Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Slow Train Coming

"The album was a shocker that made page one news widely, for Dylan's conversion, and its musical expression, caught nearly everyone by total surprise." ~Robert Shelton, No Direction Home

From my earliest days I've been fascinated by trains. When I went away to college my dorm room was in the corner of Ohio University's Scott Quad, the closest corner to the railroad line that ran through campus. The engineer was gracious enough not to blow the horn but it was still louder than thunder and the first several days caused us to sit bolt upright at 2 a.m. when the lumbering behemoth rolled by.

Trains figured prominently in more than just one of my paintings as a young art student. Perhaps it's their orderly bridled power that astonishes us. Perhaps its the massiveness of their force that conveys a sense of inevitability as they approach.  

For Dylan, the slow train became another vehicle for conveying new stories that he'd become passionate about.

Robert Shelton subtitles his chapter on Dylan's Gospel period "Busy Being Born Again." He opens the chapter with a pair of Bible verses from Psalm 40:

2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Slow Train Coming was a powerful album on many fronts. Its boldness, it's production values (the album was taped in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Becket with help from Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits along with others.), and its passion all demonstrated a serious new Dylan had emerged. Except he was now talking about Jesus. Many fans and critics didn't know how to deal with it.

The very first cut on the album lays out the message: Gotta Serve Somebody, a song which he opened many concerts with and has performed live 414 times through 2011.

Dylan follows with more explicitness in the beautiful lament, Precious Angel:

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

The third song is a love song to Jesus "I Believe In You."

It's a Dylan many people never expected. But then again, he's left clues all through his many previous albums indicating he had a spiritual side, a questioning and questing side. Street Legal contains a heart-rending song about a man facing an uncertain end titled Señor, which in Spanish means Lord. The final verse, uttered by a man stripped and on his knees, states:

Señor, señor, let’s disconnect these cables
Overturn these tables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?

The fourth groove is Slow Train. Rhymes with Hard Rain, and like Hard Rain it's an unflinching portrayal of how things are in this world we live in.

Slow Train

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted
Can't help but wonder what's happening 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 slow, slow train coming up around the bend.

I had a woman down in Alabama
She was a backwoods girl, but she sure was realistic
She said, Boy, without a doubt, have to quit your mess and straighten out
You could die down here, be just another accident statistic
There's slow, slow train coming up around the bend.

All that foreign oil controlling American soil
Look around you, it's just bound to make you embarrassed
Sheiks walking around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings
Deciding America's future from Amsterdam and to Paris
And there's slow, slow train coming up around the bend.

Man's ego is inflated, his laws are outdated, they don't apply no more
You can't rely no more to be standing around waiting
In the home of the brave, Jefferson turning over in his grave
Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan
And there's slow, slow train coming up around the bend.

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency
All non-believers and men stealers talking in the name of religion
And there's slow, there's slow train coming up around the bend.

People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting
Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it
They say loose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions
They talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to live it
There's slow, slow train coming up around the bend.

Well, my baby went to Illinois with some bad-talking boy she could destroy
A real suicide case, but there was nothing I could do to stop it
I don't care about economy, I don't care about astronomy
But it's sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets
There's slow, slow train coming up around the bend. 

Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music

Dylan played this song in concert 127 times between late 1987 and September 1987.

EdNote: Robert Shelton was the New York Times journalist whose review of a Bob Dylan performance in 1961 is credited with putting the young Dylan "on the map."


hans altena said...

As much as I have to agree that once more Dylan took a bold turn here and did it spirited as always on his moments of change, this album never fails to bring me down, where usually I am uplifted. Where's the lyrical prowess? He just showers us with clichés, fingerpointing emblems, abstractions that seldomn get a fac (something he used to be so good in), except maybe in Precious Angel and Slow Train Coming and When He returns, three songs that really grab you, whether you accept his Christian vision or not. And the band is playing a synthetic kind of gospel blues, due partly to the stylized guitar of Mark Knopfler. Gone is the spontainity, the roughness. It presages the soulles rock of the eighties. Street Legal I already recognized as a deeply religious album, circling around a meeting with the Christian God and that of The Old Testament, it spoke for me in a better way about his search for the truth, just as those great records of his late career, with as its crown the deeply moving and poetic Tempest. No I do not turn away from this record because of its so called Christian content (I thought it was a flat and one dimensional fundamentalistic take on the Bible from someone who seemed lost in a new territory he did not yet understand, whereas his allusions in earlier records from the beginning had been so original and moving. Luckily he would return to that, starting with Oh Mercy!)

tdcasey said...

"Slow Train" is the reference point for "Duquesne Whistle" on the 'Tempest' CD. The train is no longer "up around the bend." It is here, you can hear the whistle blowing and you can see the lights and its an introduction to a CD of which the theme is the judgment of God on our nation. However, Bob is not going to leave us hopeless. In "Duquesne Whistle", there are the words, "Ï hear a sweet voice calling, it must be the mother of our Lord," This phrase could be referring to John 2:5 in the KJV where Mary states her only "commandment." "Do whatever he (Jesus) tells you." Tempest in the Bible almost always refers to judgment - Job 9:17, Psalms 11:6, 83:15, Isaiah 28:2, 29:6,. "They waited at the landing / And they turned to understand / But there is no understanding / For the judgment of God's hand." - from stanza 43 of the song, "Tempest.

ENNYMAN said...

to both:
Interesting insights and thoughts. I had not made the connection between Slow Train and Duquense Whistle (which now seems self-evident)...
though the spiritual undercurrent in Tempest is very real and, like Oh Mercy, shows how Dylan's spiritual self is more integrated into his art.
Thanks for the visit.