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Ring them Bells – Bob Dylan’s Road to Damascus


“For in vain from the grasp of Religion I flee
The most tenderly loved of my soul
Are slaves to its hated control
It pursues me, it blasts me! Oh where shall I fly
What remains but to curse it, to curse it to die?” (1)

Every bit the sneering, instinctive, anti-puritanical, vote-splitting impulsive Prometheus, shifting his feet on the limited generic boundaries, Bob Dylan’s outlandish late 1970s conversion from a safe secular vote amongst the hipper than thou, rocked the very “didacticism” of the post punk ethos much in the same light as Shelley’s riposte, nearly 200 years previously, to his horrified erstwhile Whig contemporaries. As two fire-bringers in a seething, spiteful, cultural cauldron, the contrast between Shelley’s personal spiritual rejection, and Dylan willingly gazing towards a celestial light to embrace the very bane of Shelley’s existence, is worth noting as more than an artistic footnote; Dylan’s reputation would sail right against the wind and lie docile and tamed in the carnivorous minds of bloodthirsty secular voices, not to mention alienating and confusing a loyal, if eclectic, legion of aural minions.

While Shelley’s utter rejection of one pre-ordained theological pathway tends to strike a more “natural” impulse amongst the “look at me, I’m oh so rational” brigade, Dylan’s 1979 u-turn 30 years on acts as an entirely different form of critic baiting. Where previously they ate from his hands as he dwelt upon Italian literary alchemists in a whirlwind of lyrical musings (see Blood On The Tracks), or fawned over his snot-nosed punk to grandpa’s obedient right-wing courtesy on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, his Christian overture Slow Train Coming garnered controversy as much for its sheer audacity, as for the relatively liberal Christian sentiments contained within its perplexing musical tones. With the sting somewhat gone from both the plethora of critiques and Bob’s own Judea-Christian commentaries Circa 2009, one can still locate as much a secular inclination to feel this particular curiosity’s pros, as they can in the goodwill (theologically speaking) that emanates from Zimmy’s ramblings. In fact, Slow Train…’s seriously kinky opener, Gotta Serve Somebody finds its groove at a crossroads in Mississippi, with the ambiguous refrain

“It may be the devil/or it may be the lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

not strictly begotten of a Sunday morning sermon in Wasilla, Alaska. Ironically, if one sets their sights on finding discourse of an exclusively bitter nature towards the album, then it certainly wasn’t to be found in abundance in some of the more expected places

“-When He Returns,’ the most religious song on this album, is Dylan’s richest and most beautiful effort as a singer. Because he has been so brilliant in the other areas of his craft, Dylan has never been fully recognized as a singer. When he has a song and idea in which he believes, as he does here, the power, richness and the beauty of his voice are far greater than the words he uses. He sings with a sound that needs no words because he has the sound of the soul itself.” (2)

The borderline Richard Dawkins types are, in fairness, an easy target to pick at when defending Dylan’s Christianity. It was while showcasing the album in concert that Dylan alienated his most staunch lines of defence, polarising audiences by excluding the cult epics in favour of curios like Man Gave Names to All the Animals, a dainty folkie ode plucked straight from the Sunday school vaults. There is also a touching humanity in Slow Train Coming’s warm interior, that relates more closely to a Pope John XXIII figure kindly stretching his hand out in the cold dark night, than the self inflated audience hyperbole that kicked Dylan while he was down.

Precious Angel is again an inviting beacon, welcome for a loving embrace beneath the duvet covers, I Believe In You finds Bob on his hands and knees, rain tearing chunks from the rocks all around him, on a night so black, the fear that summer may never show its face again is well grounded, but Dylan’s faith remains unshaken. The tale of how in the midst of strung out post gig depression he found a miniature crucifix in his pocket while traipsing aimlessly around his Tucson hotel bedroom finds its clearest voice in this semi-acoustic ballad, with Mark Knopfler’s sumptuously picked scales sailing on a harmony never before found in a Dylan recording. Dirge it ain’t… For a change, the “enigmatic” one was examining his own motivations, questioning the very nature of his being. Instead of flicking through a nasty assortment of epilepsy inducing news channels, he decided to interrogate himself, with a newly discovered Christianity acting as a tender and forgiving  confessor’. Equally, this sadly overlooked album has touched a rather confused streak within Christian discourse, the mirror image of Dylan’s absolution somewhat distasteful to those expecting the ex-heathen to repent by unleashing some Old Testament retribution. This late 20th Century Prometheus disappointed the cold hearted preachers with an elegant humanism beneath his searing core. Produced by Jerry Wexler and session player Barry Beckett, Slow Train Coming found moderate chart success in North America, something that left Bob unperturbed; for him the providential mission was now greater than gold discs and chart show appearances.

