December 3, 2005

"It became clear that, beyond new wars, what has kept the song alive is its melody, and its vehemence: that final 'I hope that you die.'"

Greil Marcus goes on about Bob Dylan's "Masters of War":
Dylan had stopped singing "Masters of War" by 1964. Songs like that were "lies that life is black and white," he sang that year. He brought it back into his repertoire in the 1980s; he was playing more than a hundred shows a year, and to fill the nights he brought back everything. It was a crowd-pleaser, the number one protest song. But nothing in the song hinted at what it would turn into on February 21, 1991, at the Grammy Awards telecast, where Dylan was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.

The show came square in the middle of the first Iraqi-American War—a break from round-the-clock footage of the bombing of Baghdad....

With that night, the song began its second life. In the fall of 2002, when George W. Bush made plain his intent to launch a second Iraq war—on November 11, just after the midterm elections that Bush had used the specter of war to win—Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden and again offered "Masters of War" as an answer record to real life....

It became clear that, beyond new wars, what has kept the song alive is its melody, and its vehemence: that final "I hope that you die." It's the elegance of the melody and the extremism of the words that attract people—the way the song does go too far, to the limits of free speech. It's a scary line to sing; you need courage to do it. You can't come to the song as if it's a joke; you can't come away from it pretending you didn't mean what you've just said. That's what people want: a chance to go that far. Because "Masters of War" gives people permission to go that far, the song continues to make meaning, to find new bodies to inhabit, new voices to ride.

Read the whole thing, which includes descriptions of other singers doing the song, including those kids at Boulder High School.

I remember listening to "Masters of War" in the 1960s. It releases the young mind to think a new thought: All these people who run the world deserve to die. It emboldens you to sing along with this seemingly profound insight, and, singing along, you find yourself expressing utterly hard anger and hatred.

18 comments:

Meade said...

Would this be an inappropriate place for me to post the parody of 'Masters of War' that I made right after Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan? It's titled 'Masterminds of War' and it's a complete loving rip off of Dylan's standard with all the vehemence left intact.

Meade said...

By the way, this isn't the first time Greil Marcus hasn't known what hell he's talking about.

PatCA said...

"Because "Masters of War" gives people permission to go that far, the song continues to make meaning, to find new bodies to inhabit, new voices to ride."

Yes, fear and dread of war is part of the human condition. Life's realities, however, require more of us. It's fitting that immature, fearful teenagers are used here to parade myopic solipsism as virtue by the anti-US contingent.

chuck b. said...

Interesting….Not a lot of songs that go for a strong emotion go for hatred. Anger yes, but not hatred. Do you think Dylan meant to go for anger w/ Masters of War, but missed and got hatred instead? Marcus presses the “black and white world” angle, but maybe Dylan avoided the song for so long because he didn’t like its emotional result.

Imo, anti-war people seem more animated by hate than anger.

paulfrommpls said...

I cling to a reed of hope that Dylan always did intend and still intends the inexactness of the term "masters of war." It seems Greil Marcus doesn't, although it's hard to tell for sure from this excerpt.

RWB said...

Marcus gave essentially the same talk at Columbia University in March of this year, and was taken to task for it quite effectively by Christopher Ricks. I happened to be there and wrote an account of it here:

http://www.rightwingbob.com/item/lookmy.htm

mr. weg said...

meade: what, you're not a Kleenex fan?

RWB: thanks for the write-up on the Ricks/Marcus thing.

I think "Masters of War" is Dylan's biggest mis-step. I wonder if the only way he felt he could (artistically) get away with appropriating "Nottamun Town" was to write lyrics that hit the listeners and critics and musicians of the time in a very soft spot - hence an antiwar anthem.

But we're out of `Nam now, and "Masters of War" is just not as interesting (lyric-wise, of course) as "Nottamun Town," so what's the point? I think he knew what he was doing when he chucked it for 25 years.... (And he knew what he was doing when he brought it back too - fresh suckers).

mr. weg said...

Close to this topic, I don't think Jason Zengerle thinks Dylan's "number one protest song" is MOW:

http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20051212&s=trb121205

WisJoe said...

I don't mean to make this a pick your favorite Dylan song discussion, but I personally think his best and perhaps greatest protest song is "Its all right ma (I'm only bleeding)", which I think is quite possibly a protest against all humanity.

A few choice lines from the song follow:

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn't talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer's pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death's honesty
Won't fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Maw, it's life, and life only.

Buck Pennington said...

Not to diminish Dylan's original, but the absolute best rendition of MOW I ever heard/saw was Eddie Vedder's a capella version at the Dylan 30th Anniversary concert.

