuine and lasting interest in you, in fact she only wants to take and not give, that is why it says that she ‘took my money’. There may even shine through some self-criticism from the part of the poet when we see this same selfish attitude reflected in the male counterpart of Dylan’s cover of The Mississippi Sheiks’ song ‘Blood in my Eyes’ on the album ‘World Gone Wrong’ where he has Honey’s male counterpart say: ‘I tell you something, tell you the facts, you don't want me, give my money back’. In summary, this first girl or woman called Honey represents the type of marriage or relationship which is only based on material things and has no deeper spiritual foundation. Because there is no strong foundation, such marriages or relations ‘pass by’, they break up easily and they leave you behind, robbed and – as Dylan wrote elsewhere –‘howling at the moon’.
When he goes on to say that ‘the moon is in my eye’ this reminds us of a song called ‘Moon Got In My Eyes’ written by Johnny Burke, and Arthus Johnston. The song has been covered by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby .One of the verses reads: ‘You know the saying, 'All who love are blind', it seems that ancient adage still applies, I guess, I should have seen right through you, but the moon got in my eyes’. Apparently, beauty deceives the eye and romantic feelings may easily blind a man and these feelings are often associated with the moon which may block your view. Just like in Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the moon is continuously associated with a midnight realm where dreams and imagination flourish but in real life however, these sweet notions are wiped out by the harsh reality of matrimony’s every day’s wear and tear..
The language of the first bridge of the song is reminiscent of the strong and robust language of the Old Testamentical Kings David and Solomon which they used especially in the Book of Psalms and Songs. ‘My heart is cheerful, it's never fearful’ is an example of the determination and valiance of these kings. ‘My heart is cheerful, it's never fearful’ expresses confidence and faith that the ultimate goal will be reached: he will surely find the perfect bride and this bright prospect is a reason for abundant joy. This firm mental attitude resembles the resilience shown in Dylan’s song ‘Mississippi’: ‘My heart is not weary, it is light and it is free’, and echoes what King Solomon says in Proverbs 15:13: ‘A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.’
‘I been down on the killing floors’ shows that the poet- as a valiant warrior - has undergone a lot of hardship and suffering. ‘I been down on the killing floors’ may also resonate Howling Wolf’s song ‘Killing Floor’ (1964) which says: ‘I was fooling' with ya baby, I let ya put me on the killing' floor”. Herbert Sumlin, blues guitarist and at the time a member of Howling Wolf’s band, is said to have said about the song’s title: “Down on the killing floor–that means a woman has you down, she went out of her way to try to kill you. She at the peak of doing it, and you got away now.” However, we feel that Dylan may have used the words of this song ‘Killing Floor’ as a vehicle to express a deeper meaning. The language used here resembles that of a great king and warrior. King David was such a great warrior who had been involved in many battles and had been down on the killing floors many a time. But what about David’s great Son, the great warrior Jesus Christ? If there has ever been a man on earth who can literally say ‘I been down on the killing floors’, it is Jesus Christ. In fact He was killed on the killing floor but He rose from the dead and continued His quest throughout history to find the perfect bride like it says in Ephesians 5: 25- 27 ”For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her, to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault’.’
‘I'm in no great hurry’ not only means that the quest to find the perfect bride takes a lot of time but also that it has to be done at the right time. The poet is fully in control of all his passions, so he is patient enough to wait for the right time. Some have argued – and quite rightly so – that this song reflects some of the menacing and spooky feelings of Dylan’s song ‘Moonlight’ where it says: ‘Well, I’m preaching peace and harmony the blessings of tranquility, yet I know when the time is right to strike’
Hurry and impatience go with lust but true love goes with patience and endurance, just like King Solomon says in Songs 8: 4. “Promise me, O women of Jerusalem, not to awaken love until the time is right’.
The poet’s mind is well balanced and he knows exactly what he wants. ’A gal named Honey’ is not what he is looking for and he is ready to face her violent anger and scorn, that is why it now says: ‘I’m not afraid of your fury’. A famous saying in this respect is: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." This saying is based on lines from ‘The Mourning Bride’ a tragedy by the playwright William Congreve, premiered in 1697: ’Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’.
‘I've faced stronger walls than yours’ confirms the epic altitude of these words. It looks as if a valiant king is addressing us here. The king and poet David shines through here, who says in Psalm 18:29 “With my God I can scale any wall”. And not only king David, but also in his slip-stream, the great king Jesus Christ who in his quest to find the perfect bride has faced stronger walls than the fury and resistance of His bride to be. A much stronger wall was death, but He rose from the dead and continued his quest to find His bride.
In our next and final article we will deal with Charlotte, Mary, The Fairy Queen and Two-Timing Slim and we will wrap this whole thing up. Please feel free to comment on this article.