All Directions: the build up to religion (but everyone is wearing a disguise)

By Tony Attwood

This is part of the “All Directions at Once” series which looks at the ebb and flow of Dylan’s writing across the years, rather focusing entirely on individual songs or (as our earlier episodes have done) individual years.

There is an index to the whole series of articles here.   The previous article in the series was “The Early 70s” took us up to 1974 and the creation of the masterpiece that was “Blood on the Tracks”.   So the question now is, what did Bob do next after having written his utter masterpiece that is that album.

Bob’s life had shown him that while in his early years he had been able to create masterpieces at the drop of the hat, this was no longer possible.  Works of genius had to be nurtured, and that could mean having time off in between bursts of creativity.  Sometimes those “times off” could last a year or more.

As we saw, Blood on the tracks developed from the experimental work at the end of the previous year and so on that basis we might have expected the second half of the 1970s to involve several years out, an experimental year which shows signs of amazing genius, and then the creative burst of another album.   At least that is how it went last time around.

1975

But no, this is Bob Dylan we are talking about and it doesn’t work like that with Bob.  What we actually got in 1975 was a year of working with Jacques Levy.  Not exclusively of course, but much of the time.

That he could put out his own works of genius such as “Abandoned Love” which could inspire other brilliant musicians, was never in doubt …

… but the work with Levy gave Bob all sorts of new insights and directions.  Sometimes he did his old trick of taking a real live person (Joey) and writing about him in a way that annoyed many who failed to understand the whole concept of artistic re-interpretation.  They are probably the people who prefer photographs to visual art.

And there was a new bit of fun, turning the ruins of Mozambique into a sun-seekers paradise.  Has anyone ever done such a thing before in a pop or rock song?  I certainly can’t think of who.

A quick bit of hero worship in Catfish, a song about his wife, and the very curious, “What will you do when Jesus comes?” which is a real scream.

There are songs to argue about like “Rita May” and songs that themselves seem to be produced in order to create an argument such as “Oh sister”.  In short there is a lot of an artist who knows he has got his genius back, and who is now having fun as well as expressing himself.  He certainly isn’t holding himself back.

I am sure Bob didn’t say, “Hey let’s start a song by telling the fans I married a woman called Isis – they’ll spend months trying to work out who that was,” but with the level of fun and mischief this year, alongside the genius, that could have been exactly what he thought.

As for “Abandoned Love”.  Everything about this song shouts out “genius” and leaves one wondering why Dylan needed a collaborator.  Both versions that we have are so worth playing again, and again, and again.  “Patty’s gone” could be just as great, if only we could make it all out, but these are tantalising signs that the genius is most certainly still on full charge.

Looking at the video below we get, the checking of the ear peace, look up, look down… a solo performer doing a Dylan piece… that suggests this is going to be almost as awful as me performing the music for a set of Dylan lyrics for which the master didn’t have time to do the tune…. but in this case no.  Give the lady a try

1976

But then we did get the year of a pause, as 1976 gave us one song: Seven Days a song of lost love, and nothing more.  Bob played it a number of times in concert before abandoning it.  And yes there was something in there, but Bob simply couldn’t tease it out.

So we are now seeing the pattern – although two great albums came out before the pause.

1977

1977 with just seven songs looks like a modest year.  And it is possible that some readers in the United States will still see these as very modest songs in comparison with Bob’s earlier masterworks.

And yet in much of the world 1977 was seen as a year of another major breakthrough in terms of composition for Bob Dylan.  Indeed it is impossible to pick out one particular masterpiece above the others from this collection.  And they are not just masterpieces of popular music, they are unique experiments with rhyming schemes and formulations which, had anyone else decided to pick them, could have taken rock music in a totally new direction.  But musicians and composers tend not to try and emulate what Bob does.

From “Changing of the Guards” through to “No Time to Think” and ending the sequence of compositions for the year with “We better talk this over” and “Where are you tonight?” each of the seven songs of the year adds something so very special to Dylan’s collection; it is quite amazing that he not only had new things to say but new ways of saying it.

So these are songs that are of a very different type, and so once again the simple answer to the question of why he wrote nothing much for a year in between such productive periods is that Bob needed time to stop and refresh and find his new direction.

We also know that Bob and Sara divorced in June 1977, which means 1976 has to be seen as a year of turmoil and uncertainty, during which Bob almost certainly didn’t feel in any way at ease and relaxed enough to compose.   Not that the compositions of 1977 are very relaxed – far from it in fact – but sometimes anger and tension can be channelled into composition as much as love and relaxation.  “No time to think” seems to sum it all up.