Bobdylan.com includes this lil blurb about Vedder's take on MOW:

The riveting acoustic rendition of "Masters Of War" by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready, was arguably the evenings most pleasant surprise. These two young Dylan fans didn't need any loud Seattle sonics to get across Dylan's pointed protest classic from "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." Vedder, who blissfully watched rehearsals for the concert from the front row of a nearly empty Madison Square Garden, proved with his wonderfully intense interpretation that when it comes to a great song, there's no such thing as a generation gap.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, WISJoe, I've always loved that passage too. We usually remember the protest songs that are anti-war or against race discrimination. That's one about repressive morality and all sorts of things that you could spend a lot of time trying to figure out. I know I did when I was a teenager. Something about that song made me feel he knew what he was talking about and that it was important to understand what it was. It's a funny thing, to agree in advance with ideas you can't understand.

paulfrommpls said...

Not to mention -

Advertising signs they con
You into thinkin you're the one
Who can do what's never been done
Who can win what's never been one
Meantime life goes on all around you

It's pretty easy to figure out what he's talking about there; and I probably don't even agree with the urgency of the message anymore: it's pretty easy to step around the advertising signs once you kind of blink and wake up to them.

But it's hard to deny that's what the advertising signs are trying to do, and they keep trying to do, and I've never lost the belief that there's got to be some kind of overall detrimental effect on the overall feel and workings of life.

Basically, though: what a great summing up of the problem.

The thought-dreams line: what a great line. A little self-aggrandizing, since they would not put his head in a guillotine but would simply turn to the next mark. But what a great line.

paulfrommpls said...

Anyone remotely interested should read the post RightWingBob provides. Most heartening.

(Sign-in letters: Zlovo. I think I have a name for a character in a novel, should I ever write one.)

Meade said...

Masterminds of War

Come you masterminds of war
You that buy all the guns
You that plan the death planes,
To make them into big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide in your caves
I just want you to know
I see through your germ infested beards.


You that never done nothin' but
build to destroy
You play with our world
Like it's your little toy
You put boxcutters in some hands,
Hide in Afghanistan,
And you turn, run, and hide
When the coalition lands


Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
An Islamic civil war can be won
You want us to believe
But I see through your lies
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For suicide bombers to fire
While you sit back and watch
The death count grow higher
You hide in your phoney mosques
And you hide in Pakistani heaps
While the blood of innocent children
Flows out of their bodies
And runs through the streets

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might call me an infidel
You might put a fatwah on my head

But there's one thing I know
Though I'm not a religious fanatic like you
Even Allah himself would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you this question:
Is your jihad that good?
Will it bring you holiness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your capture takes its toll
That none of the virgins in paradise
Will be thinkin'"Hey dude, how ‘bout a roll?"

And I hope that you die
a long reflective death
I’ll follow the blogs
Till you take your last breath

And I'll watch while you're dropped down
To your final fetid doze
And I'll stand over your death pit
'Til your bones decompose.

paulfrommpls said...

Never been "Won." Not "one." Good grief.

bearbee said...

Not being much of a pop culturist, I had to look up the words to Masters of War. As mentioned on an earlier post "Life's realities, however, require more of us."

I am in the middle of Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics and conclude:

1. I do not have the emotional make-up (nor the talent) to lead a country
2. A person has to be a little bit crazy to want to be president
3. One needs an unusual toughness, hardness and pragmatism
4. When entering the Oval Office the person is a mere fledgling regardless of past experience. Upon leaving the Oval Office one's soul has surely been tested by fire.

It would be difficult to make life and death decision knowing that there is no going back and that I alone must live with the results.

By contrast all the brave chattering chipmunks and ankle biters fade into oblivion.

mr. weg said...

The Zim:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

Whoever he/she/they were:

In nottamun town not a soul would look up,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
To show me the way to fair nottamun town.

Dylan's not guilty of a capital artistic crime here? And it's not like the guy couldn't write a first verse:

Bad news, bad news,
Come to me where I sleep,
Turn, turn, turn again.
Sayin' one of your friends
Is in trouble deep,
Turn, turn to the rain
And the wind.

or

Ev'rybody's building the big ships and the boats,
Some are building monuments,
Others, jotting down notes,
Ev'rybody's in despair,
Ev'ry girl and boy
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here,
Ev'rybody's gonna jump for joy.

EMC said...

The melody sure didn't keep the song alive; Dylan took that from the English folk song "Nottamun Town," which few people sing any more.