Trembling with divine grace, a suitably more righteous follow up was already in its genesis as the initial shock of Slow Train… began to wear off. If the mythical dustbin mooching mob were perplexed by what muses they found in Zimmy’s trash in 1979, nothing could brace them for what was about to follow suit. 1980’s Saved is amongst that unique brand of Dylan albums, so bad it’s simply that; BAD. Almost devoid of any endearing factors, this gung ho monolithic conservative relic fails quite badly on so many levels, it leaves Dylan in a state of isolation where spiritual and secular trample each other in the Zimmy-bashing melee. The binaries found common ground in their disdain, dogmatism had waged war with liberal humanism, winning with ease on this brimstone laden rant. And surprise surprise, the backlash starts here:

“Simply put, out of the triad of ‘born again’ albums this one’s the only unlistenable one. For all kinds of reasons. Reason number one is: the lyrics suck. No, wait, they don’t just suck, they suck, blow, stink, [insert your favourite denigrating verb in here]. It almost seems as if all of a sudden Bob has simply forgotten that he used to, like you know, be an independent and imaginative poet at one time, took some generic, hollow gospel hymns, gave them a few twists in order to be able to credit the songwriting to himself, and went ahead”. (3)

It’s a flame tongued, fist shaking rant which finds Dylan raving from a pulpit he once saw as an egalitarian stage, the kind of territory he was now treading brought him into the same hunting ground as Jimmy Swaggart and his robotic sexless disciples. On the title track, Bob sings

“I want to thank you, Lord/I just want to thank you lord”

The feeling it seems is not mutual, the cold touch from a worryingly lethargic Wexler wastes the sweet gospel vocals, focusing on Dylan’s intrusive tap water flat rhythm guitar. Once again, the motivations are called into question; just what really happened to Bob Dylan in late 1978, and who exactly was he addressing here? God? his audience? One thing was sure, any sympathetic ears he had wooed in 1979 were now in short supply, and the glorious duo of In The Garden where Dylan found common ground with Christ in his final earthly hours, and Pressing On, (which was impressively, and eerily if one considers the name, essayed by John Doe in the guise of Heath Ledger in 2007’s I’m Not There) aside, it is difficult to place any long lasting faith in an album where the preacher goes completely off the rails, forcing his sermon onto the most vulnerable, turning personal agency into a concept unbeknown. The lord never worked in ways quite as histrionic as this.

Forward to 1981, and sessions for Shot Of Love, the last of the full blown Christian albums are in full swing. This time Dylan has confided his material in Chuck Plotkin after initial choice Jimmy Iovine is deemed surplus to requirements. Much of the material which surfaced on later compilations and official bootlegs, shows a writer not entirely confident in his divine muse. Caribbean Wind, rejected for the initial project, finds Bob on an escapist plain, the religious content is minimal; Angelina, also rejected for the final track listing, has gained a considerably cult follwowing in the 25 plus years since. However, the title track, a considerable improvement on its predecessor, returned the guile to his faith, cautious of the banal and misguided obsessions of a few months previously:

“What makes the wind wanna blow tonight?/
Don’t even feel like crossing the street/and my car ain’t actin’ right/
Called home/everybody seemed to have moved away/
My conscience is beginning to bother me today”.

While the filler count is reckless, his Christian position is at least consolidated. Property of Jesus was certainly more tongue in cheek than before, returning some secular bite to his lyrics not seen since the Central American sunsets of Desire in 1976. The evangelical aggression is jettisoned for a straight ahead connection with God, Lenny Bruce is a tale of one Jewish martyr, mourned by, in theory, another; one who was himself at a strangely ambiguous point in his spiritual journey. While the reigns were slipping, Bob saves his most glorious shot of inspiration for the very last hurrah. Every Grain of Sand began life as a simple acoustic demo, with some assistance from Jennifer Warnes, with her delicate vocal counterpoints mercifully finding their way on to 1991’s Bootleg Series. The lyrical perspective takes Zimmy’s biblical crafted musings to a more naturalistic plateau, where the influences of Rousseau and William Blake locate the pulse of something divine in the natural world, where modern metropolitan concerns are abandoned by virtue of a world untainted.

