Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gospel Zone

by Jesse Jarnow

There is a story my uncle tells that might be apocryphal, but--knowing my uncle--probably isn't. Sometime in the late '60s, he walked into the MoMA store and saw a spherical white motorcycle helmet, on sale as an art object. He bought one. When he got it home, he says, he felt silly owning a motorcycle helmet without a motorcycle. So he bought a BMW bike.

After all, like Bob Dylan said, "we all like motorcycles to some degree."

I imagine this might have been the case for Dylan himself, when in 1978 he found himself with a full coterie of back-up singers and no gospel to sing. So he found Jesus.

And now it is the case with me, where--as a Dylan fan--I find myself at a stage of my listening where I have a stack of music from Dylan's Jesus years, but no Jesus to believe in. Perhaps that will come eventually. Who's to say? But I'm certainly not going to be saved by three albums and some smoking bootlegs. At least not this holiday season, no matter how many bottoms have fallen out.

But that doesn't mean it's not useful. It's not like I don't believe in Bob Dylan's music. I probably believe in that more than ever, in the primacy of listening to John Wesley Harding when the branches are barest, or New Morning when things are right. Or Blood on the Tracks (or, more often, the New York acetate) when things aren't. Or humming "Moonlight" from "Love & Theft" when walking down an empty street. Or "Not Dark Yet" on a sleepless summer night. Sure, I believe in Bob Dylan, and--like the proverbial injun hunkering down for winter--I believe in using the whole Bob. So why not Jesus? Or, at least, Jesus-Bob?

One way to treat Bob Dylan's music from between 1979 and 1981 is simply as music with a form and a purpose. Like any other gospel music. But that's not really what I want. I want to feel it. The solution is the simplest thing in the world: just treat it like Bob Dylan. His lyrics have always been weird, filled with resonances both intentional and unexpected. The only real difference here is that, during the Christian period, Dylan--as author--offered an overt opinion about their meanings. Surely, as a songwriter, Dylan has always had some idea about what his songs meant to him. Given who he is, these personal, idiosyncratic explanations--maybe not even known to Dylan himself in anything other than the form of the songs themselves--are probably at least as weird as Christianity. If not weirder.

For the listener, the long sermons which proceeded "Solid Rock" in its live outings--see below--are misdirection. Leading the witness, as it were. But thats where Bob was. Ultimately, it's a sturdy f'n song about personal conviction, and that's useful. Sure, the phrase "solid rock" is obviously religious imagery, but that doesn't mean I don't have my own foundation as a modern secularist. If Dylan could leverage the civil rights movement to be a great songwriter, as he has sometimes has claimed, there's no reason why we can't, in return, appropriate his spiritual tunes for our own needs. It's sometimes good to know that you won't let go and can't let go. Best of all is Dylan's performance, both in the studio and live: desperate, raw.

"I Believe In You" scans similarly to me, though less desperate, and actually kinda tender. Really, how is "I believe in you when winter turn to summer/I believe in you when white turn to black" different than any devotional verse about a relationship-in-progress from "Girl From the North Country" or "Shelter From The Storm"? And then, of course, there's "Every Grain of Sand," its placement as literally the last song on the last proper Christian album, 1981's Shot of Love, just as strong as a statement as the song itself. Formally, it is nearly the complete opposite of its foil, "Gotta Serve Somebody," which kicked off 1979's Slow Train Coming with a binary insistence of being either pro-God or, I suppose, pro-Satan. "Every Grain of Sand"--especially in its demo form, with Little Feat's Fred Tackett on guitar--is pretty easy to accept as a Great Dylan Song, all world-weary doubt curled into softness.

There are just straight delightful musical curiosities form the period, too: a live cover of Dion's "Abraham, Martin, and John" (see below) that strips period gaudiness into pure harmony; a sit-in from Michael Bloomfield during Dylan's 12-night run at San Francisco's Warfield Theater in 1980, Bloomfield's spitfire Highway 61-era lines teleported into Dylan's then-new tunes (and Bloomfield only months away from his February 1981 overdose); the unreleased "City of Gold" (later covered by the Dixie Hummingbirds on the fantastic Larry Campbell-produced Diamond Jubilation).

And, on top of that, there's plenty of auxiliary material, too: Paul Williams' sympathetic and human Dylan--What Happened (now collected in Watching the River Flow), which Dylan himself ordered 114 copies of to give to friends to explain his conversion. There is Saved! The Gospel Speeches of Bob Dylan, a pocket-sized collection of Dylan's gospel sermons, edited by Clinton Heylin, published by Hanuman Press. And, for good measure, there's Dylan's appearance with Harry Dean Stanton on a 1989 Chabad telethon. But that's another bag of iconography altogether. In these weird times, it's better just to believe in Bob. And what better way to start?

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah


"Sermon/Intro" mp3
"Solid Rock" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Solid Rock

"I Believe In You" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Solid Rock

"The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" mp3
(with Michael Bloomfield on guitar)
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Warfield Theater, San Francisco 11/15/1980

"Abraham, Martin, and John"
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Yonder Comes Sin

"Every Grain of Sand" (demo) mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
available on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 : Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991


Anonymous said...

After all, like Bob Dylan said, "we all like motorcycles to some degree."

Great post, thank you! Makes me wonder what life was like for the generation before mine. Makes me want to go and buy a motorbike. Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite Dylan pics: Bob on Bike

Shane Convery said...

Not a Christian myself, still I love this period of Dylan's music. The performances are so alive and ecstatic with something about his singing that seems more direct and less self conscious.

The videos on youtube make it seem the performances were filmed to be released. I wonder if they ever have?
I really like how you've written about the Jesus-Bob years. The whole post is beautiful! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

re Abraham M & J - that's from Seattle. Dylan is playing piano and that's his girlfriend singing. I remembering being on stage with a boyfriend one time and when we were doing our thing it was like we were the only two people in the world - it was a religious experience.
if you ever have too many people die on you that you can't cry any more - this song will release those tears for you

Parq said...

Fine post, but I'm a wee bit disappointed that you didn't include anything from the collection of great gospel Dylan covers, "Gotta Serve Somebody". Stellar versions, especially, of the title song and "Pressing On" are the standouts. Admittedly, I'm prejudiced - a buddy of mine worked on the album and was let down by its tepid sales. Even so, lovers of Dylan's gospel period need to check it out.

Michael Bryan said...

Dylan's JesusFreak period is lame beyond words. Thank god he got over "Him"...