Bob Dylan's 'Pay in Blood' - an analysis - Part 3
In this article we take a closer look at verse 3 and 4 of this fascinating song. Verse 3 reads:
“Low cards are what I’ve got
But I’ll play this hand whether I like it or not
I’m sworn to uphold the laws of God
You can put me out in front of a firing squad
I’ve been out and around with the rowdy men
Just like you my handsome friend
My head’s so hard, must be made of stone
I pay in blood, but not my own”.
In most games of cards when you find out that you have received low cards, you say to yourself: “Low cards are what I’ve got”, and you simply say : ‘I pass’, but in this case the player is determined to play on and says “I’ll play this hand whether I like it or not”. The question of whether ‘he’ likes it or not to play on seems just as irrelevant as the question of whether ‘you’ like it or not. Whether he likes it or not is not even a question. Nevertheless he at least suggests that he is not going to like it to play on and implicitly suggests that the vast majority of his fans and followers are not going to like it either. ‘You can’t win with a losing hand’ Dylan wrote in ‘Things have changed’. What is Dylan hinting at here? Part of the answer is in what Dylan wrote in the song ‘Series of Dreams’: ‘And the cards are no good that you’re holding, unless they’re from another world’. When, in this world, you say: “I’m sworn to uphold the laws of God” you have a very low card indeed, at least so it seems. Although it is a very high card in this other world, a world you can’t see with your eyes, here on earth it is a very unpopular card indeed and although it’s a card he does not like to play, -in fact nobody would like to play this card at all- he has to play it, he has sworn to play it. Why? Well, I think that the 60 minutes CBS television interview Bob Dylan gave in 2004 might give us an important clue. In this interview Dylan is asked why after so many years he still out there on stage, performing all of his songs on tour. After emphasizing that he doesn’t take any of it for granted, Dylan gives the following reply: ‘’It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end’’. On the question what his bargain was, Dylan answers: ‘‘to get where I am now”. And asked whom he made that bargain with he answers: “With the Chief Commander, in this earth and in a world we can’t see”. No matter how elusive this answer may sound, one may easily read between the lines that his part of the bargain, as Dylan sees it, might have been that Dylan would “uphold the laws of God”, he has even ‘sworn’ to uphold the laws of God. Upholding the laws of God may mean that Dylan feels that as an artist he has to act as ‘watchtower’, to warn people, in some sort of a way just like the old biblical Prophets once did, that this world is doomed. It may be the reason why the song ‘All along the watchtower’ which dwells on this subject, has run like a continuous thread through almost all of his gigs for so many years. He seems convinced that he has a mission to fulfill in life and he has found a way to express his determination that he will adhere to the principles of this mission, that’s why he says: “You can put me out in front of a firing squad”. If this is necessary he is ready to give his life for his conviction and to become a martyr. Even being put out in front of a firing squad will not make him change his mind; he will uphold the laws of God, no matter what happens to him.
The words “I’ve been out and around with the rowdy men” are heard differently. Since there is no official transcription, some hear ‘rising’ men instead of ‘rowdy’ men. ‘Rowdy’ may mean ‘disturbing the public peace’ and that is exactly what Dylan has been doing all his life, e.g. what he did when he wrote all these protest songs in the sixties, therefore ‘rowdy’ seems to fit better than ‘rising’’. He has been ‘out and around’ e.g. with the ‘rowdy’ sixties ‘counterculture’ and adds “just like you my handsome friend”. “Handsome” means pleasing in appearance especially by reason of conformity to ideals of form and proportion, also agreeable to the correct (political) taste. Therefore, when he says “my handsome friend” there is an undercurrent of irony and bitter sarcasm in his words. His so-called “handsome friends” followed and supported him as long as long as the “voice of the sixties counter culture” – as they saw him – was mainstream, popular and suited their political agenda. Later on however, for example in the late seventies, when Dylan converted to a very unpopular type of Christianity, most of these former friends, who could not get their neck around this, were gone. Dylan has always had a stubbornness, always going in the opposite direction of what the experts say, that is why he goes on to say that “My head’s so hard, must be made of stone” shows his determination and stubbornness not to back down on -what he regards - as critical issues. His handsome friends follow the main stream and retreat when it no longer suits their agenda but he is ready to persist and to walk the line till the very end. Why? Because he says: “I pay in blood, but not my own”. The price paid for him is just too high to give in.
‘Another politician pumping out the piss
Another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss
You've got the same eyes that your mother does
If only you could prove who your father was
Someone must've slipped a drug in your wine
You gulped it down and you crossed the line
Man can’t live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own’.
