Bob Dylan's 'When the night comes falling from the sky'- an analysis - Part 1
Lyric analysis of Bob Dylan’s ‘When the night comes falling from the sky’ – Part 1.
This song was first released on the album ‘Empire Burlesque’ (1985). There is an earlier, much different version of the song, which was later released on ‘The Bootleg Series’ volume 1-3’. John Bauldie, in the accompanying notes to the Bootleg series version of the song, quite rightly wrote in 1991: ‘it’s remarkable to remember that this is a take which was presumably judged as not being good enough for release, merely a workout, and yet Dylan sings wonderfully. The song seems capable of kicking itself into ever-higher gear, and as the band recognizes it, so does Dylan, who gets audibly more and more excited as the song progresses’. In comparison, the Empire Burlesque version is much more easy going and lacklustre. This outtake however, is full of apocalyptic menace and fire. This is the reason why I prefer the ‘Bootleg Series’ version and in my analysis I will follow the lyrics of the Bootleg series version.
What is this song about? The ‘woman’, which in Dylan’s earlier works may be seen much more as a goddess, has more and more turned into an evil power, certainly ever since his conversion to Christianity in the late seventies. Over the years, the ‘woman’ or so-called ‘love’ is more and more seen as an expression of selfish lust, a force which continuously distracts him and tries to lure him into the morals of despair. Yet he shows an ambiguous attitude towards this force. On the one hand he makes it clear that he now lives in a completely different world and is continuously involved in a quest to give up ‘the ways of the flesh’, on the other hand he is still very much attracted to his former way of living and thinking. We find this ambiguity, this struggle, in many a song, also in this one. Let’s see how this works out in the lyrics.
“If you look out across the fields, see me returning. Smoke is in your eyes, you draw a smile. From the fireplace where now my letters to you are burning, you've had time to think about it for a while”. Satan did this once. Satan crossed the fields of the earth and reported his findings to God (Job 1:7). Here however, it is as if Jesus speaks through his mouth of Dylan. He immediately takes us in our mind to what will happen on the Latter Day. Revelation 1: 7 says: “Look! He (Jesus) comes with the clouds of heaven. And everyone will see him—even those who pierced him. And all the nations of the world will mourn for him”. “The same way I leave here, will be the way that I came” Dylan would later on write, obviously about Jesus, in a poetical inversion when he composed the song “If you ever go to Houston”, reflecting Acts 1:11: “Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”. In the poet’s imagination that moment has now come. It is as if Jesus says: ‘be on the alert, look out across the fields, look up into the sky, I may return at any moment now”. “Smoke is in your eyes, you draw a smile” seems to be inspired by an old song called “Smoke gets in your eyes”, written by Otto Harbach for the 1933 operetta Roberta. In the original lyrics it says: “Yet today, my love has flown away, I am without my love. Now laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide, so I smile and say when a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes”. The notion seems clear. It expresses what Dylan wrote in ‘What Good am I? : ‘I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings’. Judgement Day has arrived and although the smoke of the fire which accompanies this day is still visible and hurts people’s eyes, people draw a frozen smile, as if they are unwilling to admit defeat. Jesus goes on to speak through the mouth of Dylan and says: “From the fireplace where now my letters to you are burning, you've had time to think about it for a while”. Dylan may have had in mind the seven letters which Jesus sent to the seven angels of the seven churches of which we read in the book of Revelation, chapter 2 and 3. These letters were sent and meant to admonish and encourage these churches –in fact all churches of all ages - to keep on following the Lord, but it appeared that over the centuries, these warnings of Jesus were thrown to the winds and disregarded, these letters were thrown into the fireplace where they were burnt to such an extent that Jesus had to complain: “But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?”(Luke 18:8). Now almost two thousand years have passed since Jesus sent these letters and that is why Jesus says: you've had time to think about it for a while” which means: “I gave you time enough to repent but you chose not to do so, time has run out now, now I’m telling you that I've walked two hundred miles, now look me over, It's the end of the chase and the moon is high”. “I’ve walked two hundred miles” is really a metaphorical expression meaning: “I‘ve gone a long way, I’ve gone to great lengths to salvage you, I did not only walk two hundred miles, I have even waited two centuries and now you see me coming across the fields and from the skies, look me over, see how majestic I am, I’ve come to the end of my trail, it’s the end of the chase, the game is through, it is time for the few to judge the many”. “The moon is high” serves to indicate that the celestial bodies are involved at the Latter Day. Although the moon will be high at the Latter Day, yet it will be darkened as Jesus says in Matthew 24:29: “Immediately after the anguish of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”.
