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The conspiracy
to kill the free and romantic

by Patrick J. Webster

Part Three

 

Dylan’s positioning of female passivity and Christ’s suffering has certain resonances with Mel Gibson’s recently released film, The Passion of the Christ (2004). The film has been much criticized in terms of its exaggerated violence and it’s inherent, although I would argue unknowing anti-Semitism. What has not been commented on is the subtle sense in which the film depicts women.(7) The way the film depicts the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen is of interest. The film offers us the two Mary’s - one his mother, one his quasi-lover - passively observing the whole of Christ’s passion. They follow Jesus, from his arrest, through his trial before Pontius Pilate, his scourging, his carrying of the cross to Calvary, his crucifixion and then finally the deposition from the cross. Throughout they are passive and silent, they merely witness the violence and pain they observe. Here one finds the same trenchant critique of masculine violence and female pacifism. In a literal cinematic mise-en-scene we are offered a visual representation of the previously quoted lines from Dylan’s song:

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there facing the hill.
She says who gonna take away his license to kill.

In the second verse the song offers one kind of explanation to account for man's violence.

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he's bound to get ill,
Then they bury him with stars,
Sell his body like they do used cars.

It is him and him and him, the male subject appears unable to exhibit any kind of freewill. As to who the ‘they’ is - the ‘they who is taking and teaching and grooming - this is never fully explained. There is an elision or an aporic gap in the text, but one could perhaps assume it to be the violent patriarchal structure within the society the song envisages. 

In the third verse man’s predilection for violence is further stressed, strengthened by the corollary that the same outside force is in some way responsible:

Now, he’s hell bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused,
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill

The fact that man is ‘hell bent for destruction,’ might seem to imply that masculinity was, in essence, dangerous, simply because men are men. However, I would argue against this and suggest that to take such a biological imperative is mistaken. The argument that masculinity is an artificial and performative construct is more compelling. There is, within Dylan's work, what is tantamount to the hero worship of the outlaw figure, a figure who is routinely and explicitly violent because of his maleness. One might cite such songs as 'Hurricane’ (1976) or 'Joey’ (1976) - herein heroic masculine figures are elevated for their inherent violence, one a boxer, one a gangster. Thus the suggestion implied is that the act of being a man often involves the use of violence at some level. This demonstrates, or so I would argue, a falsity and an artifice within such a construct of masculinity. I would argue that Dylan’s suggestion here, that men have been brainwashed into behaving the way they behave by the society they find themselves living in is more convincing. That men, in fact, have been brainwashed into performing such a role. When Dylan sings of the masculine brain being mismanaged with great skill, this is precisely what he seems to be talking about. 

The verse’s opening lines are followed with a couplet that seemed to borrow from William Blake:

All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies.

These are lines that seem reminiscent of a couplet from Blake’s poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence:’

We are led to believe a lie
When we see with, not thro' the eye ...

And in so doing seeming to point the song towards a phenomenological approach. Which is appropriate, given the similarity in the way both Blake and Dylan ask us to perceive of the world, a priori, via our consciousness. In addition, it further exaggerates the sense in which gender constructs in the song are dependent on our perception, on our preconceived ideas and the way this interacts within the text and the reader/listener. 

The interlude, or middle eight section of the song, further compounds the ideological message being expressed, a clear paradigm to the way gender constructs are perceived within a polysemantic field of view:

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker,
Heartbreaker. backbreaker,
Leave no stone unturned
May be an actor in a plot,
That might be all that you got
‘Til your error you clearly learn.

Dylan’s famous (or perhaps infamous) reputation for subverting cliche is apparent within this section of the song. By using a cliche as hackneyed as ‘Leave no stone unturned’ and then following it up with the line: ‘May be an actor in a plot’ cannot help put the listener in mind of the well known joke of the theatre critic. The joke goes, subverting the cliche, that the critic would: ‘Leave no turn unstoned.’ In addition, and more significantly, the introduction of man being an actor in a plot (and that’s all that he’s got) also strengthens the implication of performativity within gender roles, the idea that ‘man’ is merely performing masculinity. It would seem to me that the song’s underlying discourse exhibits a constant echoing of this idea. 

In the final verse Dylan alludes to man’s narcissism, his dissembling and his avarice:

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled.
Oh, man is opposed to fair play.
He wants it all and he wants it his way.

And then, in opposition to this we get the final chorus, an exact repetition of the first chorus:

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

In taking a more general perspective, the complexity in Dylan’s writing can be seen in the various other ideological manoeuvres at play in the song. One would also look, for example, at the song in terms of a political and religious hegemony. On a level of political discourse, given the song’s historical context, the early 1980s and the time of President Reagan’s invasion of Grenada; one could offer a metaphorical interpretation pointing towards America’s license to kill. Thus the song could be seen as offering a critique of the dominance of one nation state over others. In terms of a religious discourse, Infidels was an album which, it has been argued, signalled Dylan’s turning away from his so-called 'born-again' Christian period. In this light it can be seen as an album in which Dylan seemed less obsessed in achieving redemption by an all powerful masculine God. However, given the residue of a Christian ideology still at play within the song, (and the collection that contained it), it would seem logical to interpret a scriptural intent being expressed. In this respect if one points to the song’s opening line:

Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please

Then it is not so great a leap of faith to envisage the line as bringing to mind this passage from Genesis: 

And God blessed them and God said unto them. Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
                                                         
(Genesis 1. 28) 

To have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and every living thing that moveth comes close to being offered a license to kill and in some sense gives man a reason for thinking he rules the earth - as the song’s opening line declares.
 

