Category Archives: Music

The times they are a changin’ endin’: Bob Dylan’s apocalypse (End 1.4)

Long before Dylan had any sort of conversion to Christianity (he was, for a time, “born again” in the late 1970s and early 80s), his songs were saturated with biblical imagery (and they still are now). Often in popular culture elements of apocalypticism are there simply as assumptions on how one is to express things in times of trouble or in situations perceived as crises. The cultural revolution of the 1960s in the United States was a time of crisis in the eyes of the youth at the centre of this revolution, and Dylan was often considered a spokesperson for this revolution (even though he himself did not accept this role).

Characteristic of the ancient apocalyptic worldview are notions that there is a sharp divide between evil and good people or beings (dualism), that current regimes or world-powers are under the control of evil powers, that some good power (God) is imminently or in the midst of intervening in a fundamental way to oust evil and restore good, and that that good power will establish a society in which good reigns forever and evil is forever caged or obliterated. These basic assumptions that undergird the apocalyptic worldview sometimes come to expression in popular music and film.

In his pure folk days (shortly before the introduction of the electric guitar which, initially, resulted in some tomato throwing and booing at Dylan concerts), Dylan wrote a song you may have heard of: The times they are a-changin’ (1964 on his third album of the same name — some low quality mp3s are available on bobdylan.com). (If you haven’t heard of it, then where have you been? It’s in bank commercials here in Canada now, after all–not what the 1960s youth had in mind.)

In this song Dylan casts the cultural revolution of 1960s America in terms of an apocalyptic prophecy. Here there is the righteous (youth) and the wicked (the older generation of senators and others); there is talk of a raging battle; there are warnings of an imminent cataclysmic change which is described in terms of a coming flood that will bring the old order to an end (very common imagery for final judgment in ancient apocalyptic literature like 1 Enoch); there is a prophecy of a new arrangement in which the corrupt ways of the old regime will be left behind (“get out of the new one”); there is talk of a reversal that will accompany the new arrangement (the first will be last). This Dylan tune illustrates well the often unconscious presence of apocalypticism in the western imagination (even if God is left out of the equation and substituted by some other group or power).

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

(Bob Dylan; Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music)

(Do not emulate Dylan in using the term “prophesize”, which should be “prophesy”. You don’t know how many times I have corrected this in students’ papers!)

Satanic conspiracies of the 1970s and 1980s (Satan 12)

There was a general decline of Satan in the wake of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and modernism (a decline in him being perceived as a real and imminent danger, that is). Nonetheless, he still remained alive and well within certain types of Christianity, particularly within the more conservative forms which do account for a large percentage of modern Christianity. Certainly not all of these conservative Christians subscribed to conspiratorial theories regarding Satan’s dastardly plans to undermine God’s activity. Yet there were — from the 1970s-1990s — a number of somewhat widespread notions of Satan’s evil machinations that are best described as conspiracy theories, two of which I will touch on here.

On the one hand were the very frightening claims of “Satanic ritual abuse“. There was a variety of contextual factors that fed the development of this particular conspiracy theory including the following:

1) There were general fears within some Christian circles regarding the many New Religious Movements (NRMs) — “cults” from this perspective — which were perceived as deceiving and brainwashing their potential members into joining. One of the results was a somewhat organized anti-cult movement, including groups such as the International Cultic Studies Association (a newer organization that follows in the footsteps of earlier groups), that produced substantial amounts of literature. The Church of Satan, or the unintentional worship of Satan via other “cults” generally, could naturally be subsumed within this framework.

2) Added to this was the actual existence and public visibility of an actual Church of Satan (founded by Magus Anton Szandor LaVey in about 1966 but especially visible in the 1970s) , which claimed to be the continuation of the worldwide worship of Satan that had been going on since ancient times.

3) Within certain circles of Christian social workers or therapists who held the view that there was a Satanic conspiracy, certain methods developed (namely suggestive interrogation) which resulted in a high number of cases where children and adults reported or confessed to involvement in Satanic rituals, often as victims. In some cases, the results of such approaches regarding stories of Satanic abuse were published in popularizing books, including Lawrence Pazder’s Michelle Remembers of 1980.

In essence, this conspiracy theory entailed a worldwide, secretive network of Satan worshippers who were systematically exploiting both children and adults to engage in wild and demonic rituals. One of the handbooks for therapists, as cited by the historian David Frankfurter, explains that Satanic abuse usually involves:

“group cult ceremonies in which children engage in sexual acts with adults and other children; the sacrifice and mutilation of animals; threats related to magical or supernatural powers; ingestion of drugs, ‘magic potions,’ blood, and human excrement; and distortion of traditional belief systems” (Susan J. Kelley as cited by Frankfurter, “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders,” History of Religions 40 [2001], p. 356).

Another such handbook for those who believed in the conspiracy states:

“Such abuse may include the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of an animal, the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of a person, forced ingestion of real or simulated human body fluids, excrement or flesh, [and] forced sexual activity” (Noblitt and Perskin as cited by Frankfurter, p. 357).

The fact that this was indeed a conspiracy theory arising out of certain peoples’ worldviews and not reality is now widely recognized. What is particularly interesting is the manner in which stereotypes of the dangerous “other” which have a very long history — including the trio of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sexual perversion — play a key role in this incident as well. Back in Roman times, for instance, the early Christians were accused by outsiders of engaging in precisely these three activities, as were other marginalized or foreign groups in antiquity (on which see my earlier posts here and here). Similar dynamics of marginalization and demonization were also at work in the late medieval and early modern witch hunts.

