Serenading the Masters of War



If you’re Bob Dylan and it’s 1990 and you want to get a lot of attention for your 66th concert of the year, what should you do? How about play the Eisenhower Theatre at West Point?

When Dylan and his band took the stage on October 13 for a show at the most famous military academy in the United States people sort of lost their minds. Just hours upstate from New York City, and not far from his old stomping grounds in Woodstock, the show attracted three audiences: fresh scrubbed cadets with crewcuts, ageing hippies in tie-dye, and New York based reporters with their mouths hanging open.

Rolling Stone wrote about the show. The New York Times wrote about the show. According to Bjorner newspapers in Sweden wrote about the show. Here he was, the voice of anti-war protest singing at the United States Military Academy. It had to be some kind of signal about the end of the world. I highly recommend both of these articles for their descriptions of the show.

Interestingly, because the show was bootlegged, you can check the facts on these live reports. Alan Light of Rolling Stone suggests that Dylan was tentative to open the show, but I don’t hear that at all – it sounds like any other Dylan show from 1990.

I have to say, I grabbed a copy of this show mostly hear to the high irony: the fourth show of the evening was “Masters of War”. Would, I wondered, Bob Dylan really go to the United States Military Academy and sing “I hope that you die / And your death’ll come soon” right to their faces? Apparently, yes. Yes, he did. It’s a rollicking version too. Light suggests that he swallowed the lyrics. No, no he did not – they’re as clear as anything else he sang on that night. He also suggests that the song didn’t go over well with the cadets up front. Possibly, but the cheers are no less loud for this than they are for anything else.

The other odd moment of the show is in the encore, where the crowd – including, presumably, the cadets – sings along to “Blowin’ In the Wind”. These were young men training for the then inevitable first American incursion into Iraq, and here they were singing “Blowin’ in the Wind”. It’s an odd world.

PS. Dylan wrote in Chronicles about his desire to go to West Point:

I asked my father how to get into West Point and he seemed shocked, said that my name didn’t begin with a “De” or a “Von” and that you needed connections and proper credentials to get in there. His advice was that we should concentrate on how to acquire them. My uncle was even less forthcoming. He said to me, “You don’t want to have to work for the government. A soldier is a housewife, a guinea pig. Go to work in the mines.”

I’m glad that he finally made it!

(He’ll also return to the same venue in 1994. No “Masters of War” that time)



The first, and only, single from Bob Dylan’s 1990 album Under the Red Sky, is “Unbelievable”. It’s a pretty decent song, certainly one of the best or even the best on an otherwise weak album. It rocks, it rolls, it could have been a Traveling Wilbury’s song.

The video, seen here in a YouTube clip that looks like it was filmed through gauze, is one of Dylan’s most interesting in years. He himself just sort of floats around in it in a limousine driver’s hat. The narrative is carried by some handsome young man (seriously, I don’t know who that is) and his affair with the sexy version of Molly Ringwald, no longer the John Hughes teen queen.

This is nearing the end of Ringwald’s run with fame. Her huge successes were from 1984 to 1986 with her John Hughes trilogy. By 1990 she was transitioning to “mature” roles and she went off the rails with films like Betsy’s Wedding. She did get to work with Jean-Luc Godard, though. Here she doesn’t work with Dylan, or at least they’re not on screen together. Molly is the femme fatale who steals the handsome hero’s money and car and drives away. I guess that’s supposed to be unbelievable.

The video would be accused of being a very direct inversion and rip-off of Thelma & Louise, where Brad Pitt sleeps with Geena Davis and then takes her money (but not the car), except that film came out a year later. Must have been something in the air for Dylan and Ridley Scott to be working the same side of the street.

This is probably the best Dylan music video to date – partly, I suppose, because he plays such a minor role. He’ll do similar things – handing off the heavy lifting in the videos – for a number of his other singles in the years to come.

Ringwald is now an author and a singer with her own albums. Maybe Dylan will be in one of her videos?