That ‘Wild Mercury Sound’

On Tuesday night, May 17th 1966 the large ‘Free Trades Hall’ in Manchester England was filled to capacity. Music fans had been lining up on the street for hours; having held their precious concert tickets for months. They had come to see their hero; the ‘spokesman of a generation,’ the ‘champion of the underdog,’ the street poet who was their poet: Bob Dylan—‘Folk Singer.’

A storm was brewing that night, and it burst wide open in the second half of the program.

In the years 1964-1965 Dylan had toured the UK singing all the songs the fans had wanted to hear, how they wanted to hear them: from ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ to ‘Masters of War,’ and ‘The Times They Are a Changin’’. But from the first strum of his guitar that night, nothing was the same. Out of Dylan’s mouth came a different voice; in-toning a strange new brew of impressionistic word pictures:

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide;
The fortune-telling-lady, has even taken all her things inside.
All except Cain and Abel, and the hunchback of Notre Dame;
Everybody is making love, or else expecting rain.
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show.
He’s going to the carnival tonight, on Desolation Row.

‘What does it all mean Bob?’ ‘What’s your message? Is this political music?’ A storm was brewing that night, and it burst wide open in the second half of the program. This time the curtains opened to reveal Bob wielding an electric guitar; the chief weapon of commercial/pop music. Worse still, he had a band: The Hawks; a rough, rowdy, raucous, yet virtuosic bar-band playing what Dylan later described as that ‘wild mercury sound.’

After initial polite applause, the murmuring started. This was followed by muffled laughter, slow-hand claps, whistles and finally: the booing. Things came to a head in an unusually quiet moment just before the final song. Somebody yelled out: ‘Judas!’

Visibly angry now, Dylan didn’t mumble this time, but spoke out clearly into his microphone: ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar!’ Then turning to the band he gave one final instruction: ‘play f*#@!n loud!’ They did:

How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home;
like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?

The Real Betrayal

As someone once put it, ‘Bob doesn’t really give people what they want at first. You have come to him, he doesn’t come to you.’ The now octogenarian legend could be described as aiming to live up to his own lyric: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ [3] Of course the marriage of thoughtful lyrics with rock n’ roll would catch on, as the 1960s unfolded, spawning the Woodstock generation and the singer-song-writer era of the 1970s. Yet again Dylan the outsider would become the cool cult hero.

In fact the crowd response on that 1966 world tour would prove to be mere theatrics compared to the offence caused with the trilogy of albums Dylan released from 1979 to 1981, [4] when he sang ‘a new song … unto the Lord!

I was blinded by the devil, born and already ruined;
Stone-cold dead as I stepped out of the womb.
By His grace I have been touched, by His word I have been healed;
By His hand I’ve been delivered, by His Spirit I’ve been sealed.
I’ve been saved by the blood of the Lamb! Yes saved, by the blood of the Lamb.

Now the fans and the critics were really angry. ‘No Bob, no! That’s our parents’ world! What about the revolution?’ He was unrepentant:

You may be a rock n’ roll addict prancing on the stage;
Money, drugs at your command, women in a cage.
You may be a businessman, or some high-grade thief;
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief …

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,
yes indeed serve somebody.
It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord;
but you’re going to have to serve somebody
. [6]

Bob wanted everybody to know the truth: the Kingdom of God has drawn near; and there can only be one King:

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask.
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask.
How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself, for the weakness you conceal?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man; He is unconcerned.
He’s got plans of His own, to set up His throne.
When He returns …

The Christian singer-songwriter Keith Green had been mentoring Dylan, giving him feedback on his lyrics. [8] He also enrolled in a ‘Bible and discipleship course’ through the Vineyard Church movement. His shows were starting to resemble the old ‘Tent Meeting’ revival shows. One disillusioned fan turned music writer remembers:

I’m a lifelong atheist and a lifelong Dylan fan, so 1979 was a bit rough for me … I was shocked. I was bummed. I got a telegram from a Christian gloating that my boy had seen the light … But Dylan never got to preach to me. For Dylan’s gospel years, I stuck my fingers in my ears … I couldn’t face a Christian Dylan.[9]

Born Again Bob?

Dylan had definitely experienced something powerful and real.

