a feature article by Jody Beth Rosen
Scientologist ties has now admitted that she might have misinterpreted Beck’s statements in his recent interview with her. For continuity’s sake, I’ll leave the article below as it was written, but please read the opening paragraphs with this development in mind.
The news that Beck has joined the church/cult of Scientology is coincident with a new album, the earnest and introspective Sea Change. Early reviews show that fans of Beck’s hip-hop/psych-folk/blues/funk/eclectica/samples galore/irony ’til the fat lady sings mishmash are quite taken aback by how po-faced and unfunny it all is, and my esteemed colleague Nate Patrin wondered aloud whether Beck would “wind up like Cat Stevens or born-again Dylan and let his religion dictate his music.”
I’m not gung-ho about the idea of Beck Hansen joining the Battlefield Earth Youth Chorus (I actually have heard some of L. Ron Hubbard’s music, and it’s sublimely wretched, so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again), but as someone who takes a healthy interest in Bob Dylan’s life and music, I feel a little uncomfortable with the way the critical consensus has taken the easy way out and declared Dylan’s three Christian albums BAD and UNLISTENABLE and A JOKE. I think it’s time for a look back at these records, and I hope this article (part retrospective, part review) encourages others to listen for themselves and examine their own knee-jerk reactions.
In 1978, Bob Dylan was probably not in the best of mental health — his energy was tapped out from constantly being on the road, and on top of other pressures in his life, his last album (Street Legal) didn’t do so well. Legend has it he saw a vision of Christ that year, a few months after a fan threw a silver cross on stage while Dylan was performing. Some members of his touring band were members of a Southern California-based organization called the Vineyard Fellowship, and a girlfriend of Dylan’s, another Vineyard member named Mary Alice Artes, asked pastor Ken Gulliksen to speak to the singer. And so Dylan began an intense study at the Vineyard, which would go on to influence nearly all the songs he would write in the next few years. (A web article called “Kenn Gulliksen Comment’s [sic] about Dylan’s Status As Believer” goes further in-depth about Dylan’s time at this school.)
In 1979, Bob Dylan began work on his first recording as a full-fledged born-again Christian.
Slow Train Coming (1979)
In preparation for Slow Train Coming, Bob Dylan called on the legendary Jerry Wexler, former Atlantic Records V.P. and producer of the biggest guns in mid-century R&B (Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, Otis Redding). Wexler and Dylan decided to record in Alabama, in an attempt to capture the classic Muscle Shoals sound that was abundant on ’60s Atlantic soul albums. One of the best quotes from Clinton Heylin’s Dylan biography Behind the Shades Revisited comes from Wexler himself (Heylin, p. 502):
“Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals — as Bob did — but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived. That’s when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral … I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel … [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, ‘Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.”
Dylan was a fan of a new British band called the Dire Straits, and he recruited guitarist Mark Knopfler to lay down parts for Slow Train Coming. There’s a remarkable similarity to the Dire Straits on a few songs (“Precious Angel,” for one), but if Dylan steals from Knopfler, it’s payback for Knopfler’s blatant Dylan thievery. Knopfler’s parts here are lush flourishes, not upstagey at all, but with enough of the guitarist’s personality to truly lend something of value to the sessions.
Musically, Slow Train Coming is not terribly different from its predecessor, Street Legal (1978), which, though not associated with the Christian phase, tells of a “good shepherd” and having “been to the mountain” and a character who “practiced what he preached from the heart.” But Street Legal’s forceful, “live” sound (it was Dylan’s first studio project after his tremendously fruitful Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and the momentum is still present in the songs) is traded in for a tempered, gently bumbling, Southern groove. “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” has a subtle reggae bounce, particularly in the plucky bass. He treats the lyrics of “Man Gave Names” as a fable with strong religious overtones (“He saw an animal that liked to growl / Big furry paws and he liked to howl / Great big furry back and furry hair / ‘Ah, think I’ll call it a bear'”), but it’s vivid and entertaining enough to be palatable.
“When He Returns,” the final track, is the standout — it’s just a piano and vocal, and the piano keys are struck down hard, just barely redeemed from sloppiness but bursting with joy and passion. I could credit Dylan with giving the best vocal performance of his career, but the lyrics are so striking that they practically force the singer to deliver them with something resembling fervor. It’s absolutely breathtaking, even moreso when I think about a man so obsessed with the utility of words reaching into himself, past every wellspring of sarcasm and every bloody vein of finely tweaked anomie, trying to express his awe at God and his anticipation of the divine Judgment:
“The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod, The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God. For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears It is only He who can reduce me to tears. Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right When He returns.
Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through, He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew. How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice? How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness? Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride? Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease Until He returns?
Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask, He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask. How long can you falsify and deny what is real? How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal? Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned, He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne When He returns.”
As thrilling and bone-shaking as that is to me, many people were unimpressed by Dylan’s (literally) holier-than-thou stance. In No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Robert Shelton writes:
“The scoffers felt that Dylan had also abandoned the progressive, tolerant side of Christianity to espouse an uncompromising, unforgiving sort of gospel stance. Later asked if he was concerned about being lumped together with the ultra-right-wing Bible-thumpers, Dylan spoke about reactionary religions as something ‘to be careful about … it’s real dangerous. You can find anything you want in the Bible. You can twist it around and a lot of people do that.'” (Shelton, p. 484)
In hindsight, Slow Train Coming seems to be a cultural exemplar of Dylan at one of his lowest, most indulgent stages. In truth, the album was met with a fair share of intolerance and derision, but it sold well (curiosity?) and got some favorable reviews. On tour to support the surprisingly successful Slow Train Coming, Dylan found himself booked at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater for a fourteen-night stand. The events of these San Francisco shows are hotly disputed among people who attended, and when a few critical pans subsequently turned up in local papers (the Examiner and the Chronicle), word spread far and wide that audiences were heckling and jeering and storming out of the Warfield in droves.
Some accounts from a web page titled “Some historical notes on Christianity and Dylan” (http://web.utk.edu/~wparr/HistChrDyl.html):
“I saw one of the later nights, and it was Dylan at his most aggressively unlistenable.”
“I saw the 3rd and 8th nights of Bob’s 18 [sic] day marathon. The third night Dylan was badly abused and booed. The three back-up singers who “tried” to open the show were booed so loudly they couldn’t be heard. The first three songs Dylan did could bearly be heard for the booing and he was visibly shaken. A young woman in the third or fourth row on the floor stood between songs (4th and 5th as I recall) and shouted ” Jesus loves you Bobby and so do I.” From that point on he focused on her. I was seated on the front row of the balcony and by the time Dylan took a short break half way through, nearly half the audience had walked out. I don’t know how you feel about spiritual things, but that was one time in my life I felt the real presence of evil. The line had been drawn and curses were certainly cast. After the break, Dylan came back with alot smaller audience, but with fire in his eyes! What a second half!”
Dylan himself, though not necessarily the most reliable narrator, would give a different story in 1984, when MTV’s Martha Quinn interviewed him:
“The reception’s always good. The problem is media problems. For some reason the media reportage of the shows I’ve done has never been entirely accurate since 1978 … They say it was all gospel or the crowd booed and walked out. This wasn’t true. Maybe three or four people walked out.” (Heylin, p. 512)
Slow Train Coming, as a record, doesn’t feel evil (as the fan suggested about the Warfield concert), but it does feel evangelical. And when I listen to “Gotta Serve Somebody,” I can’t help but think of the relative heresy of Devo’s hilarious new-wave-disco-funk cover dating from the same period (they performed it in the guise of their alter egos, a gospel act called Dove: The Band of Love). Devo themselves used satire to effectively evangelize against the sort of brainwashing power religion can have on people, and though I’m sure the band did the cover with a certain amount of teasing affection for its songwriter, the performance seems like Devo’s passive-aggressive stab at turning Dylan’s least-political material into a protest song in its own right, protesting Dylan. (This long-lost cover appears on a limited-edition Devo rarities compilation called RecomboDNA, released in 2000 by Rhino Handmade.)
The real meat on Slow Train Coming is in the lyrics; the music is a mixed bag. The brass can sound too, er, brassy (see: “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”), but when the record’s not so self-consciously Wexlerish, it moves along sweetly and modestly, a comforting vibe-like organ keeping Dylan’s fire and brimstone from becoming too overwhelming.
As with Dylan in general, you’re either with him or you’re not, and if you’re not with him, Slow Train Coming isn’t going to convert any of Dylan’s nonbelievers. The message is difficult to embrace, and the music is awfully unhip. But if people can fall in love with Handel’s Messiah, it’s not inconceivable that they could learn to like a dad-rock gospel record from 1979.
Saved is hardcore. Straight down to its title, it is an unapologetically religious record. People were put off by it in 1980; people are still put off by it; it’s as dogmatic as they come, and it’s Jesus-fearing, and unlike other Dylan records its prediction of the apocalypse cannot be interpreted as anything other than what it is.
“When destruction cometh swiftly And there’s no time to say a fare-thee-well, Have you decided whether you want to be In heaven or in hell?
Are you ready, are you ready?
Have you got some unfinished business? Is there something holding you back? Are you thinking for yourself Or are you following the pack?
Are you ready, hope you’re ready. Are you ready?
