Slow Train Coming (1979)
Near the end of the 1978 world tour, at a concert in Miami, Dylan has recalled an event where a fan threw a cross on the stage. For some reason Dylan picked it up. On the tour’s last show, he debuted a new song – “Do Right To Me, Baby (Do Unto Others).” When Slow Train Coming came out in September of 1979, he was telling reporters that sometime between the end of the ’78 tour and the release of the album, he had literally felt Jesus’ hand on him. He described a religious experience where his whole hotel room was shaking and then he felt someone touching his shoulder, even though no one else was in the room. It is a powerful story. Dylan wanted to get his message to as wide an audience as possible, so to give his new music enough polish that it might actually make it onto radio, he hired seasoned producer Jerry Wexler, who had helmed all of the great soul to come out of Atlantic records, such as Ray Charles catalog, and hired the Muscle Shoals studio band and Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler. It worked. Despite backlash from less spiritual fans, Dylan has a #3 album, and the single “Gotta Serve Somebody” was the biggest hit he’d had since “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” and remains the last top forty single he has had. What people didn’t expect is that when Dylan resumed touring he would be performing only religious material; nor did they expect Dylan to proselytize from the stage and berate the crowd for requesting the songs he know considered to be Satan’s songs. That said, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. He has been tied to the conservative evangelical Vineyard Fellowship. I don’t know enough about the Vineyard Fellowship to confirm the conservative, but it certainly is evangelical. While Dylan was a member of this church, he was brought to the fold by the gospel singers he had hired for the ’78 world tour. Black gospel, his own study of the Hebrew Bible, as well as Biblical allusions by his favorite song writers like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, all helped to shape his understanding of Christianity at least as much as the Vineyard Fellowship. While Dylan is often judgmental, he had always been judgmental. What makes his judgment different is that, more than any other time in his career, the judgment is turned back on himself. He does this briefly in “Idiot Wind” and in “Isis” leading up to the conversion, and perhaps in “New Pony” as well. In “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he turned back on himself, decrying those who live in domes; Dylan was famous for constructing what many considered a horrifically ugly “onion dome” made of copper, which still serves as his primary residence. In “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” he suggests he has been “influenced by fools.” “Precious Angel,” a love song about salvation, thanks his woman for showing him that he “was blinded.”
One of the most underrated songs, lyrically, is “Man Gave Names To All the Animals.” This song has been made into a children’s book twice, but is mostly seen as having no appeal beyond the kindergarten crowd. The interesting part is the end. Many rhetoricians tell us that language is power, and those who control how language is disseminated control power. This is why the media is so influential. By limiting dialogue, they can control who has power and who doesn’t. In the Bible, God starts off very proud of man and hopeful that man will continue in God’s perfect image, but as Cain kills Abel, Ham sees Noah naked, and then the people on the Earth start building the tower of Babel. The popular understanding is that at the tower of Babel, God creates many languages to spite the people of Earth for their pride. A more nuanced reading, though, suggests that the people speak the same language, but begin to disagree on what it means. Before, the language was pure, but now it has to be encoded and decoded, and interpretation isn’t always simple. Language is a funny thing like that and people often take very different impressions from what they read. If we accept this premise as true, than when man has power over the meaning of language, he has total control over his environment. The one man to have that would have been Adam, and, in Genesis, God gave Adam the power to create words for each different animal. Adam’s fall, though, was committing sin, and that is why once it comes time to name the snake, Adam falters, because the song is not just a cutesy nursery rhyme, but an argument that sin robs man of the power to control his environment.
Best song: Slow Train – One of the two political songs on Slow Train Coming (the other being “When You Gonna Wake Up?”), this song finds Dylan stereotyping Middle Easterners (“sheiks walkin around like kings, wearin’ fancy jewels and nose rings”), while chiding them for trying to exert influence through oil. The best part, however, is when he attacks corporate farmers for withholding agriculture in order to cut off supply and thus artificially inflate the cost of food. “It costs more to store the food than it do to give it,” he charges, and I’m not sure how grounded in fact what he is saying is, but if it is true, then that’s the kind of righteous judgment I can get behind.
Worst song: Do Right To Me, Baby (Do Unto Others) – While I will support “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” as an intelligent, nuanced argument, this song has nothing deeper than the surface, and the surface isn’t that deep. It has a couple nice almost-jokes and moments of surprise, but they only work at surprising the listener because the majority of it is so damn repetitive and boring. Spooner Oldham does some great playing here, but it doesn’t come close to saving this piece of garbage, and few lines in Dylan’s cannon can compete with the badness of “don’t put my faith in nobody, not even a scientist.”
Best outtake: Trouble In Mind – This song is a close cousin of “Slow Train,” and is the superior song of the two. It has always puzzled me why this wasn’t released. When it was released, they last verse was cut off. The full version is exceedingly hard to get a copy of, and since it has not been rereleased, at least not in the United States to my knowledge, since the original 45 rpm of “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
Notable live version: When He Returns – Dylan’s best singing was arguably during the gospel tours; it was certainly among his most passionate. Check out the melisma that fills the version recorded in Toronto in April of 1980. Originally, Dylan wanted to release a live album of the concert, and even funded its recording, but Columbia felt such a project was ill-fated. The concert is still stuck in the vaults, and many fans feel it the greatest Dylan concert to have not yet seen a proper release.
Rhymes: Turk/network; hair/heir (1-2 from “Gotta Serve Somebody”); enticed/Christ (“Precious Angel”); realistic/statistic; proposition/religion (4-5 from “Slow Train”)
Images: “flesh and blood breaking down” (“Precious Angel”); “Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots” (“When You Gonna Wake Up?”); “as smooth as glass” (“Man Gave Names To All the Animals”); “the iron hand is no match for the iron rod;” “drunk on fear” (4-5 from “When He Returns”)
Axioms: “you may be a preacher with your spiritual pride,… but you’re still gonna have to serve somebody” (“Gotta Serve Somebody”); “the truth’s in our hearts, and we still don’t believe” (“Precious Angel); “the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency;” “they talk about a life of brotherly love; well, show me someone who knows how to live it (3-4 from “Slow Train”); “you got some big dreams, but in order to dream you still gotta be asleep” (When You Gonna Wake Up?”)