Dylan had definitely experienced something powerful and real. His view of himself and the world around him was now influenced by biblical teaching. He even made some changes to his rock and roll lifestyle. The gospel message he sang out concerned Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternal life and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Bob particularly stressed the coming judgement. ‘Make no mistake people, there’s a slow train coming, and you all better get on that train while you can.’

I have always greatly enjoyed these albums for their music and song writing, energy and passion. But there is no doubt that the overall tone is polemical; even condemnatory, rather than gracious and welcoming. The lyrics attack the rootless and hedonistic generation that Bob was meant to ‘speak for’ but had grown tired of and disgusted with. [10] His stance on these albums often feels like one of personal defiance against the nay-sayers and the cynics. It is Bob against the world. For example,

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell.
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, ‘All is well.’
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high;
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?
Shine your light on me…I can’t make it on my own, shine your light on me

The message of hell-fire judgment is crystal clear. Less explicit, is an open and humble invitation to receive God’s wonderful mercy.

The message of hell-fire judgment is crystal clear. Less explicit, is an open and humble invitation to receive God’s wonderful mercy—provided through the death of his Son in our place. This makes the Dylan ‘gospel trilogy’ a very different listening experience to something from, for example, Keith Green (the Christian artist whom Dylan admired). For Green, the focus always came back to the grace that makes all those who trust in Jesus God’s ‘precious and beloved children.’ [12] Green doesn’t back away from God’s holiness or the final judgment. But the overall tone is one of joy, hope and invitation:

I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation! (2Cor 6:2)

Some critics see Bob’s ‘gospel period’ as a new take on his old identification with the restless wanderer; the lone ranger making his way through the world, in Dylan’s case on his ‘Never Ending Tour.’ His early inspiration included the ‘rebel without a cause,’ James Dean, and Homer’s Odysseus he read about in school. Then came depression-era troubadour Woody Guthrie; followed by ‘Beat writer’ Jack Kerouac. In the mid-70’s Dylan championed the cause of ‘Hurricane Ruben Carter,’ the black prize-fighter who claimed he had been wrongfully accused of murder. Now it seemed Dylan had come to the archetypal outsider and champion of the underdog, Jesus of Nazareth, whom he described in his 1985-6 tour with Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers, as ‘my hero.’ And so Dylan the lone rider sings,

They show me to the door,
They say don’t come back no more;
Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to.
And I, I walk out on my own,
A thousand miles from home;
But I don’t feel alone:
Cause I believe in you …

Not Dark Yet

Dylan has never disowned these albums, or recanted his testimony.

It’s easy to be cynical about accounts of the ‘spiritual lives’ of famous people. And it needs to be said, that in the decades that have followed Dylan has never disowned these albums, or recanted his testimony. Up until COVID-19 halted his touring last year, Dylan was still playing some of his gospel songs live. But neither has he kept on talking about Jesus—at least publicly. Dylan has stopped ‘preaching’ in both his concerts and in his newer songs. But, then again, he doesn’t say much at all in his concerts apart from a mumbled ‘thank you,’ if you’re lucky. Judging by his critically acclaimed albums of the last 20 years, Dylan continues to hold to a broadly Judeo-Christian worldview: There is one God who made everything and us in his image. We all depend on God for the lives that we have. Any future we might hope for after we die is in God’s hands. And Bob is still suspicious of ‘following leaders,’ refusing to be anyone’s guru, spokesman or wise guide.

All truth is God’s truth, and the observations, insights and illustrations that great artists like Dylan offer form a kind of ‘wisdom tradition’ that we can engage with, but also critique in the light of God’s own wisdom, and ultimately Christ who ‘has become for us wisdom from God.’ (1Cor 1:30) Maybe what Dylan does best is describe the world as he sees it and has seen it since his 1940s mid-west childhood; using music that cuts to the core, ‘bringing it all back home.’ He powerfully evokes the human condition in a broken world that is filled with broken people, in songs that are also tinged with hope. [14] Like the preacher in Ecclesiastes, he still enjoys some of life’s pleasures; but at 80 Dylan faces head on the reality of frailty, and mortality (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:1-14).

Some trains don’t pull no gamblers;
No midnight ramblers, like they did before.
I been to Sugartown, I shook the sugar down,
Now I’m tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.

