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 index of all articles is here.
After a review of the ebbs and flows of Dylan’s writing process from the late 1950s to 1978, I then produced a set of five overviews (which in retrospect should have been written after each group of five of the main articles!) before in the last piece returning to the detailed look at the themes within one period – in this case 1979/80
This was indeed a unique spell for Dylan, since for 18 months every song was on the same theme: the Christian faith. What’s more, in writing about Christianity although Bob didn’t change his approach to music, his approach to lyrics did change. The metaphor and obscurity went and direct and clear commentary came in.
My thought on the removal of metaphors and obscurity – songs in which the meaning is not always clear and which leave the listener puzzling over the exact meaning of certain lines – is also a reason why I place “Slow Train” outside of the Christian catalogue. It’s not the only reason, but it is a powerful argument. The Christian songs are all immediately clear in their meaning.
Of course Dylan then adopted “Slow Train” as part of the Christian collection – but from where I sit, that song still suggests to me it is about change, not about giving everything up, to give oneself to the Lord. And as I have noted, Dylan had written a few religious songs across the years – but previously it was just another topic among the 46 different subject areas his songs had dealt with.
Thus for me “Property of Jesus” was the last of the series of Christian songs that began with “Gotta Serve Somebody.” After that came the pivotal point with “Every grain of sand”.
Others far more capable than I have argued this song back and forth, and for me it was Jochen who expressed the nature of the song when he wrote on this site, “Dylan weaves Blakean influences, biblical references, French symbolists and François Villon, intertwining with baroque, impenetrable, Dylanesque imagery.”
Of course it can be read as a Christian text, but I see it as having so much more than that inside it, exactly as Jochen points out. It has a confession, and Cain, knowing exactly what he has to do next… But hang on… what Cain did was kill his brother. So what is Dylan saying? Cain as a reference point to the future? That seems a trifle odd. No, I think it is as he said in 1962, it’s a “Mixed up confusion”.
Bob had turned away from his preaching to his familiar theme of ambiguity – of introducing words that are as likely to be there because they make interesting images and basically sound good, as they are they to carry a literal meaning. Plus the metaphor is back, the clear statement of handing oneself over to the service of the Lord has been edged out of the door.
To see fully where Bob is going, perhaps we need to know what the “dying voice within me reaching out somewhere” is actually reaching out to. But we are not told. OK, he is in despair and in despair some people turn to an all encompassing religion. But now he is encompassing possibilities once more. And indeed we might even consider that “Every Grain of Sand” is not a religious song at all, but a song of despair about religion.
But, the contrary argument could be made when considering…
“In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand”
and my reply is that yes this could be The Master as God, except we are back with metaphors. Tangled metaphors maybe, but still metaphors. And in the religious songs metaphors were pretty much set aside.
If it is Christian imagery it is convoluted and obscure, in my view, and also not what Blake was writing about at all.
However there is another way through this, to step aside from Christian imagery and see this as more a Taoist vision. Here the Master is not God or Jesus, but a master in the sense of a teacher. One who has mastered the arts of meditation. A swami. A Lao Tsu character – depending how you want to see him. And the mere fact that all is not clear again suggests Bob has moved on from the explicit Christian messaging in songs.
I would argue that in the second verse (and I take this song as having three verses not the six four liners as sometimes printed) there is little that is specifically Christian but there is everything to do with inward reflection and consideration. Yes, temptation is a Christian concept, but it appears in many philosophies. Where there is the notion of the free mind there is the choice of what to do – and temptation can always be there. But that notion in itself does not have to lead on to saying that this is temptation placed by the Devil. In the way Dylan writes, it could just be circumstance.
So, to me this is the tipping point; these are not Christian questions, but questions from a man who is interested in a philosophy that asks questions relating to the very nature of man without having the God-given certainty of the answers….. Dylan is gazing into the doorway, not just of temptation, but of his own future.
I also find it incredibly interesting to note that “Every Grain” was then followed by the majestically confused and constantly confusing Caribbean Wind…
Again some argue that this is a Christian song, and to this I would make just three points. First, it is not a song like those of the previous year in which the Christian message was set out clearly in a way that could not be misunderstood. Second, we have metaphors and the Christian songs don’t do metaphors. Third the lyrics go for a meander – it is hard to say it is all about the Christian message – although that argument has been made, and indeed made on this site.
We might call this period of Bob’s writing “varied”, or if we were being less generous it could be called “confused”, and that latter thought does help us understand “Groom’s still waiting at the alter”. Indeed lines such as
Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement, Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent Felt around for the light switch, became nauseated. She was walking down the hallway while the walls deteriorated.
could just as easily have been written into one of the many re-writes of Caribbean Wind as destined for the Groom.
It is also extraordinary that Bob could devise these amazing pieces of music and literature one after the other, and then abandon them. And why did it happen like this? To me the most obvious answer is that the old rock and roll, and all those metaphors just kept on breaking through, refusing to lie down. It is almost as if Bob could find a song writing itself, could play it, and then decide he didn’t want it!
And we get more of it with the next song Yonder comes sin (also one that was seemingly abandoned).
You wanna talk to me You got many things to say You want the spirit to be speaking through But your lust for comfort get in the way
I say: See them six wild horses, honey You say: I don't even see one You say: Point them out to me, love I say: Honey I got to run
The Year of Abandoned Masterpieces indeed – and he keeps going with at least a couple of versions of “Let’s keep it between us”. But Bob is never anything if not contrary, so he ended the year with … a piece of gospel in “City of Gold”. Make of that sudden change what you will.
As I have argued before, in studying science we are always taught to accept the simplest interpretations of anything we find, and I think the simplest of interpretations for this change was that Bob had stopped seeing himself as a servant of God.
Its a step by step process running down to Making a liar – the penultimate song of the year and one that I consider an absolute masterpiece of simple music.
For the most part just two chords over and over, and yet he can hold our attention all the way through. Who was making a liar out of Bob – if anyone – we are not really told.
Is he talking to the believers or the non-believers, or everyone? Certainly when I first heard the line, “Well I say that, that ain’t flesh and blood you’re drinking” gives us quite a challenge. From the moment I heard that line I felt it was a reference – an obvious reference – to the Eucharist (Holy Communion) in which the bread and wine are transformed into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
Which makes the lines
Well I say that, that ain't flesh and blood you're drinking In the wounded empire of your fool's paradise With a light above your head forever blinking Turning virgins into merchandise
an attack on contemporary Roman Catholicism. But does he also say that the church is correct in its beliefs, but it is misusing Dylan’s input? Or is Dylan admitting that he was a liar in the past? Everyone can decide for her or himself.
There were a few more religious songs to come, but after the statement of “Liar” I think it was by and large over. We were back to the old pre-1979 Bob.
All Directions continues shortly…
Could you write for Untold Dylan?
We are constantly looking for authors who can offer a new perspective on Dylan’s work. If you have an article ready, or just an idea for an article, I’d love to hear from you – just email Tony@schools.co.uk You can send me the full article (as a word file ideally) or just the idea, as you wish.
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