Of all of Dylan’s phases, his Christian period has always baffled me. As a non-practising Jew, a fervent atheist, and an evolutionary biologist, religion is antithetic to my entire being. And yet, here is my #1 role model shouting the praises of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the earth. My only possible consolation lay in the possibility of separating the message from the music, and appreciating based on song-crafting and/or performance alone. From the album versions this is quite difficult, because the performances are just not great. As it happens I have learned to appreciate how good some of these songs are from cover versions, like this incredible version of “Covenant Woman”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jL6Nqk7oT10; Or this version of “I Believe in You”, by Cat Power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOgonNheAck. This phenomenon is similar (in some ways) to the story of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”, which languished in obscurity as an understated recording, on an underappreciated album from the mid 80’s, for many years before it was discovered and exhumed famously by Jeff Buckley.
In anticipation of the Bootleg volume 13, I really hoped that it would be enough to convince me of the value of this material, that it would be good. I can honestly say it comes through on its promise and then some. The review on NPR is correct in the following:
“Those who've only done a cursory dip into the studio recordings and found them staid and at times sanctimonious are in for a revisionist history jolt”
In short, the release is a revelation. The live versions of these songs are incredible. Pretty much every song on Bob’s Christian trilogy is represented here by at least one live version that is way better than the studio versions. Even songs that I thought were just terrible, like “in the Summertime” off shot of love, are beautifully resurrected here (track 13 on disc 2). The version of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” with Santana playing Mike Bloomfield-style blues riffs is sublime. Many of the live versions are completely different arrangements from the album versions, with these road-worn versions invariably a huge improvement, for example the soundcheck of “Do Right To Me Baby” on disc 3. His vocals are strong, and at moments his voice sounds like it did at earlier stages of his career, a pleasant surprise. For example, the song “Help Me Understand” sounds like something off the Basement Tapes. Also, his vocal on the cover of “Rise Again” sounds Desire-era Dylan.
The important issue of religiosity remains. To gain some insight on this I refer to the review on NPR, as follows:
“He recognized what the masters of gospel and blues all understood: That the chapters and the verses are not nearly as important as the conviction underneath. If you want people to appreciate and maybe even resonate with your truths, it helps to frame them within an urgent, intense musical context. To put people in touch with the consuming fury of the conversion moment, you need the sound of fire and brimstone.”
What this implies, and which I tend to agree, is that his Christian period is essentially an act, an artistic statement, and that Dylan the man must be considered separately from Dylan the performer. This raises questions of authenticity, and reminds me of a conversation about gangster rappers, whose authenticity is dependent on the verity of their rapping personas. Of course, the members of The Wu-Tang clan, who are all millionaires living in mansions, are not running around chopping people’s heads off. Concerning Dylan’s authenticity, I don’t doubt that he was experimenting with a certain mindset, a certain religiosity, which he is totally free to do. We may never completely understand the true nature of Dylan’s spiritual conversion and continuing spiritual evolution. It is something over which we could forever speculate, however that remains his personal matter, and as one listens to the recordings on Bootlegs vol. 13 it becomes less and less important, as the simple fact that these are great songs and performances comes into focus. Dylan dove deep into his gospel persona with great courage and conviction, and created something truly unique and fascinating.
Having been converted to Dylan’s Christian material, primarily due to the quality of the live versions, the next step for me is to accept the message, at least on some level. Of course there is a wide range of material here, it is not all deeply religious, and most of the messages or aspects of the messages can be assimilated easily. Despite my aversion to religious cults of any kind, I am compelled to give the not so easily digested messages their due course. Although still early, it has already had a transformative effect on me, and brought me to a deeper understanding of a phenomenon that I find completely baffling. Although it is VERY unlikely that I will come to a true conversion moment, I have gone through a simulation of this moment in my mind. This has helped me to gain a deeper understanding, and a feeling of acceptance and forgiveness.
The timing of this release seems to make sense, since we are currently living in Donald Trump’s world, which doesn’t make sense. My feelings about religion have come to a head in this climate, and I blame right wing religiosity for the rock solid support behind this buffoon. When the amount of people in the world who insist that 2 plus 2 equals 5 is significant enough, in moments of weakness I almost start to think that I’m the one that is crazy. Listening to these songs and their message is helping me to cope and to understand what it is that I might be missing. Despite being non-religious, I acknowledge that I am a spiritual being. The need for things to NOT add up, for there to be deep mystery in life, for questions to remain open ended, unanswered and unanswerable can be a frustrating part of what it means to be human. From another perspective it can be what allows us to develop and maintain a sense of wonder and excitement about the world. Equally strong is the human need to have certainty when there is none.