Take a harp, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten; make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered.
One sure way to throw Bob Dylan fans into a tizz—well, into more of a tizz than the kind we usually experience around such matters—is to propose a late-night discussion about the still-unresolved question of his 19th studio album. Other than a surprise hit single, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which netted the singer his first Grammy and a bit of chart action, Slow Train Cominghas long had a divisive effect on the diehards, not to mention the numerous biographers who have attempted to unriddle Dylan’s music over the decades. Quite possibly it remains a mystery even to the singer-songwriter-performer with the bosky beard who wrote and recorded its nine tracks two-score and four years ago.
Dylan’s 1979 winterlude doesn’t sound at all like the electrifying, elliptical, and elusive material he created a decade earlier. There is none of what Dylan once described as that “thin ... metallic and bright gold” sound “like wild mercury” on his amphetamine-fuelled records from the mid-1960s. Nor is it anything like the gentle pastoral music he produced during his late-’60s/early-’70s period of Woodstock seclusion or the raw soul-searching of the three records he made between 1975 and 1978 as his marriage was falling apart. And it feels quite different to the bark-and-busk that followed it, including the brace of religious albums from what’s usually referred to as his “born-again” period, Saved(1980)and Shot of Love(1981).
For a record about belief, Slow Train Coming is strikingly genre-agnostic. It sort of sounds like a pristine gospel album and sort of like a scruffy rock record but sort of like neither. The music is all over the place. Here a splash of reggae or soul, there a slouchy disco arrangement, a roadhouse shuffle, or a bit of mathematical funk, all of which is incongruously sandbagged against his most superficially monochromatic bunch of lyrics. But far from resolving the matter of what was actually going on in Dylan’s head, repeated listens only deepen certain mysteries. Why, for instance, is a work plainly intended as a revealing musical statement of faith rendered almost entirely in the second-person? Why does rock’s most famously controversial Jesus album only mention the name “Jesus” briefly on one track?
Whatever else might be said, this 46-minute recording is unmistakably the work of somebody on the move. Dylan has always had a well-chronicled tendency, particularly during times of creative uncertainty, to take a chance out on Highway 61—the actual and mythological “blues highway” heading out of St Louis County, Minnesota, where he was born and raised—in search of new musical lands. And that’s where the restless story of Slow Train Coming really begins, like so many of its creator’s other significant moments.
As a still-tender teen, the boy from the North Country traded the Iron Range for New York, changing his performing name en route from Zimmerman to Dylan. Freewheelin’ on to the snowy streets of Manhattan went this strange and brilliant young man, with a girl named Suze Rotolo on his arm, a knapsack full of newly minted folk hits, and a freshly pressed paisley motorcycle jacket. Soon, he’d be blowing through the back roads heading south. “Mr Dylan,” wrote the first (and among the best) of his future biographers, Robert Shelton, in a review of an early show at Gerde’s Folk City in the West Village, “is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in the melody on his front porch.”
Once established as a trendsetter to be reckoned with, Dylan headed down to Nashville, where he recorded the tracks for Blonde on Blondein 1966. He returned to that city the following year to complete the ultra-sparse John Wesley Harding in Tennessee and then the country-pie Nashville Skylinein 1969. Almost exactly 10 years to the week after the appearance of Slow Train Coming, he did the same for his 1989 masterpiece, Oh Mercy. This time, Dylan made it to New Orleans at the end of Highway 61, scribbling down Nobel Prize-winning notes as he went:
There’s only one day at a time here, then it’s tonight and then tomorrow will be today again. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees. You never get tired of it. After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs, like you’re in a wax museum below crimson clouds. Spirit empire. Wealthy empire. One of Napoleon’s generals, Lallemaud, was said to have come here to check it out, looking for a place for his commander to seek refuge after Waterloo. He scouted around and left, said that here the devil is damned, just like everybody else, only worse. The devil comes here and sighs. New Orleans. Exquisite, old-fashioned. A great place to live vicariously. Nothing makes any difference and you never feel hurt, a great place to really hit on things.
I’m guessing that these lyrical journeys are a bit of a Jewish thing. As Robert Wolfe noted many years ago in his book Remember to Dream, American Jewish radicals from the 1960s often hailed from relatively small towns or cities “where Jews needed to be thoroughly assimilated to American culture in order to survive.” Sure, traditional Jewish culture was an influence, “but that culture was for the most part already alien to them,” Wolfe writes. Even so, as Kafka said about the Jewish ghetto, “In us all it still lives. Our heart knows nothing of the slum clearance which has been achieved. The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us. With our eyes open we walk through a dream: ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age.”
What better way, then, for Bob Dylan—the son of Abe Zimmerman from the local appliance store back in Duluth, whose own Yiddish-speaking parents were among the 20,000 or so Russian Jews who found a Minnesotan home for themselves during a time of pogroms—to burnish his New World bona fides by exploring the most distinctly American of all art forms, the Christian sermon? And to blame it all on a simple twist of faith.
