- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -
What's the matter with me,
I don’t have much to say
by Bob Fletcher
Well, actually I do, as the following 3000 words will illustrate. However, this article has been very difficult to complete. It was written both prior to, and following, the death of Diane’s mother. Therefore, it is dedicated to Audrey Pattinson.
Yesterday was my fortieth birthday and…and, well, nothing. No sports car (although I did take a mini cooper for a drive the other night), no affair (some time ago I plucked up the courage to tell Nicole Kidman it was over) and, at the time of writing, no sharp pains as I get up from my chair or lean down to tie my laces. The troublesome thoughts that occupied me at 39 remain (the canonisation of Jim Morrison continues to baffle as does the prospect of Bush returning to the White House).
So, all is well with my world. At least at the moment. The shelf remains fixed to the wall, I happened on a copy of The Last Waltz (a collectors edition no less) for £6.99, and as a bonus I get to go to Paris with Diane and two very close friends. As you may have guessed I have no intention of visiting the grave of the one known as the Lizard King (I had the misfortune of doing so in 1998 and have remained psychologically scarred ever since).
Of equal significance, Bob Dylan made it to my birthday party. Elvis joined him/me, as did Neil Young and, though I say it myself, the evening was a success. Although not to begin with. I forgot Highway 61 and the sound system didn’t work. Furthermore, none of the bar staff had the foggiest idea who I was. I later discovered that I frightened a couple of them (the white face paint, dark glasses, and beflowered hat adding a somewhat unhinged element to proceedings). A man at the bar genuinely believed I was the ‘turn’, (the owner of the bar told me later that all was not well with the man’s cognitive functioning – I’d already decided he was as mad as a box of frogs), and the flowers kept falling off my hat. Finally everything was in its rightful place and the festivities began. Then Joan Baez turned up.
When I began planning this article I assumed (wrongly) that there would be many references to Bob Dylan’s coming of age but all the major biographers have chosen to avoid the subject, focussing instead on events surrounding Dylan’s on/off relationship with things divine.
Before discussing who said what about Bob and Christianity, a sense of perspective is required. As John Harris noted “Dylan made his recorded debut at 20, went electric at 24 and opted for family life at 25. When Oasis put out Supersonic, Noel Gallagher was 26. What exactly kept him?” (Harris also suggested that “Some of Dylan’s songs are as much a part of humanity’s progress as any politician’s speech, epochal novel, or era-defining play”). By the time Dylan turned forty he, along with his record company, had officially released a total of 26 albums (including two ‘greatest hits’ packages, three ‘live’ albums, and one ‘collection’). There were also numerous guest appearances and live performances, released as specific projects (Broadside, Newport etc). Adding to the total were the cameos Dylan provided for other artists. Two films by Bob Dylan had been screened publicly, a further two about him had been aired, he had appeared as an actor in one film and one television play, and three films included partial or complete live performances. Discounting anything previously credited, Dylan made at least 12 significant television appearances prior to his fortieth birthday.
The mistitled ‘Born Again’ trilogy (it is, in fact, Gospel music) continues to divide opinion. At the time devotees felt close to betraying him, indeed some did (even after 25 years I admit to having recently been tempted by thirty verses of ‘Silvio’). But this amounts to nothing when compared to the criticism Dylan endured. In another time and place crucifixion would not have been of the metaphorical kind. But those who sat in judgement would have done well to place the music in some kind of context: in the summer of 1962 Dylan attended a concert by Mahalia Jackson and featured ‘Gospel Plow’, a song that borrowed heavily from the traditional ‘Hold On’ on his first album. Jackson often performed the latter in concert. Furthermore, it is impossible not to conclude that Sign on the Cross (of which, more later) refers, in the words of John Herdman, “to the sign that Pontius Pilate had placed on the cross on which Jesus was crucified, as described in John 19:19. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”.
