Bob Dylan: Infidels

For Dylanophiles (of which I am one), today is a great day: the 39th anniversary of the release of the underappreciated album Infidels, on which Dylan worked closely with Mark Knopfler (of the Dire Straits) and Mick Taylor (formerly of the Rolling Stones), as well as the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, among others.

It is often thought to be a new direction after the so-called “Christian trilogy” (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love), as though Dylan were leaving Christianity behind him. But that supposition is badly wrong. The title of the album might seem to point in the direction of “Christian no more”; but look again, and note that the word “infidels” is plural. The title is more easily, and more accurately, read as a reference to the difficulties encountered by living in a world of unbelief.[1]

In fact, the album is filled with various forms of unbelief or infidelity: for example, religious infidelity (the scorching “Man of Peace,” one of Dylan’s best songs); economic infidelity (the anti-capitalist and antiglobalist “Union Sundown”); and international relations infidelity (the pro-Zionist anthem “Neighborhood Bully”).

Christian and biblical themes are evident from the very first track, “Jokerman.”

In consecutive verses Dylan sings:

You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds
Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister
You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister
Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name


Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features
Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face

The references continue on the second track, another great tune called “Sweetheart Like You“:

You know, news of you has come down the line
Even before ya came in the door
They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions
Each one of them got a fireproof floor
Snap out of it, baby, people are jealous of you
They smile to your face, but behind your back they hiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

(Incidentally, the same song contains a fantastic allusion to Doctor-Johnson-cum-Augustinian-political-theory: “They say that patriotism is the last refuge/To which a scoundrel clings/Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you king.”)

Again, on the third track, “Neighborhood Bully“:

Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon
No contract he signed was worth what it was written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the neighborhood bully

Most explicitly, “Man of Peace,” unsympathetically covering much of the same ground as The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” deals with the many forms Satan can take…

…from the very first verse:

Look out your window, baby, there’s a scene you’d like to catch
The band is playing “Dixie,” a man got his hand outstretched
Could be the Führer
Could be the local priest
You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

…to one of the very last:

He’s a great humanitarian, he’s a great philanthropist
He knows just where to touch you, honey, and how you like to be kissed
He’ll put both his arms around you
You can feel the tender touch of the beast
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

Finally, one of my favorite songs on the album, the opaque “I and I,” deals both with a Rastafarian concept of divinity in all people and a number of biblical themes. The title is a pun on the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye,” and also deals with God’s revelation of himself to Moses (“I and I/One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives,” repeated several times in the chorus).

The song opens like this:

Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed
Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams
In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed
To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams

The last two lines are a reference to King David. The verse puts one in mind of Leonard Cohen’s too-often-covered “Hallelujah.” In Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2006, Clinton Heylin discusses the connection:

One of the classic anecdotes regarding Dylan the songwriter comes from another poet of performance, Leonard Cohen. Conversing with the man who dissolved any dichotomy between page and performance after a February 1990 Parisian residency, Cohen found that Dylan wanted to know how long he spent writing “Hallelujah” (a song Dylan stripped to the core in devastating fashion at two summer 1988 shows). He said it had taken him about two years, before inquiring of Dylan how long it had taken him to write “I and I.” Fifteen minutes.

The pun on the lex talionis is made explicit in the song’s third verse:

Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race
It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth
Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face
And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth

Infidels is, however, almost as interesting for what was left off of the album as for what was included. For example, two fantastic songs, “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride” (the latter another tune of biblical proportions that opens with the couplet “Like the lion tears the flesh off of a man/So can a woman who passes herself off as a male”), could have been included, but weren’t. For outtakes and alternate takes, see The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991 and Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 16 (1980-1985). There are treasures untold here. Springtime in New York, for example, contains a version of “I and I” that, for as much as I like the album version, is superior in every respect.

So do yourself a favor and give Infildels a spin today, either really or virtually. You could do a lot worse.

(Image credit: Wikipedia.)


1 Someone else–maybe Clinton Heylin?–has noted this, or at least something very similar.


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