In the case of Slow Train Coming, the road went out of the city of stolen water, Los Angeles, where Dylan had been holed up alone in his copper-domed mansion in Malibu. By the late 1970s, he had begun spending time at the Vineyard Fellowship, a Pentecostal group of Biblical literalists in the San Fernando Valley. At Vineyard, Dylan attended a regular Bible class and a 14-week advanced discipleship training course. For some, Dylan’s attraction to this particularly severe expression of Protestantism has always been more puzzling than any broader interest he might have taken in Christianity, which after all has a limpid history of appealing to artists in a slump.
Not that Dylan exactly qualified on that last count. True, his most recent release, Street-Legal, had garnered more than its fair share of lousy notices. The critic Greil Marcus’s reaction upon hearing the record was that it was “utterly fake,” and since this was the same man who had written the effusive sleeve notes for The Basement Tapesthree years earlier, that must have stung. And Dylan was said to have been less-than-thrilled by aspects of the record’s sound. But Street-Legal also yielded at least one majestic classic, “Changing of the Guards,” and people have surely purchased Bob Dylan albums for far less.
Besides, the superstar troubadour seemed to be in good spirits during the career-spanning greatest-hits tour promoting Street-Legal, even cracking jokes on stage at some of the Australasian shows. During his New Zealand layover, he found time to go out jogging with a local Maori princess named Ra Aranga, whom he first bumped into in an Auckland hotel lobby. She was one of a number of women to whom Dylan’s name would be romantically attached in the wake of a messy divorce in 1977 from his wife of 12 years, Sara Lowndes.
But it was another hotel encounter, in a suite in Tucson, Arizona, in November 1978, that would determine Dylan’s metaphysical and creative direction over the next half-decade or so. “Jesus put his hand on me,” he told the reporter Karen Hughes the following year. “It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble.” In interviews, he started talking about waiting on God in much the same kind of mystical vein that Simone Weil might have adopted. In his pocket (or so he said), he had kept a silver cross a fan had thrown to him on stage.
“It was a strange thing to witness,” Joni Mitchell reflected when I asked her several years later about Dylan’s state of artistic mind at the time. “He came to it like a drowning man. He was in despair. He’d separated from his wife and family. He was ripe for someone to lead him.” As Mitchell saw it, Dylan had in the past “absorbed ideas that I thought were so much greater, but here he was adopting something with no vitality. To see a mind I admired buying this gobbledegook was horrifying.”
Others saw it differently. As the Christian scholar Stephen H. Webb pointed out to me,John Wesley Harding’s 60-plus biblical allusions might have been recorded in a revivalist tent. (That record’s most famous track, “All Along the Watchtower,” was loosely based on passages from the Book of Isaiah.) Dylan was “a Christian for years before he or anyone else knew it,” Webb insisted. “And it's not just Wesley Harding, either: his music, the cadence and the rhythms, were biblical long before that album.”
And so it came to pass, for whatever damn reason, that Dylan did journey from the land of Southern California to Alabama, even unto a famous studio in the small northwestern town of Muscle Shoals, to maketh musical sense of it all. And lo, a mighty voice did sound from the heavens saying, “Is it rolling, Bob?”
Actually, that stentorian voice probably belonged to Jerry Wexler, who sat at the mixing desk for the next 12 days. Dylan first prepped the legendary producer about what he had in mind when they discussed the project back in California, a chat that evidently left Wexler somewhat bemused (“Looks like we’ve got wall-to-wall Jesus coming,” he later murmured). “I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel,” Wexler subsequently recalled. “I had no real idea of what was in store until he started to evangelise me. I said, ‘Bob, you’re dealing with a 62-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.’”
Not that the jug-eared New Yorker didn’t already know a thing or two about American-style devotional music’s history of getting tangled up in Jews. A decade earlier, in Alabama in 1967, he had coaxed some of the most enduring work from one of gospel’s fieriest young performers, Aretha Franklin, ushering her four-octave range out of the church and on to the dance floor. And Wexler, who coined the term “rhythm and blues” back when he was a young writer for Billboard before going on to co-head Atlantic Records, knew about preserving the sense of ecstatic conviction that’s so essential to the best gospel singing.