A second main conspiracy theory, which is somewhat less frightening or disturbing, involves the accusations against certain rock n’ roll bands regarding their allegiances with the Prince of Darkness (Satan not Ozzy), via backmasking, or backward messaging. The idea was that if you play a record backwards (remember records?) you could potentially hear an alternate message that, it was believed, was placed there intentionally by the artists in order to serve their lord and master, Satan. Among the first to fall prey to this accusation was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, which, when played backwards, it was imagined, revealed the following message:

BACKWARDS:
Here’s to my sweet Satan,
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is fake/Satan.
He’ll give those with him 666.
There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.

FORWARDS:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
(Page / Plant, “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin IV, ©1971 SuperHype Music Inc.. Lyrics online here)

Many other bands were likewise accused of broadcasting the messages of Satan to the impressionable ears of our youth. The fact is that, if you want to find it, a word that sounds like “Satan” would appear in just about any music played backwards. But soon the idea of putting hidden, backward messages on albums was consciously taken on, particularly in the case of heavy metal bands of the 1980s, who seemed to think that Satan, with his number 666, was “cool”.

UPDATE (March 24): Now see the comments section and “Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion” blog, where there was an earlier post on the Satanic abuse scare focussing primarily on the issue of therapists or psychologists who created the scare, to some degree, particularly in connection with popularizing books on the topic (sadly, there is a Canadian connection). He also includes the cover of a book on Satan (and, yes, it is now available in a new edition with flashy cover to boot) from good ol’ Hal Lindsey of Late Great Planet Earth fame (a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, best-selling book showing the end was near in the 1970s):

Satan is Alive (old)Satan is Alive (new)

Is there another Satanic scare on the horizon?

“Me and the Devil Blues”: Robert Johnson and the crossroads (Satan 5)

Satan is very much a part of popular culture in the West. His story has heavily influenced the portrayal of evil in film, as we shall see, but the devil also makes his appearance in our music, including the blues and its offspring, rock-n’-roll. The profound influence of Robert Johnson, a Delta blues (or country blues) performer of the 1930s (who made just two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937), was not fully felt until the re-release of several recordings in 1961 (which the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Zeppelin, and others have expressly identified as a profound influence on their work).

(For Johnson’s lyrics, cited in part below, go here. For sound clips from the songs discussed below, scroll down to see the CD information for King of the Delta Blues (in this case on Amazon). Eric Clapton has recently released a tribute album (is that word still used) with new performances of Johnson’s songs: Me and Mr. Johnson (2004).)

The powers of evil make their appearance in a variety of ways in Johnson’s songs, some with more frightening effect than others (all of Johnson’s music is “haunting” in some way). In a devil-made-me-do-it sort of way, “Me and the Devil Blues” expresses the notion that some evil power outside of Johnson is responsible for his more violent behaviour towards a woman friend:

Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan,”
I believe it’s time to go.”

Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied

. . .

You may bury my body
down by the highway side
spoken: Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

Less disturbing, in some ways, are songs like “Hellhound on my trail”, which nonetheless express Johnson’s angst in raw terms drawn from ideas associated with the powers of hell and the hell-hound successor of Cerberus (the guard-dog of the underworld in some Greek mythology) :

I gotta keep movin’
I gotta keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm mmmm mmm mmmmmm
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
there’s a hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail. . .

All I needs is my sweet woman
and to keep my company hey hey hey hey
my company

The notion that the crossroads or intersection outside of town was a magical place where the-powers-that-be were especially potent has a long history. But a specific legend grew up in the context of the emergence of the blues which also attached itself to Johnson himself. In particular, there was the notion that in order to gain exceptional skill at playing the blues, a person might meet the devil at the crossroads and make a deal, with the soul being the precious item in the devil’s sight. The lyrics in Johnson’s own “Cross road blues” apparently have very little, if anything, to do with this notion:

I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above “Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please”

Still, the overall legend nonetheless attached itself to this performer, who was known for playing the guitar like noone else could. (This is partly because of the shared name with Tommy Johnson, another blues artist who supposedly claimed that he did sell his soul to the devil). It is this legend of selling one’s soul for exceptional guitar skills that is enacted in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Selling one’s soul to the devil has a much longer history going back to medieval legends that Goethe incorporated in his eighteenth century poetic story of Faust, as we will see later. The film The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) re-tells a similar tale in a new setting, with Jabez Stone making a contract with Mr. Scratch, the devil (a remake with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin ran into financial difficulties and is yet to be released):

[examining the contract]
Jabez Stone: What does it mean here, about my soul?
Mr. Scratch: Why should that worry you? A soul? A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it? No. This soul, your soul is nothing against seven years of good luck. You’ll have money and all that money can buy. (Full script online here).

The legend of selling one’s soul, which continues as part of Satan’s story, is also reflected in the Simpsons episode in which poor Homer sells his soul to the devil for a doughnut (Treehouse of Horror IV). In this case, though, Homer actually robs the devil of his due in the long run.

Pink Floyd, Pompeii, and the Mysteries of Dionysos

I recently re-watched Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” (originally 1972) film which has now been released as a director’s cut DVD (also with the original version included). The live concert was recorded (with no audience, I might add) in the amphitheatre at Pompeii, with excellent results in sound. The new director’s cut version of the film adds considerable Roman archeological material as background (the original version had some). In particular, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, which is mesmerizing to begin with, is now interspersed with shots of the paintings from the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa Item), which pertain to the mysteries of the god Dionysos (Dionysus) or Bacchus (which you can read about here). If you do like Pink Floyd’s music or you are interested in Roman archeology and the mysteries, then it’s well worth a watch. It also has the track “Madame Nobs” (recorded in a studio, not Pompeii) which is a blues tune with harmonica and live howling dog accompaniment (my son enjoys that the most).