Old Infidel, Old Vagrant–Stand Us Now In Good Stead

images-4 While our hero is being damned and doubted for masqueradin’ with words, and arousing suspicion and then hilarity for hiding in plain sight in New Jersey, I wanted to take a break and look at a song about evil and unmasking.

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Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king.

No, not that song. Man of Peace. (But a brief moment of hello and envy to the good people of Tahoe who got to hear “desk clerks dressed in black” out of our hero’s own mouth last night.)

images-5Come over here baby, there’s a scene you’ll like to catch. Listen to Man of Peace. The artist-as-a-young-man whose revelatory and vast vision looked boldly out at desolation row and recreated history until he exhausted himself, Lady beside him, this young seer has become a matter-of-fact middle-aged man who seems to want only to share some grownup disillusionment with his companion, through an ordinary window at the ordinary world.

IMG_0738Is it news that the beggars and buskers, and holy men, and  the man who can slip and slide unnoticed through the crowd, might not be what they seem, might not want what they seem to want or be offering what you think they’re offering? Is it news that the devil can be a needy tramp playing on your pity, or a sweet-talking and sweeter-singing minstrel reeling you in with every song of love that ever has been sung? Not news. Look out of any window, any day, and see if you can tell the one true story of what you’re seeing.  The song begins and the not-so-young singer is only telling the girl what she’d come to know herself about the tricky and treacherous world outside safe, maybe even loving, rooms.

images-1But the singer starts getting closer, pulling in from the scene outside the window. Satan is right there when you need light, that glimpse of the sun, and he’s right there when your burden’s more than you can stand. His timing is excellent and he is a subtle beast, doesn’t have to call attention to himself. If he promises exactly what I want, and I can’t spot him for anything but what I think he is– someone I notice least, when certainly we would like Satan to be exactly what we notice most--what are my odds of beating him?

images-7The poor girl still at the window, captured by the song, and now things take an awful turn, don’t they.  Ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull. There’s something quite horribly wrong with this line of the song. This is too…particular a nightmare. It’s conventional and even a little pedantic to point out all the possibilities of deception and malice in our day-to-day world. It’s a little uncomfortable to be reminded that evil tempts us when we’re hungriest for consolation, and oppressing to be reminded that we’re often too weak to spot it. But now the singer knows something not at all conventional, or pedantic, and now there’s no more subtlety to Satan’s deceptions. We’re a little spooked by imagining a demon careening over the falls in our very own skull. This is out of a one-of-a-kind nightmare,  and now I am looking at it. Next line, the singer unmasks himself pretty much completely. He smells something cooking. This does not sound, well, healthy,  or appetizing, does it.  There’s going to be a feast, and we’re reminded of the feast whose preparations are observed from desolation row, a feast that somehow requires curtains to be nailed. Sometimes Satan comes as the man with the harmonious tongue, who, after all, tried to warn you.

Too late apparently–Satan has humanity’s best interests at heart, a great lover of mankind in fact, if we dig into the root of philanthropist, whose awkward syllables  roll effortlessly into the rhythm of the song. It’s a very old story: Satan seducing one single creature through the language of doing all of mankind a favor. A single creature forewarned and hapless, like the girl who’s gone with the man in the long black coat.

images-8And on we ride through prophecies of annihilation and the end of days–anything you thought would last forever, trees or love, they’re all coming down and coming to a stop. No doubting now that what the singer knows and sees is coming from some place far beyond that window. Until.

images-9The last verse is a different kind of window. We’re back in the very human world. A world more realistically doomed than the one in the next-to-last-verse. It’s just the regular world where innocence has to end and mothers have to weep. and there are dreams of redemption and sacrifice to be followed to whatever end they lead you, and then we’re back at the window, listening to a song about that same old lost world, sung by an old artificer.


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5 thoughts on “Old Infidel, Old Vagrant–Stand Us Now In Good Stead

  1. As always, your observations are very absorbing & suggestive. I sort of agree with you that there’s something “horribly wrong” with the Niagara Falls line, but I would not have put it that way. But now that you did put it that way, it makes me hear this line as the mask slipping off and the singer exposing his identity as Satan, the false man of Peace he’s singing about. Certainly a lot of what we’re told about him fits singers in general and Dylan in particular–all the things relating to his “sweet gift of gab,” and this song is from the same album that includes “Jokerman,” a song in which Dylan imagines himself as at once (or ambiguously both) Christ and Satan. I suspect something similar is going on here. And this way of hearing the song lends a rather urgent ambiguity to the final verse, which I am now hearing as both full of compassion for and cruel mockery of the (doomed) mother.