Wexler wasn’t the only Jewish artist on board. His son Paul also signed up for the ride, as did Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler, the son of a chess-playing Hungarian Jew, Edwin Knopfler, who bolted from his native country in 1939 to escape the Nazis. Also reporting for musical duty was Dire Straits’ drummer Pick Withers—the two Brits had been in the same studio with Wexler earlier that year to mix their band’s snazzy second album, Communiqué. Joining them was producer Barry Beckett on keyboards, bassist Tim Drummond, and Micky Buckins, who contributed additional percussion. Rounding out the line-up were backing vocalists Carolyn Dennis, Regina Havis, and Helena Springs, from whom Wexler would elicit a gorgeous call-and-response texture, plus the stiletto-sharp white boys from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
And let us not forget—the newspapers were all agog at this—an armed guard stationed at the door to the studio for the full duration. You had to wonder, though, if the security detail was there to keep unwelcome guests out or the famous artist in. Dylan’s lack of studio discipline, after all, was now legendary; the polar opposite of Wexler’s famously iron hand at the console desk, which happily would prevail. The authority Wexler successfully sought during the sessions would become immediately apparent in the tightly wrought opening bars of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which remains the best-known of the album’s nine songs. It has since been covered by more than 50 other artists as well as ominously popping up on the soundtrack to The Sopranos.
Over five long verses, Dylan ticks off a small galaxy of potential listeners (gamblers, state troopers, TV network managers, whiskey drinkers, and all the rest), telling one and all that they are going to have to choose between reporting to the Devil or the Lord. According to one theory, the listicle style may in fact have been an oblique nod to a singer named Larry Norman, a reedy voiced, Dylanesque figure from the mainstream Christian music scene who had turned out a strikingly similar song called “Righteous Rocker” on his 1972 album, Only Visiting This Planet.
Interestingly, the phrase “gotta serve somebody” doesn’t appear in the lyric to Slow Train’s opening salvo. Other than the tumble of recognisable types, little else appears in the lyric, either, which led critics like Greil Marcus to charge the singer with trafficking in “glorified lists.” This was hardly new. As Howard Sounes notes in his biography, Down the Highway, Dylan was by this point already relying more on stock phrases and figures of speech than on the kind of rich, multidimensional imagery that dominated his early back-catalogue. On the other hand, if everything about the record is so straightforward, why did it take listeners years to figure out the meaning beneath the album’s second track, the slow-blossoming “Precious Angel”?
As the story goes, Dylan originally intended to donate the songs that appeared on Slow Train Coming to the strikingly talented 23-year-old gospel performer Carolyn Dennis. Since he never made good on that idea and Dennis ended up on the record anyway, little more was said about the subject. On “Precious Angel,” Dylan gave Dennis room to shine in the story of an ancient Hebrew suitor caught up in an apparently incongruous relationship with an African woman. “Both our forefathers were slaves,” offers the narrator, “let us hope they found mercy in their bone-filled graves.” And as Dennis’s voice rises behind Dylan’s own like the mist of a kiss, the subjects of the song move all “the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia” towards a new future together.
Dylan and Dennis would marry a few years later, so any suggestion of one-dimensionality is unworthy, at least in the case of that particular track. With the benefit of hindsight, Dylan’s tribute to his soon-to-be second wife may even be heard as his most personal romantic moment since the evening at Studio E in New York three years earlier when he sang “Sara” to his soon-to-be former wife as she watched silently from behind the glass a few feet away. The third track, “I Believe in You,” is the only other composition on the album that sounds something like a conventional love song. It’s possibly about Dennis. Or maybe it’s about Jesus. Dylan being Dylan, we never really find out. Such ambiguity, however, is a relief given the concussive selections that follow.
The first of these, “Slow Train,” sounds like “nothing less than the singer’s most mature and profound song about America,” enthused Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. It’s certainly one of his more comprehensive works, inveighing as it does against international oil companies, sheiks, false-healers, friends and assorted past lovers. And the music matches the fury. As the late Paul Williams put it, Dylan’s performance has to be “listened to again and again and again, inexhaustible, essential.”
“Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” and “When You Gonna Wake Up” continue in the same hectoring, homiletical vein. Neither offers much in the way of harmonic evolution but both are richly overlaid with Wexler’s band arrangements. Against a 12-bar blues shuffle (a nice heretical touch, that) and Pick Withers’s walloping a cow bell, Dylan snarls the lyrics to the first of these tracks:
I gotta God-fearing woman, one I can easily afford, I gotta God-fearing woman, one I can easily afford, She can do the Georgia crawl, She can walk in the spirit of the Lord.
(For the record, the Georgia crawl is a blues dance involving sexually exaggerated hip movements. Highly provocative in its own right, it’s not something anyone would be advised to try after a certain age for fear of incurring grave damage. Especially if they were the visually impaired Blind Willie McTell, who first coined the term in the 1920s.)