Not surprisingly admirers became confused by it all. Michael Gray, writing in the 1981 introduction to Song and Dance Man, suggests that with ‘Slow Train Coming’ Dylan “produced an album destined to be profoundly unpopular amongst almost anyone with any sense who’d ever valued him as a writer” (mind you, he also argued that ‘Hard Rain’ was “a generally poor selection of tracks from a concert that was far from being one of Dylan’s best in the first place”). In the 2004 version Gray’s opinions have mellowed a little regarding the latter but he sticks with his original assessment of the former. He does go some way to redeeming himself when examining ‘The Coming of the Slow Train’, suggesting that “Bob Dylan has always given us songs that burn with a moral sense……The Biblical quotations and allusions pour readily out of the early ‘protest’ songs”. And once again, this is where the critics fail to understand ‘what is real and what is not’. John Wesley Harding was hailed by many (including Michael Gray who described it as “this quiet, authoritative masterwork”) yet by 1981 Dylan was widely perceived as a fraud. Tim Riley (Hard Rain – A Dylan Commentary) maintains that Dylan’s “three born – again records suggest a musical chameleon who’s trying on styles the way he might try on personalities to get out of a slump”. Yet again it is Dylan’s voice that is scrutinised. Riley argues that “the measure of Dylan’s slide lies in his singing. Even if his writing had remained consistent, the way he begins to whine his songs, nobody would want to sit through them”. But Riley can’t seem to decide whether to prosecute or defend Dylan (he stops short of washing his hands). Earlier in the book he mentions the following: “Bob Dylan’s voice can crook emotion the way a prism refracts light. His coyote yowl and scurry-to-catch-up phrasing scatter furious accusation, self-mocking glee, postromantic loathing, self-directed bile, lost chances, fleeting regrets, earned cynicism, false cynicism, and contempt for falsity with biting unsentimental candour.” Oh to be a critic.
Over time views have changed. The recent Uncut Legends #1 (whose editor, Nigel Williams, argues that “Dylan was the only logical choice as the first subject in this series”) afforded ‘Slow Train’ five stars whilst ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love’ were given three each. Likewise, the Q Collector’s Edition agrees that although ‘Slow Train Coming’ contains sentiments of a questionable nature, Dylan’s “fervour – along with the input of co-producer Jerry Wexler – makes for brilliant music indeed”. Returning to the questionable sentiments, Gavin Martin notices Dylan sounding “uncomfortably close to the jingoistic, right wing Born Again lobby that would pull the levers of American power in the years ahead”. Folks, George W Bush was, is, and will continue to be, a very dangerous man.
Yet Dylan’s choice of ‘Christianity’ doesn’t shock or surprise me (when first listening to the music I confess that it confused me). To paraphrase Chris Wadden, Dylan embraced an all encompassing black and white, for or against, sin and redemption model. As the Dylan himself said “you’ve either got faith or unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground”. But he needed to because prior to this, his songwriting relied, to great effect, on the grey areas. Dylan’s quest has taken him to many places. As he himself has said “I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paris”.
Sadly, the latter will never be the same. Diane’s pain will return with her and I will never forget her sadness. But we will go again because there will always be beauty too. As you can imagine I have struggled to find the motivation to continue with an article so closely linked to faith. We did all agree, however, that we were in a very spiritual place when we received the telephone call. Indeed, during the afternoon we had, by chance, visited a fine example of Catholic extravagance.
I have long believed that I ought to have been a Catholic. The reason is simple: guilt. I don’t really know where it comes from but I suppose, like many children, I learned early in life to believe that my parent’s separation was somehow my fault. So that could have something to do with it. I am not able to have affairs (I don’t want to anyway) because the guilt would be my undoing. I cannot lie very well, for obvious reasons. So I will tell the truth. At the moment, however romantic the notion of faith, I can find no religion that will sooth Diane. Or her family, who are finding things very difficult (even Bob and his view of things Godly is, for the moment, unable to persuade me). At present, I am feeling guilty because I enthused on the subject of Camus to Diane whilst in Paris (for those unfamiliar with his work I would suggest you read the first sentence of the Outsider).