Are you ready for the judgment? Are you ready for that terrible swift sword? Are you ready for Armageddon? Are you ready for the day of the Lord?” -from “Are You Ready?”
This is my least favorite album of Dylan’s Christian period. It’s not because of the music, which is warm and inviting gospel-rock sung with conviction (particularly his reworking of the gospel standard “A Satisfied Mind,” featuring his female backup singers intonating a soulful “mmmmm” underneath his melody). But where Dylan’s lyrics on Slow Train Coming used scripture as inspiration for his own patented poetic twists and turns, Saved preaches very plainly (“In contrast to composing songs in a folk culture with natural allusions to the Bible, or more sophisticated songs with literary allusions to the Bible, here Dylan composes songs in which the Bible is constantly alluded to as the essence of the believer’s faith,” writes Bert Cartwright in The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan). An example of the garden-variety born-again cliches that this otherwise original and shrewd songwriter fell victim to on Saved:
“Pulled me out of bondage and You made me renewed inside, Filled up a hunger that had always been denied, Opened up a door no man can shut and You opened it up so wide And You’ve chosen me to be among the few. What can I do for You?” -from “What Can I Do For You?”
There’s no mistake that Saved is a Dylan record (“Covenant Woman” is a classic ’70s/’80s minor-key Dylan melody, recalling “Jokerman” and “Baby Stop Crying”), but the lyrics lead me to believe that Dylan was making a concerted effort to Be Less Dylanesque, to be the conduit for the holy word instead of the author of its interpretation. His Christian study at the Vineyard required him to abandon a lifetime full of smartass attitude and knowitallism, traits that are to this day practically synonymous with Bob Dylan. He must have considered it a great challenge.
“Being born again is a hard thing … We don’t like to lose those old attitudes and hang-ups. Conversion takes time because you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. You have to learn to drink milk before you can eat meat. You’re reborn, but like a baby. A baby doesn’t know anything about this world, and that’s what it’s like when you’re reborn. You’re a stranger. You have to learn all over again.” -Bob Dylan, 1980 (Heylin, p. 495)
But although Dylan was in essence a “stranger” to the idiosyncratic, brazen social critic he was just a few years prior, he was determined not to forsake his musical intuition when it came to making records. He called on Wexler once more, and everyone went down to Sheffield, Alabama, as they did for Slow Train Coming. Saved was not a pure Wexler production, however — Dylan had worked out all of the songs’ arrangements on the road with his band, and in the studio Wexler’s hands-on style clashed with Dylan’s warts-and-all blues aesthetic. (You know that old saw about “too many cooks”?)
Dylan was apparently not happy with the album, and asked an unsympathetic CBS if he could redo it (they said no). Me, I don’t believe Saved is a total disaster. It’s not disastrous at all — it’s a little cleaner than a good Muscle Shoals-influenced R&B/gospel record should sound, and there’s something keeping it from fully coming alive, but it does have a few great moments, like the percussive, shouty, piano-driven “Solid Rock” and the stirring organ swells and verse-by-verse crescendos of “Pressing On” (which has one of Saved’s only really poetic and evocative lyrics: “Shake the dust off of your feet / Don’t look back”).
It takes a few listens, some getting-used-to, to hear the beauty of Saved’s most powerful tracks. “In the Garden” is quiet and humble, but its odd, incremental chord modulations give it a compelling strength it might not have with a simpler arrangement. Conversely, “Saving Grace,” which has the potential to bring the house down, never does, wasting a fine Dylan vocal with a rather conservative arrangement.
I see the word “embarrassing” pop up in allusions to this phase of Dylan’s discography, and despite some cringeworthy religious dogma, there’s nothing on Saved that makes me feel pity for myself, Dylan, or anyone who buys, downloads, or borrows Dylan records. I don’t revisit Saved often, but it feels less problematic with every listen.
