A while ago, I came across some photos I’d never seen before, of the Slow Train sessions. Dylan and the other musicians relaxing in the studio. Lots of smiles, easy postures, those awful synthetic knits men wore in the late 70s. The images of Dylan are absolutely shocking. He’s dressed neatly in jeans and a dark shirt, a large and unsubtle silver cross round his neck. Next to Fred Tackett or Jim Keltner or Tim Drummond, all thin and bearded, Dylan looks like the younger brother happy to be allowed to join in. Now, there is no reason why a man whose veins run with evangelical fire can’t be well-groomed and sociable. That’s not why the photos are shocking. But it is impossible to believe that from this affable, elfin man come the sounds of despair, isolation, fervor, prophetic arrogance, seduction, and wit, which are the voices of the album.
The disconnect between a voice and its person is not news, although in Dylan’s case we’re reminded so often of this disconnect that we can take it for granted. At the moment, we talk about his sounding clear or strong in a particular show, and we can also talk about this small and deceptively frail man putting words into the air that feel like boulders he’s summoning from beneath his feet. But back to 1979, and the Special Case of Dylan’s voice.
One of my very favorite pieces of Bob Dylan flotsam that have washed up into my possession is a tiny book I can hold in the palm of my hand. It’s published by Hanuman Books, whose mission statement is summed up nicely on the website Printed Matter, Inc.: “The highly saturated colors and gold printing of the books’ covers and their pocket-size format is inspired by Indian prayer books and by the tradition of Asian miniatures.” My book has a garish pink cover with the title in gold lettering, and a most incongruous color photo of Bob Dylan. Incongruous because the photo is one of Daniel Kramer’s portraits from early 64, the striped boatneck shirt, the pretty face–the Young Artist–and the book is called Bob Dylan. Saved: The Gospel Speeches. The book collects Dylan’s spoken addresses from the Gospel Tours, beginning in November 1978 and ending in May 1980, 62 pieces of text in all.
The photo is incongruous not just because the chronology is wrong, but because the speaker of these speeches cannot be thought of as “younger than that now.” The speaker of these speeches is frighteningly not-young, indeed, frighteningly not-of-numbered-years. He himself seems to know this, as in a speech in Buffalo on 4/30/80, he warns the audience of Satan and says “I didn’t know a lot of these things 40 years ago either,” and I do believe he’s not being careless with the arithmetic of his own life. He knows he’s 38 when he says this, but he feels a memory that exceeds his biography.
I like to read this little book, I find myself engrossed in it often, and I am grateful to Clinton Heylin who is credited with compiling it for recognizing that having all these speeches together in one package is not just historically significant, but a remarkable reading experience. Although I am not a Christian, I want to know why I find the songs of the gospel tours persuasive, intimate, seductive, and beautiful, and the speeches between the songs bewitching, distancing—they are somehow false and disheartening and hypnotic, when the songs are close and entrancing and stirring. The different effects matter very much to me, because the content is not different. In both speeches and songs of this period, Dylan is consistent: I have been changed in the way people are changed when they come to know the message of Jesus’s life and death, and come to accept the realities of Satan, End Times and Judgement Day, being born again. The divide between redemption and lostness may be crossed by one narrow bridge. Where he is and where I am is exactly the same in Precious Angel and Solid Rock as it is in every word he speaks to the audience from the stage. But the voices are different.
The voice of the speeches runs like a soft river. I’d say he murmurs but murmuring doesn’t capture the clarity and the mild rise and fall of these sentences about the desperate time and the Devil’s plan and Satan getting ready to wield his masterpiece (a favorite line of mine). The voice he finds for this work is not the speaking voice he uses to introduce the band members to the audience. The keys of the world were given to someone called Lucifer. If you have heard recordings of these concerts, then you can *hear* the peculiar confiding and familiar tone. He speaks quickly and comfortably, and to denigrate this work as rambling fire and brimstone nonsense is a miscalculation. A long speech he gave at the Warfield on 11/26/79 is at least a demonstration of the quickness of Dylan’s thought and his skill at composing thought into cadenced language. He talks about himself, even referring to The Times They Are A-Changin’, which could have been seriously unnerving to people in the audience who had every reason to assume they would never hear Bob Dylan sing that song again. He relates an anecdote from the gospels in which he has to recite snatches of dialogue, he offers a simplistic and alarming description of God’s vengefulness, he deals with a heckler–or perhaps a sympathizer?– who plays into his hands by shouting “everybody must get stoned.” He doesn’t hesitate or stumble over words, he pairs long and short sentences with an orator’s deftness. His theology is suffocating, exclusive, and visionary, as it is in the songs. All uttered smooth as a rhapsody.
The songs are not smooth as a rhapsody. Here the voice reaches, jumps,growls, risks all its breath on one “wilderness.” The voice opens and cracks and lets in the light of doubt and fear and desire. Just about any I Believe In You, When He Returns, or Saving Grace from 1979 is a mosaic of sounds, meek and hard like an oak, that wake up the listener from one syllable to the next–not the lulling susurration of the speeches. In the voice of the songs is the broken and the holy (I know there are Leonard fans out there…) where any human can share the human sounds of losing and finding oneself, awe, submission, anguished crisis. In the songs, then, perhaps, is the voice of tzimtzum. There are no cracks, no places for light to get in, in the voice of the speeches.