******************
 

To draw towards a conclusion, whilst one might accept that Dylan’s songs have uniformly explored the staple arenas of ideological discussion: gender race and class, one can, at times, also perceive of a fourth arena: the environment. I would argue that some of Dylan’s work can be interpreted from an ecocritical standpoint, and by ecocriticism I take

Peter Barry’s definition: ‘the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment.’ (Barry 2000, 248) The song in question looks at the crucial relationship between culture and nature, man’s predilection for violence and the environment’s vulnerability in the light of this. This is not to claim a non-theoretical approach, it would seem to me that one can still view the natural world from within a socio-cultural, linguistic and political framework. In other words nature does exist, it is ‘a given’ but the way we perceive of nature is socially, culturally, linguistically and politically constructed. For example, in the song whilst seeming to look at the natural world, Dylan also includes a subtle use of gender politics and the inherent inequalities found therein, thus enclosing the text within some kind of ideological basis, deriving from an ecological stance but enclosing other stances, as well. 

Thus one might say that ‘License to Kill,’ although hardly one of Dylan’s most significant songs, is one of Dylan's rare texts that specifically confronts man’s relationship to the environment. It was a song that saw ‘man’ as the prime suspect, the culprit of the damage done to the environment because of his predilection for violence; whilst the women in the song were portrayed as the relatively innocent and passive partners. It was a song that therefore pointed towards the subversion of gender identity, specifically to the performative nature of masculinity, the song seemed to state that masculinity is merely a role foisted on man. 

In Tarantula, his 1966 novel, Dylan had previously written: 

the conspiracy to kill the free and romantic ... go, ahead, shoot! all you need is a license & a weak heart...
                  (Dylan 1971, 53-54)

In 1983, in his song, ‘License to Kill,’ Dylan returned to a similar subject. In the context of Tarantula Dylan had been discussing the American practice of hunting deer - ridiculing the inherent absurdity and cruelty surrounding such a practice in terms of Tarantula’s usual blend of surrealism and incisive pastiche. It is therefore perhaps appropriate to find such an intertextual allusion echoing , two decades later, in ‘License to Kill’. A song that, whatever its flaws, succeeds in detailing something of our dangerous relationship to the natural world.
 

(7)One might also point to the way in which Gibson portrays the devil as having a feminine form. This offers a disconcerting and dramatic manoeuvre; the scene in which we see the devil suckling a deformed child whilst Christ is dying on the cross and His mother is mourning his death, raises a number of disturbing issues - perhaps pointing to the legend of Lilith - the first Eve.

 

InfidelsInfidelsInfidels

 

License to Kill

Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don't change soon, he will.
Oh, man has invented his doom.
First step was touching the moon. 

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

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him-on a path where he’s bound to get ill,
Then they bury-him with stars.
Sell his body like they do used cars. 

Now theres a woman on my block.
She just sit there facing the hill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill? 

Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused.
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies. 

Now there’s a woman on my block,
Sitting there in a cold chill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill? 

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker,
Heartbreaker, back-breaker,
Leave no stone unturned.
May be an actor in a plot.
That might be all that you got
‘Til your error you clearly learn. 

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled.
Oh, man is opposed to fair play,
He wants it all and he wants it his way. 

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

Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962-1985 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1987), p. 473
Recording available on: Infidels, Columbia 460727 2, 1983.

 

Bibliography

Barry, Peter (2001). Beginning Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Blake, William (1994). The Works, of William Blake. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth.
Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.
Dylan, Bob (1971). Tarantula, London: MacGibbon and Kee.
Dylan, Bob (1983). Infidels Columbia QC3 88 19.
Dylan, Bob (1983). Infidels. New York: Special Rider Music.
Dylan, Bob (1985). Lyrics 1962-1985. London: Jonathan Cape.
Dylan, Bob (1990). Under the Red Sky. New York: Special Rider Music. 
Fielder, Leslie (1966). Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein and Day.
Heylin. Clinton (1996). A Life in Stolen Moments: Bob Dylan Day by Day 1941-1995, London; Music Sales.
McGregor, Craig (Ed.) (1972). Bob Dylan: A Retrospective. New York. Morrow (Ellen" Willis, 'Dylan').
Ricks, Christopher (2003). Dylan’s Visions of Sin. London: Viking.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1985). Between Men: English Literature and Male Hcmosocial Desire. York Columbia University Press.
Thomson, Elizabeth (Ed.) (1990). The Dylan Companion. London: Macmillan (David Griffiths, Talking about License to Kill' pp. 260-266).
Warner, Simon (2004). Chapter and Verse (www.popmatters.com) 2004. (Patrick Webster, On the Fifth Day of May in the Drizzling Rain: Travel and Gender Performativity in Bob Dylan's Isis').

 
 
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