Highway to Heaven Revisited
Among the disadvantages of being Bob Dylan, I imagine, is enduring the aftermath of being dubbed the voice of your generation. It’s one thing to switch from folk to rock just as millions of people were waiting, without realizing it, for you to push your talents in that direction. It’s quite another to become a born-again Christian at a time when few old fans are ready to take that plunge themselves and hardly any potential new fans are likely to be admirers of your earlier work.
The familiar account of Dylan’s catalog draws a bright line between his first Christian album, Slow Train Coming (1979), and everything that came before it. The man had transformed himself before, had alienated people before, but he had never made so radical a break with his past. As he put it, “Gonna change my way of thinking/Make myself a different set of rules.”
Twenty-four years later, no one expects Dylan to be a spokesperson for anyone but himself. Yet there’s still something vaguely declasse about his trio of Christian albums. Fans who’d never shy from the religious records of Hank Williams or Aretha Franklin still draw back from Dylan’s. Don’t come here, we’re warned, unless you’re some kinda religious nut.
Well, I’m as secular as they come, and I think Slow Train Coming, Saved (1980), and to a lesser extent Shot Of Love (1981) include some of the strongest work Dylan has done.
Slow Train Coming — one of fifteen Dylan titles recently issued in remastered SACD format by Columbia/Legacy — is the easiest to defend, in part because it has the most defenders: Even as it turned off one set of fans, another set liked it enough to earn Dylan a Grammy and a top-40 hit, “Gotta Serve Somebody” (the album itself reached the top 10). But even its admirers had to struggle with it. Jann Wenner wrote a glowing review in Rolling Stone, but he gerrymandered the lyrics to make them more palatable to ’60s veterans — quoting “Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots” but leaving out the first half of the line, “Karl Marx has got you by the throat.”
This was Dylan, but it was a new Dylan. He had returned to his roots in political protest, but the politics were now conservative and populist (“Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools/You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules”), sometimes xenophobic (“Sheiks walking around like kings/Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings/Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and Paris”). Even “Precious Angel”, one of the best love songs the man ever wrote, takes time to mention that Bob’s “so-called friends” are bound for brimstone: “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?” Kind of like “Positively Fourth Street”, except this time he’s got the Lord on his side.
If Slow Train Coming falls in the Jonathan Edwards tradition, then Saved is much more primal. I listened to preachers like this on tiny rural stations when I was growing up in North Carolina, yelping phrases again and again to the strains of an organ, a drum, and an electric guitar. The record begins with a country standard, the oft-covered “A Satisfied Mind”, but this is no country performance: Dylan is simultaneously singing and speaking the lyrics, lady singers moaning behind him, someone strumming a guitar. It isn’t a song so much as a tense, nearly sexual buildup, one that finally explodes into the title track:
I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined
Stone-cold dead as I stepped out of the womb
By His grace I have been touched, by His word I have been healed
By His hand I’ve been delivered, by His spirit I’ve been sealed
A piano pounds, those singers keep moaning, and we’ve been thrown into a straightforward gospel performance. There are verses here, but at least half the song is simple call-and-response: “I’ve been saved by the blood of the lamb — saved by the blood of the lamb — saved! — saved! — and I’m so glad — so glad — so glad…”
How on Earth did this become one of the most despised albums in Dylan’s canon? Listeners who have no trouble accepting Nashville Skyline as an album-length experiment in country-pop seem unwilling to accept an album-length experiment in black gospel. But it’s an amazing performance: not a literary extravaganza like Blonde On Blonde (or Slow Train Coming), but one of the most spirited pieces of music the singer’s ever set to vinyl.
After that setup, Shot Of Love feels disappointing. It’s a competent effort with a few great tracks, including the one song from his Christian period that’s gone on to become a standard (“Every Grain Of Sand”). But it’s a somewhat scattered work. Secular and sacred songs sit side by side; the man who had just been complaining about pornography in the schools is now singing a hymn to the free-speech hero Lenny Bruce. Politically, I think that’s progress — but dammit, the earlier song is better.
The presence of secular material earned praise from fans who just wished Dylan would stop going on about Jesus. In retrospect, it also foreshadowed the weakest period of the singer’s career, the uneven albums of the ’80s. Dylanologists debate whether and when their hero gave up on Christianity, and indeed, the next decade included a few more songs with religious themes, some (“Death Is Not The End”) better than others (“They Killed Him”). But the Christian period was drawing to a close, and with it arrived another bright line. Not one separating the rational from the superstitious or the sacred from the profane, but one separating a performer in command of his material from one not entirely sure of his voice.
Jesse Walker is an associate editor of Reason magazine and author of Rebels On The Air: An Alternative History Of Radio In America (NYU Press).