By Tony Attwood
“All directions at once” is a series which looks at Bob Dylan’s writing as it evolves over time, rather than focusing on individual songs or albums.
The last two articles which dealt in depth with the way Dylan’s writing took us up to 1978.
Because of the momentous change that 1979 brought I decided that, before tackling 1979, I would go back to the start with five articles covering the first 15 years of Dylan’s writing, as I felt (even if no one else did) it was important to reflect on the enormous variance that there was in Bob’s music from the late 1950s to 1978. Those five articles were
- 42: The first five directions
- 43: Before the basement
- 44: Did Dylan really change in the Basement?
- 45: Bob starts the 70s… slowly
- 46: All Directions: the early 70s and Bob Dylan’s themes in his first 15 years
So now it is time to move on again… 1979 was a unique moment not just because Bob wrote overtly Christian songs having not written much about religion at all prior to this, but because he had never once before occupied himself with just one subject in the course of a whole year.
If you are interested, the full count of subject matter of Dylan songs up to 1978 is at the foot of the last article in this series. It is most certainly not definitive, not least because in many cases one cannot be exactly certain what Dylan’s specific intentions were within the lyrics, beyond providing entertainment. But we can pick out the religious songs before 1979 with some certainty, because there were so few of them.
Bob wrote two religious songs in the 1960s, and one in the sparse writing era of the early 1970s. I’ve concluded that Bob’s major areas of interest between his starting out as a composer and the end of 1978 were:
- Love, desire lust: 62
- Moving on, leaving: 51
- Lost love: 48
- Humour: 22
- Protest, rebellion: 20
- The environment: 17
- The blues: 15
- Being trapped: 12
- Dada: 12
Of course these are my classifications, and obviously everyone is welcome to have a bash at categorising Dylan’s songs, but I can say it is not as easy as it looks. I have tried these allocations of themes several ways and I now get roughly the same sorts of numbers each time, no matter which way I look at what we have. But since Bob doesn’t write (“Lost love”) or whatever after each song title, we can each decide for ourselves.
And even if I have allocated a few songs wrongly, there surely can’t be much doubt that Dylan’s religious output prior to 1979 was dwarfed by his main themes of love, lost love and moving on.
As for the religious songs, those which I feel can genuinely be considered as religious prior to 1979 are…
- Whatcha Gonna Do? 1962
- When the ship comes in 1963
- Father of night 1970
- Three Angels 1970
- Slow train 1978 (?)
“Whatcha Gonna Do?” seems to me to be a song asking simply what the listener will do at the time of the ending of all days – assuming that there is an all powerful God.
“When the Ship Comes In” feels like an ending of time song – the Second Coming of Christ, or God simply calling the end, or indeed similar predictions for the end of time which is not just the universe burning itself out but organised by a Supreme Being.
“Father of night” is, I think, related to a Jewish Prayer, although the version above (which I really adore) doesn’t take us in that direction at all. But, hey, what do I know?
As for “Three Angels” I am less convinced, although others have suggested strong religious references. To me it is an observation of what is out there in one street with a little philosophy at the end – but then again, opinions differ.
Which finally brings us to “Slow Train,” which sounds to me very much like a suggestion of change, but not of a change necessarily brought about by religion. Listening to Bob’s introductions of the song at concerts I think it became, in his mind, a religious piece, but it wasn’t written that way at the start.
Now I have read in other commentaries the notion that much, indeed some seem to suggest, all, of Dylan’s work is a religious commentary. Such a thought may be right (although I disagree), but what I don’t understand is why anyone who believed not only in a religion, but in the need to convince other people of the virtues of this particular religion, should tie up the meaning in a set of statements that are not clear. After all, in terms of Christianity, the final book of the bible seems very clear about what is going to happen. So why not be absolutely clear what you mean if you want to convert people?
Consider in contrast, “Whatcha gonna do” – I’ve removed the repeats from the lyrics to save space.
Tell me what you're gonna do When the shadow comes under your door? O Lord, O Lord, what shall you do? Tell me what you're gonna do When the devil calls your cards? Tell me what you're gonna do When your water turns to wine? Tell me what you're gonna do When you can't play God no more?
It seems to me that makes it very clear that the meaning is that one should repent your sins and believe in God, otherwise you are going to be in trouble after death.
Now compare and contrast with “Slow Train” where we have lines like
But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency All non-believers and men-stealers talkin' in the name of religion
OK, lots of religions tell us to beware of false prophets, but when we get to the end of Slow Train we have
Well, my baby went to Illinois with some bad-talkin' boy she could destroy A real suicide case, but there was nothin' I could do to stop it I don't care about economy, I don't care about astronomy But it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets
and that’s about having more concern for those we care for than for the world at large. If might mean more than this, but if so, it is not clear. And that’s the problem with ambiguous songs. They’re ambiguous.
But now consider the 19 songs written in 1979. The ambiguity has vanished, the whole style and approach is different in every regard. Different not just from 1978 but from virtually all 376 or so songs that have been composed before. Dylan has often been outspoken in previous songs, but where he was so different from other writers in the world of pop, rock and folk is that he used the metaphor, that part of the language that gives the poet the chance to show us that what we see is not all there is. To quote Shakespeare’s most famous stolen line (and yes Shakespeare nicked other people’s lines just as Dylan has done), “All the world’s a stage,” – a staggeringly brilliant simple metaphor.
Now the essence of a metaphor is that it is saying A is (or was or might be) a way of getting a deeper understanding of B. In short to understand A you can look at B and either get the whole picture or maybe a helpful detail. As in
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie
which is a more exciting way of saying, “there is no truth”.
