The conspiracy
to kill the free and romantic

by Patrick J. Webster

Part Two


As previously stated, lack of space here prevents more than a cursory coverage of Dylan’s work, but suffice to say it would seem fair to conclude that his work does not often enclose an interest in ecological issues.(2) However, one song that did seem to concern itself with the environment, one song that allowed a critique of the violence of masculinity within to an ecological discourse, is ‘License to Kill’.. This was a song from Dylan’s 1983 collection, Infidels, and a song I wish to look at in detail here. 

‘License to Kill’ was a song that castigated ‘man’ for believing he could rule the earth and misuse it in any way he desired. As the opening lines put it:

Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth
He can do with it as he pleases,

And if things don’t change soon, he will

                                      (Dylan 1985, 473)

However the word ‘man’ was not used here in a generic sense. It did not embrace the whole of mankind, it was gender specific, a trenchant and definitive reference to the masculine gender. As Christopher Ricks recently put it:

But “a man” here because of the forms that a man’s courage may have to take, forms different from those of a brave wise woman up against aggressive swaggering, a woman of the kind honoured in ‘License to Kill.’  
(Ricks, 2003 , 315)

This was made dear in the song’s first chorus;

Now, there’s a woman on my block,
She just sit there as the night grows still
She says who gonna take away his license to kill?

In contrast to man, woman was portrayed as a passive observer who merely asked when man’s killing would stop. Here woman was seen as the life-giver, and man as the life- taker; these are traditional, almost cliched roles, but roles not commonly found in Dylan's work. 

However, the song also contained a complex array of contradictory elements, that offers some light on the fractured nature of gender constructs within Dylan’s work. We might note, for example, the contradictory stance the song adopted in relation to masculine travel. Whereas men in Dylan’s work commonly travel and journey and explore in order to define their construct of masculinity.(3) In ‘License to Kill’ the ideological stance was different, with the first verse closing with what is arguably one of Dylan’s most naive couplets. An eccentric, even reactionary view of the world:

Oh, man has invented his doom,
First step was touching the moon. 

A few months after the release of the song Dylan was asked, by a journalist from Rolling Stone magazine, to illuminate the meaning of these lines. He responded by saying:

‘I have no idea why I wrote that line, but on some level it’s like a door into the unknown. I mean, what’s the purpose of going to the moon, who’s going to benefit'? (4)

This point of view was confusing, given the predilection for masculine travel in Dylan’s work. There was a contradiction in the song, the space race and the Apollo missions have been seen, (as, for example, in Tom Wolfs novel: The Right Stuff), as the embodiment of American masculinity and frontier machismo. Thus Dylan’s attitude to such a venture in the song, what David Griffiths called: ‘that damning curious critique of Apollo 11’ (Thomson, 1990, 264) does have a certain equivocal nature. The 1960s, the apex of Dylan’s career, was the period when space travel seemed to have a genuine resonance within American culture. A decade that began with the shock of Yuri Gagarin’s first trip into space and closed with Neil Armstrong’s triumphant first steps onto the moon. The individual astronauts who ventured into space were predominantly male, thus extending Dylan’s notion of the significance of masculine travel. Therefore, why Dylan should have had such a negative attitude to such a venture raises a number of intriguing questions. 

The fact that the moon is traditionally so closely equated with the feminine might offer one possible reason for the contradictory attitudes towards space travel in Dylan’s work.(5) If one looks at other such ‘superstitious’ attacks on space travel, as expressed on the Infidels record. For example, in ‘Neighbourhood Bully’:

Does he change the course of rivers?
Does he pollute die moon and stars?

                                      (Dylan 1985, 477)

And in 'Union Sundown’:

They used to grow food in Kansas
Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw ...
                                                                  (Dylan 1985, 479)

One observes that the moon was again the common factor, thus Dylan’s argument may have been associated with the fact that this great symbol had been reduced to little more than a lump of rock to be polluted, to have food grown on it and to have men walking about on it. One might therefore perceive, in the underlying narrative discourse of the lines in the song, a concern with the inviolate nature of a female goddess, and with the potential desecration of her by man. 

In the song the concept of feminine passivity and masculine violence is thus linked with the worship of a ‘pagan’ feminine goddess, arguably opposing what could be seen as a retreat into a Christian ideology. In each three line chorus the middle line had a subtle change of emphasis. Thus in the four chorus’s we get:

She just sit there as the night grows still...
She just sit there jfacin' the hill...
Sitting there ia a cold chill...
She just sits there as the night grows still...

However, in each the common factor was passivity, in each the woman was sitting, and therefore powerless to have an effect on what was occurring before her. She waited as the night grew still, she waited facing the hill, she waited in a cold chill and then, in a resolution back to the original chorus, she waited again as the night grows still The word ‘hill’ could arguably be seen as acting as a symbol for Calvary, which it sometimes tends to do in Dylan's work,(6) thus not only is the woman passively watching man despoil the planet, she also becomes associated  with the women who watched passively as Christ died on the cross. Thus offering a feminine perspective on the crucifixion of a planet’s whole ecology, sitting knowing the coldness of death is soon to consume it.

To be continued.


(2)There is one song, other than the song dealt with in this essay, that should perhaps be mentioned. In a relatively late song, Cats in the Well, (1990) Dylan dealt explicitly with the environment, again linking nature with the feminine and the forces acting against it as being represented by the masculine. Deriving from his 1990 release, Under the Red Sky, a record that made use of a nursery rhyme motif throughout, the cat was the passive feminine, the wolf the destructive male:

The cat’s in the well the wolf is looking down ...
The cat’s in the well, the gentle lady is asleep ...
The cat’s in the well and grief is showing its face
The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace ...
                                                                                (Dylan 1990, 44)

(3)For a discussion of this see my interpretation of Dylan’s 1976 song, Isis  in – ‘On the Fifth Day of May in the Drizzling Rain: Travel and Gender Performativity in Bob Dylan's "Isis"’. 

(4)From an interview published in Rolling Stone, 21 June 1984. Two years later, at a concert in Sydney, Australia, Dylan performed a rare live rendition of License to Kill. It was 12 February 1986, a few days after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. The song was introduced by Dylan as: ‘A song about the space programme’ he went on to refer to 'America’s tragedy’ but then added the rejoinder, ‘They had no business being up there in the first place, as if we haven't got enough problems down here on earth’ (Heylin, 1996, 269) 

(5)Note that the moon has decidedly romantic associations in Dylan’s work: the moon is something for a Jokerman to dance to, for Sweet Melinda's client’s to howl at, it is a Spanish moon rising on the hill, the midnight moon on the riverside, the moonlight swimming in a sad eyed lady’s eyes and a moonlit stream for King David to write psalms about. (The quotations refer, respectively, to: Jokerman; Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues; Abandoned Love; Dark Eyes; Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands; and I and I.) 

(6)Note how ‘hill’ can be seen as fulfilling a similar symbolic role in such songs as: It Takes a Lot to Laugh ..." (Well, if I die on top of the hill), Idiot Wind (There’s a lone soldier on the cross - changed from an earlier version There’s a lone soldier on the hill), ‘Shelter from the Storm’ (In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes), Foot of Pride  (I can see him in my mind, climbing that hill) and so on.