Gates of Eden, 1964

By Mike Johnson

Notes towards and understanding ‘Gates of Eden’

 Goya: All Will Fall Dylan ‘All in all will only fall…

Goya: All Will Fall
Dylan ‘All in all will only fall…

… on an emotional level, this song haunts. There’s a touch of Celtic ghostliness here. Mr D can be spooky. Think of ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’. These songs give you the shivers...

… on the intellectual level, we need a theological lens to appreciate Mr D’s early, ‘difficult’ songs. They are not political, or a social critique, or left wing songs, as we used to think. Rather they are a vision of a fallen world. A world on its side. A world this side of redemption.

At the time, 1964, people thought the song was mystical in a sort of hippy way. Not quite. Them old Gates of Eden are none other than the Pearly Gates in drag disguise, bobcats. It’s all sin and death and delusion on this side of the Gates; redemption, sweetness and light on the other.

….

The theology is late medieval, which is why I have linked some of the images to Goya. It’s that ineluctable sense of a fallen world that links them.

 Goya: The Fates. Dylan: ‘As friends and other strangers from their Fates try to resign…’

Goya: The Fates.
Dylan: ‘As friends and other strangers from their Fates try to resign…’

This fallen world is a grim and foreboding place:

The lamppost stands with folded arms its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge

The world of politics and philosophy, our whole human experience, is nothing more than Vanity Vanity Vanity.Read Ecclesiastes and you will understand…

 Goya: Women. Dylan: ‘While paupers change possessions, each one wishing for what the other has got…’

Goya: Women. Dylan: ‘While paupers change possessions, each one wishing for what the other has got…’

The kingdoms of experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince discuss
what’s real and what is not –
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden.

Who is might be the ‘motorcycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen’ of the sixth verse?

If I were a betting man I’d put my money on Bridget Bardot (Bardo?) in this photo, which was up on the wall of every student flat and dive in Christendom at the time:

 Bridget Bardot. Dylan: The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen

Bridget Bardot. Dylan: The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen

Anyway, her ‘silver studded phantom’ makes the ‘grey flannel dwarf’ scream as ‘wicked birds of prey pick up on his breadcrumb sins.’

I will give thee unto ravenous birds of every sort:
— Ezekiel 39:4

The poor old ‘grey flannel dwarf,’ (probably a cousin of Mr Jones in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’) only merits breadcrumb sins!

  Goya: The sleep of dreams creates monsters.   Dylan: ‘two wicked birds of prey that pick up on his breadcrumb sins..

Goya: The sleep of dreams creates monsters.
Dylan: ‘two wicked birds of prey that pick up on his breadcrumb sins..

When all is said and done, there remains something mysterious, ethereal and unapproachable about the song, like the Gates of Eden themselves.

  Goya: Truth has died.   Dylan: Sometimes I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true…

Goya: Truth has died.
Dylan: Sometimes I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true…

While it is possible, although not necessarily advisable, to analyze the lyrics of the song, it is much harder to account for it effect. The true affective center of the song lies between the haunted and haunting melody, with its Celtic echo, and the mysterious lyrics. And a certain ghostliness to the best performances. The emotion conveyed is that of overwhelming loss. Yearning and sorrow. Yearning for a lost world that lies beyond the Gates of Eden, sorrow for the fallen world in which we live our lives.

The experience of living in that fallen world is one of alienation, separation and profound Otherness. There is no salvation in earthly love. Existentially we are free of fate, perhaps, but we are doomed to live, nevertheless:

The foreign sun, it squints upon
A bed that is never mine
As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die

Those lines remind me of these from a much later song, one from the Christian period (1979 – 81), ‘Precious Angel’

My so-called friends, have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”
Can they imagine the darkness, that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?

It’s a frightful vision, courtesy once more of the Bible. Here it is in Revelation 9: 6.

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

But, to say it once more, the song itself cannot be nailed down as easily as its references. The stress is on how it feels to stand in the fallen world abject before the Gates of Eden, behind which, ‘there are no words but these to tell what’s true.’ Beyond the words there is the music, and the music cues our feelings.

In the 2000 version, it is the harmonica that carries that feeling, that sense of loss and lostness. That harmonica wails for the fallen in the fallen times, How it aches! In the 1999 version it is the guitar that carries the burden of feeling, beating against the walls of them pearly Gates…

 

Enjoy the performances:

1964Close to the date of composition and found in the official bootleg series:

1974 The declaimed version. Not so much a song as a shouted poem.

1988: What I call the angry version. Song torn from the rough throat of chaos… 

 1996:  Passionate vocal, lovely guitar work.

1999: Powerful vocal, with Dylan’s guitar carrying the tears. Strong momentum

2000: The Ultimate version? With wailing harmonica and perfect pacing. Heartrending.


“GATES OF EDEN”

Of war and peace the truth just twists

Its curfew gull just glides

Upon four-legged forest clouds

The cowboy angel rides

With his candle lit into the sun

Though its glow is waxed in black

All except when ‘neath the trees of Eden.

 

The lamppost stands with folded arms

Its iron claws attached

To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail

Though it shadows metal badge

All and all can only fall

With a crashing but meaningless blow

No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden.

 

The savage soldiers sticks his head in sand

And then complains

Unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf

But still remains

Upon the beach where hound dogs bay

At ships with tatooed sails

Heading for the Gates of Eden.

 

With a time-rusted compass blade

Aladdin and his lamp

Sits with Utopian hermit monks

Side saddle on the Golden Calf

And on their promises of paradise

You will not hear a laugh

All except inside the Gates of Eden.

 

Relationships of ownership

They whisper in the wings

To those condemned to act accordingly

And wait for succeeding kings

And I will try to harmonize with songs

The lonesome sparrow sings

There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.

 

The motorcycle black madonna

Two-wheeled gypsy queen

And her silver-studded phantom cause

The gray flannel dwarf to scream

As he weeps to wicked birds of prey

Who pick up on his bread crumb sins

And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden.

 

The kingdoms of Experience

In the precious wind they rot

While paupers change possessions

Each one wishing for what the other has got

And the princess and the prince

Discuss what’s real and what is not

It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden.

 

The foreign sun, it squints upon

A bed that is never mine

As friends and other strangers

From their fates try to resign

Leaving men wholly totally free

To do anything they wish to do but die

And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden.

 

At dawn my lower comes to me

And tells me of her dreams

With no attempts to shovel the glimpse

Into the ditch of what each one means

At times I think there are no words

But these to tell what’s true

And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.