Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reading the Bible with Bob Dylan Part two: The Joker and the Thief

In 1966, Dylan was at the height of his career. He had traded his acoustic guitar for an electric one and had surrounded himself with a rowdy band. He was no longer just a folk-singer but was one of the biggest rock stars in the world. Dylan had turned his back on the earnest political movement that wanted to make him their spokesman and had hidden himself behind a pair of dark shades and a haze of drug abuse. The music he was making was innovative and complex. Gone was the moral clarity of his early work and in its place was surrealism, sarcasm, and absurdity. Dylan’s rock star lifestyle came to an abrupt end in July of that year, however, when he crashed his motorcycle and seriously injured himself near his home in Woodstock, NY. The crash turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Dylan. He said in an interview, "I had been in a motorcycle accident and I'd been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race."[1]
Dylan withdrew from public life for about a year. It was a quiet time of introspection for him in which he reassessed his life. Dylan’s mother, Betty, said this about Dylan’s time in Woodstock, “In his house in Woodstock today, there's a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He's continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.”[2] His first album after his time away was the contemplative, John Wesley Harding, an album overflowing with biblical imagery. In fact, Dylan himself referred to it as “The first biblical rock album.” Some of the songs were explicitly rooted in biblical texts, such as “Wicked Messenger,” which was based on Proverbs 13:19, while others wrestled with spiritual matters in less overt ways.
The song “AllAlong the Watchtower” appears to be based on Isaiah 21:5-9:

They prepare the table, they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink. Arise, O princes; oil the shield!For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees. When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, riders on donkeys, riders on camels, let him listen diligently, very diligently.” Then he who saw cried out: “Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord, continually by day, and at my post I am stationed whole nights. And behold, here come riders, horsemen in pairs!” And he answered, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the carved images of her gods he has shattered to the ground.”

Dylan’s song does not begin with the Watchtower, however, but with a dialogue. In the first verse of the song, we find ourselves in the midst of a conversation between “the joker” and “the thief.” Dylan writes,
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”
The identity of these two figures has been a matter of great speculation. Fr. Robert Barron in his video on offers an interesting interpretation. “These two people are caught in this fallen desolate world. There is no escape. There is no way out” he says, “It’s this quality of evil that tends to grab us, that renders life desolate and hopeless—no escape, No Exit as Sartre calls it. That is the space they are in, this Joker and Thief.” Fr. Barron suggest that this is the dilemma of much of the contemporary world. We are haunted by the thought that life may in fact be meaningless. He suggests that Dylan uses the two men crucified on either side of Jesus (Luke 23:39-43) as a way of showing two ways of dealing with this dilemma. The thief who “gently spoke” is the good thief who repents in the Biblical narrative, while the Joker is the one who mocked Jesus. While Barron’s theory is very interesting, it seems more probable that the thief is actually Christ himself who is said to be coming again “as a thief in the night” (Matthew 24:43,1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 16:15).
 It seems likely that the Thief represents Jesus for several reasons. First, John Wesley Harding, the righteous outlaw from the album’s title track is himself a kind of Christ figure, and “a friend to the poor.” Dylan’s hero, Woody Guthrie, wrote a song set to the tune of “Jesse James” in which Jesus is depicted as an outlaw hero and champion of the poor.[3] The Thief in “Along the Watchtower” echoes this image of Jesus as an “outlaw”. If Jesus is the thief, then, the Joker is the contemporary man, the ironic nihilist, perhaps even Dylan himself, who is tempted to think that life is meaningless. In the face of persistent injustice, however, he longs for an answer: “There must be some way out of here!” The thief gently rebukes him. Have nothing to do with the lie that life is meaningless, he seems to suggest, we have both experienced how desolate that sort of life is, it is not our fate! He reminds him that “the hour is getting late;” a clear reference to the imminent day of judgment. In a similar way Jesus said, “Repent the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” (Matthew 10:12)
No sooner does the dialogue come to a close, then the story of Isaiah 21 unfolds. Two riders come with a message: Babylon is fallen! However, the events are only subtly implied by an enigmatic ending:
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
Babylon, in the scriptures, is paradigm of the wicked and disordered city, which is the enemy of the people of God. Babylon, like Egypt, is the place of captivity from which God’s people are delivered. Its end is sure (Revelation 18). Dylan’s song seems to ask, “Which side are you on?”
            In another song on the record, Dylan wrestles with a vision of one of Christianity’s greatest Saints and theologians
: Augustine. The song “I Dreamed ISaw Saint Augustine” begins with an homage to an old labor song about JoeHill—a martyr for the movement—which begins,

