Dylan’s question to the counterculturists: “What Was It You Wanted?”

Oh Mercy

Perhaps the song from 1989’s “Oh Mercy” called “What Was It You Wanted?” voiced a question from Dylan to those in the sixties who essentially wanted him to be their prophet. Writing of this time Dylan said

A few years earlier Ronnie Gilbert, one of the Weavers, had introduced me at one of the Newport Folk Festivals saying, “And here he is . . . take him, you know him, he’s yours.” I had failed to sense the ominous forebodings in the introduction. Elvis had never been introduced like that. “Take him, he’s yours!” What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now. I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of. I’d left my hometown only ten years earlier, wasn’t vociferating the opinions of anybody. My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilization. Being true to yourself, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper…

…I really was never any more than what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze. Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad. (Chronicles, Volume 1, 115-116)

During this time Dylan was holed up in Woodstock  NY following his infamous motorcycle accident which it seems he “soaked” for quite some time in order to separate himself from the public and “what it was they wanted“. He says

I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all. I was a family man now, didn’t want to be in that group portrait. (Chronicles, 109)

He was determined to not be their prophet. Ironically, during this time he also “soaked” up the Scriptures in a large Bible that reportedly occupied a prominent pace in his house, which became evident in his first release following his lengthy hiatus, “John Wesley Harding.” I believe that the biblical inspiration in his songs (which was not altogether something new) eventually led to his much publicized Christian conversion and subsequent Gospel concerts that even were complete with preaching! So to pick up on the irony, in the late 1960’s he wasn’t looking to be “their” prophet, but by the late 1970’s, he became very prophet like albeit certainly not “theirs”! (True prophets do not belong to anyone except God.)

By the late 1980’s he was, it seems to me, at least in this song, reflecting on those that wanted a prophet in the 60’s that largely rejected his prophesying in the 70’s. Perhaps they rejected him as prophet because he certainly was not their countercultural “court prophet.”

Therefore “What Was It You Wanted” is a fitting song if it has any true connection to this scenario. Only Dylan knows the answer to this question, but the song does appropriately address the question of what the counterculturists really wanted. According to Christopher Ricks massive study of Dylan’s songs, the repeated questioning in this song

…are designed, not to establish the foundation for faith, but to dig into whether the lover’s faith really has any foundation. (Dylan’s Visions of Sin, 413)

The song could be questioning the “good faith” of the counterculturists in regard to whether they wanted the real prophet of God that was Dylan himself, or a prophet that was “theirs.” In future posts I will explore more of this question/theme of Dylan as a prophet. At this point I will only add one more observation, that the kiss in the middle of this song may very well be Dylan’s allusion to the “Judas Kiss” that he received by those that did not have “good faith” in regard to their “desires” for a prophet, and the realization of those desires in the prophet that I believe he reluctantly but consciously became. In light of our fickle human “desires” for prophetic words from God, “What Was It You Wanted,” is a very good question indeed.

What was it you wanted?
Tell me again so I’ll know
What’s happening in there
What’s going on in your show
What was it you wanted
Could you say it again?
I’ll be back in a minute
You can get it together by then

What was it you wanted
You can tell me, I’m back
We can start it all over
Get it back on the track
You got my attention
Go ahead, speak
What was it you wanted
When you were kissing my cheek?

Was there somebody looking
When you give me that kiss
Someone there in the shadows
Someone that I might have missed?
Is there something you needed
Something I don’t understand
What was it you wanted
Do I have it here in my hand?

Whatever you wanted
Slipped out of my mind
Would you remind me again
If you’d be so kind
Has the record been breaking
Did the needle just skip
Is there somebody waiting
Was there a slip of the lip?

What was it you wanted
I ain’t keeping score
Are you the same person
That was here before?
Is it something important?
Maybe not
What was it you wanted?
Tell me again I forgot

Whatever you wanted
What could it be
Did somebody tell you
That you could get it from me
Is it something that comes natural
Is it easy to say
Why do you want it
Who are you anyway?

Is the scenery changing
Am I getting it wrong
Is the whole thing going backwards
Are they playing our song?
Where were you when it started
Do you want it for free
What was it you wanted
Are you talking to me?

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music
Questions, comments, etc. are welcomed. Thanks!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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