Shot of Love (1981)
After committing what many considered to be career suicide with 1980’s Saved (a speculation that would obviously prove untrue in time), Dylan delivered Shot of Love to a label that had begun to treat the singer as persona non grata. In Behind the Shades Revisited, Tony Wright (who designed the cover art for Saved) recalls:
“They were so rude, so nasty about Bob Dylan and said how they weren’t gonna promote [Saved], another gospel record … I was just astonished to hear these people, high-up people at CBS, talking about this man as if he were just someone … a ‘fuck him’ kind of attitude.” (Heylin, p. 524)
The third and final album of Bob Dylan’s Christian period, Shot of Love seems to capitulate a little to the skeptical fans, critics, and label people — its biblical themes are still present (most notably, the liner notes begin with a quote from Matthew 11:25, and there’s nothing subtle about the message of “Property of Jesus”), but they’re mostly cloaked in secular language and rock arrangements. Indeed, Shot of Love is a more personal album than its two predecessors; the evangelical nature of Slow Train Coming and Saved revealed Dylan’s desire to be “born again” and approach his material as a naive, innocent messenger rather than a songwriter. During this phase in his career, though, it was evident from his stage banter (such as the quote below, from a 1979 performance at a college campus in Tempe, Arizona) that Dylan deeply resented his detractors:
“Hmmm. Pretty rude bunch tonight, huh? You all know how to be real rude. You know about the spirit of the Anti-Christ? Does anyone here know about that? Ah, the spirit of the Anti-Christ is loose right now … You talk to your teachers about what I said. I’m sure you’re paying a lot of money for your education, so you’d better get one.” (Heylin, p. 517)
His bitterness rears its head on Shot of Love’s “Property of Jesus” (“Go ahead and talk about him because he makes you doubt / Because he has denied himself the things that you can’t live without / Laugh at him behind his back just like the others do / Remind him of what he used to be when he comes walkin’ through / He’s the property of Jesus / Resent him to the bone / You got something better / You’ve got a heart of stone”) and “Dead Man, Dead Man” (“Satan got you by the heel / There’s a bird’s nest in your hair / Do you have any faith at all? / Do you have any love to share? / The way that you hold your head, cursin’ God with every move / Ooh, I can’t stand it / I can’t stand it / What are you tryin’ to prove? … The glamour and the bright lights and the politics of sin / The ghetto that you build for me is the one you end up in / The race of the engine that overrules your heart / Ooh, I can’t stand it / I can’t stand it / Pretending that you’re so smart”).
These lyrics are certainly defensive, but they’re from the heart and their sense of “I call bullshit here” is just as keen as it was on “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Masters of War.” When Dylan sang “Oh my God, am I here all alone?” in 1965, I was right there with him, empathizing all the way; with “Dead Man, Dead Man,” I can’t bring myself to share in his religious devotion, but his disappointment in mankind and all its post-Enlightenment smugness is something I can relate to, and the song sounds stronger to my ears because of that connection.
It’s a 1981 album, but Dylan’s musical arrangements on Shot of Love are decidedly ’70s. Dylan worked with Springsteen co-producer Chuck Plotkin, although Dylan was the primary shot-caller on the sessions, rejecting several Plotkin mixes in favor of the rough monitor mixes. Shot of Love’s sound is pretty engaging — “Trouble” benefits from Benmont Tench’s thick, Kooperesque organ and the presence of four gospel-tinged backup singers (vocalist Clydie King, also a devout Christian, was Dylan’s girlfriend at this time, and she shares singing duties with him on quite a few Shot of Love tracks).
The opening track, “Shot of Love,” features King harmonizing along with every note. It’s one of the album’s most immediately potent songs. It recalls American gospel and blues, but with its dirty guitar sound and slinky groove, it could easily be an outtake from the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed (in fact, King’s curriculum vitae included backup work for the Stones). “Heart of Mine,” meanwhile, would feel right at home on Dylan’s own Desire (1975) — its reggae-country lilt and duetted vocals remind me of his not-always-successful-but-usually-beautiful collaborations with Emmylou Harris on that record.
Dylan’s mid-to-late ’70s and early ’80s music gave us some of the singer’s best vocal performances — since the beginning, his voice has been a point of contention among those who either love or hate him, and on Shot of Love he uses his famous nasality to great effect. His voice during this period was deeper and fuller than his signature ’60s style, but not quite as weirdly affected and drug-damaged as it was on Nashville Skyline, and not anywhere near as fried and wheedly as it would become in the ’90s. His phrasing on Shot of Love, particularly on ballads like “Lenny Bruce,” is that of a sensitive-eared musician, a comedian (even in his darkest moments), and an old-school songwriter who knows that the singer’s delivery is as crucial as the chicken scratch on the lyric sheet. These songs were written to be sung, and although reviews and essays tend to focus on Dylan’s lyrics, it bears mentioning that his skills as a songwriter include his ability to make those lyrics into phrases and melodies that have lives of their own. This record is (for me, anyway) intensely singable.
Shot of Love has been called one of the worst albums of Dylan’s long career — it was savaged by Nick Kent in the NME and Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone (Nelson wrote about people’s propensity for giving any new Dylan work “the benefit of the doubt” and said “No more. For me it stops right here”). Admittedly, it’s a new addition to my collection, but it’s fast becoming one of my favorite Dylan works (it’s no Blood on the Tracks, but thankfully it’s also no Empire Burlesque or Self-Portrait). I recommend it without caveats, without irony, and I hold it up as an example of why an artist’s most universally maligned work is not necessarily his worst, and how if you can release yourself from your preconceptions and expectations and everything else that colors the “opinion” you’re taught to have, your reaction might surprise you.