Darren Hirst examines the spiritual journey of the folk rock megastar BOB DYLAN.
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Conceptually 'Knocked Out Loaded' is much looser than its predecessor. Each song stands alone. "Driftin' Too Far From Shore" is another warning for those who know the truth but no longer live as if they do. His cover of "They Killed Him" finds Bob singing of "the holy son of God Almighty, the holy one called Jesus Christ." If we want poetry and innovative music stylings on this album though we must look to "Brownsville Girl". The song begins with Dylan reflecting on a cowboy film he saw where the hero forgives the villain and justifies his behaviour so that he might go free. By the end of the song he is in another place that he came to after "the stars were torn down". This latter image is a favourite of Dylan's and is based on Revelation 6 13 where "the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind." Dylan shows his mastery of language as the narrator decries people who "don't do what they believe in, they just do what's most convenient, then they repent" whilst characterising himself as one who has "always been the kind of person that doesn't like to trespass but sometimes you just find yourself over the line." Like the villain in the Western movie the narrator has one who has spoken for his justification and forgiveness "You saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune/ Underneath it, it said, 'A man with no alibi'/ You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you/ Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears/ It was the best acting I saw anybody do." As long as we grasp that the name of the town of Corpus Christi translates to "body of Christ" and appreciate that a limb is part of a tree then this beautiful imagery should not be beyond comprehension.
Station 3 - 1989 - 'Oh Mercy'
On 'Oh Mercy' Dylan looks over the world (on "Political World" and "Everything Is Broken"), its ambitions (on "Disease Of Conceit"), his own life (on "What Good Am I") and even the Church (" Ring Them Bells") and argues that everything is not how it is supposed to be and needs reforming. Ironically, whilst the Church was not listening, the secular Dylan audience understood his mindset and analysed it well as in this quote from the non-religious Dylan fan magazine Isis which interprets "Ring Them Bells" "In this new and major Dylan song, the 'heathen' is at present in 'the city that dreams. ' However, we already know from 'Slow Train Coming' album that 'in order to dream you gotta still be asleep. ' So it would appear that the lyric is in fact asking the 'heathen' to wake up (to God), and in order to both rejoice and summon others he should 'ring them bells'. The next line tells of the sanctuary (Ezekiel 37 28) that is to be found in God's city."
Any music that causes the artists' fan base to search the Scriptures must have merit. The song is not kind to the church. It pictures "the Bride" of Christ "going backwards" whilst "the Shepherds are asleep" in the fields neglecting the flock.
Station 4 - 1997 - 'Time Out Of Mind'
This album was released shortly after Dylan came out of hospital after receiving treatment for a heart complaint. The reviewers thought that this accounted for its "morbid fascination" with the end of life but neglected to note that it was recorded before his hospitalisation. Rather, the album treats life like a journey which climaxes in the transition from this world into the city of God. The writer is very aware that this journey has been treated before and relies heavily on the language of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Like Christian in Doubting Castle, he finds himself "20 miles out of town, in cold irons bound" (" Cold Irons Bound"). The purpose of the journey is to get in to Heaven "before they close the door." His final destination is the "Highlands" which is where he trusts he will "be when I'm called home." As in Vanity Fair, the believer is struggling to keep his mind on eternal things amongst the minutiae of so much that is passing away and temporal.
Station 5 - 2001 - 'Live 1961-2000'
This live album which was intended for the Japanese market has become widely available. Much of the album is made up of songs recorded by Dylan after his conversion. The album opens and closes with new songs which emphasise the two ways in which the artist has chosen to communicate his faith in concert. The album opens with the traditional bluegrass hymn "Somebody Touched Me" "It was on a Sunday/ Somebody touched me/ Must have been the hand of the Lord." This song has more in common with the lyrics of his 'Saved' album than his more recent recordings. The album closes with "Things Have Changed", a song which would win a Grammy and combines a quote from a hymn with the journeying language of his 'Time Out Of Mind' album and the internal struggle of sanctification which would be the central theme on his next record "Don't get up gentleman, I'm only passing through/ I've been walking 40 miles of bad road/ If the Bible is right, this world will explode/ I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can."
Station 6 - 2001 - 'Love And Theft'
'Love And Theft' is Dylan's most recent studio album. It deals with the struggles and complexity of the idea of the "old man" and "new man" co-existing in the life of the believer in this world and those things which point towards God and away from God. This duality begins in the title (" Love" fulfils the commandments and "Theft" breaks them) and runs through the heart of every song. In "Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum" we find two men who look the same who are both capable of good and evil. The other principle characters of the album find themselves struggling through this world of sin trying to identify the hand of God in the dark shadows of a failing light. In "Bye And Bye" the voice of God is heard "I'm gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more/ I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war." The "civil war" of the album is internal and not external. The time when the characters will "sin no more" is in the "Bye And Bye" and not in the present. Meanwhile, to live for God is hard.
The album ends with "Love" acting like a sword which divides this world between good and bad but also with an invitation for all to join this struggle of salvation before it is too late "You got a way of tearing a world apart, Love, see what you done/ Just as sure as we're living, just as sure as you're born/ Look up, look up - seek your Maker - 'fore Gabriel blows his horn." As we have seen, most of Dylan's albums are thematic and limited to one or a few chosen subjects. To understand the scope of the way that his faith has touched his art we must consider his live performances. Since his divorce, Dylan has toured almost non-stop and clearly sees this as the centre of his work as a musician.
Writer Markus Prieur, in a fascinating article, Can't Let Go No More in Judas Magazine (another Dylan fan publication!), has pointed out the way that Dylan tends to open with a song of faith and later in his show tends to group his songs together in his performance to develop a particular theme of faith. His opening songs over the last four years have been mostly covers of bluegrass hymns. There has been "I Am The Man, Thomas" (a song about the resurrection appearance to a doubting disciple), or songs of worship and future hope like "A Voice From On High", "Hallelujah, I'm Ready To Go" or the aforementioned "Somebody Touched Me". His principle theme in the grouped songs from the latter part of the show tend to emphasise the transitory nature of life in this world and the security of the salvation he has found. Consequently, he pairs songs like the bluegrass "This World Can't Stand Long" or his own "Down In The Flood" with songs like "Rock Of Ages" or "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour" (the hymns) or his own "Solid Rock" or "Saving Grace". Ironically, the very reviewers who disparaged "Saving Grace" when it first appeared on 'Saved' argued that it was the best performance in the early shows of his recent Australian tour.
In conclusion, if we take any note of Dylan's music then perhaps we should be not seeking to establish whether he is merely a believer (like the Restless Pilgrim book) but whether his work is correspondent with the mature voice of someone who has been a man of faith for a quarter of a century. In recent years, he has encouraged an artist to turn a song from "Slow Train Coming" into a children's book, used his Gospel songs creatively in concert and his biblical knowledge to create truly poetic visions in his new songs and albums. In 2003, he has written and starred in a film which the reviewers argue turns to the common Dylan themes and pre-occupation of a "broken and decadent world and the need for a Messiah" and worked with gospel singers to develop the songs from 'Slow Train Coming' and 'Saved' into the stylings of the black gospel Church. When we hear Dylan performing his duet with Mavis Staples on "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" perhaps we will conclude that he has, with God's help, done so and learn from some of the results.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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