“Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught. They lowered him down as a king. But when the shadowy sun sets on the one that fired the gun, he’ll see by his grave on the stone that remains, carved next to his name, his epitaph plain: Only a pawn in their game” (“Only A Pawn In Their Game”)
I wrote some time ago about the lyrics to “Murder Most Foul” which, at the time, was a new release by Bob Dylan. The new album “Rough And Rowdy Ways” is now out and the meaning of the lyrics is impenetrable. They seem more designed to create an impression rather than make a clear statement. On the other hand, a lot of Dylan’s early work is much more easily understood. The lyrics to “Only A Pawn In their Game” (which describes how poor white people are driven by the white elite to hate the black in order to put their mind off their low-level life conditions) are remarkable, especially when you consider that Bob Dylan was 22 when he wrote it.
Here’s a quiz question I set Peter yesterday regarding the lyrics of the opening track on “Rough And Rowdy Ways”. Three of the following lyrics are from the opening song “I Contain Multitudes” and one is made up (by me). Can you ascertain which one is mine and which three have been written by a Nobel Prize winner for literature.
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me/I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds/I contain multitudes
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind/I’ll play Beethoven’s sonatas, and Chopin’s preludes/I contain multitudes
Half my soul, baby, belongs to you/Oh, while I cannot frolic with all the young dudes/I contain multitudes
I escape to the avenue of hate/Eating Sal’s ice cream and all the dark foods/I contain multitudes
In the late 1970s, Dylan converted to Evangelical Christianity and released three albums of contemporary gospel music, “Slow Train Coming” (1979), “Saved” (1980) and “Shot of Love” (1981). I think it’s fair to say that these albums got mixed reviews at the time and many loyal fans find it hard to like them. (Paddy: I’m talking to you here). The lyrical content of a lot of these songs was not as poetic as some of his earlier masterpieces. The songs were considered preachy and doom laden, foretelling the end of the world.
“When they came for Him in the garden, did they know? Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord? Did they hear when He told ‘Peter, put up your sword’?” (“In The Garden”)
“You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage. You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage. You may be a business man or some high-degree thief. They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief. But you’re going to have to serve somebody, yes indeed. You’re going to have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you’re going to have to serve somebody” (“You Gotta Serve Somebody”)
And so on. For all but the most committed Christians it was hard to reconcile the new religious Dylan with the early Dylan who, in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, wrote “Disillusioned words like bullets bark as human gods aim for their mark. Make everything from toy guns that spark to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark. It’s easy to see without lookin’ too far that not much is really sacred“.
Here’s what I think. Dylan has always been spiritual and there are lots of Biblical references in songs both before and after his “Christian” period. The last quote above about “flesh colored Christs” is not anti-Christian – it’s anti-hypocrisy and that has been a constant theme throughout his career.
For me, the worst thing about these three records is the sound. The recording sounds weak and the musical performances are lackluster. Worst of all, his vocals sound disinterested.
In 2017, a massive box set of 8 CDs and a DVD was released called “Trouble No More”. These contain 102 live performances from the concerts he gave between 1979 and 1981. When I heard this music, my opinion of the songs on the three studio records changed completely. The sound is full, the performances are dynamic and Dylan’s vocals are energetic and animated. I would go so far as to say that his singing on these songs has never been better.
The box set contains three versions of “I Believe In You” recorded in Pittsburgh, Toronto and London. The version from Pittsburgh starts quietly with Fred Tackett (of Little Feat) playing tasteful guitar before the song’s intensity takes off as Dylan sings “Oh, when the dawn is nearing. Oh, when the night is disappearing. Oh, this feeling is still here in my heart.” The way he sings “heart” is extraordinary. Whereas most people would sing this in one syllable, Dylan stretches it out to six syllables.
There are six versions of “Slow Train” to listen to. My favourite is the version recorded in London. It’s insistent and Dylan’s vocals are impassioned. As with the best of his lyrics, whilst the length of each line might vary, the quality of his singing makes the song flow beautifully. Bob Dylan may not have a great voice but he is a fantastic singer and on this song it’s very exciting. The sound is improved by the four background vocalists Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis (whom Bob Dylan later married), Regina McCrary and Madelyn Quebec. At the end of the song they repeat “Slow Train Coming – whooo whooo”, a bit like I did when I was eight years old impersonating a steam train. When they sing it, the effect is brilliant. The version on the YouTube clip (below) is different but the ending where the background singers become foreground singers is nearly as great.
There are four versions of “Solid Rock”, not a song I ever paid much attention to. Three of these are dynamic and one is much slower. The version on the YouTube clip below is essential viewing. The vocals, guitar work, drumming and, especially, the background singing by six backing singers are all right on the edge. Fred Tackett is on fire here. Dylan’s performance, especially when he stops playing guitar and takes the microphone in his hand, is unbelievable. You don’t have to pay attention to the lyrics to find this performance to be fantastic.
There are three versions of “Pressing On”. Dylan starts the song by playing piano but the song explodes as he walks to the front of the stage and the backing singers are given full range to let it all rip. I can’t remember ever seeing a Dylan performance where his vocals are so strong and impassioned. To me, it’s very exciting. I don’t find any meaning in the lyrics – I have no religious beliefs but I can still find the music incredible. I defy anyone to watch this without becoming tearful. Tears of joy, rage or frustration – it’s up to you.
The DVD is very strange. It contains some sensational footage but is interspersed with some preaching in an empty church by the actor Michael Shannon who repeats some of the speeches that Dylan gave between songs in the live shows at the time. There’s also a magnificent version of “Abraham, Martin and John” by Dylan with Clydie King. This is a song written by Dick Holler and first recorded by Dion. They are sitting at a piano and it looks like a performance recorded in rehearsal.
So, how important are the lyrics to Bob Dylan songs? They are very important and are the only reason I listen to him? (“Only A Pawn In their Game”) They are like an impressionist painting – the general feeling is more important than the literal meaning? (“It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)”) The sound of the music is important and the meaning is irrelevant? (“Solid Rock”) Who knows?