“The Watchman he lay dreaming
Of all things that can be
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
Into the deep blue sea”
I recently heard the new releases of Bob Dylan’s ‘Born-Again’ era output (roughly 79-83), and realised in what should perhaps be a bit of a ‘duh’ moment, that whilst the overtly confessional Christianity of those records has faded, his output certainly from the early 90s onwards, has been more or less informed in its more transcendent moments by the Christian mythos, which does not mean that every good thing he’s written since then shows signs of this, but a close listening to the best of it certainly confirms the thesis.
I realise this is actually against a lot of the received wisdom - a recent Guardian article about the film of the Born-again years ‘Trouble No More’ basically says he had 3 years of going weird then forgot about all that Christian stuff. That suits the Guardian narrative. It’s also nonsense.
I would argue that a work like ‘Tempest’ from the 2012 album of the same name is a powerful meditation on the last judgement, revelation, faith and the creative act which itself is entirely incomprehensible outside of the Biblical tradition which informs it through and through.
In this song Dylan references perhaps a key figure from his own song mythos, the Watchman. The song All Along the Watchtower, which Dylan plays at the end of every live show, is itself a Biblically inspired fragment whose sudden abrupt ending and haunting wordplay present us with an apocalyptic scenario. “The hour is getting late” reminds us that the end is approaching. The two riders approaching and the Lords on the Watchtower echo a passage from Isaiah 21:5-9:
“Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”
But whilst the earlier work clearly uses Biblical imagery to create an imaginative environment which acts as a foil to the ‘false talk’ of the joker and the thief, the perspective is still very much a negative one - a rejection of the falsity of modernity in line with ‘Gates of Eden’, but unable to envision an alternative. ‘The wind began to howl’, and in the face of this approaching tempest they remain mute.
On the other hand, in ‘Tempest’ 44 years later, Dylan fleshes out this skeletal narrative with straightforwardly Christian imagery and he does it masterfully. I believe it’s his best work of the last 20 years. I have to add a caveat here: he does reweave an older song to make this one - it is of course a traditional folk standard - The Titanic, a version was recorded by the Carter Family. But that version is more straightforwardly moralistic, less mysterious, than Bob’s, even though there is a moral core to Bob’s version.
Before we get to the repetition of the Watchman imagery, I want to mention a few key themes. First, we’ve already seen that All Along the Watchtower envisions an apocalyptic scenario. Here we are taken deeper into the meaning of apocalypse - a Greek word meaning ‘unveiling’. This is evident in the way the veils are lifted and truth is seen in all sorts of ways in this song. But most directly:
The veil was torn asunder
'Tween the hours of twelve and one
No change, no sudden wonder
Could undo what had been done
Or the Captain reading the Book of Revelation in the gloom, his cup filling with tears. Or take this passage:
Brother rose up 'gainst brother
In every circumstance
They fought and slaughtered each other
In a deadly dance
We can see from these passages why Dylan is interested in the Titanic story: it provides a narrative universe within which to explore the question of imminent doom, judgement and the meaning of one’s actions in the light of eternity. In Matthew 10 we find:
“The brother also shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the son: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and shall put them to death. And you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake: but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved.
And when they shall persecute you in this city, flee into another. Amen I say to you, you shall not finish all the cities of Israel, till the Son of man come.
Therefore fear them not. For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed: nor hid, that shall not be known. That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light: and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops. “
Dylan alludes to the end times throughout the song, but those times are not considered from a distance but rather seem suddenly all about us - who can deny that part of the horror of the imagery of brother slaughtering brother derives from its familiarity to us from the events of the last century?
“Nothing is covered that shall not be revealed”
In Tempest, the Watchman is asleep. This is a delightfully comic image which helps to drive the tragedy. The Watchman had one job, and failed. But also the Watchman stands for all those who are appointed, either through their official position, or through their own work, guardians of culture, morality and reason, those whose job is to ‘stay awake and watch’:
(Matt 24:42: “Watch therefore: for ye know not on what day your Lord cometh. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken through. Therefore be ye also ready: for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh.”).
They have succumbed to the forces of the unconscious. And as a result the people are also dragged down into the dark depths. What are the consequences for an age when those whose mission is to be guardians and prophets have failed in their duty? The agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane also contains warnings. Discovering his disciples asleep when he returns he says to them “Could you not stay awake and watch with me for even one hour?” The chief mark of the modern age is the choice to anaesthetise and to numb, to fall asleep rather than bear the burden of being awake in the spirit.
As Deacon Lawrence tells us in this post on 'Leaf by Niggle' "Throughout His ministry Jesus reminds us of the importance of preparing for the Kingdom that is to come." So, like Tolkien in Leaf by Niggle, Dylan also takes on this task - he becomes the Watchman, and in his dreamlike vision of the sinking Titanic he alerts us to the truth.
Which is partly the reason why the Watchman's dreams are telling him the truth - he dreams the Titanic is sinking! Normally our dreams are odd fantasies. This inversion of normality adds to the sense of doom and foreboding. The Watchman is trying to tell people in his dream but can’t get the message across.
Some of the most moving moments of the song derive from the actions of the people on the ship. In part 2 I will look at them in more detail.