Precious Angel. Unpopular, otherwise brilliant.

by Jochen Markhorst

A professionally made, quite moving road movie, My Own Love Song from 2010, with excellent acting by mainstream stars such as Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker, but still unsuccessful. Most reviewers are very reluctant in awarding stars, points or thumbs and accuse the film of a too high dose of imposed sentimentality. The visitor numbers are disappointing.

The French director Oliver Dahan, who has just won another Oscar (for the Edith Piaf film La Vie En Rose, 2007) has surprisingly been able to attract Dylan for the soundtrack. Dahan is shameless and does not, as Dylan is used to, ask for one single song to be played over the credits, no, he wants a whole thread of new Dylan songs throughout the film and therefore asks, in a letter, sans gêne, for “ten to twelve songs”.

In the 2014 Rolling Stone interview with writer Douglas Brinkley, Dylan tells, still amused, about that episode:

“At first this was unthinkable,” Dylan recounts. “I mean, I didn’t know what [Dahan] was actually saying. [In faux French accent] ‘Could you write uh, 10, 12 songs?’ Ya know? I said, ‘Yeah, really? Is this guy serious?’ But he was so audacious! Usually you get asked to do, like, one song, and it’s at the end of the movie. But 10 songs?” Dylan continues, “Dahan wanted to put these songs throughout the movie and find different reasons for them. I just kind of gave the guy the benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was doing.”

But it doesn’t save the movie. A real hit á la “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is not included, unfortunately. For the apotheosis, Dylan delivers “Life Is Hard”, which ends up at Together Through Life (2009), just like the other songs he apparently can dash off for Dahan, but are not very memorable either. Fortunately he also allows the use of a few oldies: “What Good Am I?”, “I Believe In You” and “Precious Angel”, sung by Zellweger.

It is one of the most problematic songs on Slow Train Coming, “Precious Angel”. The music is beyond criticism; heavenly melodies, catchy chorus with a Dylanesque reuse of an antique song (in this case “The Midnight Special”), guitarist Mark Knopfler at its very best, fantastic wind players, crackling, glowing production by the old master Jerry Wexler and a virtuoso singing Dylan, who is in full swing on this first gospel album. No problems so far. On the contrary.

But then the lyrics. At another highlight of the record, “I Believe In You”, the listener can still avoid the gospel; with a little blink of an eye that particular song can be heard as a “generic” love song. With “Precious Angel” that works for at most half a couplet. It starts in any case as a declaration of love to a woman of flesh and blood. And not even a fictional lady. This is the record on which Dylan abandons an earlier creed and suddenly writes confessional lyrics, writes songs in which the narrator and the writer coincide, in which Je is suddenly no longer un autre. And it is quite easy to deduce from Dylan’s biography that Mary Alice Artes is being sung, which he also almost literally reveals on stage (Seattle, January 14, ‘80).

It is a frame story; Dylan tells what a lady told him about a conversation she supposedly had with a taxi driver. The taxi driver had started talking about Dylan’s conversion:

She was riding in a cab once and, … it was in a big city. Cab driver turned around in the cab and said, “Did you hear Bob Dylan’s a Christian now?” And this girl said. “Oh, I think I have heard that. How does that relate to you? Are you a Christian?” And the driver said, “No, but I been following Bob now for a long time.” And the lady said, “Well, what you think of his new thing?” And he said, “Well, I think they’re real good, but I tell you I think that if I could meet that person who brought Bob Dylan to the Lord I think I might become a Christian too.” And this here song, this is all about that certain person.

We still remember Mary Alice Artes from the credits on Street Legal (1978), to which she apparently contributed as “Queen Bee”. What Dylan means by that is enigmatic. As a rule, Queen Bee is an unflattering indication of the most popular girl in school, who holds onto her position as queen bee in the hive with untouchable self-assurance, psychic terror and a platoon of lackeys. Queen Bitch is a synonym, so swishy in satin and tat, according to a sardonic Bowie (on Hunky Dory, 1971).

Dylan, however, is very fond of Artes. According to the Ottowa Journal of September 1, 1978, she is with Dylan in Minnesota, after the European tour, he follows her to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship and one source claims to know that he proposed, with ring and all. The song “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” (1981) then is the poetic representation of the rejection. In any case, it cannot be reconciled with the condescending function assignment Supreme Bitch. A few people therefore guess that the somewhat horny, enamoured and playful Dylan, who has just recorded the slightly scabrous “New Pony”, makes an insider joke for Mary Alice; the “B” would stand for “boobies” and Dylan is therefore allowing himself to an allusion to a physical quality of his adored one.

We probably won’t find out any more. Mary Alice Artes is an unspectacular supporting actress in rightfully forgotten B movies (some excerpts of the toe-curling She Came To The Valley can still be found on YouTube). Her claim to fame is limited to her time with Dylan, after which she again disappears from the scene.

But here in “Precious Angel” she is still radiantly present. She is the one who leads the blinded singer to the light, and deep in the Bible Dylan finds a kindred spirit, a congeniality even: their ancestors, long ago, were fellow slaves. In the service of the pharaoh, in Moses’ time, the slaves are both Ethiopian ancestors of the African-American Mary Alice and Hebrew ancestors of the Jewish Bobby Zimmerman. “We are covered in blood, girl, you know that our ancestors were slaves.”

And the fact that the Jew Moses married a black woman (Numbers 12:1 “for he had married an Ethiopian woman”) makes us more than soul mates – you are even my flesh.

If only the poet had left it at that, at this declaration of love and the John Wesley Hardin-like biblical references – the song could still have been on the playlist after 1980. But it goes wrong early in the text. The “spiritual war” in line 5 already predicts a frying pan and in the following line we jump into the fire: either you believe or you are an unbeliever, there ain’t no neutral ground.

A bit unsettling. This is the final step before fundamentalism, intolerance and fanaticism. It is not a one-time slip of the pen either; also in “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” Dylan expresses similar dogmatic certainties. Fortunately, the poet does not persist in this. In the next two evangelical records, the sharpest edges are gone, and in the interview with Paul Zollo, April 1991, Dylan looks back with little pride on “Precious Angel”: It’s just too much and not enough. The memory even provokes an indirect, half-hearted regret: “Somebody told me that Tennyson often wanted to rewrite his poems once he saw them in print.”

The irreconcilability in that first verse and the flaming hate rhetoric in the second verse (borrowed from Revelation 9:6, “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them”) are responsible for the unpopularity of the otherwise brilliant song. Dylan himself never performs it again, it is rarely covered, even in gospel circles.

The popular Christian dance band World Wide Message Tribe deserves purgatory for their rape of the song (1998). There is an inconceivably unsuccessful living room recording by the Irish phenomenon Sinéad O’Connor, which, remarkably enough, she herself posts on YouTube and actually only the Renee Zellweger version from the film approaches the beauty of the original.

For cinematographic reasons, that version is limited to one verse and one chorus and that really is a shame; beautifully, intimately arranged and surprisingly well sung by the actress, who seems to sing the second voice too. The fragment adorns a silent film scene, in which Zellweger in her wheelchair is illuminated by the light of fireworks, you torch up the night.

Her eyes slowly fill with tears.

Renee Zellweger:

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