Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming

Slow Train Coming – Wikipedia

Recorded: April 30 – May 11, 1979

Released: August 20, 1979

Here’s the second huge inflection point in Dylan’s career. 1965: Dylan goes electric! 1979: Dylan is born again! But in retrospect — 40+ years on — both of these transformations feel much more of a piece with Dylan’s 60 year (and counting) career.

I remember well when this album came out. Everyone was a Christian where I grew up, so this was a pretty big deal. However, I wasn’t all that interested in it myself, since I was listening to The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, B-52s, Talking Heads, … 

This is an album I’ve listened to occasionally over the years and always liked pretty well. But now that I’ve listened to it carefully while going through all Dylan’s albums, I enjoy it much more and consider it quite successful on its own terms and in many ways consistent with the core themes of Dylan’s songs both before and since. 

How is it consistent with Dylan’s songs? First, there is a strong strain of protest music here, linking back to his 60s critiques of American culture. We go from “flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark, it’s easy to see without looking too far, that not much is really sacred” to “the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency, all nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion”.  You’ve got “counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts, Karl Marx has got ya by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots.” Dylan remains the prophet calling out the sins of the nation.

Second, people just don’t get it: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” And now matter what you do or who you are (“an ambassador to England or France”!), you’re still “gonna have to serve somebody”.

Third, it isn’t just American culture or people in general, it’s Dylan’s own (so-called) friends! “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” (1965) and “My so-called friends have fallen under a spell, They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well””. 

Fourth, there are some oddly specific parallels. Both “All I Really Want to Do” (1964) and “Do Right To Be Baby (Do Unto Others)” list a whole lot of things Dylan doesn’t want to do before coming to the point. But the point has changed from being with you to doing right to you. (OK, that’s a pretty big change.)

Of course, there is a big difference, too. Back in 1964, the mission statement of “Another Side of Bob Dylan” was his renunciation of “lies that life is black and white”, which is how he came to think of his early protest songs. I think Dylan wanted to be relieved of any burden for coming up with an answer, or perhaps more precisely, that there was any easy answer. But now he has found The Answer, and you better believe it, mister. 

You either got faith or unbelief, there ain’t no neutral ground

He who is not with me is against me

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

It may be the devil or it may be the lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

As I said, I really enjoy this album and think it succeeds on its own terms. However, there are two major caveats. First, while I don’t believe the theology on Slow Train Coming, it’s familiar to me, so maybe I’m susceptible to it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I have nostalgia for it, or even that I wish I could feel the way Dylan felt here. The second caveat is that if Dylan wrote songs like this for the rest of his career, I’m sure I would have quickly lost interest and felt like this was a waste of his genius. But as just one short phase, I think it fits nicely in his career and artistic arc.

Let’s talk about the songs.

“Gotta Serve Somebody”. I have to say that listening carefully to this song, particularly this version, has opened up a new perspective for me; it’s funny. Dylan’s vocal is amazingly expressive, conversational, and sly. And his sly vocal narrates a bunch of more or less implausible things you might be or do, but in the end, it’s all the same: you gotta serve somebody. “So… what if I’m a state trooper, would that do it? Nope. How about… a rock-n-roll addict? Still no. OK, OK, I’ve got it: the heavyweight champion of the world? NO”. While I might prefer some live versions of this song overall, Dylan’s vocal here is just unmatched.

“Precious Angel”. One of several songs about a (the?) woman (women?) that led him to Christ. 

Precious angel, under the sun

How was I to know you’d be the one

To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone

How weak was the foundation I was standing upon?

That’s a central theme of the song, but, to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, Dylan is a man of god, but he’s also a man:

You’re the queen of my flesh, girl, you’re my woman, you’re my delight

You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night

There’s also some powerful Dylan-poetry:

We are covered in blood, girl, you know our forefathers were slaves

Let us hope they’ve found mercy in their bone-filled graves

I assumed this somehow was a literal reference to Dylan’s and the subject’s ancestors. The Wikipedia article about this song suggests that the subject of the song was Black, so this is a joint reference to American slavery and the slavery of Jews in Egypt in biblical times. This interpretation is reinforced by the final lines before the lsat choruses:

But there’s violence in the eyes, girl, so let us not be enticed

On the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgment hall of Christ

And this is a very appealing pop-rock song, with nice guitar from Mark Knopfler.

“I Believe in You”. This once was my favorite song on the album.  For some reason, it doesn’t stand out as much for me anymore, but it still is a (near) masterpiece.

