Bob Dylan's "My Own Version of You" - an analysis- Part 3
In this article we continue our probe into this enigmatic masterpiece.
“I’m gonna make you play the piano like Leon Russell, like Liberace - like St. John the Apostle, play every number that I can play” are mysterious words and make our following analysis very speculative. When you consult the Wikipedia pages of Liberace (1919 -1987) and Leon Russell ( 1942 – 2016), it says of Liberace: "Liberace recreates—if that is the word—each composition in his own image. When it is too difficult, he simplifies it. When it is too simple, he complicates it." They referred to his as "sloppy technique" that included "slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing, an excess of prettification and sentimentality, a failure to stick to what the composer has written”. It looks as if with these words the poet makes a thought association between Liberace and the antagonist. Liberace makes “an own version” of the original musical material and the antagonist tries to do the same and creates his own version of man which turns out to be a caricature of how God intended man to be.
Wikipedia says of Leon Russel: “One of Russell's titles and signature nicknames is: Master of Space and Time”. Here the poet seems to make another thought association but now between Russel and St. John the Apostle. Of course, in case of St. John the Apostle the words “play the piano” should not be taken literally – there were no pianos at the time St. John the Apostle lived in the first century. St. John the Apostle playing the piano is some sort of a metaphor for the way in which the apostle composed the book “The Revelation to St. John”, also called “The Apocalypse” .St. John received these revelations from Jesus (Rev.1:1) and the Holy Spirit ordered John to write down these revelations in a book (Rev.1:10,11). St. John composed this book in such way that -just like for Leon Russel -one could say that in the composition of the Revelation St. John showed that he was a “Master of Space and Time”. The apocalyptic visions written down in Revelations do not show a linear chronological order but rather the apocalyptic visions written down are cyclical, skilfully growing in intensity and masterfully culminating in the presentation of the New Jerusalem, the City of Gold (Rev. 21,22) and at the same time restoring the tree of life from Gen. 3 :22 in its original position (Rev.22:2), going back and forth in time and space.
When it says “I’ll see you baby on Judgement Day, after midnight if you still want to meet” it looks as if all of a sudden the poet introduces Jesus speaking. On “Judgement Day” Jesus will come back on the clouds not only to “gather his jewels” (Dylan’s rewritten version of “Gonna change my way of thinking”) but also to judge the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1).
However, the setting of Judegement Day is that of the gospel of Matthew chapter 25. First,( Matt. 25:1-13) we have the parable of the Ten Virgins. The return of Jesus on “Judgement Day” is metaphorically represented there by a wedding party. However the bridegroom’s arrival was delayed (25:5) and the virgins fell asleep but then “at midnight” the bridegroom arrived. In my analysis of Dylan’s song “Soon after midnight”- elsewhere on this website we wrote: “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!'(NLT).
Now when it says here “If you still want to meet” this seems in contradiction with the parable where the five foolish virgins demanded access to the wedding party saying: “Lord, Lord, open the door for us”( 25:11 NIV) but they were refused. So in the parable it looked as if they were anxious to meet the bridegroom (Jesus). However, “If you still want to meet” seems to suggest that the virgins are indeed willing “to meet” the bridegroom as long as it is fun, as long as it is a wedding party. Meeting him as Judge on “Judgement Day” is another matter and the words “If you still want to meet” suggest that the virgins are no longer so enthusiastic for such an encounter.
“I’ll be at the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street” continues the idea that we are still on “Judgement Day” and although words like “Black Horse” and “Armageddon” are taken from the Revelations of St. John, we still are very much in the setting of Matthew 25. From Matt. 25:31 and onwards, on"Judgement Day", Jesus holds a court session during which he separates the gathered nations, “he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mat.25:32). The idea here of the poet might be that on “Judgement Day” the Judge Jesus holds session at the “Black Horse Tavern”. Now the name “Black Horse” refers to the third apocalyptical seal opened In Rev. 6:5 where it says: “When the Lamb (Jesus) broke the third seal, I heard the third living being say: “Come”, I looked up and saw a black horse and its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand”(NLT). This third seal is said to represent worldwide famine.
Now there are quite a lot of restaurants in the USA and elsewhere in the world named “The Blackhorse Tavern”. There is injustice and a kind of cynicism in this image when you consider the contrast between the extravagant menu cards of these Black Horse Taverns and famines which afflict millions of people on the earth in the end-times. This same contrast between extravagance on the one hand and famine on the other can be found in this third seal (Rev.6:5,6). This injustice is a case worthy of judging on “Judgement Day”.
This court session is “On Armageddon Street” and “Armageddon” is a reference to Rev. 16:16: “And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew Armageddon”(NKJV). Armageddon stands for the place where the final battle between the kings of the earth will take place on “that great day of God Almighty" (Rev. 16:14) which is the same day as “Judgement Day”.
“Two doors down not that far to walk” suggests that you can’t miss Jesus on Judgement Day, in fact not a soul will escape his attention, regardless “if you still want to meet” or not. Every knee shall bow (Phil 2:10). “I’ll hear your footsteps - you won’t have to knock” expresses that He knows exactly who you are. “He sees your deeds and knows your needs even before you ask” (Dylan’s ‘When He returns’- with reference to Mat. 6:8). As long as you are among the living you can “knock” on His door and Jesus will answer you (Luke 11:9) but on “Judgement Day” this will all be different. Then it is too late for redemption, knocking on His door will no longer help you: “you won’t have to knock”, you will be refused just like the five foolish virgins (Mat. 25:12,13).
