Passion and Betrayal – Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs reassessed

(This article is an expanded version of a review that I wrote when this album first came out. I was really unhappy about the way that the magazine, who commissioned me to do it, published it. They changed the title. They printed it in a way that removed paragraph breaks and they made editing changes to it without consultation. Needless to say, I stopped freelancing for them shortly afterwards. I revisited the article, originally just with the intention of restoring it to the way it was meant to be but then as I read it and listened to the music, I figured perhaps there was more to say. It concentrates on the spiritual and faith-based references in Mr Dylan’s lyrics but touches on other matters too.)

“Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book.  All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from `Let Me Rest on that Peaceful Mountain’ to `Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing `I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.”

This was Bob Dylan speaking in 1997 – a period which provides 11 songs on his 3-disc set “Tell Tale Signs” (10 out-takes from his “Time Out of Mind” set and 1 live recording).

Continue reading

The Goths are at the door……….

No, not the guys who dress in black. Guys who dress in black can actually be quite approachable.

I’m thinking about Titus Andronicus at the moment. I’m sure it has something to say about Empire and its nature but I’m still trying to work all this out.

Titus Andronicus, for those who don’t know, is a neglected play by that little known writer William Shakespeare. I’m only joking about Shakespeare being little known. Titus Andronicus is a neglected play. Principally, I think, because, it is probably Shakespeare’s most violent play. It includes someone having her tongue cut out, being raped, having her hand cut off. You get the idea. You can do that in the cinema and say nothing but if it’s Shakespearean drama and it has something to say you’d better look forward to it seldom being performed.

But what does it have to say? Now there’s the question. The Romans and the Goths are at war. The General Titus Andronicus returns victorious but with 21 of his 25 sons sacrificed in the battles. He decides to humiliate the Goth prisoners who return to Rome in his train. The Goths in their midst become more cultured during their stay in Rome. The Romans display the barbarism they had until now associated with the Goths. By the end of the play, Titus Andronicus’ son has ascended to the throne and he is enabled to achieve this goal by the Goths that his father had sought to humiliate.

Empire is a very current idea. The Americans and assorted allies invade Iraq to remove a corrupt leader but also to export democracy. The kind of rights that are traditionally associated with democracy are meanwhile denied those who are prisoners-of-war at Guantanamo Bay. 

Heather James in her important essay, “Cultural disintegration in Titus Andronicus” has this to say:

“the founding acts of Empire turn out to contain the seeds of its destruction”

Something like this is afoot in the world at the moment. The Chinese seem to be exporting their Empire to Africa by stealth and by financial interest. Examine what’s happening in Congo and Ethiopia. Sell us your resources and we will build you roads and train lines. Ships of Chinese weapons are stopped at South Africa en route to Robert Mugabe. Meanwhile, China stifles Tibet back home. Beware of Empire-makers bearing gifts. Africa needs to wake up before it gives away the little it has left……..

GK Chesterton said , in “The Flying Inn”, that the great destiny of Empire was in 4 acts. “Victory Over Barbarians. Employment of Barbarians. Alliance with Barbarians. Conquest by Barbarians.”

There is a theme here somewhere. Something about the fact that on order to create your Empire you must defeat your enemy, and in order to defeat your enemy, you must stoop to the level of those you came to enrich, to exploit and make wiser. In order to build your Empire you must become worse than those you came to improve. This is certainly true of the Romans in Titus Andronicus and perhaps of all attempts at Empire.

There are, of course, those who rise above and survive. Speaking of the people of God, Bob Dylan reminded us “every empire that enslaved him is gone – Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon” (Neighbourhood Bully, 1983).

Even the Eagles remind us on their new record that the “road to Empire is a bloody stupid waste” (Long Road out of Eden, 2007). Despite all these great voices ranged around to remind us, the wise ones still try to build empires to export their ways. It cost Titus Andronicus his sanity and the Romans the world they had re-created. It might cost us more, if we don’t learn the lessons of this play and our history.