“It don't matter who loves who, either you'll love me or I'll love you”. Here Dylan quotes the Humphrey Bogart film "Maltese Falcon" in which is said "I don't care who loves who...maybe you love me and maybe I love you”; Dylan however, seems to use this quote for his own purposes in the song, i.e. to express what will happen with love as soon as time turns into eternity, on and after the Latter Day, when the night comes falling from the sky. As long as we live under the sun, there are all kinds of ‘love’; matrimonial love, love between brothers and sisters, parents and children etc. In eternity however, a completely new situation will arise as we may read in Matthew 22:30: “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven”. In eternity love will be of one kind, love will fulfil all people, not the kind of love we are used to but a love which will be much deeper than we ever can experience on earth, a love which will reflect the eternal love and friendship and companionship which has existed for all eternity between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It may be the reason why the poet says that in eternity love will be such an overwhelming phenomenon that one may truly say that “It don't matter who loves who, either you'll love me or I'll love you”, love will be all around us. This is what will happen to the children of God ‘when the night comes falling from the sky’. The ‘night’ may be a metaphor for the Latter Day here. This night will not come gradually, like the twilight, but it will come suddenly, it will literally fall from the sky. It will come –as I Corinthians 15:52 says – “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed”, this is exactly what will happen “when the night comes falling from the sky”
Will be continued…”when my memory is not so short”…….
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Warning to Dylan haters, the flloowing comment will make you gag.Bringing it All Back Home: that's the chronological start of the Dylan I love. Electric Dylan. It's the music you love when you are 17 that sticks with you all your life.I used to think that too, but not so much any more. And that's because of Dylan. I'm a latecomer to Dylan. Which is surprising, because (as a Generation X-er) I used to fancy myself quite the music geek/ connoisseur, but for some reason never got into Dylan. Didn't even broach him really-- I guess because I had some idea of "Dylan" (the folky "political" Dylan) that put me off. It's only in the last few years-- my mid to late 30s-- that I've delved into the Dylan canon. And have come to love his music more deeply, I think, than any music I ever loved in my youth. It's an interesting experience, because my relationship to his music (as someone about 2 decades past 17) is one I haven't felt for many years-- something like the kind of intense intimate involvement I felt for my favorite music between the ages of (say) 14-21. I didn't think I would ever feel like that about any musician again. And I feel like Dylan's music is likely to be a companion to me for the rest of my life. Whereas much of the music I loved in my youth no longer speaks to me, no longer deeply moves or touches me. Let me amend that: it does move and touch me, but much of that is due to nostalgia, the Proustian rush, the poignancy of reembodying (remembering through the bodily experience of listening to that music) what it felt like to be the girl I once was (and in some sense will always be). It's difficult to put into words what the relationship to certain music-- music that serves as something like the soundtrack of one's inner life-- is like. It's as much a meditation with/ into oneself as listening to the voice of an external other. Some verses of Wallace Stevens's on poetry come to mind. In a way I've only just begun with Dylan. Started with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde: these 3 albums were pretty much all I listened to, compulsively, for almost a year. They made me a Dylanophile for life. Then I got into late 60 to mid 70s Dylan: these are the albums I probably listen to most often these days, especially John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks, Basement Tapes, Desire. But love the others too: Self Portrait, New Morning, Pat Garrett, Planet Waves, some of the concurrent live albums. And that's as far as I've gotten. Late 70s and 80s and beyond, all that awaits me. Looking forward to listening to it all. (That's such a great feeling. It's like falling in love with a prolific novelist, poet, film maker, whatever, and having a great deal of his/ her oeuvre still before one, yet untapped.)As a longtime Althouse reader, I have to say, her love for Dylan probably played a part in my my decision to seriously check him out. That, and my love for Luigi Ghirri-- one of my favorite photographers-- who deeply loves Dylan too. So, thank you Althouse. Even aside from your blog (one of my favorite blogs), I owe you so much-- just for playing a part in my discovery of Dylan, at a time in my life when that's just what I needed and just what I wanted.
— Rizki22-05-2012 03:43
ive always fely his best live version was on before the flood, with the band. he played a lot of great songs that unfortunitly the lyrics tempo and spewing out his words changed the songs from masters to just good dylan tunes
— mickyeggs09-03-2012 07:46
Wonderful article, Kees, about one of Dylan's most under-rated songs. Can one imagine a more daring and ambitious subject for a work of art than to put oneself in the person of Christ at the Last Day, and it is the true mark of genius that Bob pulls it off? I agee that the bootleg version and the versions mentioned by Craig are all wonderful, but personally, I like the "Empire" perhaps the most. Regarding the line “It don't matter who loves who, either you'll love me or I'll love you”, I interpret it as a warning to the illicit love that seems to dominate our time, rather than a comment on divinely-approved matrimonial, sibling, filial or other pure temporal love.
— Mick Leahy04-03-2012 15:03
Great song. May I suggest the finest versions of this song are from Dylan's 1986 tours with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. My favorite was from a performance in Sydney, Australia, recorded for a DVD called Hard to Handle....perhaps you're familiar?
— Craig Leavitt03-03-2012 22:57