But what do we have in “Gotta Serve Somebody?” Here there is an absolute absence of metaphor. The answer is not blowing in the wind – there is no wind, nothing is blowing, the world is not a stage, it is what it is, here is the answer, no arguing allowed.
Because the metaphor, in its multifarious forms, has been so central to Dylan’s writing, this non-metaphorical series of songs is something of a shock. Not that Dylan hasn’t changed before – of course he has – but it is the literary equivalent of Bob giving up singing and simply reading his works out with no melody or time structure.
In short these songs not only appear to be different in their meaning, they are also utterly different in their poetic approach. There is no metaphor, no obscurity, no phrases that we might think, “wow I’ve never thought of that”.
“Gotta Serve Somebody” won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Male in 1979. It was also a hit single with Dylan, singing it as the opener for every one of over 100 shows between 1979 and 1981. And here Dylan was indeed preaching. In fact there is surely nothing in the song apart from the preaching over a modest backing track. I am not sure I would go as far as the readers of Rolling Stone in voting it the second worst Dylan song – some of the more obscure items we found in our list of 625 Dylan compositions are far, far worse. Rather I’d say it is just, well, a rather ordinary song that bops along and tries to make up in background what it lacks in foreground. And not too successfully.
So my point is not that I am against Dylan writing propaganda for Christianity. Rather that a) it was sad to see him suddenly move over to one, and only one subject, instead of multiple subjects in his writing years and b) his strongest writing suit were metaphors and obscurity, and with that gone, the song lyrics lack a major part of what Dylan previously was. “My love she speaks like silence” is no longer on the agenda.
And so we are as far away from
Of war and peace the truth just twists Its curfew gull just glides Upon four-legged forest clouds The cowboy angel rides
as it is possible to be. Dylan spells out the meaning out both in the songs and in his sometimes rather long introductions to his shows (which on occasion met with a somewhat rowdy response from the paying public).
What I am reminded of most of all is the comment by David Byrne of Talking Heads: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It simply is. Interestingly Byrne also took that view in song, “Say it once, say it again.” (Psycho Killer). And that is what Dylan is doing here. Telling us the same thing rather than endlessly changing his vision of the world.
And this was not just a big loss but also a curious situation. For where previously many of his songs were obscure, such that some craved information as to what they were about, these songs are overt and clear, and yet Dylan spent a lot of time on stage telling us what they were about – as if we didn’t know.
When finally the meaning of one of these Christian songs was transformed it was not by Dylan at all but by Sinead O’Connor who had been cruelly abused in the name of Christianity, and whose poignant “I believe in you” took on extraordinary levels of meaning once her past at the hands of the Magdalene Laundry was revealed.
Meanwhile back with Bob, aside from the assertion of his own faith, he was looking to convert. “Ye shall be changed” for example has the lines
All your loved ones have walked out the door You’re not even sure ’bout your wife and kids no more,
Telling people that they have got it all wrong had never been Bob’s style before now. Even “Times they are a changin” doesn’t do that – although it does tell people not to criticise what they don’t understand. “With God on our Side” criticises the view of suggesting that one country can claim God as its own, and songs like “Only a Pawn” and “Hattie Carroll” tell us what’s wrong socially, but Bob had until now always shied away from telling us exactly how to behave to put things right – until now.
And yet even if I find a major part of Bob’s work to have vanished in 1979, we cannot dismiss the music – or at least not all of it, because half way through this year Bob Dylan gave us one of his absolutely amazing best pieces of music of his entire career. “I believe in you” is exquisite music way beyond the norms of popular song, but if you are a regular reader of my ramblings you will know where we have got to: When He Returns.
For me, it isn’t the lyrics that make this a masterpiece (and indeed that would be hard given my lack of the faith that occupied Dylan for around 18 months) but the sheer beauty and elegance of the public performances of this song.
And it is a song that can easily be destroyed by going totally over the top but Bob doesn’t in the live performances of piano and organ.
And that is (for me at least) the great moment to come out of this year of religious songs. Lyrics, music, arrangement merge today into a sublime performance; one of the most sublime performances of Bob’s career. Which probably just shows that if you believe in what you are singing, it certainly helps.
As time passed, (and certainly by the time of the composition of Covenant Woman), Bob seemed certain he had sorted out a deal with the almighty.
I’ve been broken, shattered like an empty cup I’m just waiting on the Lord to rebuild and fill me up And I know He will do it ’cause He’s faithful and He’s true He must have loved me so much to send me someone as fine as you
Some of the songs kept going, and some even got introductions from Bob…
… while songs like “Saved” got played and played and then were suddenly dropped with never a hint of a return.
And as the first six songs of 1980 continued in the same way we began to wonder if there were ever going to be any non-Christian-preaching songs ever again. Even the rehearsal songs like “See by faith” were Christian.
But as Chrissie Hynde (who is a follower of Vaishnavism) shows is that doesn’t stop anyone singing the songs and enjoying the music.
And then quite suddenly that was it. For out of the blue there is that awkward feeling that maybe Bob did not want to be the property of an entity from beyond any more. Maybe he was saying that there are others who are the property of Jesus and that’s ok, but it’s not Bob, at least not any more. For next Dylan wrote a song that he said came to him out of the blue, and didn’t come from the Bible but from one of his old sources of inspiration William Blake: “Every Grain of Sand.”
And Blake most certainly was not a Christian in the classic sense, at all.