"I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise, Whom nature's beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes."--Bob Dylan
In a pop music world where issues are seldom addressed and creativity and individuality have been lost, Bob Dylan, who just turned 67, is a refreshing alternative. Like a voice crying in the wilderness, Dylan emerged in the early 1960s to become the conscience of a generation. After an initial self-titled album that failed to chart, he released 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which contained some of his most enduring work. "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Masters of War" gave the protest movement some of its greatest anthems.
Only in his early 20s, Dylan was remarkably mature and able to express ideas and stories of the moment with exceptional strength and brilliance. His songs spoke of an incestuous relationship among authoritarianism, social evils, militarism and materialism and said the solutions to corruption are spiritual. In song after song, Dylan proclaimed the existence of a God who brings judgment, or a "hard rain," on people who perpetrate evil.
Dylan, who clearly articulated political ideas in his music, captivated early audiences. He soaked up cultural influences, only to reconfigure them as he saw fit.
Revealing what would become a penchant for lifelong radical change, however, Dylan decisively broke with the past and abandoned political songwriting as if in midstream. He moved beyond political activism with the release of his first partially "electrified" album, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), which exposed his bitterness that times were not changing as he had expected them to. One song from that album, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," revealed a deep cynicism, lambasting modern materialism's denigration of what was once venerated. Mentioning "flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark," Dylan concluded that very little is held sacred anymore. His work from this point on began to concentrate on the message that dehumanizing forces treat human beings as mere business investments.
Dylan's commercial breakthrough, Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and his next album, Blonde on Blonde (1966), revealed the many different influences on his life and crystallized his new plugged-in sound. With this, Dylan abandoned traditional folk singing and created a new idiom -- and a new pop culture. "Like a Rolling Stone" and subsequent songs introduced lyrics with substance to pop music.
While most of the sixties generation thought that flower power, love and drugs were going to create a new society, Dylan saw the apocalypse approaching. A pivotal song is his 1965 masterpiece "Desolation Row," which cries for humanity to renounce materialism or face destruction and alienation. And in 1967, Dylan produced what some called the first "biblical rock album," John Wesley Harding. In five years, Dylan had undergone a remarkable transformation, from humble folksinger to topical songwriter to one of rock's first shaman figures, only to culminate in a mysterious writer of biblical-inspired parables.
Dylan gave indications of his coming Christian conversion on his album, Blood on the Tracks (1975). In "Idiot Wind," he sings of a "lone soldier on the cross" who finally wins out in the end. And in "Shelter from the Storm," God, who is referred to in the feminine gender, takes Dylan's "crown of thorns" while promising to give him shelter from an impending tumult.
Dylan's 1978 conversion dominated Slow Train Coming (1979). On the first track, he says that whether it's "the devil" or "the Lord," everyone must serve a spiritual entity. And on the reverent and worshipful "When He Returns," Dylan portrays an omnipotent God who knows and sees all. But the apocalyptic tone remained, as in the album's title track "Slow Train," which represents the cumulative judgment of God.
In 1997, Dylan released Time Out of Mind, which won three Grammy Awards, including album of the year, and reestablished Dylan as a leading cultural voice. But as the world celebrated a return to form, Dylan continued to express an ever-increasing notion that the end was drawing near. "Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain," he sang on "Not Dark Yet." "Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain." And: "I've been down on the bottom of a world full of lies. I ain't looking for nothing in anyone's eyes. Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."
These dark lyrics only hinted at what Dylan more directly expressed in a 1995 interview. When asked if he still thought the slow train of judgment was coming, he replied: "When I look ahead now, it's picked up quite a bit of speed. In fact, it's going like a freight train now."
In 2001, Love and Theft hit the shelves. One of the songs, "High Water Everywhere," displayed an eerie prescience. "High water risin', six inches 'bove my head," Dylan warbled in a grisly voice. "Coffins droppin' in the street like balloons made out of lead." And if any doubt remained as to his purpose, "I'm preachin' the Word of God," Dylan sang, drawing on imagery from the Old Testament. "I'm puttin' out your eyes."
Modern Times (2006) established Dylan as the consummate rock poet and once again found the world's foremost biblical songwriter waxing on the fate of man in "When the Deal Goes Down":
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I'll be with you when the deal goes down.
Through Dylan's live performances, music and poetry, he remains relevant and profound. And although he doesn't get the airplay he once did and his albums don't sell as well, he still speaks his brand of truth to power.