    One final comment: the Niagara Falls line (to me) is simply splendid, a line that makes you do not a double take but a quadruple take, the kind of line that that used to pepper Dylan songs but which these days he no longer seems to permit himself.

  2. The last verse has always been so distressing to me, and I’ve always heard it as an image of abandonment that’s inexorable–“cruel mockery” covers it much better. It’s ultimately a gruesome and not a poignant song. The record is not called Infidels for nothing, and the slithering in and out of masks is central to the album. I don’t get how anyone can hear Sweetheart Like You and not see a pastiche of Satan and Eve.
    Can’t permit himself the surreal? The malign?

  3. “pastiche of Satan and Eve?” please explain–Eve I get, but not Satan–the singer I’ve always heard as a peripheral figure, a character actor, the leading man’s (i.e., the “Boss,” i.e. “Satan) taken-for-granted (but secretly disgruntled) lackey.

    And no, I didn’t mean “the surreal” and certainly not “the malign” but I meant the apparently off-the-wall notsequitur that turns out (when you stop to think about it) to be actually “right on target, so direct.” People did use to call this aspect of Dylan “surreal,” but it’s not really–that’s not what surrealism is about. (The closest Dylan ever comes to surrealism is “Farewell Angelina.” “King King little elves” is surreal!) Let me explain it this way: Dylan used to go A-C and leave it to you to figure out the “B” that connected the two. Now he goes A-B-C, where A is connected to B and B to C but A & C are in 2 different worlds, and you’re left wondering how we got here. His old procedure was more thrilling, but his new mode is more unsettling. I don’t know if this makes any sense.

  4. Ah, it could be that my problem with Sweetheart Like You is theology and not Bob Dylan. I’ve always heard the singer as a modern parody of Satan: hubristic and still afraid of The Boss (whom I hear as being Heaven bound), self-loathing, flattering, knowing, corrupting. But I hadn’t considered that there are of course lackeys in Hell. I need to think about that when I hear the song. By the way, although in general I prefer the version on the record, it’s hard to beat the way he sings “cruel tutor” on the outtake.

    OK, I think I was flabby in my use of surreal. Better to call the image of a little Boschian demon grinning and laughing while he uses my “skull” as a “barrel” to ride down the falls *fantastic* instead of *surreal*. It’s the incongruity of surrealism that you nail, and rightly so. But only in Farewell Angelina? Not in geranium kisses? Smoking someone’s eyeballs?

    I believe I do understand your A-C incongruity idea. One of my crusades is to do justice to the kind of incongruity that seems central to Dylan’s songwriting in the last 15 or so years. Shifts of attention and feeling. Setting the dial on my radio, I wish my mother was still alive (Eric Lott gives an ingenious and moving reading of this line in his Cambridge Companion essay). The restless and fatiguing saccades of consciousness that come with age. A hair’s breadth from randomness. The surrenders in the constant battle between memory and present awareness, present feeling. For me, the unsettlement of this kind of incongruity is deeper, richer, longer-lasting, than the thrill of the “old procedure.” A matter of taste?

  5. Of course, it’s a matter of taste, but some tastes have more acuity (or different acuities) than others, which is why I like reading your takes on Dylan. They sharpen and enrich my own taste. And yes, Lott’s essay is one of the highlight’s of the Cambridge Companion. Michael Gray also fixed on that radio/mother connection in a talk he gave at the Minnesota conference (unfortunately not included in the book that just came out), calling it “a wonderful old geezer moment.” (He jokingly called Love & Theft “Highway 61 Revisited on a Bus Pass.”) I share your delight in the “shifts of attention and feeling” encoded in Dylan’s later style, but my experience is that it will indeed take something on the order of a crusade to get a lot of his longtime fans & admirers not to dismiss this looseness as the product of carelessness or indifference.

    And yes, I was being super finicky (you might even say pedantic) regarding “surreal.” I’ve always tried to maintain a narrow definition for it, using it only when the “surrealism” (in the loose sense) actually somewhat reminds me of the work of the actual Surrealists. “Geranium kisses” strikes me as more symbolist than surrealist, and “smoke your eyelids” sounds like something out of a frontier tall tale, or a schoolyard boast–though that’s because I take “smoke” here to mean “beat” or “clobber.” I’ve probably heard the sentence “He smoked him” a thousand times in my life, and it’s been when one guy beat another in sports or beat them up (of quickly dispatched them) in a fight. I think it was first used that way for foot races–where the metaphor of smoking is easier to fathom–but got generalized beyond that. And so that’s the lexical context in which I first heard (and still hear) Dylan’s line. But, of course, if Dylan’s smoking your eyelids like he smokes a cigarette (as he may well have intended), that is rather surreal.

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