On Rough and Rowdy Ways, the album Dylan released as he turned 80, there’s a song called “My Own Version of You” in which he shows us Karl Marx burning in Hell and getting the skin whipped off his back (along with Sigmund Freud).
Stand over there by the cypress tree
Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery
Long before the first Crusade
Way back before England or America were made
Step right into the burning hell
Where some of the best-known enemies of mankind dwell
Mr. Freud with his dreams, Mr. Marx with his axe
See the rawhide lash rip the skin from their backs
The songwriter is confident that his political perspective is accurate because, he asserts, “I can see the history of the whole human race.” If anyone has a right to make that claim —so grandiose it would be absurd in straight prose and could only be made by a created character— it’s Dylan. He’s brilliant, he reads all the time, there’s nobody more widely traveled, he runs with people from all walks of life, he studies Arabic and Sanskrit to improve his mind.
This isn’t the first time that Dylan has taken a shot at the co-author of The Communist Manifesto. On Slow Train Coming (1979) an album proclaiming his admiration for Jesus, there’s a powerful song called “When you gonna wake up?” The chorus has a simple directive for America: “Strengthen the things that remain. ” Politically charged verses decry social breakdown:
Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts
Karl Marx has got you by the throat, and Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up into knots
You got innocent men in jail Your insane asylums are filled
You got unrighteous doctors Dealing drugs that’ll never cure your ills
Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools
You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules
Spiritual advisors and gurus to guide your every move
Instant inner peace and every step you take has got to be approved
Then Dylan asks and answers the big question, what is to be done:
Do you ever wonder just what God requires?
You think he’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires
There’s a Man up on a cross and He’s been crucified for you.
Believe in His power that’s about all you got to do.
It’s possibly coincidence that Kissinger and Freud, the two ogres with whom Dylan equates Karl Marx in his songs, were Germanic Jews, like Marx himself. It’s probably not a coincidence that Dylan recorded both his put-downs of Marx while dedicating himself to Jesus. “Gimme that old time religion, it’s just what I need!” he sings in a Bible-thumpin’ paean to Jimmy Reed, the only high-energy blues on the new record. On a slow, sweet ballad Dylan sings
If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love
a love so real, a love so true
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
Take me out traveling, you’re a traveling man
Show me something I don’t understand.
I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were…
While everyone thinks of Marx as the ultimate communist, Dylan, who practices a creed that’s been long abandoned, may see him as the ultimate atheist. Or maybe he resents the graduated income tax proposed in the Communist Manifesto. (My man recently sold his song catalog to Universal for $300 million.) I wish he would write a song explaining how to live by the golden rule under this system without going broke.
In The Investigator
At the height of the McCarthy Era, a group of leftwing theater people in Canada produced a satiric hour-long radio play called The Investigator in which the Senator dies in a plane crash and launches a loyalty probe in Heaven (where everyone is sent provisionally for screening). Wikipedia informs us that The Investigator debuted on the Canadian Broadcasting Company in May 1954 and that “Attempts to schedule it for broadcast in the US met with great opposition from, amongst other groups, the American Legion. The play was denounced as communist propaganda by none other than Ed Sullivan.”
An LP record was pressed by a US company called Discuriosities and leftists who owned copies would have friends over to listen and to take heart. My mother had resigned her job as a public school teacher rather than answer an inquisitor’s questions about her union. Hearing McCarthy taken down so deftly and so professionally, for her and many others, was like seeing the sun peep through the clouds after a storm. Some 20 years later the US media would be full of stories about Soviet dissidents cautiously passing around their samizdat publications. In 1950s New York the Investigator had been shared in that same careful but upbeat spirit.
Check out The Investigator on youtube. The script by Reuben Ship, a Canadian writer who had been expelled from the US in 1952 by La Migra, is George Bernard Shaw-like. The acting and direction are first-rate. I can’t find my copy of the record, which might provide credits for the cast. The actor who plays McCarthy in the afterlife perfectly mimics the Senator’s nasal, insinuating, contemptuous voice as he bullies witnesses like John Stuart Mill and sets off a wave of deportations from Up Here to Down There. A running joke involves McCarthy swearing in witnesses named Karl Marx who turn out to be Karl Marx the cobbler, Karl Marx the piano tuner, Karl Marx the pastry chef… In frustration, McCarthy orders the deportation from Up Here to Down There of everyone named Karl Marx. Satan is upset because the liberals and radicals newly arrived in his domain are stirring things up and Karl Marx is distributing leaflets urging “Workers of the Underworld, unite!” But there’s no stopping The Investigator, who insists on subpoenaing The Chief Himself.
On Alex’s Birthday
Alex Cockburn knew how well worn my Dylan records were. He once called to announce a commercial opportunity: “I just heard that Shocken is giving Dorothy Gallagher $50,000 to write about Lillian Hellman for their Jewish Lives series. You could do their biography of Dylan.” The wolf was at our door and Alex was keen to make the necessary connection, but I declined. I think the smartest things I ever did were things I didn’t do.
Now our years are ten times eight
greetings on your birthday, mate
How are things in Gloryland?
Are some comrades close at hand?
Ben Sonnenberg, Edward Said
Gore Vidal, John Reed…
Down Here you are sorely missed
(a cliché worthy of your list
of terms in need of guillotining
for misleading or mismeaning)
Reimagine and resilient
still await le send-off brilliant
that you so deftly would provide
Well… See you soon by the riverside.