Zimmerman finds his Messiah (Part 1)

Okay, before I start I’d better come clean. I’m a huge Dylan fan. I have every single one of his albums including that rare out-of-print one never released on CD. I also like Self Portrait. I think that “All The Wild Horses” is just wonderful, and the “The Boxer” is a cereal-through-nose snorting pleasure.

While his more ‘recent’ efforts, say from Empire Burlesque onwards, range from tolerable to actually-pretty-damn-good, I know every note and every rasp of Desire, Blood On The Tracks and Blonde on Blonde. I get emotionally carried away when he gets to the “How does it feeeyul” chorus of Like A Rolling Stone on the Before The Flood live set…

But, the three-album deal that represents his ‘Christian Period’ have always been difficult for me to “get into”. For two reasons. I suppose it’s no secret that I’m no friend of religion. It upset me that the ‘Christian Union’ types at my high-school suddenly adopted Dylan when he went Christian even though they would have denounced him as an icon of Satanic Rock music otherwise. Who knows what would have happened if they’d played ‘Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ backwards. But they weren’t really interested in his pre-born-again canon. Secondly, I was worried that if I said I liked Dylan someone might mistake me for a Christian.

But I recently realised I was exercising a quite a double-standard. In retrospect, I think I’d fallen prey to a common prejudice that pervades they way many people look at music and religion. I now think it is quite racist. This is how I came to that conclusion:

Music is filled with religious nuts. George Harrison was an evangelical Hare Krishna. Guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughlan followed the guru Sri Chinmoy and collaborated on the album Love Devotion Surrender. Meanwhile Pete Townshend, guitarist with The Who went off after another guru, Meher Baba. and was soon cutting devotional tracks. I’m very fond of the song “And I Moved” on Townshend’s Empty Glass album because it has an (unintentional) gay subtext that spoke to me at the time. But all of this is considered “cool”. Beatles get mixed up with the Maharishi: cool! Dylan gets Jesus. Not so cool.

On the other hand, black artists are almost expected to be religious. “Gospel” and R&B are almost interchangeable. Cliff Richard finds Jesus. Unbelievably uncool.  Little Richard finds Jesus. Far out! Even when he becomes a preacher.

Here’s the thing: White artists are allowed to be religious as long as they adopt a non-Western religion. Black artists are expected to be evangelical Christians (or Rastafarian!), and no one bats an eyelid. Oh, and it’s slightly classist too, because the one exception to the rule is if you’re from white, but from a trailer park in the deep south – like Elvis, or Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash – then religion is okay too because the urban intelligentsia don’t (I suppose) expect you to know any better.

Anyhow, it was this recent realisation that got me over this prejudicial hump and allows me to finally listen to Dylan’s holy trinity – Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love – with as little embarrassment as George Harrison’s splendid All Things Must Pass album. But will they be any good? Let’s find out.


Slow Train Coming

Right, here we go. Serve Somebody. He’s setting out his wares. (”It may be the devil or it may be the lord but you’re gonna serve somebody.”) It has an infectious laid-back groove courtesy of Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers and Neil Young-regular, bass player Tim Drummond. Dire Straits frontman, Mark Knopfler adds guitar. The rest of the sound owes a great deal to Muscle Shoals session regulars and legendary producer Jerry Wexler.

It really is a quality production.

The next track is Precious Angel. It has a distinct Dire Straits sound to it. It wouldn’t be out of place on Strait’s Communique album. Lyrically he notes – as if, conveniently, to support my earlier thesis:

You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammed
in the same breath.
You never mentioned one time the Man who came and died a criminal’s death.

Obviously thematically it’s all nonsense to me. I’m only really interested in how it works from a musical point of view and how ‘good’ they lyrics are from a ‘poetic’ point of view. Dylan’s language is usually a joy. It’s inventive and moving at once.

I Believe In You comes next. It’s a powerful love song. Whether its to Jesus or another person – perhaps a woman – is irrelevant. It’s touching and heartfelt. Wexler has captured a wonderful sound on Bob’s acoustic guitar. Knopfler plays two tasteful guitar solos.

Next up is the title track Slow Train Coming. It has a similar groove to Dire Straits’s “Once Upon Time In The West”. There is also a great live version on Dylan and the Dead. Lyrically, its up there with Dylan’s best.

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted
Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions,
Are they lost or are they found, have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.

Like Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn at Stax, Tim Drummond is the master of understated groovy bass playing. I just love listening to him. It’s not about the notes he plays, but about the notes he doesn’t play, as they say.

Gonna Change My Way of Thinking has a riff slightly reminiscent of JJ Cale’s Cocaine and features some cracking organ from the late, great Barry Beckett and some punchy brass stabs from the Muscle Shoals Horns.

Musically, we’re still really on solid ground here. Lyrically…

Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me,”
Just so you know where He’s coming from.

… well, get a grip, Bob! Okay, I’ll admit I’m starting to get a little uncomfortable with this. Still, even when he’s spewing out religious reaction, he does it… very well indeed.

We return to groove territory with Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others). More minimalist funky bass from Drummond, more tasteful guitar from Knopfler, and a keyboard part that must owe something to the sort of Fender Rhodes thing Richard Tee used to do on Paul Simon albums. Nice switch from groove to shuffle rhythms too. The title, obviously, is lifted right out of Jesus’s central message. I can’t fault Dylan for trying to remind Christians of this.

When You Gonna Wake Up. More funk. But Dylan has really hit his evangelical stride now. This is like the Daily Mail set to music. But it is delivered with a satisfying amount of bad-tempered bile.

Ah, now we’re in for some reggae: Man Gave Names to All the Animals. It’s lightweight, but you can dance to it. He has some female backing singers doing a reasonable impression of his namesake’s I-threes.

It goes on a bit. I see the last song is When He Returns. I wonder what that will be all about?

Oh no, it’s one of ‘those’ set-closer songs. Solo piano ballad.

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.

Make it stop! Oh wait, what’s this?

How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?

Well, that is a marvellous couplet, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

In short, Slow Train Coming – subject matter aside – is a very satisfying album. Dylan’s voice is good. His lyrical powers are undiminished by madness. The band is ace. The production is stunning. From ‘Serve Sombody’ to ‘When He Returns’, the whole package holds together as well as any of his other ‘big’ albums. My chief worry is what Dylan will serve up when he returns with Saved. I’ll find out tomorrow.

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