Monday, July 4, 2011

Every time I pass that way, I always hear my name...







Great Dylan albums tend to end in a way that signals towards the direction of the next album. It Ain't Me, Babe ends Another Side of Bob Dylan & warns that he was not merely a protest singer leading any kind of movement, & by the time Bringing It All Back Home came out, all those protest songs the folkies loved were gone. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue puts the final nail in the coffin of Bob Dylan's solo acoustic career & by the time Highway 61 Revisited came out, the solo acoustic songs were gone. Desolation Row, the last song from Highway 61 Revisited hints at the surrealism that could be found on Blonde on Blonde. Blonde on Blonde ends with the marathon Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, an ode to his new wife & a life off the road that would characterize his next eight years living the simple life & raising a family. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight closes out John Wesley Harding but sounds like it could be on the country album that follows it, Nashville Skyline.

Street Legal ends with a searching song, Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat). The song on the surface sounds like he's searching for a woman, but the song suggests the search for the woman is only a cover up for what the singer's (I say the singer, because we fall into the trap of assuming that a songwriter is always writing in first person) really searching for. With lines like "if you don't believe there's a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars" it sounds like the gospel is on his mind. He spent his next three albums singing the gospel.

Slow Train Coming, Saved & Shot of Love continue to amaze & confuse me ten years or so after hearing them for the first time. It's a strange intersection between the Christian faith I've grown up with my whole life & my favorite songwriter/performer who was always been a figure of rebellion. The move angered many of his fans in the same way he did when he plugged in an electric guitar 14 years prior. The concerts around this time had hostile audiences expecting to hear old songs that didn't have anything to do with Jesus & Dylan didn't give them what they wanted. Often he would respond to heckling with mini-sermons in between songs.

The first of these albums, Slow Train Coming, has some wonderful songs, but Dylan falls into the trap of being wronged by someone. I hear the same angry dismissive attitude of Positively Fourth Street, where the singer rejects others as being on the wrong side. It hardly meshes with the joy of being born again. There are also some odd & some might say racist lines about sheiks wearing nose rings. Even the song with the nicest sentiment, "I Believe in You", has an us vs. them quality to it, chastising family & friends for not understanding why the singer believes in his Savior.

The next album, Saved, however, seems to let go of the anger. The greatest example of this is "What Can I Do For You" where the singer admits he owes everything to his creator & finally gives his creator the best harmonica solo he possibly can. Saved was panned by critics & fans alike, but it's my favorite of the three gospel albums, both in the sound & in the lyrics. The live versions of these songs from that time are even better. There is a surrender in these songs, described best in the song "Saving Grace".

The wicked know no peace and you just can’t fake it
There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it
By the saving grace that’s over me

Shot of Love is an incredibly uneven album, both in content & in quality. Some of the songs speak of faith, others like Lenny Bruce go back to secular concerns. Around this time, Dylan began to add his old songs into his r'epertoire, with his old songs benefiting from a gospel sound.

This brings us back to transitions. Shot of Love ends with the beautiful Every Grain of Sand, a song that perhaps signals a new sound & a new direction for Bob Dylan's music. The song acknowledges that despite the fire & spirit of some of his earlier songs, there is some doubt that goes along with his newfound faith & perhaps hints at him moving away from it, depending on the last line, but I'll get to that later.

"When the pool of tears beneath my feet floods every newborn seed." This sounds like every newborn seed of faith washed away by one's own sorrow or doubt. I like the honesty in this song. We Christians have a way of only showing others our best side, especially if we can make ourselves look better before others. There's a line from the song Precious Angel off the Slow Train Coming album where he says "you either got faith or you got unbelief & there ain't no neutral ground". That sounds more confident than he sounds here in Every Grain of Sand. To admit doubt is to admit your own humanity, even if it makes you look weak in your faith. You have to appreciate the sincerity.

The song hints at Matthew 10:29-31. "29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.[b] 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

It also hints at that Footprints poem where someone is asking God about a dream they had walking along the beach. There are two footprints symbolizing the author walking with God, & during the hard times there are only one set of footprints. The author assumes that God left him during the hard times, but God tells him that he was being carried by God.

"I hear the ancient footprints like a motion of the sea. Sometimes I look & there's someone there, sometimes I look & someone's there, other times it's only me."

Back to the end the song, that could possibly effect the entire meaning of the song. Here we have the most significant lyric change of Bob Dylan's career. The album version ends cynically with "I'm hanging in the balance of the reality of man". "The reality of man" sounds to me like we are all stuck here with a puddle of tears searching for something that may or may not be there. Every live version of the song I've ever heard (which is quite a few), however, he ends the song more hopefully, "I'm hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan". Never before has a song's meaning changed so much with one lyric change. It hints that maybe those footprints were God's after all. This just goes to show you Dylan's power as a songwriter, but part of me wonders if this change is just another trick in his bag.

After Every Grain of Sand, after Shot of Love, Bob Dylan's music transitioned to a different direction, & never again did he write songs explicitly about his faith. He would continue to sing many of his gospel songs in concert, even to this day, none being performed consistently as good as Every Grain of Sand, always sung with the "perfect finished plan" ending. I've seen this song performed a couple different times in person, & it's always the highlight of the show, & I know it wouldn't be if it were sung in it's original form. Never before have I taken a song so personally. There's a question in there that every Christian must answer for themselves, or better yet, to allow God to reveal to them. For me, I choose to hear that we're hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan.

In the time of my confession,
in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet
flood every newborn seed
There's a dyin' voice within me
reaching out somewhere,
Toiling in the danger and in
the morals of despair.

Don't have the inclination to
look back on any mistake,
Like Cain,
I now behold this chain of events
that I must break.
In the fury of the moment
I can see the Master's hand
In every leaf that trembles,
in every grain of sand.

Oh, the flowers of indulgence
and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals,
they have choked the breath
of conscience and good cheer.
The sun beat down upon the steps
of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness
and the memory of decay.

I gaze into the doorway of
temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way
I always hear my name.
Then onward in my journey
I come to understand
That every hair is numbered
like every grain of sand.

I have gone from rags to riches
in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream,
in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness
fading into space,
In the broken mirror of innocence
on each forgotten face.

I hear the ancient footsteps like
the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there,
other times it's only me.
I am hanging in the balance
of a perfect finished plan
Like every sparrow falling,
like every grain of sand.

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