Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #112: The Wicked Messenger

I find it a little bit interesting that "The Wicked Messenger", a song that clearly has Biblical roots, ends the way that it does. As any number of commentators have pointed out (including Mike Marqusee, who named his book about Dylan in the 1960s after this song), Proverbs 13:17 reads "A wicked messenger falleth into mischief: but a faithful ambassador is health". And this song reads very much like a parable, like its brethren on this album - a "wicked messenger" sent from some dude named Eli (a very Biblical name) appears from nowhere, delivers a cryptic message (soles of feet burning - something to do with Hell? Hmm) and has his heart opened by a well-chosen piece of advice from somebody in the throng that confronts him. But the surprising thing is that the piece of advice is more folksy than, well, Jesus-y; "if ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any" seems closer in tone to the age-old chestnut "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" than one of Christ's famed parables. And unlike those parables, in which his message is more or less explicitly clear at the end, it's hard to tell if that piece of advice is actually meant to do anyone any good. Why, after all, should the only news brought to people be good news? It's something to puzzle over, at least.

With the final two songs on John Wesley Harding making a somewhat dramatic shift in tone and subject matter from the rest of the album, it seems like this is a good moment to stop and take stock of Dylan's preoccupations while writing this album. After all, as I mentioned in the first post for this album, this was a decidedly major change in his recording career, in which Dylan brought his career arc up to that point (such as it was - can you possibly imagine that the Electric Trilogy was recorded in a period of 14 months???) to an absolute screeching halt, setting up a period of experimentation in the studio and alternating between recording albums and trying to live life as a family man. What seemed mysterious at the time has become clearer with hindsight (not the lyrics, though - those still remain mysterious); Dylan had grown weary of the pressures of fame, his Basement Tapes jams gave him a new style with which to record music, and his preoccupation with the Bible helped reshape how he approached writing lyrics. Even the Bible reading, if you think about it, makes sense - you come that close to death, you'd probably start ruminating on that sort of thing as well. I mean, we can never know for sure, of course, but that seems as good a reason as any.

What I think deserves a bit of discussion, then, is that Dylan didn't make the Bible and Christianity his major focus of songwriting while recording this album, as he would twelve years later. As with many organized religions, what allows said religions to spread out into the world is the devotion of those that adhere to their faiths, the proselytizers who are excited to go out and spread the word of Jesus or Allah or Buddah to as many people that will listen as they can. And this devotion, I would assume, burns brightest in the newly converted, in those that have just had that faith bubble up in them and are as enthralled with their new religion as they will ever be in their lives. It would stand to reason, I would think, that a middle-aged man who has come to Christ will have far more fervor and enthusiasm than a person who has been born into a Baptist or Protestant family and has observed the word of God their entire life. This isn't a bad thing, and I'm not saying that religion has no part in a young person's life. I just mean that, in some ways, becoming a member of a religion as an adult is somewhat akin to having your first child - it's an experience unlike any you will ever have again, and a million different emotions hit you once it has happened, as your life is completely and utterly changed.

Now we know that that religious conversion changed Dylan's life completely in that way, as he more or less immediately recorded Slow Train Coming once he had embraced the Christian life. And I think we can then infer that, twelve years earlier, Dylan didn't have that kind of conversion in his life; he may have become more interested in the afterlife and in spirituality, but not to the extent of becoming the devout believer he would become later. But you cannot deny that his reading of the Good Book had a profound impact on his songwriting - while the ideas of writing in parables was more or less minnowed out after this album, the sparcity of language and the ability to say a lot with just a little (as opposed to his earlier songwriting policy of saying a lot with, well, a lot) would remain with Dylan for a good long time, arguably the rest of his career. And that illustrates what appears to be something of a paradox - a songwriter completely in tune with the way the Gospels were written, yet not entirely in tune with taking those Gospels to heart.

As I alluded to in the comment I wrote for "I Am A Lonesome Hobo", we have the idea of the Bible as a religious document so deeply ingrained in our public consciousness that it is difficult to think of it as also being a document of tremendous historical import, one along the level of Herodotus' Histories or the Domesday Book. And Dylan, in that sense, made as much out of the Bible as he did with the old folk songs and tall tales that helped shape his Basement Tapes songs, appropriating pieces of history and molding them into something that is now recognizably Bob Dylan music. He didn't exploit the Bible for his own means, pretend to be a Christian to draw in any new fans, or take liberties with something that means a lot to a lot of people. He simply found something in those writings that he could take and funnel his remarkable talent into, moving his own career into a new and exciting phase. That, to me, is something worth applauding.

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Rob said...

wicked messenger = anothe dig at the press / media ?

re. why not fully embrace christianity for another 12 years? Because at this moment he's still embarking on the family man chapter. And for BD it's all about chapters.

Dave said...

Some thoughts on ‘The Wicked Messenger”.

Eli is is apparently a variant on the name of God as spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic. This suggests the messenger is not wicked since he comes from God. The narrator’s view is therefore jaundiced.
The question who had sent for him is irrelevant; what matters (and what the narrator has recognized, but is now ignoring) is who he was sent by - God.
It would seem then that the messenger was not ‘multiplying’ (exaggerating) small matters, but characterizing important matters accurately – perhaps like how to behave morally.
In the light of this, his ‘flattery’ could perhaps have been a genuine attempt at diplomatic politeness, which is being willfully misrepresented.

Feet burning suggests the place he is delivering a message to has hellish qualities – full of evil. Since the messenger is from heaven, he notices it more than the intended recipients of his message.

Leaves begin to fall: Image, from Isaiah, of fallen angels going into hell.
Seas parting: Image of God’s goodness – saving Israelites.
That these things begin happening, ie now, suggests that both evil and God’s love are timeless.
This man from God should have been welcomed, not ‘confronted’. The exhortation not to bring any news that isn’t palatable is absurd. These people (ie. us) need to know the bitter truth. The comment that it opened up his heart would be both patronizing and untrue - wishful thinking on the part of the disingenuous narrator.

Messenger could be Christ, or a Christ-like figure attempting to win over the misguided.

Seeker said...

Dave, your depth of analyis of this nuanced song is worthy of the lyric. Thanks for posting. I also love Tim O'Brien's version on Red on Blonde.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, thank you for posting this interesting analysis. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.