In some ways it draws Dylan back in cahoots with the Romanticism of Shelley’s rabble rousing revolutionary tones, but Bob Dylan’s conversations with God were at least Utilitarian in their sensitivities at this stage, something he would completely forsake over the passing months of 1982, as demos became Infidels, the tone was set to match Reaganomics, now an icon inflated by the kind of Christianity boorishly championed on Saved and fully unleashed upon America. For Dylan the response would have to be something in complete contrast, whether by choice or otherwise, and unlike Shelley’s hyperactive youthful exploration of the mystical, a distinct lack of Christian solidarity begotten of a more pragmatic source would embody much of Dylan’s decidedly patchy post 1981 material. With the curtain almost completely closed on an intriguing, not surprisingly controversial period in Bob Dylan’s life, Dylan himself, it is worth remembering, was always cautious of the darker side of a way of life he fully embraced for over 3 years, something confidante Helena Springs dwelled upon in latter years:

“I remember one time he said to me;  God it’s awfully tight (…) he found a lot of hypocrisy in those Jesus people that he had gotten involved with. He mentioned that to me…” (4)

For the Jokerman, nothing can ever be taken for granted, and who knows, maybe his flirtation with such an omnipotent love was the inspiration for his most blank refusal of all to play that never ending mysterious game.

One final “twist” in the tale remains. Almost 10 years later on Oh Mercy Dylan’s first decent album since his baptism of sorts, Ring Them Bells sits amongst a collection of torch songs, a holler politely disguised behind Daniel Lanois’ stark obsession with the metaphysical in Dylan’s songwriting. It is not enough to simply assume Dylan’s saintly references are another game of cat and mouse, nor are they a direct re-embrace with his spiritual values. Ring Them Bells is intensely intriguing in its complexity, a decidedly more dignified puzzle to subtly challenge the pompous unwelcome grave digging of U2’s God Part II, while re-asserting Dylan’s own idosyncratic take on the theological instincts within the secular he had supposedly reconnected with. If it is viewed as yet another puzzle (Which strangely enough, the clarity of his religious epoch didn’t strictly demystify, at least not entirely) in his meandering poetic caravan, then Dylan can again turn to the Jokerman persona, an all embracing bag of tricks he conjured up in his most liminal guise, leaving the sacred badge behind to carry out a mission not completely sanctioned by the beliefs he was grounded in. With Reagan’s America, the dark side of Christianity had been reaffirmed, and as Reagan’s days were numbered, Dylan’s inclination for spiritual mercy over the chilling judgemental nature of evangelicalism was another piece in the jigsaw for those who understood Bob as not the enigma, but the only one capable of deciphering it. Somewhere in those spine-tingling, smokey dusk scenes of Oh Mercy, a shipwrecked Shelley joins Dylan on the everglades, the conversation switches focus so often, it’s difficult to imagine just who is the heathen, the rebel, the saint, or the alchemist. Whatever the case, they get a mighty kick from knowing just how many souls are hanging on their every word.

References
(1) Percy Bysse Shelley from Letters, I. Quoted in Shelley The Pursuit by Richard Holmes, London: Flamingo, 1995.
(2) Jann S. Wenner, Slow Train Coming album review in Rolling Stone magazine 20th September 1979. Retrieved from www.rollingstone.com/artists/bobdylan/albums
/album/241841/review/6067720/slow_train_coming

(3) George Starostin review of Saved. Retrieved from http://starling.rinet.ru/music/dylan.htm#Saved
(4) Helena Springs interviewed by John Bauldie. retrieved from http://www.alilyamongthorns.8m.com/0alilyamongthorns.html

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2 Responses to “Ring them Bells – Bob Dylan’s Road to Damascus”

  1. Anonymous says:

    No mention of  ‘ Covenant Woman’ – absolutely soul-stopping

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