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I, ‘but Joe you’re ten years dead.’
‘I never died,’ says he.[4]

Dylan’s song begins similarly,
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold

The character of Augustine in Dylan’s song is depicted as deeply troubled, “in the utmost miser
y,” and determined to rescue the lost. The description of him, “Tearing through these quarters” gives us an idea of the urgency of the situation. Dylan gives us no clue as to what “quarters” he is referring. The Saint is clothed in “solid gold,” perhaps signifying his moral purity and richness of spirit. He is also carrying a blanket underneath his arm, which suggests his compassion to the poor and desolate. The ones for whom he is searching are the hopeless ones, “whom already have been sold.” Perhaps they are those who have sold their own soul in a Faustian pact with the devil. Dylan goes on to write,
“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”

He has a message for the “gifted kings and queens.” Are these the ones who have sold their souls? The title suggests luxury and privilege. These are the people who run the world. His complaint against them is that they have no martyrs among them. There is no one among them with the strength of conviction to lay down his life for the truth. Perhaps these kings and queens, like the Joker in “All Along the Watchtower,” have accepted the lie that there is no greater purpose to life and nothing worth dying for. The next line is perplexing. They are told to, “Go your way accordingly.” Go your way according to what? According to their lack of conviction? It seems more accurate to say that the Saint is pleading with them to live according to the truth that they are not alone and that there really is a God to whom they are accountable.
            In the final verse, we see that the Saint, who has complained that the kings and queens have no martyr, has himself become a martyr:
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried

The “fiery breath” in this verse could refer to the fierceness of Augustine’s words of judgment, but it also likely refers to the anointed nature of his words. Both fire and breath are elements associated with the Holy Spirit. Dylan seems to suggest that the words that Augustine speaks are the inspired words of God. The crowd does not react favorably. Augustine is killed by the mob. Historically, Augustine was not martyred. He certainly did not die at the hands of an angry mob. Perhaps
, as Paul Williams suggests, Dylan is simply ignorant of this fact: “I doubt that [Dylan] knew or cared that St Augustine was not a martyr; he needed a saint's name, and "Augustine" fit the tempo, as did "John Wesley Harding" when he needed the name of a historical outlaw”[5] However, the fact that Dylan is describing a dream and not history is surely relevant. “Putting him out to death” seems to be a metaphorical way of speaking about the rejection of what Augustine came to proclaim. It has clear parallels to the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. The world has rejected the Church, represented here by Augustine, just as it has rejected Jesus. Moreover, in the dream, Dylan himself is complicit in this rejection. He has aligned himself with the world of luxury, privilege, and complacency, with those without conviction, and with those who have rejected the truth.  The dream is a revelation to him that he has been deceived and led astray. He is angry at his deceivers, but he is also terrified because he is alone. He no longer feels he can identify with the “kings and queens,” and yet he has sided with them against God. He feels that there is a wall of separation between him and God, suggested by the glass. He finds himself on the other side, apart from God, and deeply remorseful of that fact.

[1] Rolling Stone, November 29, 1969. Reprinted in Cott (ed.), Dylan on Dylan: The Essential Interviews, p. 114.
[2] Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited : The Biography (New York, NY: HarperEntertainment, 2003), 285.
[5] Paul Williams, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1986-1990 & Beyond, Mind out of Time (London: Omnibus, 2005), 239.


  1. Or Jesus could be the Joker.

    Certainly gives a whole new meaning to 'Life is but a joke'.

  2. John Wesley Harding was my first Dylan album. This was around 1970. I knew on the first listening that Dylan was speaking about spiritual matters and the Bible was
    all over the lyrics. Later Slow Train Coming was no surprise. I even heard it coming right before.... loud on Street Legal. Excellent essay Matt. Keep 'um coming.

  3. Love, this Matt! So much insight into Dylan's purposes on "John Wesley Harding" ...and love that Dylan's album was coming from a period of rest and introspection and a repudiation of the "rock star life" that nearly brought him to an end. Great essay!