Bob Dylan: Looking at the spiritual undercurrents of the 'Tempest' album

Sunday 4th November 2012

Author and Bob Dylan authority Dr A T Bradford analyses the lyrics of the 'Tempest' album by BOB DYLAN

Photo by Legacy Records
Photo by Legacy Records

In my book Dylan, Depression And Faith: The Messages Behind The Music Of Bob Dylan published in 2011 I endeavoured to present decades of lyrical and interview evidence to show that the most important singer/songwriter of his age had retained his Christian faith and was continuing to make vast use of Scripture in his songs. In the Rolling Stone magazine interview, Bob spoke about his new album 'Tempest'. He said, "I wanted to make something more religious. I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread than it does with a record like I ended up with." When asked, "Is (touring) a fulfilling way of life?", Dylan replied, "No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn't been redeemed."

While Dylan did not have "enough" religious songs for a whole album, he certainly had some. So what further spiritual perspectives and use of Scripture does 'Tempest' offer those with the eyes to see and ears to hear? Well, it starts with a train song. "Duquesne Whistle" was actually written by Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame. Dylan is fond of train songs. In 1995 John Dolen had asked the rock star, "When you look ahead now, do you still see a 'Slow Train Coming'?" Dylan replied: "When I look ahead now, it's picked up quite a bit of speed. In fact, it's going like a freight train now." On 'Tempest', 17 years later, Dylan sings Hunter's lyrics, "Can't you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing? Blowing like the sky's gonna blow apart. You're the only thing alive that keeps me going, you're like a time-bomb in my heart. I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, must be the mother of our Lord." Who exactly is "keeping Dylan going", playing over 100 concerts a year at 71 years of age? I think we can surmise the answer.

The second song, "Soon After Midnight", begins, "I'm searching for phrases, to sing your praises, I need to tell someone. It's soon after midnight, and my day has just begun." On 'Modern Times' "Ain't Talkin'" describes Dylan "Out tonight in the mystic garden", ending with a version of the resurrection account of John 20:16. "As I walked out in the mystic garden. . . Excuse me ma'am, I beg your pardon, there's no one here, the gardener is gone." Also on 'Modern Times', "Workingman's Blues #2", "In the dark I hear the night birds call, I can feel a lover's breath." "Lover", "gardener", "baby" (of Bethlehem) - all synonyms Dylan uses for Jesus. So as 'Tempest''s second song closes, he sings, "It's soon after midnight, and I don't want nobody but you."

Next up is "Narrow Way", a rendering of Jesus' teaching from Matthew 7:14, "The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it." The song opens with what appears to be a heart-rending throwback to his divorce in 1990 from his gospel-singing wife, separation from his infant daughter and the depression believed to have led to the seven year creative lapse before the pain-filled lyrics of the aptly-titled 'Time Out Of Mind'. "I'm gonna walk across the desert, 'til I'm in my right mind, I won't even think about what I left behind. Nothing back there anyway I can call my own, go back home, leave me alone. . ."

Despite the pain, Dylan has lost none of his lyrical imagination. The draining of the cup of God's wrath to the dregs at Calvary ("Oh my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done" - Matthew 26:42), followed by Jesus' death, burial and resurrection, is cleverly transposed to "I saw you drinking from an empty cup, I saw you buried, and I saw you dug up". The chorus illustrates the purpose of the Incarnation: "If I can't work up to you [and none of us can work up to God], you'll surely have to work down to me someday." Dylan's own "long road" has left him tired but still knowing where his help comes from - "Look down, Angel, from the skies, help my weary soul to rise."

"I dragged your plough, you broke my heart" is surely a further reference to his ex-wife whose career in gospel music Dylan had helped develop. Jesus' death and consequent memorial communion meal then gets a mention - "You went and lost your lovely head, for a drink of wine and a crust of bread." The next verse also affirms Jesus' death and resurrection - "Your father left you, your mother too, even death has washed its hands of you."

