Dylan and the Cross

American singer Bob Dylan performs at the Olympic Stadium in Colombes, France, before an estimated 40,000 fans, June 23, 1981. (AP Photo)
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This began as a Christmas Day post, perhaps appropriately so. So let’s consider that still, despite being a couple days late.

I’m a longtime fan of Bob Dylan, though fandom doesn’t quite capture the connection. Dylan and his music have been a major part of my life since childhood. Literally since childhood. I’ve told you before about my father, the man who raised me. But he wasn’t my biological father. My biological father was a jazz musician. He and my mom split up before I was a year old. He died last year and we hadn’t been in contact in years. But when I was a small boy living in St. Louis we had a close relationship. I first encountered Dylan at that age when I saw a new copy of the just released Blood on the Tracks in early 1975. Another memory has us trying, but failing, to get into a Dylan concert, maybe in 1974. Just a small boy, maybe dragged along for no particular reason. Memories are uncertain at that age, certainly decades on. Both these men, born either a couple years before or after Dylan, had Dylan’s music deeply imprinted on to their lives.

I’ve always thought what’s known as Dylan’s ‘Christian period’ is the most underrated period of his career, though many see it as a black hole or an embarrassing digression. I raise it now because Dylan’s years’ long bootleg series has finally gotten to these years 1979-81 with installment #13 “Trouble No More”. (There’s actually a full deluxe edition with 8 hours of songs and a smaller two disk version for the faint of heart or light of wallet.)

If you’re not familiar with this arcana, in 1979, Dylan become a fundamentalist Christian. He all but stopped playing the first fifteen years of his songs and recorded three Christian albums, the first two thoroughly Christian in content and the last of the three with the certainty and fury of the first two replaced with something freer and more open. For many fans it’s either an oddity or an embarrassment though perhaps less so as its drifted decades into the past and seems more now like a brief interlude though one that has clearly had a impress on all his subsequent music. Some of this is that this music is simply incongruous, or close to incomprehensible for many Dylan fans, a ‘stumbling block’, as Paul puts it. But even if you find the content alien or unwelcome, it’s simply really, really good music.

That’s not the entirety of the story for me though. It’s not simply good music that you can appreciate even with no connection to the substance or meaning. These songs are a powerful spiritual force. I’m not a Christian. I’m a Jew, and not a terribly observant one at that. But Christianity isn’t alien to me, as perhaps it can’t totally be for anyone raised in the United States or steeped in American culture, where its themes and assumptions are ubiquitous. I’ve also been studying Christianity’s foundational texts, particularly the Pauline corpus since I was in college. This is a river that has coursed through my life. It’s one I’ve spent time in. It’s just not my river. But I visit.

What makes a lot of this material troubling or a stumbling block for many is that this isn’t the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s the Jesus who says “I came not to bring peace but a sword.” It’s the Jesus of rage who flips over the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple.

This is hardly surprising. Dylan’s pre-Christian lyrics were often apocalyptic. They are often tender and open. But just as frequently they are angry and rife with fury and cynicism. Above all else, especially in these first two Christian albums they are a straight-up challenge, a demand for a choice.

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?

or from the same song …

Now there’s spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground

But it was also the age. Dylan fell in with a febrile, ‘biblical prophecy’ form of fundamentalist Christianity, so-called ‘dispensationalism’ identified with Hal Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth. If you grew up like I did as a kid in Southern California in the 70s and 80s this is the sort of stuff you could find up on the UHF channels with some guy broadcasting from maybe out in Bakersfield picking apart how the The Apocalypse of John foretells how Leonid Brezhnev will spark the final battle at Megiddo or some other shit about the European Community and the devil’s sign of a single colored currency.

In other words, this is some seriously out there crazy shit.

That kind of prophecy stuff really doesn’t play much role in any of the songs. But what drives like a freight train through the first two albums is the searing immediacy of this variant of Christian message, that history may end soon and that we’re powerless in a spiritual maelstrom, that we are dependent entirely on the mercy which is purchased, unmerited, with belief. To access this music requires some willing suspension of disbelief, unless you come squarely out of this hard edged fire and brimstone Christianity. But secular listeners do that all the time with music out of the African-American gospel tradition. And yet because the intensity of the experience is so deep and Dylan is such a gifted songwriter these songs also capture some of the essential brokenness and hope for redemption and forgiveness which is at the base of Judaism and Christianity in really all their forms.

