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Dylan Gets Religion

John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan, Columbia Records

By Salahuddin I. Imam

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

Come out ye gifted Kings and Queens and hear my sad complaint

No martyr is among ye now whom you can call your own

But go along your way accordingly and know you're not alone

On a earlier record the "gifted Kings and Queens" would have been addressed directly as Madison Avenue executives or corporation heads and Dylan would have been content to castigate them, instead of trying to reform them. Dylan frets over having been responsible (in the dream) for Augustine's death but the note of redemption that has been struck transforms the event into splendid, healing suffering quite unlike the gratification-in-pain so evident in Blonde on Blonde.

A SIMILAR affirmation marks "All Along the Watchtower." The Joker revolts against the meaninglessness of it all,

Businessmen they drink my wine Plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth

and the Thief, significantly chosen as speaker, soothes him and reassures him,

There are many here among us who feel that life is about a joke

But you and I have been through that and this is not our fate

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

The two then saddle up and ride to the watchtower where "Princess kept the view"--an image like the scene in Ivan the Terrible in which Ivan, in seclusion, is begged to return. (Eisenstein too was a master of defamiliarization.)

In other songs Dylan soars into mysticism. The Wicked Messenger, bringing bad news for once, discovers,

The soles of my feet I swear they're burnin'

The leaves began to fall and the seas began to part

And the people that confronted him were many...

The poetry and the meaning of the songs is brought to life by Dylan's cracked voice and the accompaniment of shimmering drums.

Dylan's gift is a tremendous outburst of pity for the suffering, who are represented always in highly stylized situations. A romantic aura surrounds the actors, heightening the spiritual insight of their actions. Of the love-songs on the album, two are suitably "distanced," and one, "I'll be your Baby Tonight," is sublimely simple.

Dylan has fashioned a new music to sing this enlightenment by, and like the lyrics it differs sharply from his previous songs. Just as a cascading piano was appropriate for "Queen Jane Approximately," so the new record is rightly driven by muted, subtle rhythms and complex interaction. Dylan and his regular drummer, Kenny Buttrey, seem to have developed the sort of perfect understanding that Bart Starr shares with Carroll Dale. In places all over the record, they groove effortlessly, as at the end of John Wesley Harding when Buttrey pumps the shutters, with Dylan wailing on harp.

The poetry is marred, as usual, by the ubiquitous rhyme but the classic Dylan singe at the end of a sequence still registers,

No one tried to say a thing when they carried him out in jest

Except of course the little neighbor boy who carried him to rest

And he just walked along with his guilt so well concealed

And muttered underneath his breath, nothing is revealed.

And he can sing beautifully. "Fourteen-carat gold in my mouth, silk upon my back." Listen to it.

John Wesley Harding is a satisfying album--mainly for Dylan's sake, because many of the songs are implicitly personal renunciations of the "narcotic of a subtle skepticism" that Pope Paul advised against in his Christmas plea for "Peace of Heart" in all men. Perhaps Dylan has found "Peace of Heart." And his record gives some hope to its listeners, a little strength of mind to face a grisly political milieu that threatens to overwhelm us. Cold comfort?

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