“Slow Train”. This is a great song — perhaps the best on the album — that mostly could have passed for a mid-60s Dylan song. It’s not explicitly Christian or even religious; instead, it’s theme is an indictment of the state of the nation: “Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted”. There’s also some xenophobia. But before I get to any of those things, I think it’s worth dwelling on the second verse:

I had a woman down in Alabama

She was a backwoods girl, but she sure was realistic

She said, “Boy, without a doubt

Have to quit your mess and straighten out

You could die down here, be just another accident statistic”

There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

I don’t like to biographize Dylan, but it’s clear that he felt a mess in 1978. His ugly divorce was just finalized, he was musically uncertain, and I think deeply burned out. In 1966, after his motorcycle accident he retreated to upstate New York with his family, but now he’d lost (destroyed) his family. If he didn’t find some refuge, (as he wrote on his next album), he thought by this time he’d “be sleeping In a pine box for all eternity”. Not just dead, but in the grave for all eternity. While “Slow Train” doesn’t tell us about the refuge Dylan found, the rest of the album does.

The verse about “foreign oil” and “sheikhs” who are “deciding America’s fate” is unfortunate: pointing the finger at “the other” is a bad place to start and can end even worse, as Dylan should have kept in mind. However, in most of the song the finger is pointing at us, at America. This is one of those songs that laments the state of the nation — America — and while it never says it explicitly, I think the power of these songs comes from Dylan’s acceptance of the old idea that America should be a “city upon a hill”, not that America is, but that it should be. Therefore, when America falls short of that, we essentially are not America

In the home of the brave

Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave

Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan

The enemy I see

Wears a cloak of decency

All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion

And perhaps the ultimate condemnation:

People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting

Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it

They say lose your inhibitions

Follow your own ambitions

They talk about a life of brotherly love show me someone who knows how to live it

We’re letting people starve while there’s abundant food, and our talk about brotherly love is just empty words. It’s hypocrisy, including specifically religious hypocrisy, just like when the 1965 Dylan sang about “flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark, it’s easy to see without looking too far, that not much is really sacred”. 

And — a common theme here — a beautifully crafted song and all around excellent performance.

“Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”. Hmmm… quite a few writers whom I really enjoy do not much like this one, but I’ve always loved it. This is kinda surprising, since I’m not particularly fond of Dylan’s blues songs (for example, on Blonde on Blonde and Time Out of Mind), but this is an exception. Maybe it’s because I don’t know all the different subtypes of blues? In any case, it’s the music that does it for me, just super driving, love the guitar and horns. The hate for the song came from the harsh, in your face, even accusatory lyrics. Not only has Dylan changed his way of thinking and made himself a different set of rules, he tells you that he’s going to stop being influenced by fools. that there’s only one authority, and that’s the authority on high, that Jesus said “he not with me is against me”. 

Honestly, this is a song where intellectually I don’t agree with the lyrics, but I respect that this is what Dylan was feeling at the time. So to me the question is does the song as a whole — lyrics, music, and performance — succeed at what it’s intending to do. I say: “yes it does”.

“Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”. This is a song that I basically never thought about — if you had asked me a couple of months ago to list the songs on the album, I probably couldn’t have remembered this. Now after listening to it a number of times, I really like the acoustic guitar part, and like the whole album, it’s a good performance. As I already wrote, I also find the parallelism to “All I Really Want to Do” amusing. Still, this isn’t one I expect to go back to.

“When You Gonna Wake Up”. Like the previous song, this is another that I never really thought about, but unlike “Do Right To Me…”, listening carefully to this one has really changed my impression of this one. The opening lines now strikes me as a powerful statement of where Dylan was at:

God don’t make no promises that He don’t keep

OK, sure, you can trust in God. But it’s the next line that gets me:

You got some big dreams, baby, but in order to dream you gotta still be asleep

You might have the American dream, dreams for yourself, but man, it’s time to wake up and face reality. You know why? Because:

Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts

Karl Marx has got ya by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots

The philosophies — the wisdom — of the world aren’t going to do the job. Not communism — that’s pretty easy for Dylan to dismiss; he never was a leftist. But “Henry Kissinger”? I think he represents secular wisdom or intellectual cleverness. This won’t do it either. You need to wake up

Once again, I think this is a thrilling call to action from where Dylan was at at the time. Others disagree. I really have enjoyed reading the essays at “Untold Dylan”, and the take there on “When You Gonna Wake up” is very negative, it’s just another preacher telling people what to do. I don’t experience the lyrics that way, but YMMV.

“Man Gave Names to All the Animals”. Just keep repeating: “It’s a children’s song, it’s a children’s song, it’s a children’s song…”

“When He Returns”. There’s too much to say about this one, so won’t even try. It’s a masterpiece. Unbelievably powerful and passionate vocals, yet not overwrought. Memorable lyrics: I could quote all of them, but here’s one couplet that has been echoing in my mind for weeks:

How long can you falsify and deny what is real?

How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?

Untold Dylan” criticizes the album version for showy piano playing, and calls out the April 1980 Toronto live performance as the definitive, perfect version. I agree that the Toronto performance is superior, amazing, and one of Dylan’s greatest ever performances (up there with the 1966 “Like A Rolling Stone” and 1976 “Isis”). However, the album version still is great.

Nine songs on this album. Even if you aren’t a believer, I’d argue that seven of them are complete successes, and four of the songs — “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Slow Train”, “I Believe In You”, “When He Returns” — are masterpieces or close to it. “For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears” … listen.

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