I went to another Bob Dylan concert last night, this time, in Memphis at the Orpheum Theatre. It’s been 40 years since the first one – February 10, 1966 at the old Ellis Auditorium on the other end of downtown – when I took my new girl friend, now wife, to see him on our first date.
He came down from Nashville while recording the seminal rock music record, Blonde on Blonde, with a little-known back-up band that would become “The Band.” Those were simpler times, in an era before every movement, every set list and every word by Dylan were documented by acolytes convinced that he was singing for them. It was so early in his career that it’s impossible to find a bootleg, unlike every concert in the recent decades.
As a result, I’m not sure what Dylan sang that night, but it was in the days when he broke the concert in half – one half was acoustic, and after a break, it became the electrified half that provoked the boos and the cry of “Judas” memorialized as a defining moment in rock music history.
One of the acoustic songs on that night long ago could easily have been “Masters of War,” but when he burst into last night’s version of the classic anti-war anthem, it produced no feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality. It only provoked angst and sense of disquieting foreboding that the song remains as relevant today as he prepares for his 65th birthday next month as when he wrote it as a promising 21-year-old songwriter.
Masters of War
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 desk.
I just want you to know I can see through your masks.
You that never done nothin’ but build to destroy.
You play with my world like it’s your little toy.
You put a gun in my hand and you hide from my eyes,
And you turn and run faster when the fast bullets fly.
Like Judas of old, you lie and deceive.
A world war can be won; you want me to believe.
But I see through your eyes and I see through your brain
Like I see through the water that runs down my drain.
You fasten the triggers for the others to fire.
Then you set back and watch when the death count gets higher.
You hide in your mansion as young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud.
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 say that I’m young; you might say I’m unlearned,
But there’s one thing I know though I’m younger than you.
Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.
Let me ask you one question: Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could?
I think you will find when your death takes its toll
All the money you made will never buy back your soul
And I hope that you die and your death’ll come soon.
I will follow your casket in the pale afternoon,
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave ‘til I’m sure that you’re dead.
What Dylan brings to my life is something that my children’s generation will not experience, because of the realities of today’s music industry. I’ve had a single musician who has verbalized the passages through life. It’s been despairing, hopeful and joyful. It’s been poetic, personal and prophetic.
But last night, with the depth of feeling that he brought to his words, “Masters of War” was a punch in the gut.