License to Kill

The concept of having a “license to kill” is popular in espionage fiction and films. The origin of that device is commonly thought to be from the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. In the first James Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royale, Fleming introduces the “00 Section” of MI6, Britain’s secret service. This “00” section – of which Bond is “007” – has many special permissions. One of which is a license to kill, or, in Bond’s words: “You’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some assignment.”

In the James Bond film series, a movie called License to Kill was released in 1989 with Timothy Dalton playing Bond. He was the fourth person to play Bond on film, and because of the darker tone of the movie and mixed reviews, the box office returns were poor, “making License to Kill the least financially successful James Bond film in the U.S., when accounting for inflation.” This was Timothy Dalton’s last appearance as Bond on screen.

As we know from other James Bond movies, there is always a big pop music song featured during the opening credits, usually accompanied by dizzying graphics depicting events from the movie. The song “License to Kill” was performed by Gladys Knight for the film:

Before this 1989 Bond film, Dylan recorded his own song titled “License to Kill” in 1983 and released it on the album Infidels. Unfortunately, we lost out on the chance to have a Dylan song as the opening number of a James Bond movie, setting the mood for the latest sexy and action-filled adventures for Bond.

The first sound heard in the song is the kick drum of Sly Dunbar, who, along with his partner Robbie Shakespeare on bass, provide the rhythm section for the song and the entire album (see the “Jokerman” post for more on these two giants). There’s a professional sound to this song, not many musical interludes, as Dylan must have wanted to keep the song dry for his singing and to emphasize the words.

Dylan has created two halves to this song, a male half and a female half. In the verses, Dylan shares his extreme pessimism for man’s direction as seen in the opening line: “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he pleases.” The hopelessness of man and our shared community continues in the third verse:

Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
​​All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies.

These are indeed gloomy sentiments. Dylan is saying that man has been trained to believe what he sees, but when there is deceit and dishonesty everywhere you look, there’s nothing else to see and nothing else to believe. Dylan says that the mismanagement of man’s thoughts and direction has been purposeful. We can jump back to the second verse to see how this was arranged:

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he’s bound to get ill
Then they bury him with stars
Sell his body like they do used cars.

It’s a loser’s game, according to Dylan. Groomed for life and set on a path that leads to nothing but disease and decay. With death, he’s stripped for parts and celebrated and exalted by burying him “with stars.” When considering this verse, it needs to be asked: Who are “they”? Who is it that’s rigging this game and mismanaging life “with great skill”? Dylan answers these questions in the last verse by singing:

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled.

Ah yes, now we’re getting to it! Dylan is shooting off a cannon of cynicism. He is saying that man exults before an altar, seeking out divine guidance, but there’s nothing there other than brackish water. Nothing holy to see. Man is seeing his own reflection, training himself for this life of purposelessness and exalting in it. It’s a horrific, circular conceit that we are being mismanaged through our own mismanagement.

With the words “altar of a stagnant pool,” Dylan is gesturing clearly at the church. Remember that this song is on an album called Infidels, named after those who are unbelievers and have disavowed religion. Dylan’s own disillusionment with the church was hinted at in “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (see Recliner Notes post here), one of the last songs recorded in Dylan’s “born again” phase before this new album Infidels. In “License to Kill,” Dylan is holding the church responsible for our shared destruction by upholding our own selfishness and exaltation. The final words in the last verse clinch it:

Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way.

As said above, the song is divided in half. The verses are devoted to the doomed ways of men. The choruses are focused on a woman, who lives “on my block.” This woman is described in each chorus in different ways:

She just sit there as the night grows still

and

She just sit there facin’ the hill

and 

Sitting there in a cold chill.

According to Dylan, this woman is a passive observer to the exalted doom of man. She knows that “he’s hell-bent for destruction,” and, despite his fear and confusion, she knows there’s nothing she can do. He won’t listen to her anyway; “He wants it all and he wants it his way.” All she can do is ask “who’s gonna take away his license to kill?” Remember that James Bond says that sometimes “you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some assignment.” Man has created a license to kill, convincing himself that he can take a life for some larger purpose. We can see that the overall perspective of the song “License to Kill” is from the woman in the chorus’s point of view. She is the one describing man’s own hand in his own destruction.

Dylan’s writing and performance of this song is highly pessimistic. He wants the punches in “License to Kill” to land as hard as possible. Strangely, this changes when the song is performed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1992 at Madison Square Garden for 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, or as Neil Young described it in his introduction to Petty as “Bobfest”:

Petty is no stranger to pessimism in his singing or his songwriting, but he treats the song differently by emphasizing the beautiful melody and handling it with great care. Petty is deliberate about his delivery, speaking the words “groom him for life” and “he’s afraid and confused.” During the bridge, Petty sings the words, “You may be a noisemaker, spirit maker, heartbreaker, backbreaker.” He pauses slightly before the word “heartbreaker” as a slight acknowledgement of his long-time band, The Heartbreakers, who are playing the song with him. They build the music of the bridge to a natural culmination and then stop. Petty holds the band from playing, gazing at the audience with a perfect Tom Petty smile before resuming the final verse. Mike Campbell – who always plays a flawless guitar solo – plays a flawless guitar solo. Then Petty repeats the key line from the chorus again, singing it slowly with a gorgeous harmony from Howie Epstein, and then ends the song. There’s no one else like Petty, who is able to balance the message of these words with a generous vocal performance. Even though the words are deeply cynical, knowing that man is “hell-bent for destruction,” Petty sings it as if it is a love song. Perhaps he is taking on the female perspective of the song, truly concerned about the plight of the man in the song and sharing her warning about the loss of the license to kill. Maybe it is a love song. He is singing this at a tribute concert to his old friend and Wilbury traveling-mate Bob after all. The care and tenderness with which he sings is for the man who wrote the song.

Photo by Marcel Eberle on Unsplash

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