Gates of Eden


Stephen Scobie wrote that “the most obvious poetic aspect of Dylan’s language is his gift for vivid and sometimes bizarre imagery”. Gates of Eden is a good example. There is a plethora of strange, dramatic images: Cowboy angels riding clouds, babies crying from sewers, a motorcycle black Madonna, gray-flanneled dwarfs. It’s certainly one of Dylan most ambitious lyrics.

motorcycle_black_madonnaIt also was heavily influenced by the Beat poets. Allen Ginsberg said he cried when he heard the phrase“motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen”, knowing Dylan was continuing their vision. An excerpt from book The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats.

“Do you think that your poetry helped to make the work of songwriters like Dylan possible?”

Among others. I think that, between Kerouac and myself and Burroughs, there was quite an impact. Dylan told me that – I know Kerouac was a major inspiration for him as a poet.

I think it’s those chains of flashing images: “the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver-studded phantom love” come out of Kerouac’s rhetoric. I think Dylan came to Burroughs later – after the Rolling Thunder tour he began digging Burroughs a great deal.

Do you hear the link with your own work and with Kerouac’s in Dylan’s songs?

Well, Beat writing has been in the air for quite a while, from the later Fifties on. But I wouldn’t claim credit, particularly. That long verse line with many nouns and adjectives and interesting combinations of words, like “fried shoes” or “hydrogen jukebox” – that was a genre drawn from Whitman, from Surrealism, from European poetry of the Twentieth Century, from the Dadaist poets, from the Russian poets, from Lorca……When I heard Dylan’s records, I heard that instantly, and I was knocked out. I thought, “Well, at least we’re not a dead end.”

Gates was also inspired by the Bible. It’s surprising that during the mid-sixties hippy era Dylan would write a song with such a conventional moral message.

At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden

To me anyway, he seems to be saying that our human trials here on earth will one day subside and that the good among us will ultimately be rewarded in heaven. Pretty typical Sunday school lesson. Although it is well-known that Dylan grew-up in a fairly religious family and that as a child he became very familiar with Biblical teachings, he seemed to have left these teachings far behind judging by most of his mid-sixties material. I guess not completely.

The title of the song is interesting, Gates of Eden. I guess everybody is familiar with the story from Genesis where God kicks Adam and Eve out of Eden for the sin of eating an apple from the Tree of Life. After God gives them the heave-ho, he bars entry to Eden by placing cherubim (angels) and a flaming sword at the entrance (Genesis 3:24). Dylan replaces the flaming sword with a gate.

Dylan didn’t invent the phrase Gates of Eden. There was a silent film from 1916 with this title and a novel of that name written in 1920. The phrase is also used in Jewish texts and in old popular songs.

The song is also influenced by the book of Revelations. Dylan writes (note the bold lines in particular):

As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly, totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die

Revelation 9 speaks of what will happen to the sinners and non-believers when God returns. Just so you know, he plans to release swarms of nasty locusts that will have the power of scorpions. The good news is that they will not have the power to kill, but only torture. Comforting. Maybe I’ll make it to church next Sunday.

From Revelations 9:6:

They were not given power to kill them, but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes a man. During those days men will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

Daniel Kramer, the photographer for the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, said that Dylan recorded Mr. Tambourine Man, It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding, and Gates of Eden all in a row, with no second takes and not even a playback in between. That’s a productive half hour or so!

It seems likely that Dylan took the term “gray flannel” from the influential Sloan Wilson novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which ridiculed the mind-numbing conventionality of 1950 corporate America. The book was made into a popular film in 1956 and starred actor, Gregory Peck, whom Dylan mentions in a later song, Brownsville Girl.

Although Dylan does occasionally play the song live, it doesn’t seem to be a particular favorite. It doesn’t appear on any of his live albums except Live 1964.

He and friend George Harrison recorded a version, which remains unreleased. Nothing special really.

Arlo Guthrie’s Dylan covers are almost always good.


Of war and peace the truth just twists
Its curfew gull just glides
Upon four-legged forest clouds
The cowboy angel rides
With his candle lit into the sun
Though its glow is waxed in black
All except when ‘neath the trees of Eden

The lamppost stands with folded arms
Its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge
All and all can only fall
With a crashing but meaningless blow
No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden

The savage soldier sticks his head in sand
And then complains
Unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf
But still remains
Upon the beach where hound dogs bay
At ships with tattooed sails
Heading for the Gates of Eden

With a time-rusted compass blade
Aladdin and his lamp
Sits with Utopian hermit monks
Side saddle on the Golden Calf
And on their promises of paradise
You will not hear a laugh
All except inside the Gates of Eden

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden

The motorcycle black madonna
Two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause
The gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey
Who pick up on his bread crumb sins
And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden

The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden

The foreign sun, it squints upon
A bed that is never mine
As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly, totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die
And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden

5 thoughts on “Gates of Eden”

  1. I don’t think Gates of Eden has a conventional moral message at all.  Dylan never lived by conventional morals.  Just because Dylan used Biblical motifs throughout his songwriting doesn’t mean it was to convey a conventional moral message,. I think there is plenty of evidence to conclude that Dylan’s spirituality was not the “believe and obey” authority, clearly defined good and bad, reward and punishment, fear and guilt kind of fundamentalist type of religiosity, but instead it was an individualistic, humanitarian, mystical direct experience of God kind of spirituality.  He would certainly use themes from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but always interpreted mystically ,just as Joseph Campbell did.

    To me, Gates of Eden is the state of being for souls who no longer believe or perceive in an artificial separation between humans, nature, and God.  Everything that is outside of the Gates of Eden is for those whose spirituality has not yet developed enough to know that every being, every bit of matter organic and non-organic, the entire universe, altogether collectively is what God is.

  2. Never trust any commentator on Biblical themes who does not know the name of the last book of the Bible.  It is Revelation, or the Revelation to St. John.  It is not “Revelations.”  It is one long revelation.  Anybody who does not know this probably doesn’t know much about how the book should be interpreted.

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