Life for Dylan is still a struggle - "Blades are everywhere, and they're breaking my skin. . ." Jesus' resurrection body still bears the scars of his suffering; Dylan knows that the disciple's lot is that of the Master (Matthew 10:25) and so he too "won't get out of here unscarred". His Jewish brethren get a mention ("You got too many lovers waiting at the wall" - surely the wailing wall in Jerusalem), "If I had a thousand tongues, I couldn't count 'em all." But his depression has left him weakened - "Today, even one may be too much for me." The solace of God's wisdom finds Dylan back in its bosom, his "soul crowned with grace". He is certainly "out of the dark woods" (from the new gospel version of "Gonna' Change My Way Of Thinking"). "Been dark all night, but now it's dawn, the moving finger [of Daniel 5:5] is moving on", and so must he. Finally it's back to his night-time prayers - "I heard a voice at the dusk of day, saying, 'Be gentle, brother, be gentle and pray.'" The best song on the album? Quite possibly.

'Tempest''s fourth song "Long And Wasted Years" reinforces the message that the past still has its pain. His divorce is perhaps again in his mind with "Two trains [railways yet again] running side by side, 40 miles wide, down the Eastern line", and "I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes, there's secrets in them I can't disguise. Come back baby, if I ever hurt your feelings I apologise." And the spiritual is still in his mind, regrets and all. "We cried on that cold and frosty morn, we cried because our souls were torn. So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years." A deeply personal and poignant song.

The tone then changes with "Pay In Blood", described by secular reviewers as malevolent and murderous. But the blood that Dylan is singing of as "paying for him", is surely not the blood of any mortal man, but of Christ. "You know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:18-19). Dylan's line, "Nothing more wretched than what I must endure" echoes the Apostle Paul's struggle with sin - "Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24).

Dylan is "drenched in the light that shines from the sun" - or the Son, just as in "Not Dark Yet" from 'Time Out Of Mind'. "Feel like my soul has turned into steel, I've still got the scars that the sun/Son didn't heal. . ." The Old Testament law then comes to the fore with "I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you've done." "The more I die, the more I live" paraphrases John the Baptist's "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30) and Paul's "For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:11). Even clearer is "I'm sworn to uphold the laws of God, you can put me out in front of a firing squad", and the "rising men" [of resurrection] that Dylan's "handsome friend" [Jesus] has been "out and around with".

Humour shines through again with "You've got the same eyes that your mother does, if only you could prove who your father was. . ." (the virgin birth), before Dylan rails at politicians using the frank language (illegitimacy) of Zechariah 9:6 (KJV). In the last verse, we've "been accused of murder, how do you plead?" In "Pay In Blood" it seems that Dylan is still pleading the blood of Jesus.

The album's sixth track is "Scarlet Town", a place where just about everything negative that could happen will happen. "In Scarlet Town, where I was born, there's ivy leaf and silver thorn. . ." - both being climbing plants that choke their hosts. As such "Scarlet Town" stands for the world - the place of Dylan's first birth, a place "under the hill". But it's still a place of intercession ("Mistress Mary. . . heaping prayers on his head"), including Dylan himself, again at night. "I'm staying up late, and I'm making amends, while the smile from Heaven descends" - a beautiful description of God's grace.

Then follows "Early Roman Kings", a medley of one negative image after another for man's immoral behaviour. "They destroyed your city, they'll destroy you as well", and, "lecherous and treacherous, hell-bent for leather." Jesus warned his disciples, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you" (Matthew 20:25-26). The men Jesus had in mind were the client kings who ruled on behalf of Rome, men who would "shake them all down, like the early Roman kings."

"Tin Angel" is a sad ballad of adultery, revenge and murder, with predictable spiritual and human consequences. Faith references though are still very much in evidence. "If you see me go by, put up a prayer", and "He renounced his faith, he denied his Lord. . ." The song ends with the violent death of the characters involved, despite one of them having "the nobility of an ancient race".

The album's title track is a long (14 minute) epic about the sinking of the Titanic. The song makes frequent references to a "sleeping watchman", echoing Jesus' teaching "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (Matthew 25:13). The movie actor Leo DiCaprio makes a guest appearance, as does a bishop who came "to help all those in need", and "turned his eyes up to the heavens, and said, 'The poor are yours to feed.'" The ship's captain "Read the Book of Revelation" - one of Dylan's favourite books. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in the recent interview, "I believe in the Book of Revelation."