1978

So what do you do when you’ve just had a really messy divorce, when your wife is threatening to take the kids half way across the Pacific ocean and your fans (at least in your homeland) didn’t much like your last album?

One option of course is to simply to go quiet.  Another is to go on tour.  Another is to write a load of songs with one of your backing singers.

Now the popular opinion of course is that Dylan found God and started writing with the evidence for this being the single song “Slow Train” which of course became the title track of next year’s album.  Except…

You really do have to stretch the imagination to turn Slow Train into a religious song and see it as the herald a new Dylan era.  Of course once the idea that Dylan had “gone all religious” has settled in, Slow Train sounds religious.  But on its own – and most certainly considering what else was written by Dylan around that song – no, it is not a religious song.  Rather it is a song which tells us we have become disenfranchised because we choose to see ourselves as disenfranchised.

In this regard “Slow Train” is very much like “Times they are a-changin'”.  As I have so-oft pointed out, “Times” doesn’t tell us to go out and change the world, it just says change is happening.  Likewise “Slow Train carries the same message”: times are changing.  It’s just going a bit slower than we previously thought.

And of course for anyone who believes in the inevitability of the Second Coming then these two songs make sense from a Christian perspective.  Otherwise they just tell us that things change.

But this time the big change that happened was that instead of saying that the world we see around us is the world we choose to make, Dylan announced that we were here because of the design of the Supreme Being.

And we can see the signs of this before it all starts, as Dylan’s 1978 compositions do have a flavour of our fate not being capricious chance, but being our own fault.  He’s not saying we’ve fallen, but he is saying it is down to us.

Both “I must love you too much” and “Slow Train” could easily be the highlights of the year; such brilliant contrasts.  However these songs are helped by the fact that elsewhere the year the compositions seems to be directionless.  Two further songs for “Street Legal” were written, in the midst of around eight co-compositions with Helena Springs of which we have copies, and at least as many again of which there seem to be no copies around, followed by a collection that only the most ardent fan even knows, let alone can sing.

“Daddy’s gonna take one more ride” and “Legionnaire’s disease” preceded “Slow Train” and “Do right to me baby” followed it, and then that was it for another year’s writing.  To me, it has all the hallmarks of a composer looking for the next big thing to write about.

I am not suggesting Dylan was cynical in adopting Christianity as the theme for his songs, but rather I am suggesting he adopted Christianity as a theme for song writing, when he had no other dominant theme in mind.  That doesn’t make him cynical, or his belief in Christianity insincere – it is just my observation of where his career as a songwriter had got to.

So, that just leaves me with my attempt to add my table of the topics on which Dylan was writing.  As I have said before the exact numbers here are not the point of this table, simply because so many Dylan songs can be classified under different headings, and I have to admit that each and every time I try and run this table it changes, simply because on listening to a certain song again I think it shouldn’t be in one subject area, it should be in another.

The purpose here is to show the spread of topics wrote about in his first 20 years of writing, and give a general idea of the themes, not an exact account – simply because we will all disagree on any attempt to classify the songs exactly.

Five subject areas I have identified have 20+ songs written in them and I have coloured them.   There are 48 themes in total and only nine have over 10 songs written in them.

Subject 1960s 1970/4 1975/7 1978 Total
Art 2 2
Be yourself 1 1
Being trapped 1 12
Blues 10 1 1 3 15
Change 4 2 6
The city 1 1
Civil/social rights 6 6
Dada 12 12
Dance 1 1 2
Death 4 1 5
Disaster 1 1
Disdain 6 1 7
Do the right thing 2 2
Escape 1 1
Environment 8 17
Fate 7 7
Future/eternity 2 2
Gambling 1 1 2
History 1 1
Homage 1 1
How we see the world 1 1
Humour 22 22
Individualism 7 7
Jewish prayer 1 1
Justice 2 2
Kafka 5 5
Labelling (rejection of) 1 2
Life is a mess 1 1
Lost love 34 5 7 5 48
Love desire lust 26 13 2 3 62
Modern life 4 4
Moving on/leaving 43 3 1 4 51
Nothing changes 4 4
On the run 1 1
Party freaks 3 3
Patriotism 3 3
People 8 8
Personal commentary 1 1
Postmodernism 1 1
Protest, rebellion 19 1 20
Randomness, surrealism 8 8
Relationships 1 1
Religion 2 1 3
Self interest 1 1
Sex 1 1
Visiting 1 2
Women 6 6
World Weary 1 1

This variety of themes is in contrast what was about to happen in 1979 – the first year in which Dylan wrote on one subject, and one subject only.

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.  Series we are currently running include

  • The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
  • The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
  • Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
  • All Directions at Once

You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down

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