November 11, 2017

IT'S A PURITAN NATION (profanity alert):

Bob Dylan and his vengeful, conservative God : The surprising thing about Dylan's evangelical Christian period? It isn't all bad. (YO ZUSHI, 11/09/17, New Statesman)

By the time he released Slow Train Coming (1979), his first album consisting of only devotional music, Christianity had become not just source material for Dylan but his monomaniacal focus. Jesus had once been invoked in his lyrics as a kind of cultural shorthand alongside Shakespeare, Achilles, Mr Clean, Aretha Franklin and TS Eliot - as one mythological character among a cast of many - but now he was "the way, the truth and the life". And the singer's Messiah wasn't the God of love, but an archly conservative God of vengeance.

Dylan the convert derided abortion and casually referred to San Francisco as "a dwelling place for homosexuals". He wrote nasty lyrics about Arabs "walkin' around like kings/Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings", and launched into lengthy, hectoring speeches at live performances in which he welcomed what he saw as the coming annihilation of mankind. "Don't be dismayed by what you read in the newspapers, about what's happening to the world," he said at a show in Tempe, Arizona. "The world as we know it is being destroyed... There's gonna be a war... called the War of Armageddon. It's gonna happen in the Middle East. Russia will come down and attack first. You watch for that sign." [...]

As in 1965, when he "went electric" and alienated folkies with his new rock combo, there were reports of walkouts and widespread heckling at his Christian concerts. Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, has long claimed to be a mere "song-and-dance man". Yet what first distinguished him from his peers were his words and the way he phrased them at the microphone. Now, in his worst gospel songs, he offered only a single message delivered in a series of uniformly shrill yelps: repent and convert, or else.

The problem, I think, was less his personal religious views than the narrowness of his new lyrical concerns. In much of his best work, he is thrillingly imprecise. In the late-1990s song "Red River Shore" (which for my money is the greatest thing he has ever written), he moves effortlessly from wishing he "could have spent every day of my life" with a lost love to a story of "a guy" who could raise the dead - Jesus again - with little need for explanation. What holds it all together is his committed vocal, the beauty of the music and the sense that beyond the song exists a larger world that we can only imagine.

Meanwhile, in the gospel-era "Do Right to Me Baby" we are instructed, "Do unto others like you have them... do unto you," over five verses that add little of any substance to the title. The poetry often died when the preaching began.

But Dylan was not to be deterred. Month after month he travelled across America and then across Europe with his Christian revue, which began with a backstage prayer meeting for the band, followed by a mini-set of hymns performed by the female backing singers. Then Dylan would take to the stage and present one Bible basher after another, ignoring his better-known and better-loved earlier material. Attempting to convert his entire audience, he interspersed the music with speeches that often sounded like the threats of a warlord or the witchfinder general: "Every knee shall bow, every tongue will confess!" When the response was hostile, he blamed it on the Devil, whom he claimed was "working all kinds of mischief in the crowds we visit". [...]

And that's the surprising thing about Dylan's evangelical Christian period: it isn't all bad. Some of it - the Blakean "Every Grain of Sand", the stirring hymns "Pressing On" and "Saving Grace", the powerful confessional "When He Returns" - is among the most deeply felt and affecting recordings of his career. Sifting through the new retrospective album Trouble No More, which covers the years 1979 to 1981, I found startlingly good live performances of songs such as "What Can I Do for You?", as well as previously unreleased gems such as "Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One".

Clinton Heylin's new book, Trouble in Mind, documents the tours and recording sessions with an obsessive detail that, at the very least, encourages the reader to come at it all afresh. Heylin claims that the gospel period "more than matches any commensurate era in [Dylan's] long and distinguished career", which is plainly a factual error. But his interrogation of what it was all for is, to fans like me, highly illuminating.

Despite being an atheist, I've always had a weird fondness for gospel-era Bob, even in his most disappointingly dogmatic moments. Just as I don't have to condone senseless murder to love Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" ("I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"), I feel no compulsion to agree with anything Dylan has to say about God in order to be moved by his songs of praise and mean-spirited condemnation. But when, in "Saving Grace", he sings, "There's only one road and it leads to Calvary," his voice straining and the organ exploding in ecstatic joy, I am almost converted. Almost. In a 1997 Newsweek interview, a less aggressively spiritual Dylan said: "I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music... The songs are my lexicon. I believe in the songs." I suppose I believe in them, too.

Posted by at November 11, 2017 4:34 AM

  

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