'Tempest' closes with "Roll On John", a tribute to former Beatle John Lennon, shot dead outside his New York apartment in 1980. Having initially been on good terms, Dylan's conversion to Christianity provoked a furious backlash from Lennon, most notably in a song recorded shortly before his death - "Serve Yourself" - a reply to Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody". "You may believe in devils and you may believe in laws, but Christ, you're gonna have to serve yourself and that's all there is to it. . ." In "Roll On John", Dylan turns the other cheek in a compassionate tribute, while maintaining his own spiritual integrity in regard to Lennon's life, likening him to a "slave" (presumably to sin) who "won't be far from wrong". The lyrics delve into the Beatles' past, with a reference to their early Hamburg nightclub concerts and Lennon's previous band The Quarrymen. There is a humourous reference to the 1963 Royal Variety Performance at the Albert Hall in London with the line "playing to the cheap seats" - Lennon famously suggested that those "in the cheap seats clap", while the rest of the audience "rattle their jewellery". Then follows two "slave" references, possibly an allusion to the spiritual bind Lennon was in, likened to "a deep dark cave".

Throughout the song Dylan refers to Lennon's murder. "Another day in the life on your way to your journey's end", and, "I heard the news today, oh boy, they hauled your ship up on the shore". The following line, "They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core" has a clever double meaning, between the metaphor of Lennon's passing and the actions of the pathologists performing the autopsy, where the heart is indeed removed and examined surgically. "Your bones are weary, you're about to breathe your last" is followed by a clever re-working of a line from Lennon's song, "The Ballad Of John And Yoko" - "Christ, you know it ain't easy, you know how hard it can be". For Dylan this becomes "Lord, you know how hard that it [breathing your last] can be" - a fitting acknowledgement of the fact that Jesus tasted death for everyone. Lennon's murderer, Mark Chapman, did indeed "trap you in an ambush 'fore you know, too late now to sail back home".

The song, and the album itself, closes with a quotation from William Blake's poem The Tyger, possibly triggered by the line in Dylan's chorus - "You burned so bright". Between Blake's opening lines ("Tyger, tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night") Dylan sandwiches his own position, "I pray the Lord my soul to keep", before concluding with a tender reference to Lennon's death - "Cover him over and let him sleep". In an age where wannabes shoot rock stars in the street, Dylan still knows where his security lies. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Dr A T Bradford
Dr A T BradfordAuthor Dr Bradford’s work has been successfully used in evangelistic settings in Europe and New Zealand.


Reader Comments

Posted by David in Lancaster @ 07:45 on Nov 5 2017

Thank you for this fascinating piece of analysis. I wish I'd read it years ago as it has shed a new light on an album I like but of which I hadn't got to grips with the Christian dimension.

Posted by Steve Wozny @ 04:44 on May 18 2016

So grateful that you have dived into this later Dylan work. I have not been keeping up - but glad to hear he continues to look up and live.

Posted by Kevin in U.S.A. @ 01:35 on Nov 8 2012

Thank you for your article. I'm glad someone is finally explaining this album correctly (IMHO).

Posted by Sveinbjörn Kristinn in Reykjavik, Iceland @ 21:09 on Nov 6 2012

Thank you for this precise words on the lyrics of Dylan´s "Tempest"
When I listened to "Pay in Blood" on the album I had some thoughts flying around in my mind about the "Blood of Jesus" - but I could not analyze it.
Thank you so much!
Sveinbjörn Kristinn

Posted by Richard in London @ 20:31 on Nov 6 2012

Against my preferences, I find your analysis persuasive. What a sad revelation! I used to think Dylan criticised the awfulness of the world on behalf of mankind; now I see it is mankind itself he despises. But I do admire the artistry with which he does so.

Posted by Peter Whyley in High in the Sierra @ 20:31 on Nov 6 2012

Interesting biblical insight into Dylan's work. Enjoyable reading. Learned a few things. Thanks!

I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road into some of Dylan's work. Ain't Taiking would be one.

Posted by Frank Cipriano in Visalia, CA, USA @ 17:38 on Nov 6 2012

Very good, insightful article. Loved your book as well. I even gave it to my 89 year old mother to read. She has put up with my Dylan addiction for years and, as a Christian, loves to see that Bob is still a man of faith. Thanks, doc.

Posted by Paul J Flynn in Ireland @ 13:21 on Nov 6 2012

A very well written and informative article. I'm listening to 'Tempest' in a new light. Thank you for posting.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

Add your comment

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.


Connect with Cross Rhythms by signing up to our email mailing list

A Step Change...
Cross Rhythms Media Training Centre
Artists & DJs A-Z
# A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #
Or keyword search


Watering Hole
Be heard in your pain and needs and cry out to your God in our Prayer Room