As a 35-year long (and counting) fan, I can of course only know Dylan as a famous, yet remote, figure. But on May 24th this year, on the occasion of Bob’s 80th birthday, I can give thanks to God for his music, and also pray for him, that his true confidence now and at the hour of his death, will be solely found in the one true and living God; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; our Maker, Judge and Savior.

Lord in my time of dyin’, I don’t want nobody to cry.
All I want for you to do is take my body home.
Well, well, well; so I can die easy, well, well, well.
Jesus gonna make up, Jesus is gonna make up my dyin’ bed.

Beyond the horizon o’er the treacherous sea;
I still can’t believe that you have set aside your love for me

Beyond the horizon ‘neath crimson skies,
In the soft light of mornin’ I’ll follow you with my eyes.
Through countries and kingdoms, and temples of stone;
Beyond the horizon right down to the bone. [17]

If I had the wings of a snow white dove;
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love.
A love so real, a love so true;
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
. [18]

[1] Bob Dylan, ‘Desolation Row,’ from the album, Highway 61 Revisited. (CBS;1965). Quote taken from Bob Dylan, Lyrics: 1962-2001. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2004), 181.
[2] Dylan, ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ from the album, Highway 61 Revisited. (NY: CBS;1965), Lyrics (2004), 167.
[3] Dylan, ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding),’ from the album, Bringing it All Back Home. (NY: CBS; 1965), Lyrics (2004), 156.
[4] Slow Train Coming. (NY: CBS; 1979); Saved! (NY: CBS; 1980); Shot of Love. (NY: CBS; 1981). See also, Bob Dylan, Trouble No More—The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13/1979-1981. (NY: CBS; 2017).
[5] Dylan, ‘Saved,’ from Saved! (NY: CBS; 1980), Lyrics, 421.
[6] Dylan, ‘Serve Somebody,’ from Slow Train Coming. (NY: CBS; 1979), Lyrics (2004), 401.
[7] Dylan, ‘When He Returns,’ from Slow Train Coming, (NY: CBS; 1979), Lyrics (2004), 417.
[8] Dylan plays harmonica on Keith Green, So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt…(Texas: Pretty Good records; 1980). In the thank you section he wrote, ‘Thank you Bob Dylan, for surrendering to Jesus and allowing me to share in that joy.’
[9] Penn Jillette, ‘In the Time of My Confession,’ from the booklet accompanying, Trouble No More, 26.
[10] Commentators point to the disillusionment many US baby boomers felt in the late 70s. Rather than the golden age of Aquarius, what the ‘counter-culture’ actually delivered was the jaded hedonism of the 1970s ‘me decade.’ The election of self-described ‘born-again Christian’ Jimmy Carter as US President (1977-1981—himself a Dylan fan), is seen as the political reaction; while Dylan’s gospel trilogy serves as the ‘cultural response,’ from a former counter-culture leader.
[11] Dylan, ‘Precious Angel,’ from Slow Train Coming. (NY: CBS; 1979). Lyrics (2004), 403.
[12] e.g. Keith Green, To Him Who Has Ears to Hear. (Canada BC: Sparrow; 1977).
[13] Dylan, ‘I believe in you,’ from Slow Train Coming. (NY: CBS; 1979), Lyrics, (2004), 405.
[14] e.g. Dylan, ‘Everything is broken,’ ‘Ring Them Bells,’ ‘Man in the Long Black Coat,’ and ‘Shooting Star,’ from, Oh Mercy. (NY:
CBS; 1989), and ‘God Knows,’ from Under the Red Sky. (NY: CBS, 1990).
[15] Dylan, ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,’ from Time Out of Mind. (NY: CBS; 1997), Lyrics, (2004), 564.
[16] ‘In my time of Dyin,’ a song first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927, appeared on Dylan’s first album, Bob Dylan. (NY:
CBS; 1962).
[17] Bob Dylan / Wilhelm Grosz / Jimmy Kennedy, ‘Beyond the Horizon,’ from Modern Times. (NY: CBS; 2006).
[18] Dylan, ‘I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you,’ from Rough and Rowdy Ways. (NY: CBS/Sony; 2020).