When Dylan says "Another politician pumping out the piss” some analysts on the internet see this as a disillusioned septuagenarian’s attack on the politicians, the state of modern politics, and vested interests who rule this earth for their own ends and without any moral or human compass, others see it as some reference to the attitude of ‘many of the more prominent Christians in America who supposedly pay for their own sins in another's blood (Christ's) and yet have very little compassion or forgiveness to offer anyone else’. True as these connotations may be, it goes deeper than that. When we consider this verse as a whole, it looks as it refers to what happened to Jesus when He was in the final stages of his life here on earth.
“Another politician pumping out the piss” may also very well refer to the governor and politician Pontius Pilate, who in spite of the fact that he was deeply convinced that Jesus was innocent, nevertheless handed over Jesus to the Sanhedrin to be crucified, apparently for political reasons only. Pilate violated justice just to save his own political neck, as we may read in John 19:12: “Then Pilate tried to release him, but the Jewish leaders shouted, “If you release this man, you are no ‘friend of Caesar’. Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar.” This notion just tipped the balance in Jesus’s lawsuit when seen from a secular point of view. ”Pumping out the piss” was particularly illustrated when Pilate copiously and ostentatiously washed his hands publicly, to fake innocence for the shedding of the blood of Jesus. (Matt. 27:24).
“Another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss” may be a poetical reflection on what happened to Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and entered the town of Jericho, less than a week before he was condemned and crucified by Pilate. We read of this in Mark 10:46. There was this blind beggar Bartimaeus who shouted to Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus healed his blindness. It shows that no matter how brutally Jesus was rejected by the authorities, he kept on standing up for the blind and the poor and the downtrodden.
Some have argued on the internet that “You've got the same eyes that your mother does; If only you could prove who your father was “may represent Dylan’s retort to some 48 year old man from Rhode Island, who claims to be Dylan’s bastard son. There is hardly any credence in this story however, and even if it were true, it would be very unlikely that a private person like Dylan would refer to such an intimate matter in a song. Within the context it is therefore much more likely that this episode refers to Jesus. It all has to do with the claim from Jesus that He is the Son of God and that God is his Father and for that reason He was conceived by the Holy Spirit through the Virgin Mary. The Pharisees reject this claim as the dialogue of John 8:13-19 shows: “The Pharisees replied, “You are making those claims about yourself! Such testimony is not valid.” Jesus told them, “These claims are valid even though I make them about myself. For I know where I came from and where I am going, but you don’t know this about me. You judge me by human standards, but I do not judge anyone. And if I did, my judgment would be correct in every respect because I am not alone. The Father who sent me is with me. Your own law says that if two people agree about something, their witness is accepted as fact. I am one witness, and my Father who sent me is the other. “Where is your father?” they asked. Jesus answered, “Since you don’t know who I am, you don’t know who my Father is. If you knew me, you would also know my Father.” But not only the Pharisees but also some of the closest followers of Jesus, the Apostles initially had a hard believing Jesus’s claim and at that time equally felt the need for ‘proof’. We read of this in John 14:8 when the Apostle Philip said to Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Dylan goes on to say metaphorically: ‘Someone slipped a drug in your wine, and when you gulped it down and crossed the line’. This scene is not based on the gospel and therefore cannot be attributed to what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. It is true, Jesus drank a taste of wine on the cross but only after his mission on the cross had been fulfilled (John 18:28-30) and he drank it voluntarily, knowing what he was doing, and apart from this, this drinking of sour wine in which there was no drug at all - certainly did not cause his death. As said earlier ‘Someone slipped a drug in your wine, and when you gulped it down and crossed the line’ is rather about human bondage and slavery and is another way, a poetic way, of expressing what went wrong with man in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden. Wine symbolizes the ultimate communion between God and man. One day this communion will be restored (Mat 26:29). In the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, man deliberately broke this communion and willingly gulped down the treacherous words of Satan and by doing so crossed a fatal line. From that day on mankind became enslaved to Satan.
‘Man can’t live by bread alone’ is a direct quote from Jesus (reciting Moses who said the same in Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus was led into the desert and had fasted for forty day and nights and in the end became very hungry. The devil tempted Jesus to use His super natural powers and to turn the stones of the desert into loaves of bread. Jesus refused categorically as we may read in Matt. 4:4: “But He (Jesus) answered and said, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. The meaning is that in order to obtain his daily bread man entirely depends on the charity and grace of God and not on his own capabilities. Food is a gift from God. He needs to look up to his creator to get it. Salvation too is a gift from God. To obtain salvation payment has to be made in blood. Man cannot pay however, therefore is has to be someone else’s blood; that is why again the refrain follows: ‘I pay in blood, but not my own’.
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