The next refrain “I’ll bring someone to life” resumes the thread of the song. The antagonist says he wants to “balance the scales”. This may be an interesting thought association from the poet because in the previous verse, the rider on the “Black Horse” pictured in Revelation 6:5, has a “pair of scales” in his hand. Here the antagonist claims that by bringing someone to life he can be like God and on equal footing with God and therefore “balance the scales” with God.
Although Victor Frankenstein does not give a detailed description of how he created his monster and therefore quite rightly may say: “I’m not gonna get involved in any insignificant details” yet the words “I’m not gonna get involved in any insignificant details” can be read as the limit of human impudence and pride. In God’s creation there are no insignificant details. Take for e.g. the complexity of the creation of the human eye. Every detail has its function and if the smallest of details misses out, it cannot function properly.
The following words: “You can bring it to St. Peter - you can bring it to Jerome, you can move it on over - bring it all the way home, bring it to the corner where the children play, you can bring it to me on a silver tray” are at first glance mysterious and dark. This is because the “it” is not further identified. Obviously the apostle Peter is meant here, who was one of the most ardent disciples of Jesus Christ. The first thing that comes to your mind when we read “You can bring it to Jerome”, is a reference to song from Bo Diddley called “Bring It To Jerome”.
Most commentators feel that “you can bring it to me on a silver tray” is an allusion to the beheading of John the Baptist whose head was presented on a platter to the mother of Herodias.(Mark 6:25,28 Mat. 14:8,10). Although the Scriptures do not explicitly state that it was “a sliver tray” on which the head of John the Baptist was presented but just “a platter”, the allusion fits well. It is not difficult to make a thought association between this gruesome picture of John the Baptist’ head presented on a tray and the equally gruesome picture of the antagonist collecting “Limbs and livers and brains and hearts”. However, it still does not give us a definitive clue why “St. Peter” and “Jerome” and “the corner where the children play” are introduced here in the first place.
The answer might be in the conclusion that follows: “Do it with decency and common sense”. Remember that the antagonist for all intents and purposes wants to do things “for the benefit of all mankind”; he pretends to have high moral standards, no matter how repugnant his life making actions can and must be viewed upon. He claims to produce a very decent end product which is acceptable for all circles of life. It is acceptable not only for Saints like “St. Peter” and “St. Jerome” but the end product is so exquisite that you can even “move it on over - and bring it all the way home“ and present it to your young children, to “the corner where the children play”.
The claim from the antagonist “I’ll bring someone to life - spare no expense, do it with decency and common sense” is yet another false claim. The ability to “bring someone to life “ and in the process “spare no expense” and at the same time “do it with decency and common sense” are properties which can only be attributed to God. When He brought Adam to life He righteously concluded that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). To save mankind He spared no expense- not even his Son- and everything He does, He does in the right order and in the right time and therefore with “decency and common sense”, in the most emphatic way.
“To be or not to be” is a quote from Shakespeare (“Hamlet" Act 3, Scene 1).Within the song these words have a deeper- divine - layer. Therefore, when it says: “Can you tell me what it means to be or not to be” make only sense if they come from the mouth of God.From the mouth of the antagonist these words make no sense. “To be or not to be” expresses the existential duality between God and His creation. It was the Hindu philosopher Shankara (788-822) who denied existential duality between God and (His) creation and called this “a-dvaita”.
However, the Bible makes it clear that there is such an existential duality. As far as this existential question is concerned, it looks as if the poet had the Biblical Book of Job in his mind where God rhetorically asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand” (Job 38:4 NIV), see also Isaiah 40:12-31).Within this concept of thinking, God is the Only One who can truly say that He always “is”, the Only One who knows “what it means to be or not to be”; e.g. Revelation 1:8 “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (KJV).
But unlike for God, the days of a creature like Job are numbered. Job challenged God by raising the “be or not to be” question but God replied: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2 KJV). He who has no knowledge is a fool (Proverbs 13:16). This is basically the same as if God had said to Job: “You won’t get away with fooling me”. Now God goes on to say to Job: “Now brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall inform me” (Job 38:3 BSB). It is as if God rebukingly says to Job: “Answer this question:, “you won’t get away with fooling me, can you tell me what it means to be or not to be?”. Job however, retraces his steps and repents (Job 42:3) and admits that he was indeed a fool (Job 42:3) by raising this question in the first place.
“Can you help me walk that moonlight mile” is an obvious reference to a 1971 song from the Rolling Stones called “Moonlight Mile”. It is true, Job may be able to walk that moonlight mile but that is not enough and when God asks him “Where does the light come from, and where does darkness go? Can you take each to its home? Do you know how to get there?”. (Job 38:19,20 NLT) Job fails to give the answer. When forced to, a man may walk a mile but to have the power to walk two miles in such a situation, is divine grace, just like Jesus says in Matthew 5:41 (ESV) : “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles”.
“Can you give me the blessings of your smile” is a rhetorical question and may be read as a reproach to the antagonist. A blessing means God’s favour and protection. The blessing of God’s smile is a metaphor for His kind and undeserved benevolence which He bestows on people. The antagonist and no mortal human being for that matter, can bestow such a blessing upon others.
For the sixth time we hear the refrain “I want to bring someone to life” and this time the antagonist is determined to go the utmost and says “use all my powers” and he may think that when he does it secretly in “the dark and the wee small hours”- “wee” meaning “very early”- he may succeed. This contrasts with God, who does not do anything in the dark. His first act of creation was “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3 NLT) and He does not live in the darkness but in a "flickering Light" ("Where Teardrops Fall"). God does all of His following creative actions in the Light but we have to bear in mind that at the same time this Light in which God dwells, is unapprochable to man ((1Tim 6:16).
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