Wednesday, December 27, 2017



When Dylan's "How Many Roads" Became a One-Way Street

This is written in response to a recent online essay about Bob Dylan's detour into Christianity beginning in 1978, what might have caused his conversion, what it may have meant, and its contemporary and lasting effect on his music.  The essay link is at the end.

I had been introduced to the whole you-should-be-a-Christian thing at an early age in my small Southern hometown.  Baptists and Catholics predominated there, and my friends went to those churches and others.  I'd go drinking with them many Saturday nights and they'd go to church hungover the next day.  And we'd get drunk and go to Midnight Mass together on Christmas Eve.

So I had a pretty good idea of what being a Christian could mean and not mean.  Anyway, cynical Jewish me would never do anything so ridiculously rash, obviously stupid, or weirdly radical as convert to Christianity.  But a crush on a girl in college changed all that.  I was trying to get her to like me, to show her how daring I was, so I tried to accept Jesus.  It didn't work, but was a good college try. I didn't anticipate any further fallout.

There had been extenuating circumstances of alienation from a decent upper-ish middle class family and the continuous pressures of intense political times.  Trump times so far seem but a particularly nasty foretaste.  Mainly though, the future seemed an impossibly worrisome thing to have to deal with.

Basically no one does anything so radical religiously as Bob Dylan did or so many others have done if they actually believe they have a better alternative.  Well, that was my experience anyway.  'Accepting Jesus' had always seemed like the worst thing I could possibly ever do, even at the moment I tried it, except for everything else I could conceivably imagine myself doing in that moment.

What really drew me in deep enough to the whole crazy schmear to soon become associated with an off-the-wall organized group not unlike the one Dylan found was indeed Hal Lindsey's book, The Late Great Planet Earth, the book that helped hook Dylan into the wider flock. The world already seemed to be about to cave in on itself and everyone in it including me, and, as preposterous as Lindsey's general hypothesis is, it registered only slightly moreso on the Preposterous Continuum compared to much of everything else going on at the time.  It was really wild and crazy out there.

I had read the book before I found that group, which was not emphatically apocalyptic like Lindsey.  In fact, first impressions informed me that this group was anything but apocalyptic, seeming harmless and goofy but open-hearted and positive.  There were lay leaders and families with children, young marrieds, single people, mostly white but all races, several former Protestant ministers, other Jews, and a respected former student body president of the college I was attending.  So there was a sense of normalcy about it, and of hope.  There was also an attractive ad hoc zeitgeist and an easygoing atmosphere that presupposed the busy structured life of the members, many of whom lived together.

I think of it now as sort of a Zen Baptist fellowship of self-exiles and rejects from mainstream society.  It was live and let live, accept everyone as an equal, and basically learn to be glad to do what you're led to think is the best and right way to see and do things.  Luckily, there was not any harmful deviance going on at the leadership level or otherwise besides the casually enforced conformity.  The group met six days a week in one form or other, and it was an entirely pleasant experience if you bought into it.  Doubts were allowed but very subtly discouraged.

Overall, it was a sweet and sober experiment in dealing with existential uncertainty under the reliable auspices of a slow-moving gentle (Gentile?) zestfully clean mindwashing.  But it was by choice, and there were people there with whom I'd still be friends today if they weren't still such kooks!

This was all before Watergate purged the nation of much of its contradictory tensions.  In fact, one related thing that later proved to be a key departure point from my voluntary mindwashing and that helped propel me to just up and leave the group was that its genial leader one day, out of apparently nowhere, encouraged the group's members to support Nixon in the 1972 election because it would be best for the economy so that group members could more easily find jobs.  That was the last straw that broke the spell for me, a campus radical-lite, and my group participation had become less and less enthusiastic anyway.  I had never been able to swallow the group's particular Christian template and its 'unique' interpretation of 'end times', let alone digest it.

For me, my joining the group hadn't been wholly a cry for help, though it was somewhat that.  I think it had mainly been an odd somewhat desperate exploration of a major part of the world previously denied to me about which I had become more curious than I'd realized.  What WOULD it be like to be a Christian, my unconscious was asking.  Would there be any relief?  AND there seemed to be an unconditional love for and acceptance of one another that I'd never experienced elsewhere.

That part I still believe was true enough, despite my complex emotional and psychological reasons underpinning that belief, and it felt like I thought a real family should feel, one that didn't tear you down behind your back and wanted to have your back when you needed it and also bothered to try and find out when that might be.  Also, any port in a storm.

So when Dylan's Slow Train album came out in later 1979, and a good six years had passed since I had returned to being a normal secular born-Jewish never-really-was-that-kind-of-Christian, lets-never-talk-about-this-again prodigal black sheep son, and a couple of years after I'd later married the college girl for whom I'd tried to accept 'the Lord' in the first place (she'd joined the group too, but we got together after we each had left it), the album made me giddily happy to see that I was not the only Jew to have fallen into the sincere but seemingly silly trappings of instant Christian religiosity.  DYLAN HAD!

