Bob Dylan Countdown #103: “License To Kill”Posted: February 19, 2012
Dylan didn’t quite get the recording of this song right on Infidels. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the music itself; Robbie Shakespeare’s stuttering bass line is the highlight. The problem is that the laid-back feel of the recording doesn’t jibe with the unsparing lyrics. You can sense the song’s true potential in the performance by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers during the 30th Anniversary tribute concert to Dylan. Better yet, look up the video of Bob himself performing it on David Letterman in 1984, when it was given a more raucous arrangement and he sang it with some “Like A Rolling Stone”-style sneer.
Still, even with these drawbacks, that original recording still merits this pretty impressive spot on the list on the strength of those incendiary lyrics alone, as Dylan basically condemns all of humankind for its folly. He argues that we devour natural resources, resources which include all the people who are sucked into the lie, in the name of narcissism and ill-advised manifest destiny.
Bob quickly lobs the first grenade when he sings in the opening verse, “Oh, man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” As someone who has always been skeptical of the need for millions upon millions of dollars for the space program when there would seem to be more practical uses for that money on terra firma, I’d like to send Bob a telepathic high-five on that one.
He then follows that up by delineating how man is bred to believe that conquest by violence is the natural order of things. This Everyman that represents pretty much the whole human race in Dylan’s scenario can’t help himself: “All he believes are his eyes/And his eyes keep telling him lies.” The final end is always the same: “Then they bury him with stars/Sell his body like they do use cars.”
The only one who is aware of this grand deception is the oracle-like woman who appears in each chorus, asking the same question: “She say who gonna take away his license to kill?” She never gets an answer, but “License To Kill” aims to provoke us as listeners to provide her with one before it’s too late.
(E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.)