A Christmas Carol

December 2004

Rock’n’roll writer Bill Flanagan interviewed Bob Dylan back in the 80’s, and remarked about the song Sweetheart Like You that "anyone brought up with the Bible will hear that song one way, but the song will still work on a different level for someone else." It’s a good observation and one that likely applies to Dylan’s entire body of work. Dylan replied:

Oh, I think so, yeah. Because the Bible runs through all U.S. life, whether people know it or not. … Those ideas were true then and they’re true now. They’re scriptural, spiritual laws. I guess people can read into that what they want. But if they’re familiar with those concepts, they’ll probably find enough of them in my stuff. Because I always get back to that.

There’s another song of Bob’s that I’m thinking of today, one that has always entranced me and seemed almost impossibly and excruciatingly mysterious. That song is Dark Eyes.

It closes the Empire Burlesque album of 1985. Just Bob alone on guitar and harmonica, in stark contrast to the rest of that album, which employs some very mid-80’s production values, to the extent of having a time capsule quality when listened to today. You could be forgiven for listening through it and thinking, "Were there any real songs there? Was it just some things lying around and some studio tricks?" Then comes Dark Eyes, and you realize that yes, Bob is really there after all, and in top shape at that. It kind of redeems and lifts up the rest of the album, and makes you go back and listen for the very good songs that are in there, underneath the plastic. This is no accident, either; in Chronicles, Dylan describes how the producer (Arthur Baker) and he had agreed that the album needed an acoustic number to end on. Its effect is quite intentional, it seems.

The song is the simplest of melodies, unassuming and sweet. The lyric (and the singing) is Dylan in astounding form – evocative, beguiling and right under your skin – even as you wonder what the heck he might be singing about.

Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside,
They’re drinking up and walking and it is time for me to slide.
I live in another world where life and death are memorized,
Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes.

A cock is crowing far away and another soldier’s deep in prayer,
Some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere.
But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise,
Whom nature’s beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes.

They tell me to be discreet for all intended purposes,

They tell me revenge is sweet and from where they stand, I’m sure it is.
But I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized,
All I feel is heat and flame and all I see are dark eyes.

Oh, the French girl, she’s in paradise and a drunken man is at the wheel,
Hunger pays a heavy price to the falling gods of speed and steel.

Oh, time is short and the days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies,
A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes.

For such a relatively obscure song it seems to have some notable fans amongst fellow musicians. A recording circulates of Warren Zevon performing it live, introducing it with the the words, "This is a song that, well, this is the reason why I’m here." Patti Smith has dueted with Bob on it in concert. You can imagine artists hearing it as describing, if you like, the poetic condition: "I live in another world where life and death are memorized / Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes." And who wouldn’t think of Bob on stage in a stadium with the line: "a million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes."

Those readings would be just fine – the song lives on multiple levels, like so many of his songs do. However, keeping the Bible in mind, I’d like to meditate a little on the second verse:

A cock is crowing far away and another soldier’s deep in prayer,
Some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere.
But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise,
Whom nature’s beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes.

It struck me quite recently, after listening to and loving this song for years, that aside from hearing this verse as a series of mysterious images, you can also hear it as describing a key moment from the Gospels in a relatively literal way. You just need to take your cue from the first image: "A cock is crowing far away." Thinking Biblically, the crowing of a cock brings one pre-eminent moment to mind: Jesus is under arrest, facing death, while His followers scatter, and Peter, who had sworn loyalty, denies that he even knows Him. As Jesus had foreseen, Peter denies Him three times before that cock crows.

"And another soldier’s deep in prayer" -who would that be, at that same moment? Someone guarding Jesus, who has a feeling deep within his bones that this is no ordinary night, no ordinary man – that something much bigger is taking place under his watch? Maybe even the one who had his ear cut off in the struggle in the garden, only to have it healed by the man he’d come to drag away? It could be many soldiers – and of-course that’s part of what this line reminds us, "another soldier’s deep in prayer" – there is always a soldier somewhere deep in prayer.

Staying in the New Testament, what does the next line evoke?

"Some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere."

It is Jesus at age 12, when his parents lose him for 3 days, and then discover that he has stayed behind in Jerusalem, talking to the teachers there in the temple.

And yet it fits the moment we’re already contemplating too; Mary’s child has again "gone astray," and is in chains and soon to be executed. Soon to be taken away from her again, and also for 3 days, in fact.

Yet all the while that these events are happening, there is something else going on, something that no one can see at the time, but something which (if you are a believer) is more important than anything else that has ever happened on this earth. Jesus is in a sense acting out the final moments of a plan. The plan is not without opposition from the machinations of the devil. But it is going ahead – the pieces are falling into place – the great gift of salvation that Jesus came to give to humanity is on the verge of being bestowed. If you knew, and were watching the events unfold, how dramatic indeed it would have to appear to you:

"… I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise"

This is the subtext of the story. Jesus is on the verge of being executed, but that drum is beating, and all the dead that shall rise are waiting to hear it, and that means us too.

But don’t forget the beast:

"… whom nature’s beast fears as they come …"

Nature’s beast. To digress slightly, there’s an interview (I believe from the 60’s though I can’t place it this instant) where Dylan comments in his contrarian off-the-cuff fashion about nature, in response to something the interviewer has said. It’s one of his quotable quotes – you can find it all over the internet. He says:

I am against nature. I don’t dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can’t touch with decay.

"Nature is very unnatural." Aside from being funny, this makes a certain sense if you’re thinking, again, in the context of the Bible. What was truly natural was the Creation that God gave us to begin with – i.e. what he gave to Adam and Eve in the garden. However, we / they rejected it in some way – broke the rules and went against God and were cast out from that perfection. Now everything’s wrong, somehow, deep down. Everything is broken. As beautiful as nature can be, as glorious an example of God’s greatness as it is, it is also a source of pain, unhappiness, decay and death. If you’re a believer then you believe that we are promised something else – that it will be put right.

In a sense, in fact, outside of our human sense of time, it already has been put right, by that Jewish mother’s child some 2000 years ago, welcomed into the world by parents compelled to travel at the worst of times, for the sake of a government census. God humbling Himself in a barn, to save us – sneaking in without glory on a mission that would culminate over 30 years later with Jesus dying a criminal’s death.


* * *

The refrain of the song of-course is: "all I see are dark eyes." It ends each verse and is a key source of the mysteriousness of it all. I’m not going to try and fit it into my interpretation of the second verse – Dylan’s mystery is just fine with me. He does write about it, interestingly, in Chronicles. Not in any way to explain the song or nail it all down, but just to describe where he was and where some of the inspiration may have come from. As referred to earlier, he’d agreed with his producer that the album needed an acoustic number to finish with – he just didn’t have one. He returned to his hotel in Manhattan after midnight, and:

As I stepped out of the elevator, a call girl was coming toward me in the hallway – pale yellow hair wearing a fox coat -high heeled shoes that could pierce your heart. She had blue circles around her eyes, black eyeliner, dark eyes. She looked like she’d been beaten up and was afraid that she’d get beat up again. In her hand, crimson purple wine in a glass. "I’m just dying for a drink," she said as she passed me in the hall. She had a beautifulness, but not for this kind of world.

Unlike another musician whom he greatly admires (Bing Crosby), Dylan has never recorded a Christmas album. Not yet, anyway. [UPDATE 8/26/2009: Here comes Santa Claus!] So, while it’s not quite Jingle Bells, I can find a little bit of Christmas here in Dark Eyes, in a funny kind of mysterious and Dylanesque way.