Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Slow Train...


     I always thought Bob Dylan’s Christian period in the late 70’s, early 80’s was a bit of a ruse. Forever maximizing the mystery trend while being the permanent proprietor of the next cool thing I assumed the calculus went something like: Guthrie folk...protest song… electric…dropped out…Wailing Wall when John, Paul, George and Ringo went Eastern… a couple of suspect albums to reduce the heat…the greatest break-up record of all time…all that heat again…next thing?...hmm…Christian?  No, they wouldn’t or maybe…hmmm? Hence, the birth of Slow Train Coming.  
To me it seemed pretty unlikely that a guy as smart as Dylan and as Jewish and forty years old could fall for Jesus. There had to be an angle…right? But, tooling around the other day in my work truck in the brilliant crisp sixty-degree sun, Gotta Serve Somebody found its way into the rotation on my iPod and I fell right in line with its modest proselytizing funk. I didn’t pull over at The Church of St. Casmir’s to make a devotional, but the song did make me feel vast and expansive and reminded me there are things in this life bigger than the wants and needs of my ego; things that might not benefit me personally, but still require my attention and service. I also felt a little silly questioning Dylan’s sincerity, considering how the song drew me in and hooked me—what did it matter if he was sincere?

     Next I did what I almost never do anymore; I clicked out of shuffle mode and listened to the rest of the album. It was a lovely, inspiring forty-minutes that filled me with the spirit of Christ for the remainder of the afternoon in spite of the fact that I am a lapsed Catholic and don’t identify as a Christian anymore. I still have a deep and abiding love for Jesus, but the man-made institutions that assert authority over Christ—not for me.

     During this Christian period Dylan received instruction at the Vineyard Fellowship in California, which is known for its apocalyptic teachings. And according to the reviews, the songs on Slow Train Coming reflect this apocalyptic view, but it’s all but lost on me. Though I stayed at Catholicism long enough to be Confirmed my understanding of the New Testament is almost child-like. I know all the stories, parables and metaphors and have attempted on several occasions to read the Book of Revelation, but it was impossible for me to even process, let alone understand— talk about a book that could use a little updating and editing. So, my understanding is comprised of a few basic concepts I latched onto as a kid: do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love your enemy; care for the least among us and the metaphor about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.
     Beyond this, I was informed by homilies at mass, CCD classes and most powerfully by the visual aspects of our church, Holy Family—the stone monolith on the corner of Tift & South Park in South
Buffalo. During mass I would often be lost in the dome mural above the altar depicting God mightily over a golden background all bearded and white haired flanked by four angels sitting above Jesus on the cross. Below Jesus were the twelve apostles with contemplative expressions on their faces that I guess were supposed to match their personalities. Most arresting was the brutally graphic spikes in Jesus’ hands and feet and the stab wound to his heart, which so forcefully portrayed the violence of our humanity and his sacrifice. Holy Family also contained an abundance of stained glass, pillars, vaulted ceilings, the Stations of the Cross and Catholic girls in tight sweaters—the less scary religious imagery that eventually captured all of my attention.   
     And, despite the scary apocalyptic underpinnings of the Slow Train, that I guess were there all I heard was the same infinite truths of love, light and sacrifice that I always associate with Jesus. After being hooked with Gotta Serve Somebody I was drawn in by Precious Angel which features, as the entire album does, the Sultans of Swing guitar intonations of Mark Knopfler and the stirring Muscle Shoal Horns. An amalgamation of rock and gospel stitched together by famed R& B Producer Jerry Wexler (Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett) Precious Angel is an inspirational plea of a fallible man for the light and understanding of God, ascending to the heavens with promise and hope:

                          Shine your light, shine your light on me
                          Ya know I just couldn’t make it by myself
                          I’m a little too blind to see…

     Next comes a nice expression of devotion in the ballad I Believe In YouAside from the annoying Christian habit of proclaiming persecution for belief in Christ, it feels heartfelt, earnest and is inspiring. I feel this even though the church would consider me one of little faith, humbly choosing to lean on my own life experiences rather than doctrines and institutions riddled with endless contradictions and a history of corruption. To me it seems all too obvious that whatever comes in this life for the most part is the result of one’s willful effort and the notion of a mighty man in the sky that will grant you eternal life by merely stating your belief in him and conversely will damn you in the fiery pit of hell if you question his existence is highly implausible. And, isn’t it kind of insulting to think the Creator, the force responsible for those girls in tight sweaters, sunsets, the sound of children laughing would come up with such a lame-ass test? Or maybe it’s all a crock of shit made up by some institution of man to instill fear and keep the flock behaving properly? Still, when you break it down and get at the essence of what Dylan is saying I am filled up with the righteous loving example of Jesus and this song.
    Following that is the title track Slow Train, which prophesizes a bit of Old Testament judgment and reckoning to those whose faith has weakened:

                       Man’s ego is inflated, his laws are outdated, they don’t apply no more
                       You can’t rely no more to be standin’ around waitin'
                       In the home of the brave
                      Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave
                      Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan
                      And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend…

     Dylan takes up my cause on the rocking Gonna Change My Way of Thinking advocating a fresh point of view, the only problem is I feel Christianity's accusing finger pointed at me like I'm unworthy, but I can still work with it, reflecting on what I can do to be more like Jesus. In a couple more bits of modest funk Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others) vamps cleverly on the Golden Rule and When You Gonna Wake Up flirts with a bit of fire and brimstone while asking when your personal change will occur. Man Gave Names to All The Animals has a nice bounce to it, but the Book of Genesis content seems of time past as the evidence for evolution, among all but those on the fringes, grows more air tight by the day.
     The record closes with When He Returns which features Dylan accompanied by a piano giving perhaps the strongest vocal performance of his career. The apocalyptic nature of the song, which posits that there will be no peace, no end to war until He returns doesn’t take away any of its power and inspiration for me. Again, to me it seems implausible, that the man in the sky who grants eternal life will also come down to earth and will solve all of our problems (Revelation says in a war where all but a tiny fraction of the earth’s population will be killed). So when Dylan says:
                    Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
                    He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask
                   How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
                   How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?
                  Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
                  He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
                  When He returns…

I can’t buy it. It rings hollow. But on the whole the song still works for me and is quite powerful. With all due respect and humility it seems more logical to me that rather than counting on Jesus to return and set things right, man should bear responsibility for the problems created by man. Perhaps that is our purpose here, to end the wars, pestilence, suffering and greed and then and only then we will win eternal life. And, of course the example set by Jesus can be the light to guide us…Shine your light on me.
     On the whole I guess I technically disagree with many of the ideas Slow Train Coming, yet I feel close to these songs, they fill me up and make me feel hopeful. This, I think, is the product of my religious education or lack of one and twisting the songs to fit my point of view. But, it’s  more than just making the songs align with my world view or being a fan of music. Dylan explains it perfectly to David Gates of Newsweek in 1997: Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light"—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the song.
     That feels right—an omniscient being without limitation that can be in parables, murals, the tight sweaters of girls and in songs, especially songs.    

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