I’ve been broken, shattered like an empty cup.
I’m just waiting on the Lord to rebuild and fill me up

of from another song …

By this time I’d-a thought I would be sleeping
In a pine box for all eternity
My faith keeps me alive, but I still be weeping
For the saving grace that’s over me

As I was writing this post I skimmed some other reviews. It’s notable to me that some of the reviews just state pretty much flatly that a lot of the music is simply not good. But it’s Dylan. So we should still listen. Others convince themselves that in some way Dylan was finding a way to tour with what was simply an amazing gospel-infused band, many members of which were either then or later became legends in their own time. In other words, Dylan realized that to really plumb the depths of American music, Gospel music in all its lyrical and musical dimensions, he had to embrace the content and write from that place, that voice, that belief. That’s interesting. But I can’t really get with any of these interpretations. Occam’s Razor applies: Dylan had a shattering, smacked in the head religious experience which put Christ at the center of his consciousness, even though in later years he got cagey about whether precisely that is what happened. Any other understanding just doesn’t add up and isn’t honest with ourselves or the music. Musically it wasn’t altogether alien territory since biblical allegory and reference had always been part of his music and that had always been in part driven by his immersion in gospel and folk music, which are washed in Christianity. Whatever you think of the final product, I think this is the only way to understand the music itself.

The release of the official ‘bootleg’ edition is important because there’s a lot about this period that is quite opaque. First, Dylan was in many cases playing to audiences who had no idea what on earth had happened to him or what he was talking about. Or they knew exactly what he was talking about and did not like it at all. They were also, we’re told, particularly intense and rejuvenated live performances with another of the killer live performing bands Dylan often has had behind him over his career. The other reason is the three albums themselves.

Dylan was one of the first live performers to generate a large body of ‘bootleg’ recordings. You may think this started with the Dead or a bunch of other bands or artists. But it started with Dylan. Part of this is simply due to what has always been the fanaticism of his fans. But Dylan has always recorded lots of different versions of his songs. Combined with this, many fans have long felt that his best tracks weren’t the ones that ended up on the released albums. But these albums are a particular case. At various points in his career, Dylan’s put out albums with very, very uneven production quality. The first of these three albums Slow Train Coming is highly produced and in many ways exquisitely produced by Mark Knopfler. (Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler are the listed producers. But Knopfler was a major part of the recording process and it sounds very much like his sound, as we know it from his other production work, including for Dylan. Ironically, Slow Train is the first of Dylan’s albums to win an Grammy. That was in 1980.) But it’s arguably a little too produced. It has that very smooth Knopfler sound. But it’s not smooth music. It’s rawer and more bristling than that. The second album Saved is much much starker, very simple and underproduced, which in many ways is more fitting for the music. Listening to Saved is like entering a different world. It’s the closest I’d say to a true gospel album. Then the third, Shot of Love, is full of amazing music but just a complete mess in production terms.

If you’re a Dylan fan, you’re really left from these official releases wanting more of a sense of how these songs were played live when the belief was coursing through Dylan and just more about them generally. They leave you with the feeling that you’re only getting an incomplete, imperfect version of them from the albums. All of this makes this lengthy sampling from the vaults particularly awaited and really a treat. It doesn’t disappoint. There are eight hours of songs here, mainly rehearsal alternative takes, lengthy samplings of live performances from 79,80 and 81 and a few new songs that were never officially released.

You can see the evolution over the three years, particularly in the live recordings. The first track is a live performance of Slow Train from November 16th, 1979. He begins with the introduction: “This is called Slow Train Coming. It’s been comin’ a long time and it’s picking up speed.” We’re on notice early. This isn’t metaphor. God’s coming back. Soon. By the end of dozens of sounds the tonality is changing. And we see songs from the pre-Christian albums creeping back into the live sets. The third to last cut is a version of Blowin’ in the Wind recorded live in London in 1981. It may be the best version I’ve ever heard of this song. Some of my reaction is that, for me, the original folk version, played so many times by Dylan and virtually everyone else at some point or another has just had all the novelty crushed out of it, like a tunic worn 100,000 times by too many people. There’s nothing left. This is a very different version. It starts in a semi-spoken gospel version with Dylan almost over-voiced by his touring gospel chorus which then launches into a thumping electric, building rendition. It’s very good.

If you’re one of the people who treasures these albums, go buy this. If you can afford the full disc set, get that. If you don’t know these songs, listen to the samples and see what you think. Finally getting a chance to listen to mastered versions of the live recordings, what I think was clear is clear: these songs are best listened to in their live versions. The band is likely the best Dylan ever toured with. As live music it’s a revelation. But there’s more there than the music.

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