Watered down love. A review of Dylan’s song, and what Pope John Paul II had to say about Bob’s writing.

By Tony Attwood

These lyrics pose profound questions about the nature of love, and help us redefine it as something very different to what it is generally held to be, via this string of simple, penetrating statements set to music in a lively upbeat mood. Simon Rees, March 2007

Four verses (five in concert, but four on  the LP) that all start “Love that’s pure” and a three line chorus.  It all sounds so simple, and yet it is a truly memorable song, not least for the arrangement which for this song works perfectly.  Commentaries on the making of “Shot of Love” suggest there were endless arguments about how the song should sound on the album – and as always Dylan got his own way.


And I suspect this time he was right.   This is Christianity as pop, pop as Christianity, and it works.

What really helps the music along is the held B flat as a bass note under the first two lines of each verse.  OK that is a technical musical point I know, but stay with me on this for a moment.  The technique of the held bass note as the chord changes it is not particularly uncommon, but the natural tendency of any bass guitarist would be to play the bass note of each chord, so B flat E flat in the first line repeated in the second.

But by having the bass on B flat constantly when we get to Dylan’s classic descending bass in the third line (E flat, D, C, B flat) we feel a real change a real progression. We’ve been held in one place for two lines, the tension builds, and how zap! the release.  We are now moving on.  Simple but highly effective.

There is a strong musical connection with Clean Up Woman by Betty Wright and on the record one verse is cut but always appeared in the live performances.

Love that’s pure, is not what you teach me
I gotta go where it can reach me
I gotta flee towards patience and meekness
You miscalculate me, mistake my kindness for weakness.

The whole musical arrangement is bouncy and fun as befits such a positive message from a Christian point of view – for as others have said long before me “Watered-Down Love” is Dylan’s singing 1 Corinthian’s 13, describing “love that’s pure”.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,  but do not have love, I gain nothing.   Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

It is poetic, profound, and as I would immediately admit as a non-Christian, awe inspiring, and Dylan, I think, does an excellent job of turning this into a 20th century song.  Dylan’s version doesn’t have the poetic beauty of the translation of  St. Paul the Apostle’s words, but St Paul didn’t have the benefit of the rock band behind him.  Of course I am not trying to compare Dylan to St Paul, but each version of the message has an uplifting elegance and beauty, suitable for its time.

Dylan also has some fun with his lyrics.  I have always particularly loved

Won’t sneak up into your room, tall, dark and handsome
Capture your soul and hold it for ransom

although the official site changes “soul” to “heart” for some reason.

But I think what has always stuck in my memory from this song is

Love that’s pure, it don’t make no false claims
Intercedes for you ’stead of casting you blame

And it was in considering this so many years ago when it was released, that I first realised that this is what I call real friendship.   For friends, for real friends, the friends you can call on who would go out of their way when you need them, there is never any hesitation in coming to one’s aid.

I can say, as I am now later in life (as it were) that on a few occasions when friends have needed me, I have tried to be there.  Not questioning, but there, if I can do something to help.

Indeed looking from the other side, I can say I have often been disappointed when I have had a person close to me accuse me of something, of which I believe I am not only innocent but which I would never do.  I get frustrated not because I didn’t do it, but rather because in my estimation of myself such an action would be quite unlike me.  I’ve ended up each time saying, “is that the sort of thing you think I might do?” and the answer comes back, “Well I don’t know do I?” to which I reply, “yes, if you know me, you know.  If you think about how I have behaved in the past, does it seem likely that I would suddenly do this?”

So true friendship and love for me is not watered down – it is having faith in your friends, and always being there for them, because you know them, you know what they would and would not do.  Friends…

Will not deceive you or lead you into transgression
Won’t write it up and make you sign a false confession

This sort of friendship – always being there for people when you can help them – is what I can share with the Dylan of this era.  And for me, very personally, it has occasionally brought reward.  Not financial, of course I don’t want that, but by actually out of nowhere long after the event having a person tell me that they still remember something I did for them – something that by now I have long forgotten, something which I just did because, that’s what you do for your friends.

All of which is to say, I can share all this positivity about friendship without being a Christian, and indeed without having a religion.  Atheists can be as honourable and “pure” as Christians.   OK we are going to burn in eternal damnation on judgement day, but up to that moment, we can be quite decent people.

So I guess if I had the talent of Dylan to enable me to write this song, I wouldn’t have got to the final moment of each verse with “You want a watered down love”.  Which would have removed a key element from the entire song, because that moment on “watered down” is held above the complex chord of F11.

It’s a chord you won’t hear very often, and if you are not a musician you’ll just hear and appreciate the tension.  All I am saying my mentioning F11 (a chord made up of the notes F, A, C, E flat, G, B flat – which is a lot of notes, although normally we don’t play all of them, the A in particular getting omitted most times) gives that held moment a musical tension to go with “down”, and it works perfectly.  A lesser composer would have missed that moment.

In considering this song, I found an interesting review in Christianity Today by Steve Turner which is not just about Watered Down Love but about Dylan and Christianity which makes the point that we should not confuse what Dylan says in the songs with Dylan himself.  The point made is that although Dylan moved on from a fundamental view of Christianity, in later albums, “God is a continuous presence, whether mentioned by name or not, and there is a recognition of sin, judgement, and the need for mercy.”

His view is that Dylan “studied the Bible in depth, put his career on the line (for a time) by refusing to play his back catalogue in concert, alienated his friends by accusing them of spiritual blindness, and horrified his record company by recording songs of a Christian explicitness unparalleled in the rock genre,” and that this religious interest can be seen in early songs too.  He cites “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, I would choose “When the ship comes in”, but there are many such examples.

Turner also cites the mystic influences that are all over Dylan’s work, mentioning the Zen inside Bringing It All Back Home, and the later interest in “the tarot, astrology, and Egyptian mythology.”

He continues, “Dylan’s church attendance was sporadic even in his most evangelical days but is now nonexistent. The womanizing and drunkenness that Dylan once saw as evidence of the old life have apparently continued almost uninterrupted,” and concludes “the lack of close Christian fellowship and Bible ministry must have affected the quality and consistency of Dylan’s faith. This may be in part because of Dylan’s restless spirit and continuous touring, but it’s also because churches have such trouble helping celebrities blend in as ordinary members.”

He continues… ‘One of the most startling remarks … comes from Pope John Paul II, when Dylan performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1997 World Eucharistic Conference in Bologna. “You say the answer is blowing in the wind,” said the pope. “So it is. But it is not the wind that blows things away. It is the wind that is the breath and life of the Holy Spirit, the voice that calls and says, ‘Come!'”

And since this is review number 300 on this site, and I wanted to make it a bit special, it seems rather appropriate to end with a quote from his holiness, especially since my good friend Pat who has constantly encouraged me in this endeavour of reviewing all the major Dylan compositions, is of the Catholic faith.

“It is the wind that is the breath and life of the Holy Spirit, the voice that calls and says, ‘Come!'”

Bob Dylan open discussion group on Facebook.    Or go onto Facebook and search for “Untold Dylan”

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