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.

To Be Alone With You, 1969

By Mike Johnson

Here’s a quick one just for the fun. It began life as a modest little ditty on Nashville Skyline, and in this 2002 version it has morphed into a tearing rocker, 1950s style.

It has no particular lyrical virtues, although if I had my arm twisted I might comment on a certain cunning in the use of everyday sayings and homilies:

It only goes to show, life’s pleasure are few
he only one I know, is to be alone with you..

 

There are all kinds of echoes from the 1950s here, including Bill Haley, Ray Charles and Little Richard. The band lets loose with some fifties guitar sounds, and, again, fans of Mr D’s percussive piano style will enjoy his stiff-fingered Little Richard imitation.

Nashville Skyline

Nashville Skyline

Actually, listening to it go me dancing, and that got me thinking that the best way to get into Mr D’s music is not to sit around listening to it, but to get up and dance to it. Turn it up and rock and roll!

photo by Stephane Beria.

photo by Stephane Beria.

The lyrics:

To be alone with you
Just you and me
Now won’t you tell me true
Ain’t that the way it oughta be?
To hold each other tight
The whole night through
Ev’rything is always right
When I’m alone with you

To be alone with you
At the close of the day
With only you in view
While evening slips away
It only goes to show
That while life’s pleasures be few
The only one I know
Is when I’m alone with you

They say that nighttime is the right time
To be with the one you love
Too many thoughts get in the way in the day
But you’re always what I’m thinkin’ of
I wish the night were here
Bringin’ me all of your charms
When only you are near
To hold me in your arms

I’ll always thank the Lord
When my working day’s through
I get my sweet reward
To be alone with you

Desolation Row, 1965

BY MIKE JOHNSON

The greatest Dylan song ever written? Maybe, although I’d vote for ‘Visions of Johanna’.

Desolation Row is a lonely place where Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels hang out, and ‘the riot squad is restless.’ All the freaks, the round pegs in square holes are there. The song derives its mood from its descriptions, a technique developing writers might well note. And, in good show-don’t-tell spirit (see this week’s writing tip), the descriptions are left to speak for themselves. The thumbnail sketches of these circus characters does all the work. The background flickers with the shadows of hell…

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The phantom of the opera in the perfect image of a priest. 

 This is an unredeemed and godless world, like snippets or close-ups of the world of the medieval Dutch painter Brueghel, or the hellish scenes in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. This pastiche or collage method was to serve Dylan well in the best of his songs.

But this is not just weirdness for its own sake. Look at how the first line breaks down:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown..

Right into the 1920’s Afro-Americans were being lynched, and photos of men proudly standing in front of swinging bodies were sold. In Germany, in the 1930’s, the Nazis issued Jews with brown passports to more easily indentify and control them. So the song begins against this background of atrocity, and proceeds from there via parody, satire – and an underlying pathos.

The last verse is the killer, as we’re thrown right out of that desolated urban world to the deeper hell of the singer/narrator’s psyche, who suddenly distances us, and himself, from all those freaks hanging out in Desolation Row:

All these people that you mention
Yes I know them they’re quite lame
I had to re-arrange their faces and give them all another name…

 That ability to step outside your own frame of reference, suddenly distance yourself from your own material in interesting and creative ways, can be quite thrilling for the audience/reader if it works.

Interesting, the very first time the song was performed, back in 1965, before any recording of it, the audience laughed their way through the first three quarters of the song. The sheer daring and absurdity of it. It didn’t sound serious and dark, but strange and funny.

Here is that first performance

The whole concert is there. Click on Desolation Row. Great concert, poor recording.

There are hundreds of live recordings of this amazing song, and all Bobcats will have their favourite. Mine is this roaring, foot-stomping version from 2003, featuring Mr D on rollicking piano, with some searing harmonica thrown in. All the desperation and pathos of the original hammered out in rowdy barroom blues fashion. Turn up the volume, kick back, enjoy and marvel.

It was this song that prompted me to comment that every generation must discover ‘The Wasteland’ for itself, in its own terms.

Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest
They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

Photo credit: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/photos-70-photos-of-bob-dylan-on-his-70th-birthday-20110524