The Via Dolorosa and Way of the Rose

Via DolorosaI embedded a riddle into the song Way of the Rose, on the Undercover album Balance of Power (1990). To those who care, this is old news (it went around on Usenet here and here). But I do still get questions about it and recently two people have asked and since have solved it on their own. There are other aspects of the lyric folks have asked about too. I really hate “artists’ statements” and don’t want to do any such thing here. But with Leonard Cohen’s discussions in mind about the sources of his imagery in many of his songs without divulging anything about their meaning, I think it’s probably ok that I do the same thing with this one, especially after all this time. Oh, and spoiler alert on the riddle too.

First, here’s the song followed by the lyrics:

Come back to me.
The flowers are dying, you see.
Mystery,
all turn and leave silently.
You never told me
The end of the story.

Rest me now!
Pray for the morning.
Show me how
to suffer the mourning.
You never told me
The end of the story.
Where are you going?
You never told me.

Nine and thirty
beats the daylights out of me,
oh no, no, no more!
Three, seven, nine;
all fall down another time**
on the Way of the Rose.
You never told me
the end of the story
along the Way of the Rose.

So wipe clean the brow,
and cry for yourselves and for your children.
Autumn comes,
a symptom of our time,
watch the flowers die.
You never told me
The end of the story
along the Way of the Rose

In the liner notes appeared this little clue at the bottom:

**Here’s another clue for you all. There are fourteen in all.

The riddle had to do with the numbers in the verse after the tempo change. Nine and thirty refer to the thirty-nine lashes Jesus was traditionally believed to have received (although there is no record, biblical or otherwise that says this was the number). Most people get that one right away. The next line is trickier though and that’s why I put the asterisk with the clue at the bottom, that there are fourteen in all, tipping the hat of course to John Lennon’s Glass Onion. Perhaps it’s best at this point to back up a little and put the song’s timeline in context. It’s also important to point out that I believe many of these events are legend and not historical but I wrote this song as a Christian believer. Everything below should be read in that context.

I imagined somebody contemplating the death of Jesus and its meaning, perhaps at his tomb after he was buried but before he was supposed to have been resurrected from the dead. In my mind this was Mary of Magdala. This would have been a time of deep confusion and sadness among Jesus’ closest friends. They had heard him talk about the kingdom of God and believed him to be the son of God, but now all that was apparently gone.

So there’s Mary or someone else, sitting at the tomb or somewhere else, reflecting on recent events in a number of stages. First it is more personal and when the drums enter it becomes more intense and confused, almost a panic about how to deal with and interpret the death of someone she dearly loved. Third, with the tempo change comes a recounting of the last day’s events and most of those events tool place along the Via Dolorosa, “held to be the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.”

Here’s where I have to eat a big serving of crow. Had I done my research at all, I’d have named that song Via Dolorosa to begin with, which of course would have changed the musical presentation too because of the lyric. Even as a Catholic I always assumed it was called the Via de la Rosa, the Way of the Rose. I assumed the “Rose” was Jesus, referred to in song and tradition as the Rose of Sharon from the Song of Solomon. It simply never occurred to me that it was anything else until it was way too late. Via Dolorosa translates to Way of Sorrow. I just got it wrong and have no excuse. I tried to mitigate the error by re-naming the song Via Dolorosa on all later editions on which it appeared.

The Catholic Church has fourteen “stations” along the Via Dolorosa that memorialize the events leading up to and culminating in Jesus’ death. Not all of these are found in scripture. Almost all Catholic churches have renditions of these Stations of the Cross as well for devotional commemoration. It used to be one of my favorite practices as a young Catholic. And thus, the clue. There are fourteen Stations of the Cross, and the third, seventh, and ninth station depict Jesus falling, falling a second time and again a third time.

3rd StationThe song was not meant to be a musical enactment of the Stations, but to highlight a reflection on a host of other thoughts and feelings centered on what must have been a dizzying, shocking and stunning series of tragedies using the Stations as a partial framework. While some of the Stations are implicit, the only other I included explicitly was the eighth, where Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

8th StationIt’s true that as I mentioned above, I don’t necessarily believe many of these events and others associated with the passion are historical and actually happened.  But the song does not depend on nor is it about the historicity of the story and that’s all I’m going to say about that. What the human element of the lyric means to listeners is more important and frankly, more interesting to me.  But to drive home the larger point, and the way I think about some of my songs now, I offer the following closing thoughts.  I wrote in an earlier post (here), that…

From Branded on, our message was one of self-forgiveness, acceptance and forgiveness of others, tolerance, kindness, wonder, love, all it means to be a complete human being.  I was not then at the point where I believed any of that was comprehensively possible outside of Christianity.  I know it is now, and that it’s not important what container love comes in.

And in another (here),

I don’t accept the premise that the deep inner and outer experiences that come with being human are religious phenomena. It is also certainly clear that those experiences cannot be assumed by any specific religion or creed as uniquely proprietary, nor are they any more real, intense, or deep simply because of faith.  These are human experiences, not religious experiences, and all peoples have them. […]

I have gone through the songs I’ve recorded over and over in my mind to see if there is anything there that could not possibly have had a positive impact outside the existence of God with no other possible explanation, and I come up empty. Forgiveness, love, tolerance, acceptance, kindness, charity, patience and long-suffering, a fertile, open and receptive heart, all human virtues are available to all of any creed and those with no creed in exactly the same way and measure.

BOP LogoThanks to Mitchell K. Dwyer for doing the digging and finding the rec.music.christian discussion and links.

12 thoughts on “The Via Dolorosa and Way of the Rose

  1. Thank you for this, joe. As a fan, I am ALWAYS interested in the “why/how” of the artists creation. I’m the guy that actually listens to the “commentary” on DVDs and watches the Special Features, to learn such trivial stuff. I don’t know, that’s just how my mind works.
    My sole disappointment in this song, was going through the effort to learn it on bass, only to later have Gyn tell me you played keyboard bass lol. Some songs like this, and ESPECIALLY “Sea of Tranquility” were exceptionally difficult to figure out on bass 😉

      • If you had this album on vinyl, I would have made that 12″ into a 10″ with amount of times I listened and re-listened to this song. It sincerely is a masterpiece, Ojo. You should still be proud of the great work. If we had used the word Epic back then as we do now, this song was the aural definition of that word.

  2. This song vividly reminds me of long winter runs I’d take after leaving full time ministry in 1992. My Walkman was armed with a mixed tape with songs from Balance of Power, Achtung Baby, Nevermind and I don’t remember who else. It was a time of such disillusionment with everything I’d ever known – but I wasn’t quite through with christianity yet. That would take a few more years. Thank you and your music for helping me stay sane during such a difficult time.

    • Sorry for replying to my own post but I was listening (on Youtube – I got rid of all those cassettes some time ago) to Balance of Power and Devotion and it occurred to me that these songs helped me mourn the loss of the god I thought I knew when I went into ministry. You know – the loving one that cared about people and wasn’t sexist or power-hungry or hypocritical? I learned that god didn’t exist the hard way and I think this period of my life (and your music) really helped me mourn and come to terms with reality. Again, I’m appreciative.

      On a side note – I am female. Around that time in my life, I went on a date with a christian guy and lent him one of my favorite tapes. I remember his absolute shock at my taste in such “angry” music. So “unfeminine.” lol.

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