Onward the holy slow train rumbles, past the sagging verandas and boarded grocery stores of the Deep South and out into the world at large. The album checks off many place names (Alabama, Amsterdam, Egypt, England, Ethiopia, France, Illinois, Georgia, and Paris), but its ultimate destination seems to be historical Massachusetts. This is Dylan as Jonathan Edwards, the young theologian and author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the era-shaping 18th-century sermon first delivered in New England in 1741, which sparked America’s first Great Awakening. How else to describe “When You Gonna Wake Up,” a tirade replete with apocalyptic warnings about pornographers in schools, adulterers in churches, gangsters in high office, snake-oil salesmen, false prophets, and… Henry Kissinger?
St Augustine, whom Dylan says he once encountered in a dream, believed that the best Calvary orations had to docere, delactare, and flectere—teach, delight, and move. Here, it has to be said, the singer often seems to be more interested in reaching for the hammer and nails. On “When You Gonna Wake Up” (an inquiry that sounds more like a finger-jabbing injunction without the question mark), you can almost see Dylan tussling with the security guard on the door as he tries to get to a payphone so he can call a talk-radio station and continue his fulminations.
Dylan has one of the least polished voices in contemporary music, and this is sometimes taken to mean it’s his least attractive quality—adequate to the musical task at hand, sure, though hardly his finest asset. But one could just as easily argue, as Tim Grierson has done, that it’s one of his most dexterous strengths, its obvious imperfections notwithstanding. Certainly, the unpredictable phrasing and elasticised timbre, along with his obvious familiarity with the rhythms of the King James Bible, serve him well.
Sometimes the preacher’s reach exceeded his theological grasp. On “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” for example, he inveighs against those who are “forgetting all about the Golden Rule.” But a couple of tracks later, on “Do Right to Me Baby,” he reverses the New Testament’s best-known commandment into a moral quid pro quo—I’ll be nice to those who are nice to me. I’m not a Christian, but I’m prepared to wager my record collection that this wasn’t what Jesus had in mind when he broached the subject of doing unto others as one would have them do unto you. Still, “Do Right” proves to be a pleasant enough benediction, and it sets the tone for “Man Gave Name to All the Animals,” a playfully warm children’s song set to a pastoral reggae arrangement.
Dylan usually makes a point of finishing his albums on a note of hope or despair, more often than not with sparse instrumentation. “When He Returns,” the record’s closer, sells it on both fronts. Just the singer accompanied by Barry Beckett on a yellow-toothed piano, its stately notes hanging in the air like the scent of magnolia. The song ushers the listener out of the recording with its most overtly emotional expression of personal religious belief. It speaks to the artist’s pressing need to be creating such a work at this relatively early point in his activity, but also offers a graceful entry point for fans looking to tune into Slow Train Coming as Dylan’s life and career enter the final stretch.
When it first appeared, Slow Train Coming garnered generally tepid reviews. Happily, by the time most of the album’s material, including three muscular outtakes, were repackaged six years ago as Trouble No More for the 13th volume of the Bootleg Series, artistic eminences from around the world were beginning to reappraise the work in more sympathetic terms. Nick Cave reckons it is Dylan’s best work. So did Sinead O’Connor, who called it her “favourite album of all time.” On the occasion of Dylan’s 70th birthday, she sent Dylan a charming letter in which she wrote, “Thank you for making Christian music sexy. Poor God. Until you made Slow Train Coming, he was suicidal. From listening to terrible religious music.” Even Christopher Hitchens once remarked that the record was “Dylan at his most beautiful.”
Hopefully, a few of the performer’s old friends have since given it a second look, too. Dylan’s former collaborator Robbie Robertson ruefully told me in an interview a decade or so after the album first appeared that he had only seriously listened to it “maybe once,” and wasn’t drawn to the songs. “They haven’t magnetised me,” he grumbled. “Maybe I should listen to his music from that phase,” Joni Mitchell admitted when I put the same question to her. “I’m sure if he found any vitality it would be in those songs.” She paused to light a cigarette. “It sure didn’t lie in his talk about it.”
Speaking as someone who first heard those songs as a young teen, relished their provocations then and has never tired of hearing them since, I still think it sounds less like a believer’s album than an album about belief. That was unusual enough in the 1970s (Patti Smith’s Easter and Van Morrison’s Into the Music are the only other two lonely examples that spring to mind), but it’s largely unheard of now. Slow Train Coming achieves this by regenerating an extraordinarily powerful religious vein in the historical American culture, playing to the performer’s strengths, while also—thanks to Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett—tempering his less dependable impulses. Dylan casts his own confrontational shadow on that tradition even as it overshadows him.
And the actual music itself is still fantastic—jauntily arranged, sonically eccentric, jittery and menacing at times, incredibly ambitious, and rhythmically exuberant. Above all, Slow Train Coming really is the story of one guy’s flaming journey out of the darkness and into the light—or, if you insist, in precisely the opposite direction—bringing it all back home with feeling and a pedal-stomping style. Unhinged? Maybe. Inspired? Indisputably. Bob Dylan’s most crucial ramble down the blues highway? Ask me another.