Dylan in the 80s – worth more than a second glimpse… and his thoughts on music and film.

A little over a year ago I wrote an article about Bob Dylan’s “Saved” album which received a wide readership and was generally positively received:


My intention had been to write a similar article about the 1981 album “Shot of Love” and then to go on and write a series of articles or a book about the albums and tours since then looking particularly at Mr Dylan’s use of Old Testament and New Testament imagery but also other imagery he used commonly across many years which helps us to understand and appreciate his work.

Unfortunately, I got bogged down in the article on “Shot of Love” which is still not finished although I keep returning to it and tinkering with it. I hope it will be completed as I think I might have some important things to say but who knows when.

This week, as has become his habit when a new album is due. Dylan’s staff published on his website a new interview he has given to Bill Flanagan:


Mr Flanagan seems to be a writer that Bob particularly trusts and he has given him several important interviews over the past decade. This new one is intended to herald his latest album of standards, the 3-disc set “Triplicate”.



Already since the interview appeared several writers and bloggers have picked up on their favourite themes in Dylan’s work which come to the surface in this conversation and I see no harm in doing likewise. Once more since it is one of my fields of expertise I will look briefly at Dylan’s vague references to his continuing interest in theology and faith.

I say vague because unlike his strangely parabolic interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2012, his intention is not to explain or mystify with some aspect of his spiritual beliefs but more like his interview with AARP magazine where he spoke of his admiration for preacher Billy Graham:

“When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did,”

(Interview with Robert Love for AARP magazine, February/March 2015)

In this interview, he simply drops in those popular artistic things which he appreciates. This time his thoughts are not on preachers but on film and his own songwriting as well as television programmes. And when he is not speaking of his love for television’s “I Love Lucy”, they are items with spiritual themes which is where this article comes in, I guess.

Let’s turn first to what he has to say about his own songwriting. He is asked whether he thinks that any of his songs did not get the attention they deserved. His response should make us sit up and take notice. Both songs he mentions are ones which Dylan released on albums which came out in the 1980s.

Now the 1980s are without question the most misunderstood years of Mr Dylan’s career and the albums that he recorded in that decade are usually dumped together as being ones you can safely overlook. The majority of more careful critics realise, of course, that this is not so. If we only stop to consider the album “Oh Mercy”, released in 1989, we find that it is solidly built on some of the strongest writing of Dylan’s career which matches anything that Bob has written or released since then including those things which are part of what many would see as the renaissance of his career beginning with the “Time Out of Mind” album 8 years later.

Oh Mercy helps us to notice that Mr Dylan’s songwriting is at its strongest when his mind locks on to matters of spirituality and the meaning of life and then if we are smart we can see great songs with similar themes scattered through the 80’s albums on tracks which we might find musically more difficult. Oh Mercy is riddled with them but we might notice Ring Them BellsWhat Good Am I? and Disease of Conceit. On Disease of Conceit see especially ‘”Disease of Conceit” an analysis by Kees de Graaf’, for a fine recent assessment which seems to me to understnad the song well.


On the earlier albums of the 80s, you might want to consider “What Can I Do For You?“, “Saving Grace“, “Every Grain of Sand“, “In the Summertime“,”Man of Peace“, “Sweetheart Like You“, “Something’s Burning, Baby“, “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky“, and “Dark Eyes“. I could go on and at some later date I probably will.

But we need to turn to the two songs that Mr Dylan’s estimates have been perhaps been the most over-looked of his career – “Brownsville Girl” (from Knocked out Loaded) and “In the Garden” (from Saved).

Brownsville Girl is a lengthy travelogue that Dylan co-wrote with Sam Shepard which tells the tale of the narrator’s journey with the girl of the title across the U.S. but in this story there is also a spiritual tale unfolding: two key chapters of which I would like to highlight for you.

“Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune.
Underneath it,
it said, “A man with no alibi”
You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you
Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears
It was the best acting I saw anybody do.”

As I have argued elsewhere this metaphor speaks profoundly of the New Testament’s notion of the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross as argued for in the gospels and in the letters of apostle Paul. The clues in the metaphor are not too difficult to tease out. The report comes in the Corpus Christi Tribune – Corpus Christi is Body of Christ, Tribune is news of, or a people’s champion. News of the Body of Christ, if you will. The narrator is, like every man since the Adamic fall in the Garden of Eden, a man with no alibi. He has no excuse. But now someone has provided him with a way out. Someone has “gone out on a limb” for him. That phrase as well as being a common idiom speaks of a tree; the New Testament argues that the Christ died on a tree and his unjust death was in place of the just death of others who would or had trusted in him. Christ becomes the substitute for the body of Christ (the redeemed) which the narrator counts himself as part of. The verse even alludes to the need for propitiation as the Christ makes peace for mankind before an angry God (“When I saw you fall down before the judge and cry real tears”). The final reference to acting serves a dual purpose. It links us back into the central metaphor of the Gregory Peck film but also reminds us that the alibi-provider is acting on behalf of more than himself.

In the following verse, the narrator reminds us that everything now is not simple for him as he echoes the language of the Lord’s prayer in the King James version of the Bible – “Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass but sometimes you just find yourself over the line”. His struggles are not the end.

