When The Deal Goes Down

Album: Modern Times (2006)
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Songfacts®:

  • "When The Deal Goes Down" has often been characterized as a love song, but that's oversimplifying it at best and missing it completely at worst.

    The song is heavy with Biblical allusions, as well as lines lifted directly from poems written by Henry Timrod (1828-1867). "Where wisdom grows in strife" comes from Timrod's "Retirement," and "tomorrow I will turn it round and round" comes from "A Rhapsody Of A Southern Winter Night."
  • The "deal" referred in the song appears to be something mystical if not downright Biblical, such as the End Days of the Book of Revelation or the covenant established between God and Abraham in Genesis 17:4. The song is a meditation of weariness with the world and its illusory pleasures ("I heard the deafening noise, I felt transient joys, I know they're not what they seem") and about stoicism, not just accepting but embracing the harsh nature of reality ("in this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain, you'll never see me frown").

    Through this long suffering, Dylan proclaims "I owe my heart to you," without ever saying who the "you" is. The natural assumption is that it's a lover, but that's inconsistent with both the rest of the song and with Dylan's previous songs on such subjects. He's always been a seeker, a mystic, and a student of religion.

    Given the heavy biblical allusions in the song and Dylan's Christian conversion of the late '70s and early '80s, the "you" is much more likely to be Jesus than to be a lover, or perhaps God or some more nebulous spiritual concept. Whichever, it's highly unlikely that it's something as trite as a romance.
  • We all wear the same thorny crown

    The Bible states that Jesus was forced to wear a crown of thrones before being led to his crucifixion. This would have been a literal crown of thorns that painfully cut into his head while portraying a mocking symbol of his supposed rulership over the Earth and humanity.
  • I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true

    Given the rest of the song, the person Dylan's addressing here may be Jesus or God just as much as it may be an actual singular person. Dylan famously went through a Christian conversion experience at some point in the '70s and '80s. He eventually got more shifty about revealing his exact religious beliefs, but presumably those feelings still remain to some degree. In his Christian Trilogy of albums (Slow Train Coming in 1979, Saved in 1980, and Shot Of Love in 1981), Dylan treated his conversion experience as a rebirth, something that took a man with a dead heart and conscience and fired it into life. These lines may hark back to those sentiments.
  • We live and we die, and we know not why

    In All The Songs, authors Phillippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon point out the similarity of this line and the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (8:17): "No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it."

    Dylan has been a seeker all his life, and it makes sense that this line of Ecclesiastes would hold an important place in his psyche. It summarizes the gist of the whole book, which is one long explanation about the inscrutability of God's will and the meaning of life. Another line in the song reminds of Ecclesiastes, as "we eat and we drink, we feel and we think, far down the street we stray" calls to mind Ecclesiastes 9:7, "so go eat your food and enjoy it; drink your wine and be happy, because that is what God wants you to do." This line summarizes the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, as the final analysis of the book is that we can never know what life is really about, so we may as enjoy and be grateful for the little pleasures we can find.
  • Dylan mentioned he was working on this song as early as 2004. During an interview he did to promote his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, he told David Gates of Newsweek that he was working on a song based on the melody of a Bing Crosby tune titled "Where The Blue Of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day)," which is the melody "When The Deal Goes Down" is based upon.
  • As he did for the entirety of this album and for a good portion of his work since the 2001 Love And Theft album, Dylan produced this song under the pseudonym Jack Frost.
  • In a 2010 interview with Nightline, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr called "When The Deal Goes Down" his favorite Dylan song of all time.
  • In 2006 Bennett Miller filmed a video for this song with actress Scarlett Johansson. Miller has directed highly regarded films such as Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011). He's been twice nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director and won the 2014 Cannes Film Festival Best Director Award for Foxcatcher. The video looks as though it's home video footage from the 1960s capturing Johansson with several Dylan-referential props, including a copy of Woody Guthrie's memoir Bound For Glory (Guthrie was young Dylan's musical hero).
  • Tom Jones covered "When The Deal Goes Down" on his 2012 album Spirit In The Room.
  • Dylan performed the song live for the first time in Vancouver, Canada, at the Pacific Coliseum. It often shows up in his setlists.

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