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 entirely on individual songs or albums. The index of all articles is here.
We have reached the early 1980s…. The last article in the series was “The end of constant Christianity”
My thesis relating to this stage of Dylan’s career is twofold. One part is that that Bob Dylan stopped writing overtly Christian songs in 1980 after “Property of Jesus” and then moved on to other topics, some obscure, some overt, some spiritual, some with Christian overtones, some not. So it wasn’t an absolute and complete break with Christianity that occurred, but a move away, sometimes with annoyance (as with “You’re making a liar out of me”) sometimes anguish, sometimes searching for what the world really was about if it wasn’t primarily about being the “Property of Jesus”.
The other element of my approach is that Dylan’s writing has from the very start gone through three phases. One involves writing brilliant song after brilliant song as for example in 1974, when seemingly every song is an absolute winner. There are other times when he almost totally stops writing (as in 1968, 1972 and 1976), and there are yet other periods where he writes a lot, but few of the resultant songs are those which most people would rank highly (such as 1969 and 1978).
It’s a simple theory that has served well up to this point, but 1981 is more difficult to fit into this vision. We might have different feelings about the opening songs of the year Shot of Love, You changed my life, Angelina and Heart of Mine, but I simply cannot be moved from the viewpoint that Angelina is an utter, stunning masterpiece in terms of lyrics and musical composition. And although it is pompous of me to say this, I suspect Bob knew that, and also felt he had not done it justice on the recording considered for the album.
And perhaps he was frustrated with himself for the fact that, he then wrote a collection of songs that I suspect most fans will rarely if ever have heard. Finally he did get back on track with “Watered down love” and the masterpiece that is “Lenny Bruce”. But it took quite a bit of writing to get there.
Yet even after reaching those heights, Bob wrote two final Christian songs to round off his songwriting in 1981, songs which I doubt that most people don’t remember today (“Jesus is the one” and “Thief on the cross”).
The problem in discussing this ebb and flow of creative genius of course is that the era is dominated with commentaries of Christianity and debates about how long the Christian era continued for, rather than the musical and literary merits of the songs that were written. However when one looks at this list from 1980/1 I think many would agree on the merits of this set of songs which poured out one after the other:
- Every grain of sand
- Caribbean Wind
- Groom’s still waiting at the alter
- Yonder comes sin
- Let’s keep it between us
- Making a liar out of me
- City of Gold
- Shot of Love
- You changed my life
- Heart of Mine
And I stress, that is not a list of selected highlights – that, as far as I can ascertain, is a list of songs from within this period in the order of composition.
But at that point, in my judgement, the brilliance stopped. In fact I would suspect only a small number of the most ardent of fans would be able to tell us what came next. Which is not to say that Bob has lost his ability to compose, because we have come across other periods where the writing is not up to his highest standards, from which he bounced back.
As a single example take the very next song:
There were 16 songs (at least) between “Heart of Mine” and “Lenny Bruce”, but few if any are remembered by most fans and commentators.
Meanwhile Bob himself was not that helpful for anyone trying to work out what he was up to, for in 1981 Dylan was telling us that “Shot of Love” was all about where he was at the moment while seemingly delivering a song that didn’t seem to tell us that much that we didn’t already know.
The full comment from Bob is indeed worth considering. “To those who care now where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to “Shot Of Love” off the Shot Of Love album. It’s my most perfect song. It defines where I am at spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. No need to wonder if I’m this or that. I’m not hiding anything. It’s all there in that one song.”
In terms of the lyrics of the song, and of course just in my opinion, it doesn’t really stand up to Bob’s proclamation, but I guess it means that man cannot live through Jesus alone – he’s needs human love too. Fair enough but for me nowhere near as interesting as what he created with “Angelina”.
So we are moving into a world in which Dylan is going exploring – just to see where it all might lead. And where it leads in particular is to another stunning, overwhelming masterpiece which in true Bob Dylan fashion is left off “Shot of Love”.
We get a song packed with imagery and biblical allusions (the ‘four faces’, for example, of the final stanza appear to allude to Ezekiel 10. 14 and 10.21 and the reference to ‘trying to take heaven by force’ to Matthew 11:12). In fact we get more than a classic – an utter masterpiece. in which obscure yet seemingly meaningful poetry and what appears to be an all-encompassing vision take on humanity’s most pressing problems is balanced by a beautiful melody and simple chord sequence.
But it is a really tough song to sing while holding the audience throughout, and I suspect that is why Bob pulled it from the album – and why Masked & Anonymous only has a short instrumental version. Fortunately we have Ashley Hutchings utterly magnificent rendition now available free for all of us. I do hope you can spare six minutes to listen. This is a beautiful, beautiful performance of a staggeringly brilliant composition.
As Joost said in his review of the song on this site, “Dylan, sitting on a bench, looking back, talkin’ to himself.”
Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances My right hand drawing back while my left hand advances Where the current is strong and the monkey dances To the tune of a concertina
The point about Angelina that always strikes me are the references to self doubt…
When you cease to exist, then who will you blame I’ve tried my best to love you but I cannot play this game Your best friend and my worst enemy is one and the same Angelina Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces Begging God for mercy and weepin’ in unholy places Angelina
Looking at Bob’s writing through the era that seems very autobiographical to me.
After “Angelina” came another song of enormous merit – Heart of Mine
However it was only on Biograph that we found out what “Heart of Mine” really could do, as Bob tried to explain to himself (if not to us) his move away from Christianity, and my view remains that at this stage he really did not know where he was going although he knew perfectly well where he had been.
And so by the time we get to Dead Man Dead Man we have a song which fades out with the repeated line, “Ooh I can’t stand it I can’t stand it” and although I think that statement is an over exaggeration of where Bob was, I think I can nevertheless understand where Bob had got to.
The series continues….