Saturday, February 3, 2018

Master Blueprints # 5: “Well, the Last Thing I Remember Before I Stripped and Kneeled, Was a Train Load of Fools Bogged Down in a Magnetic Field"

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Señor”
Album: Street Legal
Release Date: June, 1978

A tradition in my household during the Christmas season has been to watch one or more of the many film adaptions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.  I’d say we have probably watched about eight in all, most on numerous occasions, and have found that you really can’t go wrong with any of them (although our favorite and most watched is the 1970 musical staring Albert Finney as Scrooge).  There’s something about the story that brings out the best in the actors, directors and producers, no matter the film era or the budget. 

However, one piece of the plot I have been a bit confused about over the years was the purpose of the ghost of Jacob Marley.  Here’s the dilemma: If you are accursed, as Marley apparently was, then why bother to reach out to Scrooge?  What was in it for Jacob Marley?  I mean, with all those money boxes and chains he’s lugging around, and all the moaning and groaning, and his own doomed self-analysis, one can’t help but conclude that this ghost is a lost soul, damned for all eternity. 

On top of these personal afflictions, there is, in at least one movie adaptation - the one starring Finney – a scenario that has Scrooge and Marley drifting above the night streets of London amongst truly hapless apparitions, all of whom are floating about aimlessly in a torturous haze.  And later in that same film, Marley welcomes Scrooge to hell, which will presumably play out, if, in the words of the Second Spirit, “these shadows remain unaltered by the future”.  It appeared that Jacob Marley was in a very bad place, with no chance for parole, so how is he out and about in the first place?  This all seemed a bit flawed. 

After reading Dicken’s original tale however, I have come to believe that the author probably meant for Marley to be in some sort of purgatory - in pursuit of atonement - and not hell.  Alas, purgatory is not heaven, not by any stretch of the imagination.  But it isn’t hell either.   After all, despite the impression of forlornness that Jacob Marley exudes, he does in fact have an affiliation with the three spirits, who he forebodes to Scrooge.  And the spirits are there to try to make matters right, so they can only be coming from a good place.  With this in mind, maybe, just maybe, Dickens meant for Scrooge’s salvation to be Marley’s salvation too; a high stakes Christmas Eve, not for one, but for both of these former business partners.

Ok, enough about Jacob Marley.  To get to my Bob Dylan connection in this entry I need to round this out and move on to the 3 spirits; the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  There is no mistaking their purpose in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, which is resolute and clear.  All bring ominous tones in their messages to Scrooge, with the 3rd spirit’s message the most dreaded of all, not only to Scrooge, but also to many of us who connect with this story.  This is at least partly because, unlike the other 2 spirits, the 3rd spirit is rooted in Christian theology.  He’s the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death.

Bob Dylan’s own tale of purgatory and journey with death appears to play out in transcendent fashion in his majestic song “Señor” ( ).  I have to say up front, I’ve never read anything where Dylan has actually come out and stated this as being what the song is about, but I’ve suspected it for some time.  It was a recent Bono cover story in Rolling Stone, one where the U2 front man basically states the same thoughts, which pretty much confirmed my interpretation, at least for me (Bono adds in his interview that the subtitle of the song “Tales of Yankee Power”, is Dylan pulling the listener off the trail).

The title of “Señor” is Bob Dylan’s name for the Angel of Death, whom the central figure in the song is imploring from start to finish, and much like Ebenezer Scrooge, receiving nary a reply.  Also, much like Scrooge’s tone by the time he meets the 3rd Spirit, the protagonists tone in this song toward Señor is one of awe-inspiring respect, albeit a respect also interspersed with confusion and consternation.  As the song plays out, this yearning soul takes a mind-boggling ride with this reverential figure, not knowing the why or the where to, but getting an endless parade of glimpses into his life’s journey, along with what appears to be occasional glimpses into mankind’s journey.  As with Scrooge, what he is shown is of a very serious nature. 

There are seven stanzas in “Señor”, with the fifth being the most intense:

“Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
 Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
 A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
 He said “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”

Yow!  I interpret the first half of this stanza as the protagonist seeking Divine Mercy, with a terrified eye on those who have rejected it.  The second half comes at you from a different angle.  One image that flashes through my mind as I listen is that of a homeless person, a soul who remains firmly planted in terra firma, and yet who alone can actually see what is playing out in this spirit-world of a journey, and respond in kind, as the central figure and the Angel of Death drift past. It’s so unique of a plot twist, and with such specific detail, that I can’t help but believe it really happened.

“Señor” is a truly open, honest, extraordinary song.  One thing that separates Bob Dylan from many of his contemporaries - which plays out here - is that he’s willing to face his own mortality (George Harrison was another).  Other musicians can come across this way, but they don’t express it in the way Dylan does.  Often, their expression is through self-destruction, which in reality is not really facing the music.  Dylan does face the music however, because his expression is founded upon a never-ending quest for redemption. 

The very beginning and ending of “Señor” is identical; a slow methodical series of guitar notes, which has me pondering that nothing has changed – despite the supernatural sojourn.  Nothing yet, anyway.  The album Street Legal - aside from “Señor” an otherwise average album by Bob Dylan standards - was released just prior to Dylan’s “Gospel Years” (see Master Blueprints # 3), and so this kinda makes sense.  Dylan was stuck in a sort of purgatory at that stage in his life, but soon he would be ready to break that mold. 

There is much to mull over when listening to “Señor”.  Yes, this is likely Bob Dylan’s purgatory, but as with any great work of art, there is a piece of all of us in there too.


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