Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #23: Talkin' World War III Blues


It's funny, living in an era of constant fear of terrorist attacks,with the goofy color alert system and Al Qaeda still being hunted across the globe, to think about the very concept of a World War III, an all-encompassing war that could destroy the entire human population. If you think about it, that concept is an old one - after all, we're a full 3 generations away from World War II, and 2 generations away from the Cuban Missile Crisis (which almost certainly helped inspire this song). Even the original concept of World War III - the nuclear annihilation scenario that played out in Dr. Strangelove - originates from the mid-50s and early-60s and was still on many peoples' minds in the 1980s. Today, the fear is still there, but it isn't the same overwhelming fear that weighed on minds the world over as the USSR and USA stared each other down year after year.

On the other hand, the concept of war itself has been around for so long - about as long as civilizations have existed - that the more recent fears of nuclear war seem like a drop in the ocean by comparison. Take a nation as young (relatively speaking) as the United States; in over 330 years of existence, the US has fought in at least 6 major wars, countless other skirmishes and "police actions", and any number of top-secret conflicts 99.99999% of us have no idea about. Nations like France and England have been at peace far shorter than they've been at war - the amazing thing about The Hundred Years War is that the name shortchanges just how long that conflict actually was. To quote Donald Sutherland in JFK, "the organizing principle of any society is for war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers". That seems outlandishly pessimistic, but a great deal of truth exists in those words.

We're living in wartime right now, of course - nominally, at least; the conflict in the Middle East hasn't reached our shores yet, even though the 2nd Iraq war was started over September 11th. It behooves the American readers of our blog to think about just how lucky we've been, and will continue to be, in this regard. A grand total of 5 human beings died on American* soil during World War II, as a result of an exploding balloon floated onto the Pacific Coast by Japanese saboteurs. The number of people killed on 9/11 is infinitesimally small compared to the casualties of war over in Iraq, both military and civilian, let alone the civilian casualties of a major conflict like World War II. The bloodiest war America has ever fought still remains, by a massive margin, the Civil War, an entirely self-contained conflict in this country. There's a reason 9/11 stands out - it's one of a very small number of terrorist attacks on our soil. Compare that to any country in the Middle East, or a third-world African nation, or the Pacific drug-trade countries. Our nation is one of the most secure on the planet, we're naturally buttressed by 2 massive oceans and bordered by friendly nations, and our military might is unquestionably one of the strongest there is.

*edited to add: mainland American soil - idjit I am, I did not count Pearl Harbor as US casualties. My sincere apologies.

This probably explains, then, our country's overwhelming fear of war, our national obsession with our security, and our massive complex when it comes to national defense. After all, we are not a country rife with civil war, or teeming with enemy soldiers fighting skirmishes literally from town to town, or controlled by warlords carving up property like a Thanksgiving turkey. And yet our nation has generated gigantic quantities of books, articles, albums, movies, artwork, and anything else you can think of dedicated to war, death, and our fear that another 9/11 or The Bomb or any number of boogeymen might finally come and wipe us off the face of the earth. It's a really remarkable insecurity, when you think about it, and one that my poor little blog simply has no chance of properly distilling into words. Still, it's something to think about - a song like "Talkin' World War III Blues" sounds funny today, and the lyrics are clearly meant to be absurdist, but there's nothing really funny about them when you get down to its very core. It's a song about insecurity, about isolation, and about the fear of death coming at us right around the corner, and it's a damn good thing it's funny, because otherwise it would be scary as hell.


The interesting thing about "Talkin' World War III Blues" isn't that it is such an absurd song, as much as it's the kind of absurd you don't really expect from Bob Dylan. Sure, there are crazy situations in the song, and the narrator finds himself being chased by shotgun blasts and peeking out from manhole covers and engaging in behavior you just don't see every day, so it's definitely an absurd song in that sense. But what sets it apart is that the absurdness is sung about, and written about, in a way that we all can understand.

What I mean is that the language of "Talkin' World War III Blues" doesn't take the same dreamy, off-kilter tacks that, say, a "Desolation Row" does, where every line is like something Salvador Dali thought about while eating breakfast. Dylan couches his tale in an almost conversational manner, describing things in a way you'd describe them to your friends (well, if you talked to your friends in rhyming couplets). And that, in turn, invites us into the song, allows us to laugh at the punchlines, and to neatly follow his narrator from one nutty turn to the next. We're not left scratching our heads at lines about jewels and binoculars hanging from the head of a mule, or riding a chrome horse with a diplomat who carried a Siamese cat on his shoulder, or even the sky cracking its poems in naked wonder. "Talkin' World War III Blues" is a song we can understand, laugh at, and sympathize with, but it doesn't leave us in awe.