The fact that Dylan’s acceptance of all things spiritual began much earlier than his conversion is well documented. Scott M Marshall and Marcia Ford note that “there were numerous indications that he was familiar with the teachings of the New Testament…..Before his twentieth birthday, he had sung Woody Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’ and the traditional song ‘Jesus met the Woman at the Well’. In 1962, Dylan himself wrote ‘Long Ago, Far Away’ a song that opened and concluded with references to the crucifixion”. Dylan’s acceptance of a Higher Power continues to this day. During 2001 he was interviewed by Rolling Stone and observed that “you hear a lot about God these days: God, the beneficent; God, the Almighty; God, the most powerful; God, the giver of life; God, the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too”.
The works of Bob Dylan (amongst others) have, over time, allowed me to view spirituality in a different light (Dylan in particular because, as Marshall and Ford note, “two decades ago, he walked away from the particular brand of evangelicalism that initially captured his attention…he simply moved on, quietly taking the next step on his spiritual journey”). I profess no faith but attempt to understand that which makes sense to me (something I struggle with in a world where nothing makes very much sense at all anymore). Indeed at times I openly confess to being a fish out of water or, when embracing certain philosophical theories, a non fish out of non water.
Dylan discussed his thoughts during a series of interviews in the mid 1970’s (a fact conveniently overlooked by critics). According to Marshall and Ford, Dylan talked to People magazine (1975) about “the mythical stature he had attained, denying that he had consciously pursued it and indicating that it was God who had given it to him” (he went on to state that “I’m doing God’s work. That’s all I know). A year later Dylan, when asked by Neil Hickey how he imagined God, stated “I can see God in a daisy. I can see God at night in the wind and the rain” (by 1977 Dylan was, apparently, placing at least some of his faith in a palm-reader. Should you want to read into this that Dylan was intending, through the adoption of Christianity, to offend the Jewish prophets of old, then Marshall and Ford offer the following: “Those prophets were believed to have had a direct line from Yahweh, the God of Israel, and would have denounced the activities and observations of a palm-reader. Their God would have nothing to do with soothsaying”). In an interview with Ron Rosenbaum (Playboy 1977) Dylan was asked whether Jesus Christ is an answer. He responded, as quoted in Restless Pilgrim, with the following: “ What is it that attracts people to Christ? The fact that it was such a tragedy, is what……..What would Christ be in this day and age if He came back? What would he be? What would He be to fulfil His function and purpose? He would have to be a leader, I suppose”. As Marshall and Ford suggest, the “fact that Rosenbaum’s single question elicited so many questions from Dylan certainly indicates he was genuinely seeking spiritual truth”.
As noted earlier, Dylan’s quest is as old as he is. Examples are numerous; John Wesley Harding contains at least 60 biblical references. Prior to the release of the album Dylan recorded one of his most revealing songs. However, ‘Sign on the Cross’ remains unreleased. In ‘Voice Without Restraint’ author John Herdman, when discussing the song, suggests that “The underlying motif is obviously worry, a nagging and disquieting worry about the cross and what it represents”. Dylan, of course, may beg to differ. Herdman continues, “Something is now becoming clearer. Behind Dylan’s prophetic utterances of doom directed toward society lies fear, personal fear, fear about his own salvation” (Greil Marcus describes a man, alone in a church “singing, trying to explain, worried, sick at heart, loving god and doubting god is real”).
As I’ve already mentioned, I too have my doubts. But it was hard not to listen to the words as we sang ‘Old Rugged Cross’ for Diane’s mum. Audrey had a faith of sorts so the thought of spiritual guidance must have comforted her in some way. Coincidentally, Paul Williams, when commenting on ‘Sign on the Cross’, notes that the song has “roots….in classic folk/country spirituals like Old Rugged Cross”. He goes on to suggest that “this is one of Dylan’s strangest and most moving performances…..it’s a kind of confession of attraction; Dylan solves the problem of how to talk about his unfashionable and ambivalent feelings by assuming an identity that is at once the recognizable voice of madness and the undeniable voice of truth and wisdom” (Whilst alluding to ‘madness’ I would highly recommend, again, Petter Higginson’s ‘The Psychosis of Dreams’ (Isis #88) dealing, as it does, with Dylan’s ongoing struggle with ‘insanity’. It is pure conjecture but worth reading nonetheless).
