From: email@example.com (Joseph Cliburn)
Date: Tue, 14 Feb 1995 02:29:35 GMT
Subject: Frankie Lee & Judas Priest
Scaduto's (1971, 1973) analysis of John Wesley Harding is a classic of the Dylan's-work-as-religious-metaphor school. The pedantry begins with the interpretation of the album's title song, establishing JWH as a symbol for Christ and for Dylan, cast in the role of pop messiah. Moving through "As I Went Out One Morning" & "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," Scaduto constructs an ornate system of linked symbolism. By the time we reach his analysis of "All Along the Watchtower," we have been set up for the fall of Babylon, personal Armageddon, & the Jimi Hendrix cover version. It is surprising that Scaduto doesn't suggest that JWH is the Tetragrammaton!
Finishing with "Watchtower," Scaduto is fiery-eyed, frothing at the mouth, & ready to rain down fire & brimstone:
"...Dylan is Frankie Lee ... and in naming him Judas Priest Dylan symbolized not only the betrayer of Christ but also the institutionalized religions & ruling establishments. ...Frankie needed money, Judas ... pulled out a roll of tens ... & Dylan is saying that he was placing himself above all people, exalting himself. Judas tells Frankie to take whatever he needs... Frankie resists the seduction at first... In giving [him] a choice, Dylan refelects the Biblical teaching... Judas leaves, pointing down the road ... putting down the paradise of the Lord. [A] stranger ... tells [Frankie Lee that] Priest is ... stranded in ... a house of prostitution. Frankie Lee loses control of his senses and runs into the house ... falls into Judas' arms & dies of thirst... Dylan should never have entered society's whorehouse... [T]he result of that huge ego trip was the death of his soul."
Scaduto places Dylan in the role of Frankie Lee, casting the "ruling establishments" as Judas Priest, responsible for the seduction & prostitution of the artist. It is also obvious that Scaduto's interpretation is very much a politically correct one, given the hip-cool standards of The Movement.
Hoskyns (1993) takes a much more personal view of "Frankie Lee & Judas Priest." Exploring the manager-artist relationship, he notes:
"At least two songs on John Wesley Harding, 'Dear Landlord' & 'The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest', were veiled attacks on [Albert] Grossman..."
Both Scaduto & Hoskyns document the love/hate, father/son relationship between Dylan & his manager. Grossman's manipulative management style was being increasingly perceived by Dylan in Pony Express terms ("ride 'em until they drop") with Dylan in the role of the horse.
Hoskyns' is a valid albeit convenient interpretation then, too. Dylan's ability to vent intensely personal emotion in the form of symbolic lyric is one of his strong suits as a writer. Grossman destroying Dylan's spiritual connection through overwork & hype becomes the immortal trickster seducing Everyman to enter "society's house of harlotry."
The temptation to put a face on Dylan's symbolic characters through induction & quaint historical analysis is very real, but it takes the analyst in the wrong direction entirely. Questions like "Who is the real Mr Jones?" or "Was Baby Blue supposed to be Paul Clayton or David Blue?" are interesting but hardly important. In the end, it isn't really important whether Dylan is Frankie Lee, Judas Priest, both, or if the listener is involved as something more than a disinterested third party. Grossman may indeed have been the major emotional stimulus for "Frankie Lee & Judas Priest," but Dylan took the moral lesson to near-scriptural levels of distillation. Like good poetry, "Frankie Lee & Judas Priest" works (and works well) no matter who one plugs into the two central roles.
Hoskyns also notes that JWH was quite different sonically even from Dylan's work in the basement that year:
"Although it shared the rural, downhome quality of the basement tapes he'd recorded with the Hawks, the record was ... sparse & austere ... shot through with biblical references ... devoid of the humour & revelry of the songs he'd written that summer."
The "sparse & austere" production values of JWH invest the album with much of its 'my-god-this-must-be-profound' ambience. Taken in context of the general psychedelic morass that rock music had become in late 1967, even the cover of JWH with its simple photo and cryptic (but plain) notes was a major statement. Hoskyns discusses the "conservatism" of The Band's first two albums, and JWH shared this sober outlook, representing for many a rejection of The Movement, of Dylan's presumed leadership role in yippie politics.
According to Hoskyns, Robbie Robertson himself urged Dylan "to leave them [the JWH tracks] alone" & not to overdub guitar and organ as had been originally planned. Imagine how different JWH would sound with manic doodlings from Garth Hudson -- the whole would likely have been analyzed quite differently (& would probably sound like Planet Waves ;-)
One wonders why a performer (Dylan), faced with a messianic dilemma, would choose to announce his rejection of the job in such an overtly biblical fashion. Abandoning acid-hip postures, eschewing any leadership roles that might be foisted upon him, Dylan was clearly not interested in being a pop savior, but he wasn't averse to offering a little friendly prophetic assistance from time-to-time.
On one hand, Dylan refused to "compete" sonically with pop psychedelic faddists. But by using strong biblical themes, he forced the competition into a totally new arena. On the strength of its poetry alone, JWH became another instance of Dylan "changing the face of pop music."
The economic production values of JWH -- its conservatism -- create an intimate relationship between listener & performer. Could Everyman (Frankie Lee) be the listener & the tempter/deceiver (Judas Priest) be Dylan? Could Dylan's long-standing denial that he was anything other than a "song & dance man" have evolved into a warning: Observe what will happen if you consider me to be your leader. Dylan is saying that he is Everyman, too. He may be a prophet, but he is no messiah. We all are both Frankie Lee & Judas Priest.
Taken at face value, "The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest" tells a sad tale of personal betrayal & deceit leading to temporal & spiritual death. Mixed with a healthy dose of biblical metaphor & served up in a soft, tongue-in-cheek basement rap, this is woe of the same order as "Delia," if death by dehydration after spending 2 weeks in a bordello is indeed woe. Scaduto, referring to "self flagellation" in JWH, obviously sees it that way.
Not everyone, however, will think that a fortnight of overindulgence in a whorehouse falls neatly into the "woe" category, regardless of the temporal or spiritual outcome. For these folks, "Frankie Lee & Judas Priest" is filled with the same bizarre gallows humor & deadpan delivery that leavens the basement tapes.
Part of any perceived lack of "humour & revelry" in JWH stems from a major change in Dylan's lyric style. From 1964 through 1966, Dylan's songs had become increasingly populated by a vividly realized cast of jugglers, clowns, midgets, and random historic personages. And although it's "vulgar to think so," Dylan's work from this period constitutes an almost textbook example of the effects of methamphetamine abuse. Many, if not most, of these characters appear to have been described so explicitly for no deeper purpose than sheer verbal impact.
After the crash, Dylan's basement songs were still peopled by a motley
assortment of strange characters, but they were more genial & generic, less
nightmarish and less likely to have been chosen as mere window-dressing.
In JWH, the characters have evolved into purely symbolic & allegorical
constructs: a Wild West bad guy, Tom Paine, St. Augustine, the joker &
the thief, Everyman & the trickster, the drifter, judge & jury, a landlord, a hobo, an immigrant, & a messenger. An Italian poet from the 13th Century would be proud. Like a lot of 26 year olds, Dylan had finally confronted his own mortality & didn't like everything he saw. Unlike most, he expressed it with succinct elegance.