Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I’m a convert (sort of)

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.


  1. Very sensitive and even-handed observations here of a period that seems to have so much confusion and even distress to some fans. I think there can be little doubt that Bob meant what he was saying and may very well continue to feel much the same way - as you say, that's his personal issue. What becomes very clear through listening to 'Trouble No More' is that the, so called 'Gospel' phase is up there alongside Dylan's greatest work.

  2. Your last paragraphs depict the mystery of our living spirits in the material world, Dylan is still searching in my opinion, but evrey now and then especially an artist, and also everybody in some sense has to dive nose deep into the experience of enlightment, only to enter darkness again and keep groping for the truth which to me seems out of our grasp... Although one can sense the essence of it facing the lies we are confronted with these days. The music of Dylan confronts this powerfully, also on this edition, even if I keep having trouble not with Jesus but with christianity...
    greeetings hans altena, and thanks for the article, think I will go and buy it now anyway...

  3. A great post (and by the way, an excellent take on "When the Ship Comes In") - found your blog through linking from EXPECTING RAIN...I tend to agree with the summation of a "performance" as much as anything being the method/madness employed making the music resulting during the Christian phase - in an interview Dylan once once said of songs he liked, and hopefully, his own, was that they are were "true" and that you could hear the truth in them (words to that effect anyway)...it may be that the artist must believe it in order for the performance to have resonance or for us to be impressed in any way...for some, art and music are superficial, in fact, I know people my age (48) who don't own or collect any music and don't seem to need it in their lives, unimaginable but there it is...I'm a guitar player and couldn't be without music and it's been a thrill to experience Dylan's mysterious musical power which does for me what your summation states, it "maintains a sense of excitement and wonder about the world" - Good writing.

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback! Yes, Dylan's music and the wisdom therein is an endless wellspring. In my concluding sentences, I was referring more to what draws people towards religion. Of course there are many ways to maintain excitement and wonder in life. We all have our vehicles. Besides the art of Dylan and others, my main inspiration is my developing philosophy of the world through scientific knowledge, which everyday surprises me with further distinctions and revelations about the natural world. Appreciation of the natural world to others might be the same thing as appreciation of God. However, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept of god is just too much for me. I'm sure this concept of God and faith can bring feelings of spiritual intoxication, but at what cost? Furthermore, it is not the only way. I get those feelings through art, music and science. Try telling a drug addict that there are other ways to get high, or an alcoholic that they don't need to drink to have a good time.

    2. What a wonderful and well written posting Noah. You have received some well deserved positive feedback. Like yourself I have long held an aversion to organized religion and dogma. Especially when the practices of the so-called religious do not even match up with their own founding ideals. The Christian right in America and elsewhere, for example, display hardly any of Jesus' ideals as displayed in his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew. And, oft times, these religious types behave in ways that are actually opposite to Jesus' declarations. So, whilst being anti religion and an atheist, I hold Jesus and the likes of Francis of Assisi as personal heroes. And isn't it interesting that - like yourself - a person like Francis was so enraptured (so to say) with the wonders of the natural world and universe. Brother Sun, Sister Moon. It is fully possible to lead or seek a spiritual life with piles of dogma or, as I call it, hangups.

      Just recently I spent the better part of two long days surrounded by members of an ultra religious Orthodox community. Fascinating to be sure but scary to observe young children being indoctrinated and being cut off from the whole rest of the world. Imagine a 13 year old boy living near New York City who has never been in a subway train, never watched TV, never been in a classroom or social setting with girls, never worn a pair of blue jeans, and such like. In a conversation with one of the men (my age) from this community we touched on my many trips to various parts of the world as well as an upcoming month in Argentina and Chile including some remote area in Patagonia and the Andes. Sadly this man began to lament that he too would love to travel but, of course, Biblical dietary laws prevented him from ever being too far from a Kosher food outlet - not many of those in Tierra del Fuego or the jungles of northern Thailand or Alpine villages! Unless you're willing to eat grass and wild berries! At the end of our conversation he spoke words to the effect that he and others in the religion forgo so many experiences but that "That is the price we pay". A lifetime of self imposed denial for the sake of almost constant praying and the mumbling of meaningless words of a foreign language. I felt like asking him what exactly he expected to ever get for "the price" he pays. But before I could he gave an answer with a question. Without all of his rituals, he wondered aloud, what would he be left with? Imagine a 70 year old so fearful.

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