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Breaking Down Bob Dylan’s Tempest

 

By Bob Wilson

Live for Live Music was interested in finding out what was really going on in Tempest, the new album from Bob Dylan.  With so many references in the lyrics, both clear and unclear, we thought it would be interesting to delve deep into the mind of Dylan.  Contributing writer Bob Wilson – a true Dylan aficionado and student of religious and spiritual studies – gives us a brilliant take of just what this legendary writer is telling us in this particular set of songs. 

The ‘Duquesne Whistle’ pulls into the station, attached to the same cars from the train songs of Robert Allen Zimmerman’s youth listening to Hank Williams, and the holy “Slow Train”, as well.  We find the tracks leading us into an age where the apocalypse is at the corner, seduction is a constant temptation, and Dylan’s band is as tight as a drum skin.

Tempest is the 35th addition to the Dylan catalog, and is released on the fiftieth anniversary of his first self-titled offering from 1962.  Rather than a heavyweight fighter looking to pull a last gasp from his “bag of tricks”, Dylan is at the top of his game, with each of the past tours apparent in his well-worn voice. Dylan has gone into the studio with his touring band, and emerged a champion victorious in defense of his title.

The time is ‘Soon After Midnight’, Dylan tells us he gets up in the evening, in time for the clock hands to reach their pinnacle.  Dylan was “born in theUSA”, as well, and he gives a nod to his acolyte fromNew Jersey.  He croons that it is “now or never, more than ever”, and time is running short.  Dylan did for the mind what Elvis did for the body, and he also is sending a warning to those with ears to hear that time is running short.  We find him ‘Dancing in The Dark’, and he remains cheerful and never fearful, wanting nobody but you.  ‘Narrow Way’ has the multitude drinking from an empty cup, and eating a crust of bread as hard times have come.  The singer tells us that “even death has washed its hands of you”, and that “you won’t get out of here unscarred”.  Matthew 7:14 is the source of much of the sermon, and its theme resonates through much of the album, with many walking on a road where they do not belong.

‘Pay in Blood’ has the singer dressed “in the light that shines from The Son”.  He is paying in blood the debt that accompanies life, but the redemptive blood is not his own.  “I’ve sworn to uphold the laws of God. You can put me out in front of a firing squad”; the current age has a narrow road, and harsh consequences to remain true to the rules of that thin road.  The song passes through the eye of the needle, and the thread comes out intact with nothing to be trimmed away.  It would be interesting to put the lyrics from ‘Pay in Blood’ to the video from ‘Duquesne Whistle’.  The Charlie Chaplain-esque character from the video meets quite violent measures, which seemed to startle many viewers of the video.  It is interesting to wonder if the fate the character meets in the video was born in the artist’s mind along with the firing squad mentioned above.  It seems to be a concern many are afraid to openly discuss in these modern times.

‘Early Roman Kings’ brings to mind modern New World Order types, in their predatory “shark-skin suits”, buttons, and high top boots.  These are the men that drive the spikes in, blazin’ the rails in top hats and tails.  These seem the types to be behind the firing squads from ‘Pay in Blood’; they are peddlers and meddlers, who “buy and sell”, are hell-bent for leather, and are “sluggers and muggers”.  Revelation 13:17 tells us that without a mark, no one will be able to buy or sell.  They would seem likely candidates to be its sponsor. These men are nailed in their coffins, and are driving the women crazy.  Like a revivedRoman Empire, the kings (or rulers) will destroy your city with you in it, with no qualms or conscience.  ‘Early Roman Kings’ could be described as the “single” from the album, if they still exist in anything more than concept today.  No other single release in recent memory rocks in the blues, and describes the events depicted in the Book of Revelation while making you hum along.

‘Roll On John’ opens with reference to a doctor, and an empty pill bottle.  We can’t help but think of the Beatles song, ‘Dr. Robert’, who was said to be John Lennon carrying the Beatle stash during their touring years.  Dylan brings us on a tour of Liverpool’s rock quarries, and the Quarrymen (Lennon’s pre-Beatles band).  There is no joy in the city, and all of the lights have gone dark.  In 1962 on a radio program, Dylan sang a traditional folk song of the same title, and he spoke with host Cynthia Gooding.  It is not likely he was not in some way making reference to the earlier song, although both lyrics and tune are new here.  Dylan takes us from the Beatles days inHamburg, to the street where the former Beatle lay slain.  “Lord you know how hard it can be”, he laments in this ballad for John.  And Dylan prays for the Lord his soul to keep, as Lennon is remembered as a person who burned so bright.  He asks the Lord to let “him sleep” in reference to Lennon’s acerbic ‘How Do You Sleep?’ that found him slinging barbs into his partner in song Paul McCartney.

During his day in the life, Lennon played for the people sitting in the “cheap seats”.  It is easy to identify with the pain in Dylan’s voice as he remembers his lost friend.  The two traded their own musical jousts with Lennon’s ‘Serve Yourself’ (an attack on Dylan’s ‘Serve Somebody’), and in Dylan’s reply (‘Deadman, Deadman’).  Any venom or bad feelings clearly have been washed away by the years, and the horrible end to John Lennon’s life, as he was shot and killed in December of 1980.

The track ‘Tempest’ harkens back to the Carter family song “The Titanic”, and also alludes to the mega-movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  The inspiration for this song, however, is a far more serious than one tragedy at sea, and refers instead to the “ship of state” sinking in much the same manner here at home.  Dylan’s work has said to mirror American history, and this song only extends that to speaking of its final chapter. We find ballroom dancers alight and carefree, as the ship is about to go under taking many with it. Dylan has illustrated Scripture here, where Jesus stated that the final days would be as the days of Noah, and find people marrying and giving in marriage, as the end of the age would come upon them, as they were unaware of the forewarned doom.  “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;” (Matthew 24:28).  We again have a “ship”, endless water, and impending doom.

The “watchmen” would guard Israel, guarding against unexpected invasion in the Old Testament.  Here in the song, the “watchman” dreams of the sinking of the ship, and he seeks to warn those on board the Titanic.  Dylan has him “trying” to tell someone, but the warning goes unheeded. Further, Dylan leaves no wiggle room from where he is garnering his vision, as he tells us that the watchman:

“In the dark illumination

He remembered bygone years

(He) read the Book of Revelation

And he filled his cup with tears”

The watchman has reacted in grief over the ignited warnings from the prophet.  Dylan seems to be alluding to Jesus weeping as a Watchman as he entered the city ofJerusalem: “As he approachedJerusalemand saw the city, he wept over it.”  Luke 19:41. The theme of “marrying and giving in marriage” with only the temporal in mind, is further flushed out when we look at the exploits of no less than Cupid on board.  Cupid is the Greek god of desire and erotic love, and he is up to his own pleasure to the very end:

“Cupid struck his bosom

And broke it with a snap

The closest woman to him

He fell into her lap”

Tempest is quite the heavy-hitting album, and shows Dylan to still be at the top of his game lyrically.  With its apocalyptic references (from both the Old and New Testament) and the constant struggles with life and death, this album shows us a darker side to Dylan that doesn’t often show its face as blatantly as it does here.  The imagery that is created with his words is a testament to how incredibly important of a writer Bob Dylan is to American culture and history.  For fifty years, Dylan has been a constant voice that has stood the test of time, and with this album he shows no signs of letting up.  Even bringing in famed Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on ‘Duquesne Whistle’ gives us a teaming up of two legendary wordsmith’s that simply continue to amaze and stay relevant in a world that is struggling to stay right side up.  This is not an album that you just hear in the background while getting things done around the house; Tempest deserves a serious listen, so give Dylan his proper due.