Monday, September 25, 2006


In the song Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) on his 1978 Street Legal album, Bob Dylan asks an unidentified "senor" if he "knows where we’re headin’?"

This is one of the most overtly political songs of a writer who has spent most of his creative life trying to escape from the "protest singer/ spokesman of a generation" label that was placed upon him early in his career.

And it’s an interesting one, because the words in parentheses, which do not appear in the song, yell out for this to be read politically.

I’ll return to the song in a minute.

But first of all, Hugo Chavez.

The Venezuelan President made two speeches at the United Nations in recent days. The first was a strong denunciation of US imperialism which "echoed his mentor Fidel Castro's historic 1960 debut address before the General Assembly". It was well-received by many delegates and "generated the loudest burst of applause for a world leader at the summit".

In my little corner of the US empire (South Australia), it was completely ignored by all branches of the capitalist media. (What do you expect given that this is the home of former Aussie Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation?)

However, the second speech, on September 20 was a media sensation.

Aussies will know what I mean when I say that Chavez was as game as Ned Kelly, and that his speech was a latter-day Jerilderie Letter.

"The devil came here yesterday," Chavez said, referring to Bush, who addressed the world body during its annual meeting Tuesday. "And it smells of sulphur still today."

"As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: 'The Devil's Recipe.' "

Chavez held up a book by Noam Chomsky on imperialism and said it encapsulated his arguments: "The American empire is doing all it can to consolidate its hegemonistic system of domination, and we cannot allow him to do that. We cannot allow world dictatorship to be consolidated."

Chavez was audacious, irreverent and defiant. I loved it and I’m pleased that Chomsky’s book sales skyrocketed in the aftermath.

But back now to Dylan.

In the song Senor, Dylan addresses a series of questions to an unidentified Hispanic male. He is seeking direction and guidance, confused and bewildered by the reactionary orientation of the US ruling class.

I’m expressing it in those terms. Dylan probably wouldn’t. He’s not a Marxist nor even consciously anti-imperialist.

In his youth, he referenced Castro for shock effect ("I like Fidel Castro and his beard" yelled the protagonist in Motorpsycho Nightmare). And he cited the ban on boxing in Cuba approvingly in Who Killed Davey Moore?

In Senor, the first question he asks is:

…do you know where we’re headin’
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

The reference to "Lincoln" in the first of the two choices works for me as a reminder of early American values of democracy and equality as personified by Abraham Lincoln, although Lincoln County was also the site of a murderous frontier conflict between two factions of white settlers. William Bonney, later known as Billy the Kid, had a part in this.

So, on another level, maybe the choice is no choice at all. Violence and destruction, or the violent destruction of the world?

I think I still prefer the first interpretation.

In the second verse, Dylan asks about a woman who is hiding somewhere, and there are flashes of Wild West cinema in the images. Dylan locates the song geographically in those open spaces where the rich industrialised North meets the poor agrarian South.

In the third verse, it seems as though the "she" might be the spirit of the real America that Dylan has conjured with his reference to Lincoln. I feel pretty confident about this because the verse contains references to the upper layer of society and its orientation towards wickedness, to an "iron cross" (symbol of Prussian and German militarism in particular, but of fascism and reaction in general), and to a marching band (in my mind I see it leading a military parade and arousing pro-war enthusiasm amongst the observers):

There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck.
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said "Forget me not".

The fourth verse is ominous, threatening:

…I can see that painted wagon
Smell the tail of the dragon.

The painted wagon continues to build the Wild West landscape, but the" tail of the dragon" suggests something evil. This is the medieval European dragon, not the friendlier Chinese version.

This is how the symbolism of the European dragon is explained:

"The Devil is likened to a dragon because he is the worst of all serpents. As the dragon makes the air shine, so the Devil makes himself appear as the angel of light to deceive the foolish. The crest of the dragon represents the Devil crowned with pride. As the dragon's strength is not in its teeth but in its tail, the Devil, deprived of his strength, deceives with lies."

Those who are reactionaries (‘their hearts is as hard as leather") and those who are swayed by them ("trainload of fools") seem so set in their ways that Dylan is ready to leave with his South American guide. But it’s no passive withdrawal:

Senor, senor, let’s disconnect these cables
Overturn these tables.
This place don’t make sense to me no more.
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, senor?

This is revolutionary. Dylan’s response to reaction in the US is a righteous anger, and he sees himself in an act of justifiable defiance and overthrow. He’s not threatening socialist revolution, however, but recreating that scene in the Bible where Jesus "entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple...." (Mark 11:15-16).
Nevertheless, Dylan’s sentiment is Chavez’s. Reactionary abuse of power by the US ruling class should be defied. It is right to rebel.

Chavez, in his speeches as the United Nations, has answered Dylan’s appeal for guidance and direction.


Superannuated Man said...

Very interesting perspective. Thanks

Lucien said...

I really enjoyed your perspective on this, one of my favorite songs. I agree in political principle, but I also think there's a more individual undercurrent. Hence:

The Americans who went to Mexico were often promised anything by locals, "senors," who were desperate to make any money, especially from wealthy Americans looking for drugs, booze, or whores. They would act as the middle man, procuring the "stuff" from friends, but the Americans would seldom if ever meet these sources. To this end, to a degree, I agree that there is a political economy dimension to the song; it redistributes the wealth of the few among the disenfranchised. Ultimately, though, I think it is a plainer, less-couched ballad about addiction and isolation

The wicked wind is the future, the high that must needs come (the "wickedness"), The marching band in the vacant lot is where she (the drug) first held him. Think of loud music in an empty place. Heroin is a very lonesome drug, and the “forget me not exhortation has evil shadows, a terrifying lover whispering that you are, in fact, a prisoner.

This interpretation gains credence with "Chasing the tail of the dragon," which is a method of doing the drug. Instead of injecting it, or smoking it, the user cooks it and inhales it. It was big in the 60s, because many people could share a little this way. By the end of this verse, the stuff still hasn’t arrived, and he is desperately asking for someone to contact, instead of waiting.

In the second bridge I find submission. Stripping and kneeling. Gypsies, to Americans, are magical and mystical, kind of like the lost feelings of a heroin addict. A broken flag might mean he knows he's addicted, and some of the magic is gone – again, essentially the same political theory you submit, but to me, a broken flag for the failing nation of one. One of the scariest parts about heroin is a guy does more and more, and can't ever feel like he did at first. I think the drug is "talking" to him, saying, "this isn't a fun, magical, mystical thing anymore. Now you are hooked and there is no way back."

Finally, the picture of an addict. "Let me get it together." Disconnections, overturnings, the thirst for disorder. And The song ends in confusion, I think. With a picture of an addict's self-hate, but knowing he will come back for more. He wants to wreck everything in the room because nothing makes sense. The whole song was about waiting for this drug, according to this possibility? But then in the last line, even HE doesn't know why he is waiting. Total disgust.

It holds together, and I think reflects the given title as well as your theory. Just thought I’d pass this through.

Na zdravy!

Lucien Holmes
Hluboka nd Vltavou, Czech Republic

Mike said...


Many thanks for your comments on this. Yours is a compelling analysis, and the thing that I like about Dylan is that often there's no one single interpretation that holds true and excludes others. We each bring our own past experiences and understandings to what we are hearing, and create a new reality - the reality of what the song means for us personally. Now, thanks to you, I've got another layer of meaning to listen for in Senor. Thanks for responding and sharing your thoughts on this!