`Viva la Vida` – `All Along The Watchtower` for 2008?

The perennial question of ‘What the heck is that all about?’ with regard to the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ was kicked off last year when a haunting version of the song by Bear McCreary was used in the season finale of ‘Battlestar Galactica’.  The brooding, beat-driven, almost trancelike music provided a stunningly effective counterpoint to the unfolding action of the last 15 minutes of the episode.

The dense, occasionally apocalyptic imagery of the lyrics of the song, drawing as they do on at least two archetypes – the Trickster and the King – provide a Rorschach Test for the listener; to a great degree you can project in to the song whatever floats your subconcious boat. 

And so to Coldplay, and Viva La Vida.  I wasn’t a great Coldplay fan – I actually admitted to my wife that I got them mixed up with Radiohead.  For me, hipness is simply where my legs pivot. 🙂  But I caught a snatch of the song on an iTunes advert and thought – that sounds interesting….if weird….  One swift trip to HMV later – sorry guys, I’m not techie enough to manage this downloading tomfoolery – I like polycarbonate! – and I had a good listen to the album…which I enjoyed greatly.

And so to this song…it clearly seems to have triggered a lot of thought and analysis in people.  There are a number of versions of the lyrics on the lyric sites online – most of them (to my 47 year old ears) seem reasonably accurate.  Google is your friend here…anyway:

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing:
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
Once you go there was never, never an honest word
That was when I ruled the world

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in.
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t believe what I’d become

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

Again – a lot of imagery of which a great deal is religious and obviously historical.  A few theories propounded on the Internet have suggested that it’s an allegorical reference to the Bush Whitehouse, or the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.

My immediate thoughts on this song were that it was pretty much something to do with Roman period Jerusalem (nothing complicated there!), and I started contemplating events that would fit.  Now, as regular readers will have realised, I’m very interested in Pontius Pilate (see my short review of ‘The Master and Margarita’), and after a few minutes thinking I got quite convinced that the song was referring to Pilate.

I felt rather smug at this point, did a Google and found this link –http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080604143507AADrMnN&show=7 – which indicated that a chap from London had come to the same conclusion a couple of weeks previously. Anyway – in addition to the comments that are made in the link, here are a few more thoughts.

One thing about Pilate is that he’s a very anonymous person in historical terms; there’s a great deal of speculation and mythology around him, and so my analysis here draws on that.

“Viva la Vida” – a VERY loose translation might be ‘Live Forever’, reflecting one version of the myth that states that Pilate, like the Wandering Jew, was damned to live forever as punishment for his act of cowardice.

“Roman Cavalry…” – Pilate was a member of the Equestrian class of Roman Society – a sort of lower rank Patrician – and in his duties in Jerusalem he would have commanded only a few hundred troops – probably light cavalry and auxilliaries, akin to a police force.  Bulgakov, in his novel, certainly took the view that Pilate would have had light horsemen available to him that were deployed at the Crucifixion.

“See fear in my enemies eyes…” – Pilate’s military career isn’t clear; it’s likely he spent at least some time as a soldier.  Again, in fiction Pilate is regarded as having been a military officer.

“Rolled the dice…” – this may refer to the Biblical reference where soldiers played dice at the crucifixion for Christ’s belongings.  However, I think it’s more likely that it refers to the game of ‘Basileus’ – a dice game something like Ludo which was popular amongst the troops AND was played by the troops in Jerusalem – there is evidence in the form of a game board cut in to stone in the vicinity of the palace.  The aim of the game was to become king, and the winner might easily be dressed as a mock king as part of the game – this could refer to the ritual humiliation of Christ at his hearing with Pilate as described in Matthew 27.

“held the key…” – Pilate did indeed hold the key to what happened to Christ; Bulgakov hints in his novel that Pilate was tempted to try and free Christ and have him accompany him to his own home. 

“Seas rose at my command”… OK…a bit of a stretch but…Pilate carried out civil engineering projects in his reign, one of which was a viaduct project to improve the water supply of Jerusalem by carrying water from elsewhere.  Another possible hint is again part of the eternal fate of Pilate according to myth – that after his death the waters and land of the Earth would not hold his body – the seas could be regarded as having risen and rejected him.

“castles built on pillars of salt and sand” – someone with a viewpoint of eternity would regard the things that were important during his life to be ephemeral in the great scheme of things.  Again, another Biblical reference here is to the Sermon on the Mount.

“puppet on a lonely string” – Pilate was a Governing official of limited real power – not quite a puppet, but restrained in his ability to do his job by the Empire and local Jerusalem politics.  However, it could also be read as him being a puppet of fate; the Crucifixion is the defining moment in Christianity – Pilate’s actions might therefore be regarded as pre-ordained and out of his control.  A true puppet of destiny.

So….my personal interpretation!

I wonder if discussions will be taking place about it in 40 years time like with ‘All Along The Watchtower’?