I could hardly believe what I was hearing on Slow Train.  He really had gone Jesus freak.  And the songs were immaculately conceived and felt, Dylan actually translating for the world what it was like to feel free and freed for the first time.  It was iconic and real.  I could relate to it deeply and understood that he was both embracing and mining gospel traditions.  He was also becoming more musically authentic Dylan.

At that point I could see how this turn of his was to an even deeper embrace of the natural spirit of America.  It was the most radical thing he had ever done. It made going electric at Newport seem almost inconsequential.  He went to where early American slaves and especially many minority peoples still today are forced to go to blend in the best they can into the fabric of white America, and where many poor and less poor whites need to go for the elusive sense of warmth and belonging the country is again proving incapable of providing its forgotten and disadvantaged. It is where they have all gone like pilgrims for emotional relief and for hope and to pay homage to what should be.  They were trying to find and sustain their own better angels, as was Dylan.

I could also feel the familiar fury and brimstone of Lindsey's self-reveling co-optation of The Book of Revelations.  So I understood the urgency behind the songs but also recognized the lens of instability that provided the true focus for the book and underlay Dylan's conversion itself.

I only wished, or hoped, that he would soon or eventually move on to the next phase of his career where his newfound awareness would more directly help challenge the harmful traditions of patriarchy, sexism, and institutionalized capitalistic violence.  Oh well.  He's aged beautifully anyway, and I think his more deeply religious phase was a transition to a more honest portrayal of his more down-to-earth values and keener insights of the human condition, altogether an expression of his more authentic spiritual self.

Interestingly (to me), my post-group wife and I saw Dylan in concert in our adopted city Portland, Oregon in January 1979, during his first gospel tour, though I wasn't aware of it being that. I knew I didn't recognize the songs except for maybe one or two (Lay Lady Lay?), and I rationalized it was likely because he often played his songs differently than as recorded.  But it was energetic and enjoyable - it was Dylan! - yet enigmatic, and I remembered having enjoyed The Rolling Thunder Revue in Houston's Astrodome four years earlier a whole lot more. But hmm this Slow Train Coming was powerful and evocative of earlier revolutionary Dylan.

W
hen I bought Slow Train later that year, it hit me what it was we had witnessed.  It explained everything.  I could hear the hokey but sincere innocent catchphrases and generalized adopted language of new converts and the idiosyncratic phraseology of the particular strain of church people with whom he must have been interacting.  "Pressing on" and other such interpretive descriptions of spiritual process were everywhere, as well as deserved judgments upon the world ("it's a wonder we can even feed ourselves" writ religious large). The 'newborn Christian' enthusiasm and professions of unquestioned belief in the unlikely and unprovable were all accounted for.  It was so familiar.  Have faith, I told myself.  He will come back to us someday, an even better Dylan, he's on a journey.

I'm not the biggest music afficionado, especially from the technical point of view, but I was in a band in 1975 that moved from Louisiana to Memphis because Memphis' Ardent Records producer Ron Capone, who won an Emmy for Isaac Hayes' Shaft album (and engineered also at Stax and for Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Tower of Power, the list goes on) had invited us to record our songs for free in barter for being house session band at Ardent.  We played on demo projects for Steve Cropper (of the Stax house band, Booker T & the MGs, and the Blues Brothers band) on demos, for instance.

So at that time, in the enlightened musical presence of masters who'd worked with legends, I inadvertently experienced an enlivening touch of a venerable musical tradition, and I think this exposure later helped me recognize, at least for my own purposes, something of what Dylan was doing musically and personally.  It was a sea change of Parting-the-Red-Sea caliber, and it must have been incredibly tumultuous for him, all of it, and I could readily imagine the strange but promising impact he had begun having on other musicians, a kind of creative tumult of its own.  Yet the courage he showed in that phase was undeniable and indelible.

Funny (to me), I felt more 'saved' listening to Slow Train in 1979 than I had felt the entire year I was in the alt-Christian group.  But it was not because of his songs or salvation (though the songs, wow, just terrific!).

It was because someone as amazing as Bob Dylan had gone down that track too, had given in to the gravitational pull for a new exploration and hoped to find something that worked better for him than his life had provided him at his own juncture, that he was actually doing something brave and true to his wizardry nature and was still a freewheeling chameleon willing to take on the approbation of others because it didn't really truly harm anyone and it could give inspiration to a whole new generation of fans and musicians, and in his creative process it helped catalyze something culturally and musically important, though still not well-defined, that was not all that different from going electric at the legendary Newport Folk Festival in 1965 (the 1979 Dylan probably upset a new generation of musical Pharisees).

So Dylan helped me salvage my soul, or more clearly, helped me reclaim my fuller self-esteem from the murky miasma of lingering guilt and memory of previous shunning that was thrust upon me innocently by family and friends.  Not that I blame them, or anyone resenting Dylan for baptizing his music in the Holy Ghost.  They couldn't help it either.
_________________________________________________
The essay responds to this post. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/dylan-and-the-cross

No comments:

Post a Comment

Four Pulitzer Winners Walk Into A Bar In My Amazon Dream I realized tonight I've known four Pulitzer Prize winners. They are de...