To some extent Dylan’s embracing of a Christian ethos was a logical progression. As Gary Herman suggests “If Dylan’s Christianity means anything, it is that all the conflicts and struggles that emerged in the sixties and were embodied in rock’n’roll have not been resolved”. The same author argues that Dylan, in effect, stripped his music of any feeling. Cliff Warnken disagrees, noting that “Dylan’s gospel show….was one of the best I’ve seen/heard him do, it was an all – out rockin’, bluesy, gospel show with much of the feel and sound of black gospel groups of the ‘50s”.
Mystics remain misunderstood. Steven Goldberg argues that “the mystic has always seen what science is now beginning to see: all distinction is illusory”. Dylan pointed that out with ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you enjoy – in the end there is no distinction: you will be required to make a simple choice “it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord”. Goldberg contends that “this is why Dylan merits our most serious attention. For he stands at the vortex: when the philosophical, psychological, and scientific lines of thought are followed to the point where each becomes a cul-de-sac, as logic without faith eventually must”.
Even today, in what he refers to as ‘the end times’, Dylan continues his quest. Throughout his career he has advised others, (‘You will search, babe, at any cost. But how long, babe, can you search for what’s not lost?’), whilst recognising that the search may never yield the prize (‘You fight for the throne and you travel alone, unknown as you slowly sink’). Goldberg, in what was a highly contentious article at the time, argues that Dylan has always been “searching for the courage to release his grasp on all the layers of distinctions that give us meaning, but, by virtue of their inevitably setting us apart from the life-flow, preclude our salvation. All such distinctions, from petty jealousies and arbitrary cultural values to the massive, but ultimately irrelevant, confusions engendered by psychological problems, all the endless repetitions that those without faith grasp in order to avoid their own existence – all of these had to be released”. Remarkably, Goldberg was referring not to Dylan’s embracing of ‘faith’, rather to his use of LSD.
Recently I had been discussing, with a self-appointed ‘passing sage’ (alright, my Dad), all things Dylan. A few days later he asked for his 25 words to be included retrospectively. I agreed, mainly because the alternative (Dylan is on a beach with Dad, bird watching. Dylan notices a species that seems unfamiliar and makes a comment to that effect. Dad informs him that the visitor is from America and is indeed, a rare sighting. Dylan seems pleased that he has seen a Gull From the North Country) will only encourage him. Whether Dad realised or not, there is a sense of Dylan’s struggle with all things divine: “Bob Dylan finds a terrible beauty in truth. He shows the terrible beauty of truth. Of all truths. I therefore shun him and his works”. (For the poets amongst you there are, apparently, references to WB Yeats and the Easter Uprising in there).
Easter, of course, has a special place in the hearts of many and, to conclude, I felt it necessary to discuss the notion of resurrection. Audrey’s death and, more importantly her life, will not be forgotten. There will be times when memories are misplaced, but they will return. And for that moment, all will be as it was. Which brings me to Barrowlands.
I don’t really know why I didn’t go. I love Glasgow, I could have got a ticket, and, as in 2003, I was planning several trips. But it didn’t work out. So I decided to make do with a CD. Yes I know it’s subjective, I am also aware that some may dislike it, but to the doubters I say this: He is the man Thomas. In that place, and at that time, Dylan appeared capable of making a meal from the most modest of ingredients. Although likely to drown if he tried it himself, I suspect every member of the audience would have willingly crossed the river had Dylan asked them to. Richard Williams has long held that ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, as recorded by Dylan and The Grateful Dead, contains a “wrecked majesty”. So does ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ from Barrowlands (in both cases we must never doubt Dylan’s ability to phrase a song).
And should I need further evidence that Dylan is capable of returning following a metaphorical crucifixion, then I need only listen, with a glad heart, to ‘Just Like a Woman’, ‘Girl From the North Country’, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ from the aforementioned performance. Once again, Communion beckons. And with Dylan shining the light, I’m ready to go anywhere……….
Go in peace, and for today only folks, may your god go with you.
P.S. Jesus, I don’t mean to offend but, hey, you know where I am so give me a call sometime because there are a few things I need to sort out. You see, there’s this bloke called Dylan………….
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