By Pat Stack
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For Whom the Bells Toll

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Issue 270

‘Flashing for the warrior whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ every underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.’

I remember a couple of years ago on New Year’s Eve at midnight, staring across Cork city towards the harbour, where the lights of the ships, the harbour lights and the fireworks lit up the sky while church bells throughout the city joined ships’ horns and sirens in a cacophony of celebration. I was surprisingly sober and got caught in the moment; somehow the hopes and the fears of a new year starting seemed most starkly contrasted.

Strangely enough, the words of the above song entered my head, and it took me all I could do not to sing aloud. I think people all around singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ would have thought it very strange if I had burst into Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’, so I didn’t, but I damn well wanted to.

Back in 1964, an allegedly drug-fuelled Dylan wrote the song while stood in a doorway sheltering from a dramatic storm of thunder and lightning. Whether drug-fuelled or not, he seemed to capture the essentials of persecution and liberation as he gazed at nature’s wonder.

That night in Cork, the song, which I had always liked, now took on a whole new significance (no, I wasn’t drug-fuelled). As a result it has become one of my absolute favourites. As the verses unroll, you can almost see and feel each toll of thunder, and each dramatic flash, and as each occurs Dylan sees another oppressed, exploited or harshly treated section of society breaking free from the chains of misery imposed by a world of conformity, injustice and discrimination.

There’s a timelessness to the song which says as much about the fundamentally unchanging nature of capitalism as it does about the foresight and talent of Dylan. For here, almost 40 years on, we stare out across a globe in which Bush and Blair seem mindless of life or limb in their shabby but horrific lust for war. Here still the ‘warrior who has the strength’ to say ‘hell no we won’t go’ is the hero deserving of freedom. The underdog soldier still stares darkness and death in the face. Their war blocks our freedom, our fight against their war offers hope.

Still the ‘refugee on the unarmed road of flight’ has to flee the terror of what was left behind to face the uncertainty, hostility and sometimes hatred of the times ahead. Anyone who has watched the double standard of those who want to bomb Iraqis to save them from Saddam Hussein while not wanting to offer them asylum can only wonder at their brazen hypocrisy. So it is those who say ‘you are welcome here’ that build the path to freedom.

‘Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsake
Tolling for the outcast burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.’

If back in ’64 the system seemed to have abandoned and forsaken people, what of now? Whole parts of the world left to starve, suffer drought and disease by a system that has bottomless pockets for wars and weaponry, yet is incapable of providing basic nourishment. Whole sections of those living within the ‘wealthy parts of the world’ left behind, abandoned, homeless, jobless and without hope. Luckless, rootless, and effectively voteless. Left with little or nothing, the escape of opiates or alcohol becomes the solution for many.

No party cares for the outcast. In the US cutting taxes while cutting welfare is extolled as the only way forward. In Britain dismantling much of the protection built in the past is a project agreed by the leaders of all major parties.

‘Tolling for the searching ones on their speechless seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.’

If justice could be arbitrary in 1964 it is no less so now. Jails packed to the gills with those abandoned and forsaken, whether their crimes be the desperation of poverty, or the need to feed the habit that has allowed escape. Alongside them sit the innocent, the non payer, the shoplifter, the petty thief, not to mention those who have been stitched up, framed up and locked up.

In America three strikes and you’re out has meant life imprisonment for a man who stole a piece of pizza. Worse still death row is packed with people awaiting judicial murder, some completely innocent of any crime, others little more than children or with the mental age of children, all victims of ambitious politicians and unscrupulous lawyers.

Elsewhere Dylan looks to celebrate freedom for the ‘mistreated mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute’, the ‘gentle and the kind’, and for all those who he sees to be on the outside of a harsh and unkind society.

Finally he sees in the freedom he waits to celebrate a freedom for all, an escape from the isolation and alienation that the system imposes.

‘Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hungup person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.’

As we enter a new year the world is a very frightening place, but the resistance to the horrors of war, exploitation, poverty, pollution and injustice has also been growing. It is those who resist who can finally ring out the chimes of freedom.


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