Sunday, October 12, 2008

Restless Pilgrim

“I’m not a spokesman for anybody’s generation. Far from it. I want to emphatically deny being the spokesman for our generation. Fame is just having your name known by a lot of strangers. People who are kind or good are the ones who ought to be famous.” ~ Bob Dylan, 1978

The decade-spanning career of Bob Dylan intersects with nearly every major movement of our times.

For a short period begining in 1979, he recorded three albums in what some call his “Christian period.” Slow Train Coming, the first, was superbly produced and musically a first rate album. But the message was a departure in many peoples’ minds from what they expected Dylan to be, especially after the Rolling Thunder Review Tour which rumbled across the previous period.

I was in Bible school when the album came out. My connections to Dylan’s music were woven through the braided themes of my own life. And as a harmonica player I enjoyed the sweet riffs with which he’d accented much of his music. I had more than one friend at that time refer to him as “Brother Bob” because he was now a “brother in Christ.”

His second album, Saved, left nothing to the imagination with regard to where Dylan stood on matters of faith. “I’m pressing on, to the higher calling of my Lord,” with its black gospel feel and passionate delivery, is a perfectly clear snapshot of the born again Dylan’s heart.

His third album of this period began to re-capture some of the venom-tinged power of songs like "Idiot Wind" and "Positively Fourth Street" of previous times, only the target this time -- in a song like "Dead Man" – was religion. The weaker production values in this album caused critics to pan it but there were some significant messages here and some songs with great poetry.

Shot of Love was followed by his Infidels album, which moved further away from explicit declarations of a Biblical Christianity and seemed to suggest that he was now identifying with his Jewish roots.

And so, many wondered where he was at with God and faith and religion. Careful readers of his interviews could see that he never denied the Bible as truth. But questions remained. The book Restless Pilgrim (Relevant Books, 2004), by Scott Marshall, strives to put it all to rest. The genius troubadour, despite his various guises, has always been underneath a seeker, and when he found the truth in Christ, according to Marshall, he never ceased to embrace the revealed mercy he found at the Cross.

At the same time, Dylan is an artist. He used all his creative powers to produce the albums of that most intensely spiritual period. But rather than repeating the same things over and over, Dylan turned his eye back to the broader culture to offer his informed analysis, interpretations, unique ways of illuminating realities. Songs like “Everything Is Broken” and “Ring Them Bells” from his acclaimed Oh Mercy album are truthful and true, powerful and honest without sounding like some of the preaching from his Saved album. "Disease of Conceit" and “What Good Am I?” from side 2 are again Dylanesque versions of Old and New Testament truths, in a modern dialect.

Marshall’s book attempts to highlight the threads from Dylan’s various songs and interviews that show his faith remained vibrant, and is inseparable from the message of his life.

I would not call this my favorite Dylan book on the shelf, but it was a good addition to my collection, here and there adding new anecdotal material and understandings which followers of the artist might appreciate.

"Gotta Serve Somebody," the song Dylan opened his 1998 Duluth performance with, has been a favorite of his as an opener these past 28 years. I think that says something right there. Here are the lyrics from another of my favorite songs on that first album Slow Train Coming

Precious Angel

Precious angel, under the sun
How was I to know you'd be the one
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone,
How weak was the foundation I was standing upon.

Now there's spiritual warfare, flesh and blood breaking down,
You either got faith or you got unbelief, and there ain't no neutral ground.
The enemy is subtle, how be it we’re deceived
When the truth’s in our hearts and we still don't believe?

Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
You know I just can't make it by myself
I'm a little too blind to see.

My so called friends have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, "Well, all is well'.
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die?

Sister, let me tell you about a vision that I saw,
You were drawing water for your husband, you were suffering under the law
You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him ‘bout Mohammed in one breath,
You never mentioned one time the Man who came
and died a criminal's death.

Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
You know I just can't make it by myself
I'm a little too blind to see.

Precious angel, you believe me when I say
What God has given to us no man can take away
We are covered in blood girl, you know our forefathers were slaves
Let us hope they found mercy in their bone-filled graves.

You're the queen of my flesh, girl, you're my woman, you're my delight
You're the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night
But there's violence in the eyes, girl, so let us not be enticed
On the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgment hall of Christ.

Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
You know I just can't make it by myself
I'm a little too blind to see.

It's the way he sings this song that moves me, and if you would like to hear it, you can take it in here. The song never fails to connect.
Photo on left taken in May 2007, image on a wall in Haight Ashbury, SF
All other images created by ed newman, unless otherwise noted.
As always, click to enlarge.

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