Listening to My Life: Bob Dylan

When the Ship Comes In

Music Features Bob Dylan
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I think Jesse Colin Young mostly got it right. Deep in my heart of hearts, I want to smile on my brother. I’d like us all to get together and love one another, right now. Then somebody cuts me off on the freeway, or a brazen telemarketer interrupts my dinner, and all these fuzzy hippie sentiments are shot to hell.

When these sort of things happen, I do what any petty, non-confrontational and easily offended music lover would do. I put on Bob Dylan. Specifically, I listen to “When the Ship Comes In” from The Times They Are A-Changin’.

The backstory that surrounds this song maintains that Dylan wrote it after he was snubbed by a New York City hotel clerk who didn’t like his scruffy appearance. Dylan finally stormed upstairs with his room key, sat down at the typewriter, and pounded out the greatest apocalyptic revenge song ever written. Why settle for a mere insult when you can summon wholesale destruction on an epic, biblical scale?

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’.
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they’ll raise their hands,
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands,
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh’s tribe,
They’ll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

It makes you wonder how he would’ve responded if room service had been slow.

In any event, I listen to that song when I’m feeling oppressed and downtrodden—particularly put upon by the excruciating demands of a middle-class, suburban life. My whine turns into Dylan’s howl, and for a few minutes I can envision a world in which all is right and just, where hotel clerks and telemarketers receive their deserved thrashings, and where I always get my way. There is a delicious appeal there. I’m not sure many people would want to drop by for a visit, but the doors are always open and ready to swing back, hard, on somebody’s sorry ass.

It’s also quintessentially Bob Dylan. And Bob Dylan, more than any contemporary songwriter, has perfected the art of the melodic middle-finger salute. Songs like “Positively 4th Street,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Idiot Wind” confront the bastards head on, and no one has ever spewed poetic bile more passionately. But these are only some of the early salvos in an ongoing bombardment. Now 46 years into his career, Dylan has never really eased up on the invective. “Workingman Blues #2,” from his latest, Modern Times, foresees a world in which the proletariat will drag their oppressors down to hell, stand them against the wall and sell them to their enemies.

It’s one of the many things I love about Dylan’s music. He has virtually created a new genre—Spleen Rock. It’s the neat trick of holding nothing back in dazzlingly creative and spiteful ways. And it is justice for me, and upon your head.

But I still think about old Jesse Colin Young. And I continue to live in a world that hasn’t picked up on the fact that it’s all about me, that seems strangely oblivious to the way things are supposed to work. There’s a part of me that revels in the sheer audacity of “When the Ship Comes In,” that delights in the casual and contemptuous dismissal of all the small-minded people, the surrender that is refused, the minor annoyances and major sorrows that are swept away with the apocalyptic tide. It’s a first-class vengeance fantasy. And it is very much a fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s an astonishing song, still, 44 years after the petulant fact, even when seen in the context of a musical universe that now encompasses The Sex Pistols and Public Enemy, a thousand New Dylans and a thousand new Angry Young Men. It’s the peculiar genius that can whip up a howling fury out of an inconsequential rebuff, and it’s one hell of a kiss-off. But it’s also impossible to escape or excuse the vindictiveness that hangs like a shroud over “When the Ship Comes In.”

I understand how it works. I understand it every time I retreat to the den after a hard day, put on the headphones, and settle back to enjoy the fantasy. You revel in the fury, and you sneer in a mild-mannered, non-confrontational way and wait for the catharsis. You call down imprecations and thunderbolts. You nuke your enemies, and you get on with your life. I love that song. I love all those songs. But I still don’t like what they say about Bob Dylan. Or me.