That's not a bad thing, for sure; it's a different thing. Nobody has doubts that drugs had a lot to do with that change in writing style, but that's not to say that Dylan didn't already know how to look at things slightly askew from the rest of us. After all, not all of us walk around with thoughts of a 3rd World War ringing in our heads. That, to me, is what makes Tarantula so crazy - he had so many wild lines and phrases bouncing around his cranium that he couldn't even contain them in his songs, but had to commission an entire book to squeeze some of his brain droppings into. And we'll never even know what was left on the cutting room floor, the stuff too insane to even make it into a book of absurdist poetry. Dylan had that in his head, practically every day from 1964 to 1966, and he spewed it out as many ways as he could. And even after his wild period, there are songs like "Jokerman" and "High Water (For Charley Patton)" that don't embody quite the same kind of absurdity, but still arrange words and phrases in ways that mere mortals have trouble latching on to.

What makes "Talkin' World War III Blues" so cool, then, is that he managed to spew out the images in his head in a way that you or I could understand. I'm never going to be able to properly fathom a lot of the lyrics of Blonde on Blonde (said the man writing a blog about Dylan's work...hoo boy), or properly put into words why a song like "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" works much better when you think of Bob's lyrics as another instrument instead of a means to an end like most lyrics are. I can, however, smile at the hilarity of "Talkin' World War III Blues", even while thinking about what the song's really about. It's nice to have that.


So, as I said in the first part, this is an awfully lonely and frightening song. I mean, it's a funny song - audiences always chuckled when Bob pulled this one out, making it a fan favorite during his all-acoustic period. But there are definite elements in the song that tell us it's not really meant to be funny, but was written that way to save us a lot of grief at figuring out why Bob would write a song bleaker than anything Elliott Smith ever wrote.

Even taking into account that this is meant to be a dream being described, the main thrust of the song is about loneliness and isolation. The narrator, at every turn, finds himself either all alone or rejected by another human being. At the start of the dream, he finds himself all alone in New York, the last man in town. He asks for food and has a gun fired at him. He engages a hot dog vendor in pleasant chat and the man runs away, thinking him a Communist (a very real fear at the time, as the Red Scare was still in full effect - Communist or terrorist, people always need a straw man). Even when he finds a woman, she rejects his pleas for love. In the end, the only human contact he has is with the old telephone operator that tells the time. I mean, that sounds pretty damn desolate to me.

The real punchline of the song, then, is the fact that the doctor has had the exact same dream; that just goes to show how deep and real those fears were back then, and still are today. Dylan saw it then, as clear as day, and as befitting a man constantly ahead of his time as Bob was back then, he put it into words for all of us to hear. He saw our nation gripped with fear, scared of living on scorched earth, terrified of having time enough at last and nobody to share it with. And, rather than drive that point home with a sledgehammer, he chose to tickle us with a feather. That takes a real gift, turning the horrible into humor, and it's a gift not many of us have. On an album that addresses many issues with stark clarity, Dylan knew that occasionally an issue needs to be couched in a stand-up routine.

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Anonymous said...

a couple things to note...the "telephone operator" is obviously a recording, not a live person...she says it's 3 oclock "for over an hour", get it?...this also suggests that the narrator (dylan) is so lonely for human voice that he'll just listen to that recording for over one hour....furthermore, the cigarette lit on a "parking meter"...note, he doesn't light the match on the meter, he lights the cigarette, implying that it's so hot (in post-nuke temperature) that he's able to light the actual cig....similarly, the "explosion" was so bright that, although he's under a manwhole, he wonders who turned the lights on...hope you post your thoughts & responses...thanks...

Tony said...

Well, the telephone message had to have been recorded by a live person - this was the era before computer voices could do that. I agree with the other points; they hammer home the idea of nuclear war without explicitly mentioning The Bomb. Another example of Dylan's way of dancing around a serious issue.

Anonymous said...

hi, me again...i personally remember, as a kid, about 1969 or so, that the time operator was a recorded voice & furthermore, it used that exact phrase, "at the tone the time will be..." i believe it perhaps was a recording in dylan's vision....also, early in the song he says "it was all over at 3 oclock fast" & this would coincide with the recording still stating that it was 3 oclock when dylan calls, apparently, later on in that day....sorry to belabor what may sound so trivial, but i believe it indicates the care & detail dylan put into the song itself...lastly, the bit about the radio not working due to not paying con-ed...seems to me it serves to demonstrate the "denial" of the horror as experienced by the narrator, a "denial" which seems everpresent thru the song & which is somewhat scarier than the actual events as it shows the certain madness any survivor would have to endure.

Anonymous said...

can u plz tell me the impact of this song.i really need it for my project.....

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, another interesting song analysis. Why not join us inside Bob Dylan Music Box and linsten to Every Version of Every Song.'-World-War-III-Blues