“There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun
and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down”

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament talk of the stars being removed from the heavens at the end of the world:

“All the stars in the sky will be dissolved
and the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll;
all the starry host will fall”

(The prophecy of Isaiah 34:4b, my translation)

Then the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars fell to earth from the sky, as figs do when they fall from a tree when shaken by a strong wind.

(The Revelation of the Apostle John, Chapter 6, verse 12b-13, my translation)

The narrator has allowed us to join him on his journey from a film queue where a cowboy was willing to give his enemy a second chance to the beginning of his actual entry into God’s heaven.

“In the Garden” is a much more straightforward narrative but a more controversial choice for a great Dylan song. I have championed it over the years and it is, therefore, nice to see Rolling Stone mention it as a “stellar tune” this week. Opinions about Dylan’s Gospel albums and tours surely are a-changin’.

Obviously, In the Garden, was at the heart of Dylan’s 1979-80 Gospel tours but it has had a longer life in his regular tours beyond that time. It was a key number in Bob’s 1986 tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers where he came the closest to explaining his beliefs from the stage platform since 1980 as he spoke on many nights of Jesus as his hero.

Tom Petty commended his use of “In the Garden” at the culmination of the main set whilst it frustrated others.

“He had something to say at that point. This ain’t show business, man. This ain’t show business. That’s Bob Dylan. He had something to say at that point. He had something to say about Jesus right then. He sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” right? He’d already done that. Listen, man, you gotta dig that there’s a lot of great songs about Jesus.”

(Tom Petty interviewed in 1987)

Indeed, when Dylan released the “Hard to Handle” video to commemorate the tour, “In the Garden” wasn’t at the conclusion of the recording but had been shuffled to the very beginning. If people were going to be put off by Bob’s “Jesus song”, it might as well happen straight away.

Rumour has it that Mr Dylan approached Amnesty International in the mid-8os to use the song as a campaign song, dealing as it does with a man who is unjustly imprisoned and put to death. It is no surprise, that if the story is true (and not an urban myth), that Amnesty balked at the idea. It is a tale of injustice but there are also bigger ideas at work here. It was easier for Victoria’s Secret to use “Lovesick”.

When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?
Nicodemus came at night so he wouldn’t be seen by men
Saying, “Master, tell me why a man must be born again”
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?

It is not a song  for someone who is looking for a Bob Dylan song rich in metaphor or simile. Rather its vocal style echoes the mannerisms of the black gospel of the pentecostal church and it comes to a conclusion that challenges us all:

When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
He said, “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth”
Did they know right then and there what the power was worth?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?

Dylan’s hero, it seems, is the one to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth. It makes sense that some of those other that he mentioned in that talk to the Australian audience on “Hard to Handle” meant nothing to him by comparison.

Surprisingly, giving his commendation of the song this month, Bob has not performed it live in 15 years. My guess is the fact that he doesn’t tour with female backing singers these days makes other songs an easier fit into his current musical stylings (for example, amongst his gospel songs Saving Grace).

If we are to be left in any doubt as to what things fill Dylan’s mind when he is relaxing (besides Lucille Ball) the conversation about film also sheds some light. Mr Flanagan mentions that it is hard to hear “As Time Goes By”, which Mr Dylan covers on the second disc of Triplicate, without thinking of “Casablanca”. Are their movies which have inspired your songs? he asks.

Dylan mentions five. They can perhaps be divided into two groups rather than the obvious three. I would suggest that the first group would include “King of Kings” and “The Robe” but also more surprisingly “Picnic“.

One of his choices, “King of Kings” is fairly obvious. Cinematically, it is the equivalent of Dylan’s musical choice: “In the Garden”. It is a straightforward telling of the story of Jesus from birth to resurrection. But also it grasps with both hands the larger than life tendencies of the American standards that Dylan’s has embraced in recent recordings. This is Hollywood’s Jesus but it tells the old, old story.

Second is “The Robe“. Again, Hollywood of a certain era at its best but The Robe centres in on a man who is driven, first, to great distraction and then to great contentment by the revelation of Jesus that he has received. In another era, this could be the story of Dylan himself over the last 40 years – unable to rid himself of the troubling presence of Jesus, even if he should wish to.

Third, in this group, I would put a much more secular film which Dylan chooses: “Picnic” . Starring William Holden and Kim Novak, this 1955 film tells the story of a man (Holden) who disturbs the comfortable life of everyone he comes into contact with. Far from a religious tale, the central idea might in some ways be seen as a messianic parable.

He also chooses “Samson and Delilah“, his third Biblical epic, this time form the Old Testament and with Cecil B. DeMille and Victor Mature to root it right in the middle of the Hollywood tradition. Now, Samson’s tale is the story of one of the great judges of Israel, called to serve God and given spiritual gifts to help him achieve this but torn by his desire for women. Again, it is not hard to see Mr Dylan’s own life story in this and it recalls his discussion of King David, Bathsheba and a certain TV evangelist in his memoirs volume, Chronicles.

Not a Biblical film by any means but again the story of a man with charisma and great gifts tempted away from good by lust, is the final choice of film Dylan makes. This time the lust that leads away from good is not for a woman but for power and the film is Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd“.

Kazan once said:

“The writer, when he is also an artist, is someone who admits what others don’t dare reveal.”

And this seems to be true of Dylan as much as anyone else of recent times. There is much else in this current interview that will spark imaginations but I wanted to highlight some things that might otherwise fade into the background.

I hope to some degree I have achieved that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.