Home / General / Mercy In Their Bone-Filled Graves: Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming Turns 40

Mercy In Their Bone-Filled Graves: Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming Turns 40

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Let’s talk about Slow Train Coming, Bob Dylan’s late 70s embrace of gospel music, which turns forty (40!) years old this year. It remains the signature baffling moment in a six-decade career full of them. For certain fans, the cognitive dissonance between the firebrand, Beat-influenced, speed-addled, wonder-boy sage of Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde, or even the wizened mystic-romantic of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, will always be a bridge too far upon encountering, you know… his sermons. I understand that sentiment, but I love Dylan’s gospel period.

Slow Train Coming, was recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals studios in 1979, and produced by famed Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett-helmer Jerry Wexler. It features one of the great pick-up bands ever assembled – Tim Drummond on bass, Mark Knopfler on guitar, Helena Springs and Carolyn Dennis on backing vocals, plus the Memphis Horns. As a record it is by turns arch and deadly serious, topical, prescient and apocalyptic. Its songs groove along unhurriedly and sound quite unlike anything Dylan had done previously.

Taking the full sweep of his career and catalog into consideration, it has long been my view that Dylan’s deep dive into the church was shocking but not really surprising. Biblical references and a profound sense of cosmic justice are present in his earliest material: “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” is essentially a series of Old Testament parables, while “When the Ship Comes In” is consonant with the New Testament-derived hymns of the Civil Rights movement. The title track of Highway 61 Revisited famously recasts God’s testing of Abraham’s faith, while “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” indicts those who would seek to profit without limits on taste or decency:

“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 looking too far
That not much is really sacred”

If Dylan were ever an atheist, there is next to nothing in his music to reflect that. Indeed, his restless spiritual search is every bit as much a core component of his work as is the case with Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and Prince. Like everything else involving Dylan, the backstory of how he became (and possibly remains?) an evangelical Christian is thick with lore and mystery. The version I find most personally amusing involves T-Bone Burnett playing a crucial role in his conversion and subsequent involvement with the Vineyard Ministry in California, sometime during the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. In my mind, Dylan sees T-Bone reading his bible on the tour bus one day and says: “Hey, T-Bone, what is it you like so much about that book?” To which T-Bone responds in his deep Texas drawl, “Well Bob, I’d be more than happy to discuss it with you sometime…” This probably didn’t happen but I don’t care, it’s the version of events I’m going to my grave with.

Anyway! Let’s take a track by track look at this startling, strange and frequently beautiful album on the year of its 40th anniversary.

Gotta Serve Somebody

An enduring Dylan song, and I would argue a great one. The chorus posits a dichotomy of worship between the devil and the lord, but the important concept here is service. Once crucial to the American attitude, the notion of responsibility to something larger than oneself had begun to erode with the New Freedoms of the 60s and was beginning to metastasize as the Boomer generation wed their doctrine of indulgence to gradual gains in power and affluence. The net result is arguably seen in the atrociousness of our contemporary politics with its grotesque Randian personal aggrandizements, preposterously inequitable tax code and unfinanced wars. A fellow critic once remarked that this song was not about God – I believe he meant this as an insult – but in a sense I agree. It’s not so much about God as it is about self-delusion and the illness that befalls an individual or society who comes to believe that there is an attainable status that separates them from the tethers of mortality or the consequences of transgressing against others. That way lies madness, and here we are. Another note: Dylan’s gospel period has often had a reputation for being po-faced and stoic: preachy, as it were. This is a misrepresentation. From the start “Gotta Serve Somebody” is loose-limbed and funky, full of silly jokes and aphorisms and a giddy Dylan vocal that both belies and somehow enhances the seriousness of the message. Watch this performance from the Grammys shortly after the album’s release. If anything he seems to having an absolute ball following the unpleasant show-biz formalism of his previous tour. In fact, he seems delivered.

Precious Angel

This is quite an extraordinary song, beginning with a indelible Knopfler riff and proceeding through a six-plus minute love song burdened by history’s countless nightmares and a vision of apocalypse so terrifying as to be comical: “Men will beg God them to kill them/ and they won’t be able to die!” Most movingly, this is an acknowledgment of Dylan’s deep sense of identification and empathy with the African-American community in general and the titular love interest in particular (probably Carolyn Dennis with whom he would father a child and eventually marry). The connection with African-American sensibilities which has always been a huge part of Dylan’s work is cast into bold relief in a moving passage that acknowledges the shared experience of his persecuted Jewish ancestors and those of his partner:

“We are covered in blood, girl, you know our forefathers were slaves
Let us hope they’ve found mercy in their bone-filled graves”

The full immersion into African-American culture is an overlooked and very important aspect of Dylan’s gospel period – not for nothing did he turn to the homebase of the Staples Singers to record this record. “Precious Angel” is one of the most forthright acknowledgments of cultural debt for an artist whose career is foundationed on the solid rock of blues and gospel traditions.

I Believe In You

One of the wondrous ballads of Dylan’s career and a spiritual cousin to “She Belongs To Me” and “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, this powerful devotional is equally moving whether it is addressing a higher power, a sacred lover or both. Over a lilting melody, Dylan describes being cast out by those who would ridicule and make sport of his changing worldview, which in fact would be a large percentage of critics and his audience. In the face of this he is resolute, but also scared and vulnerable. One of music’s great prayers:

“Don’t let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue
And I, I don’t mind the pain
Don’t mind the driving rain
I know I will sustain
’Cause I believe in you”

Slow Train

A big swing of a song with a lot going on. The slinky, insinuating groove is all slow-burn James Brown with some scimitar-sharp Knopfler leads sprinkled throughout. The topic is… everything. Dylan is mad at his spiritually corrupt friends, totally pissed off about OPEC, slightly concerned about his own health and engaged in what appears to be an unwinnable fight with his estranged paramour in Alabama. But somewhere amidst the bedlam he does manage to describe some dystopian future in which the world came to be run by: “Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters/ Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition”. Thank God that never happened.

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking

A gut-bucket blues taken at brutalist mid-tempo and festooned in an increasingly busy arrangement which provides more ornamentation than the modest melody either can sustain or deserves. This is by far the weakest track on the album and in some ways the worst case scenario for Dylan’s Christian dalliance: JJ Cale’s “Cocaine” by way of a mall-sized mega-church. Worst humblebrag lyric: “I got a God-fearing woman/ One I can easily afford.”

Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)

Much better, and much stranger, this light-funk come-on slurs forth with the sinuous agreeability of Sly Stone’s “Fresh” while essentially re-writing the Golden Rule as the soundtrack for the kind of 70’s art film that used to intentionally get an X rating for marketing purposes. In a veritable sequel to The Beatles sexual begging letter “Please Please Me”, pious Bob is clearly operating on at least a two-track mind:

“But if you do right to me, baby
I’ll do right to you, too
Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you”

Yuck! But awesome.

When You Gonna Wake Up

An irresistible start-and-stop rhythm, a great, galvanizing horn part, all leading to a provocative, sweeping, existential question: when you gonna wake up? For what it’s worth – and I think it’s worth a lot – Dylan seems to be positing this line of inquiry to himself every bit as much as his audience, a nuance lost on many critics of his gospel era. To the extent this is spiritual hectoring, it is also a rough piece of unvarnished self-inventory. To live outside the law you must be honest. Strange lyric that’s probably correct:

“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”

Man Gave Names To All The Animals

I mean, it’s a very silly song. It might be the silliest song on any proper Dylan record this side of the Under the Red Sky track “Wiggle, Wiggle”. Actually, this makes “Wiggle, Wiggle” sound like “Visions Of Johanna”. Honestly, I don’t have anything on this. I assume he got a kick out of it and it sounds like it.

When He Returns

A stunning finisher every bit the equal of “It’s All Over Now (Baby Blue)’’ and “Buckets Of Rain”, this Dylan solo piano and vocal is a stripped down tour-de-force which redresses the complicated spiritual quandaries of “Gotta Serve Somebody” with an act of radical supplication. Reminiscent of the great Richard Thompson ballad “The Dimming Of The Day”, it performs the miracle of turning anxiety into awe and finally reminds us of vigilance:

“Truth is an arrow
And the gate is narrow
That it passes through.”

The legacy of Dylan’s gospel period remains mixed. Last year’s Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More highlighted and in some ways rehabilitated that era, but in many critical quarters the verdict remains unsettled. For me, I see it as the exact halfway point in a career that has no representative comparison in modern culture. A waystation: strange, brave and beautiful. Often brilliant, never less than interesting.

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