The Disgruntled Dylanologist

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Neighborhood’: The World’s ‘Bully’ Pulpit

Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man,

His enemies say he’s on their land.

They got him outnumbered about a million to one,

He got no place to escape to, no place to run.

He’s the neighborhood bully.

Written for his 1983 Infidels album, “Neighborhood Bully” is often cited as a defense of Israel’s volatile foreign policy. With a long history of angst and, as recent events have suggested, a good dose of antagonism the subject of the song, much like the man who wrote it, is pure Dylan.

But whether you believe Israel is bullying the Palestinians, or that Hamas is the harasser, the intent of this grunt is to be neither incendiary nor seditious. The only person I am siding with is myself; the only insight I offer is an interpretation of a song that, I would argue, is just as relevant today as when it was penned over a quarter century ago.

On the surface, this rather straightforward 11-stanza narrative could be construed as a litany of the events that have confronted Israel over the last six decades. Considering the following:

‘Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad,

The bombs were meant for him,

He was supposed to feel bad.’

Given the topical nature of Dylan’s songwriting, the lyric is literal (albeit volatile) reference to Israel’s bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant near Baghdad on June 17, 1981. A place where, as the song suggests, bombs could very well have been built for use on Israel.

Yet despite the seemingly obvious political underpinnings of the song’s subject matter (historical facts are evoked, sides are taken, battle lines are drawn), this is not a political song. Or more to the point, we cannot be sure exactly whose ‘politics’ Dylan is extolling since he never actually utter the word, ‘Israel.’

As a result of this notable omission, Israel and Palestine can, and have, both laid claim to the song as a defense of their actions. In fact, “Neighborhood Bully” was cited in 2001 in the Jerusalem Post as a “favorite among Dylan-loving residents of the territories.”

You can see how such confusion could occur. Take the line”

He got no place to escape to,
no place to run.

On one hand, Dylan is referencing the fact that for the last 6000 years the Jews have been forced to be a nomadic people lest they be persecuted, punished and put to death for their beliefs.

So the line is a defense of Israel, right? Not so fast.

Were a member of Hamas, one of the Gazan militant groups controlling the Gaza Strip, to ruminate over the exact same line, his interpretation would be decidedly different.

He got no place to escape to,
No place to run.

This may be metaphorically true for the Jews, but it is a literal truth for the inhabitants of Gaza. Water to the west, Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south—the citizens of Gaza are literally trapped by geography.

But “Neighborhood Bully” isn’t just about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As expected considering its author, the song works on another, more universal level.

And while the world’s focus may now be turned on that particular conflict, couldn’t the tenets the song examines—condemnation, survival, an ardent belief structure—apply to all conflicts?

Last week, the U.N. approved a resolution intended to resolve the Israel-Gaza conflict. But the US—the parental figure to whom the world is now looking to sort out this whole sordid schoolyard skirmish—abstained from the vote. And when the world then turned to the Obama transition team, they copped out, too, claiming that perhaps it would be best to let the ‘kids’ work it out.

The problem, of course, is that Israel and the Palestine aren’t ‘kids on a playground.’ The ‘neighborhood bully’ motif is just that—a motif. What’s happening in Gaza is real; the lives of thousands are at stake. And if you buy into Book that both sides rather fervently ascribe so, too, does the future of the world. And since one of those countries can destroy a lot more than some enchanted garden paradise in the desert sand should they chose to, perhaps a little parental intervention might not be such a bad thing.

Whether his intention or not, Dylan has always used his songs as a de facto ‘bully pulpit’—a place from which he can cast out demons and comment on the topics that confront not only him, but those topics that confront us all.

The fact that his songs are not only prophetic but that each of us can read our own point of view into them is the real insight here, not which side Bob may or may not have been on at the time of his profession.

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive,

He’s criticized and condemned for being alive.

He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin,

He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.

He’s the neighborhood bully.


January 12, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There’s a Slow Train Coming: You Get What You Pei For

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted

Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions,
Are they lost or are they found, have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?

Who knew a song written nearly 30 years ago would be so relevant three decades later? I don’t think any of us would put it past Bob Dylan.

Now, the last I want to do is knock the arts. Artistic expression—in whatever form it bubbles to surface—is something that should be praised, protected and preserved.

So why am I out to tear the arts a new one? Because there is a slow train coming, my fellow Disgruntled Dylanologists, and it ain’t running on coal—it’s running on oil.

The future is bright in the Persian Gulf. The horizon, it seems, is even brighter. Because in the months to come, oil derricks won’t be the only structures rising up from the white-hot Arabian sands.

In the last year alone, nearly every member of OPEC has commissioned a ‘cultural arts’ center. Shining, sparkling, glowing celebrations of the world’s artistic heritage in a land formerly awash in sand dunes.

First, there’s the King Abdulaziz Center, a sprawling, 400-acre compound consisting of a museum, library, theater, cinema and more. And here’s the best part… the whole thing is dedicated to one, singular objective: The history of oil in Saudi Arabia. This, of course, makes complete sense when you consider who’s footing the bill—Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company.

And then there’s the newly-commissioned Louvre Abu Dhabi, set to open sometime in 2012. Let’s be honest. Most of the world couldn’t find Abu Dhabi on a map if they tried. And while the city has been in existence for nearly 3,000 years, it wasn’t even on the map until 1958. Guess what they found in 1958? (HINT: What’s black and gold and greases the palms of politicians the world over?)

No museum, however, is more impressive than the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened last week in Qatar. But it isn’t what the Museum of Islamic Art houses that’s so impressive— it’s where it houses them.

One of the guidelines for the project enacted by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei was that his 376,740-sq.-ft. museum rise from its own island in the Arabian Gulf in Doha Qatar. An island in the middle of an Arabian oasis. It drips with irony, not to mention $1.6 billion in oil money.

Listen, I’m not coming down on the OPEC nations for wanting to celebrate the arts. And I’m certainly not criticizing them for wanting to preserve their own cultural heritage. The fact that anyone is willing, much less able, to make an investment in the arts in this day and age is something we should all stand up and take note of. And that’s precisely my point…

A large part of the reason that arts funding is being cut faster than a punk in a back alley knife fight in America and abroad is that the world economy is in shambles. Money that should be spent on schools, roads, education, and the arts is being siphoned off at an alarming rate to fund a war to protect the countries who are crippling us in the first place.

I guess there’s an upside to the fact that Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are building monuments while the rest of the world build ships and boats. At least we’ll know everything that’s important to us will be safe when the deal goes down.

The irony, of course, is that we certainly had plenty of forewarning. Bob saw that slow train coming nearly 30 years ago…

All that foreign oil controlling American soil,
Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed.
Sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings,
Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.

December 1, 2008 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment