THE Dylan of John Wesley Harding appears touched with grace. The snarling pieties of Highway 61 Revislited, the lucid and patient degeneration in Blonde on Blonde, seem to have been blotted from his memory. Instead, Dylan reaches further into his past for a starting point--and only a starting-point. The new album is a unique and advanced product of his art.
Richie Havens, at Club 47 the other night, introduced "Maggie's Farm" saving, "This song is from Dylan's middle period, which has now been extended." He went on to describe Dylan's performance at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert, "Man! he did three songs. They're wild. Man! and he was smiling and that's nice. Smiling at everybody." The admiration in his voice, the rapt Club 47 audience, the enthusiastic reception in New York, all testify that the transformed Dylan still reigns.
John Wesley Harding represents for Dylan a quantum jump in style from what he was doing before he dropped out of sight. The unexpected discontinuity requires an explanation. The new record is haunted by tramps and prophets, robber-chieftains and gypsies, called forth one by one in solemn incantation. However, these particular outcasts of society are unlike, and handled differently from, the junkies and petulant girls who used to trouble Dylan.
Dylan went through a period of intense personal projection in Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. He was himself the main character in most of the songs, either being acted upon (usually vicously) or acting (even in "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," "Well I saw him/Makin' love to you/You forgot to close the garage door.,"). And when he did comment on social ills ("Memphis Blues Again," "Desolation Row") he did so in terms of the gritty reality all around him, fish-trucks loading, the "heat-pipes that cough," the "Senator showing everyone his gun."
By contrast, to express the same concern for the world's materialism in John Wesley Harding, he uses a Lonesome Hobo and coupled with a warning,
Once I was rather prosperous, there was nothing I did lack
Fourteen-carat gold in my mouth, silk upon my back
But I did not trust my brother, I carried him to blame
Which led me to my fatal doom, to wander off in shame.
THE details, and imagery, of the songs in John Wesley Harding are far removed from contemporary life, and there is a new preaching tone,
Dylan, apparently reacting against his total emotional involvement in the stifling, up-to-date agonies of Blonde on Blonde, took care to place his new songs in another, strange realm. This process is akin to the Brechtian notion of "defamiliarization"--making the action subject to rational scrutiny, unclouded by emotion, because it is viewed from a distance. And since this technique requires activation by a Message, Dylan was able to infuse John Wesley Harding with a spiritual, almost religious tone.
The converse was true, too. Dylan wanted to say spiritual things after his harrowing experiences (with motorcycles, if not with drugs) and the only way he could do so was by "distancing" the whole setting.
In effect the medium imposed a message and Dylan, newly cleansed by the hospital wards and the suburban woodland breeze, was ideally prepared to provide one.
The songs pulse with spirituality. In "I dreamed I saw St. Augustine," the Saint appears proclaiming hope, directing himself to the rich and successful who are most in need of salvation,
Arise, arise he cried so loud in a voice without restraint