Bob Dylan's Dilemma: Which Blonde?
Karwowski, Michael, Contemporary Review
Bob Dylan has always identified with the outlaw. The iconoclastic singer has even written a song entitled Outlaw Blues, included on the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album, which contrasts the wealthy and successful establishment figure with the outsider: 'Well, I might look like Robert Ford/But I feel just like a Jesse James'.
He also has two albums to his name which honour those other American outlaws, John Wesley Hardin and Billy the Kid, the latter containing one of his most famous songs, Knockin' on Heaven's Door.
None of this, however, relates to the image of Dylan as the protest singer of the early 1960s, with which some people still identify him. He is, after all, in his early 60s himself now, having celebrated his 60th birthday at the end of May! No, what the persona of the outlaw means to Dylan is probably best summed up in his song Absolutely Sweet Marie on 1966's Blonde on Blonde album, where he writes: 'to live outside the law you must be honest'. For the significance of the outlaw to Dylan is less that of the rebel and more the solitary who rejects established religion for the direct inspiration of truth.
In fact, Bob Dylan's history as a songwriter can perhaps best be interpreted as a constant debate between, on the one hand, mysticism, and, on the other, religious belief, whether represented by Judaism, Dylan's childhood religion, or Christianity, which he openly espoused in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
This lifelong debate has its first major and, arguably, most memorable expression in Blonde on Blonde. This was the first double album in rock history and one whose duality is no accident. Indeed, it is the contention of this article that a basic understanding of Blonde on Blonde would clear the ground for an exploration of Dylan's entire oeuvre.
The album title refers to Chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation: 'And I saw, and behold a white horse: and...a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering, and to conquer...And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him'.
Having been brought up a Jew, Dylan has naturally taken a great deal of his imagery from the Bible and this is a particular instance. The 'blondes' of the album's title, then, represent two of the horses of Revelation, the triumphant 'white horse', which conquered, and the 'pale horse of Death', which leads to Hell. And they tell us that the songs on the album are the record of a spiritual conflict between Life and Death.
At that time, the established religion with which Dylan was flirting was Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Church, in fact, is the subject of the song Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, which takes up an entire side of the album. It has often been stated that Sad-Eyed Lady is 'about' Dylan's then-wife Sara because, in Sara on the 1976 album Desire, the songwriter refers to writing the song 'for' her. But 'for' is not 'about' and any understanding of Blonde on Blonde and subsequent albums suggests strongly that the song is actually 'about' the Catholic Church.
In the first instance, there is the song's imagery. This makes much of conventionally Catholic terminology such as 'missionary times', 'silver cross', 'holy medallion', and 'saintlike face'. More importantly, however, the song asks two fundamental questions, which relate to Dylan's interior spiritual struggle. The first rhetorically answers those who would argue that an organisation that has so often been accused of involvement in worldly power-plays cannot be accepted as a repository of divine truth:
Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels that they used to hide.
But why did they pick you to sympathise with their side?
Oh, how could they ever mistake you?
In Bob Dylan's songs, the 'farm' is always institutionalised society, hence 'I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more,' from 'Maggie's Farm'. …