everything you ever wanted to know about nothing at all...

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Every time I pass that way, I always hear my name...

Great Dylan albums tend to end in a way that signals towards the direction of the next album. It Ain't Me, Babe ends Another Side of Bob Dylan & warns that he was not merely a protest singer leading any kind of movement, & by the time Bringing It All Back Home came out, all those protest songs the folkies loved were gone. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue puts the final nail in the coffin of Bob Dylan's solo acoustic career & by the time Highway 61 Revisited came out, the solo acoustic songs were gone. Desolation Row, the last song from Highway 61 Revisited hints at the surrealism that could be found on Blonde on Blonde. Blonde on Blonde ends with the marathon Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, an ode to his new wife & a life off the road that would characterize his next eight years living the simple life & raising a family. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight closes out John Wesley Harding but sounds like it could be on the country album that follows it, Nashville Skyline.

Street Legal ends with a searching song, Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat). The song on the surface sounds like he's searching for a woman, but the song suggests the search for the woman is only a cover up for what the singer's (I say the singer, because we fall into the trap of assuming that a songwriter is always writing in first person) really searching for. With lines like "if you don't believe there's a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars" it sounds like the gospel is on his mind. He spent his next three albums singing the gospel.

Slow Train Coming, Saved & Shot of Love continue to amaze & confuse me ten years or so after hearing them for the first time. It's a strange intersection between the Christian faith I've grown up with my whole life & my favorite songwriter/performer who was always been a figure of rebellion. The move angered many of his fans in the same way he did when he plugged in an electric guitar 14 years prior. The concerts around this time had hostile audiences expecting to hear old songs that didn't have anything to do with Jesus & Dylan didn't give them what they wanted. Often he would respond to heckling with mini-sermons in between songs.

The first of these albums, Slow Train Coming, has some wonderful songs, but Dylan falls into the trap of being wronged by someone. I hear the same angry dismissive attitude of Positively Fourth Street, where the singer rejects others as being on the wrong side. It hardly meshes with the joy of being born again. There are also some odd & some might say racist lines about sheiks wearing nose rings. Even the song with the nicest sentiment, "I Believe in You", has an us vs. them quality to it, chastising family & friends for not understanding why the singer believes in his Savior.

The next album, Saved, however, seems to let go of the anger. The greatest example of this is "What Can I Do For You" where the singer admits he owes everything to his creator & finally gives his creator the best harmonica solo he possibly can. Saved was panned by critics & fans alike, but it's my favorite of the three gospel albums, both in the sound & in the lyrics. The live versions of these songs from that time are even better. There is a surrender in these songs, described best in the song "Saving Grace".

The wicked know no peace and you just can’t fake it
There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it
By the saving grace that’s over me

Shot of Love is an incredibly uneven album, both in content & in quality. Some of the songs speak of faith, others like Lenny Bruce go back to secular concerns. Around this time, Dylan began to add his old songs into his r'epertoire, with his old songs benefiting from a gospel sound.

This brings us back to transitions. Shot of Love ends with the beautiful Every Grain of Sand, a song that perhaps signals a new sound & a new direction for Bob Dylan's music. The song acknowledges that despite the fire & spirit of some of his earlier songs, there is some doubt that goes along with his newfound faith & perhaps hints at him moving away from it, depending on the last line, but I'll get to that later.

"When the pool of tears beneath my feet floods every newborn seed." This sounds like every newborn seed of faith washed away by one's own sorrow or doubt. I like the honesty in this song. We Christians have a way of only showing others our best side, especially if we can make ourselves look better before others. There's a line from the song Precious Angel off the Slow Train Coming album where he says "you either got faith or you got unbelief & there ain't no neutral ground". That sounds more confident than he sounds here in Every Grain of Sand. To admit doubt is to admit your own humanity, even if it makes you look weak in your faith. You have to appreciate the sincerity.

The song hints at Matthew 10:29-31. "29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.[b] 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

It also hints at that Footprints poem where someone is asking God about a dream they had walking along the beach. There are two footprints symbolizing the author walking with God, & during the hard times there are only one set of footprints. The author assumes that God left him during the hard times, but God tells him that he was being carried by God.

"I hear the ancient footprints like a motion of the sea. Sometimes I look & there's someone there, sometimes I look & someone's there, other times it's only me."

Back to the end the song, that could possibly effect the entire meaning of the song. Here we have the most significant lyric change of Bob Dylan's career. The album version ends cynically with "I'm hanging in the balance of the reality of man". "The reality of man" sounds to me like we are all stuck here with a puddle of tears searching for something that may or may not be there. Every live version of the song I've ever heard (which is quite a few), however, he ends the song more hopefully, "I'm hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan". Never before has a song's meaning changed so much with one lyric change. It hints that maybe those footprints were God's after all. This just goes to show you Dylan's power as a songwriter, but part of me wonders if this change is just another trick in his bag.

After Every Grain of Sand, after Shot of Love, Bob Dylan's music transitioned to a different direction, & never again did he write songs explicitly about his faith. He would continue to sing many of his gospel songs in concert, even to this day, none being performed consistently as good as Every Grain of Sand, always sung with the "perfect finished plan" ending. I've seen this song performed a couple different times in person, & it's always the highlight of the show, & I know it wouldn't be if it were sung in it's original form. Never before have I taken a song so personally. There's a question in there that every Christian must answer for themselves, or better yet, to allow God to reveal to them. For me, I choose to hear that we're hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan.

In the time of my confession,
in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet
flood every newborn seed
There's a dyin' voice within me
reaching out somewhere,
Toiling in the danger and in
the morals of despair.

Don't have the inclination to
look back on any mistake,
Like Cain,
I now behold this chain of events
that I must break.
In the fury of the moment
I can see the Master's hand
In every leaf that trembles,
in every grain of sand.

Oh, the flowers of indulgence
and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals,
they have choked the breath
of conscience and good cheer.
The sun beat down upon the steps
of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness
and the memory of decay.

I gaze into the doorway of
temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way
I always hear my name.
Then onward in my journey
I come to understand
That every hair is numbered
like every grain of sand.

I have gone from rags to riches
in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream,
in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness
fading into space,
In the broken mirror of innocence
on each forgotten face.

I hear the ancient footsteps like
the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there,
other times it's only me.
I am hanging in the balance
of a perfect finished plan
Like every sparrow falling,
like every grain of sand.

Five Favorite Songs of the Day

Gettin' By-Jackie Greene

Beyond Here Lies Nothing-Bob Dylan, Together Through Life

James River Blues-Old Crow Medicine Show

Every Grain of Sand-Bob Dylan, Grand Rapids 2001

Early Morning Raid-Ian & Sylvia

Happy Wednesday, friends...


Sunday, May 08, 2011

There's a Song My Mama Sang

It always amazes me when I come home from work every day, when Christie's been taking care of Lillian all day long, she is still smiling at her & laughing with her the same way as if she hadn't seen her in days. The amount of love Lillian receives from her mother is over abundant. Lillian is easy to love, most of the time, but even when she isn't Christie is patient & her love doesn't cease. I know she gets this from her mother & her grandmothers. My sister's got the same example from my mother & from Grandma & Oma. I've been blessed with some wonderful mothers. Let's all say a prayer for those girls who haven't been shown the same example, because some day they'll be mothers too.

Five Favorite Songs of the Day

Sing Me Back Home-Merle Haggard

This Land is Your Land-Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Troublesome Houses-Bonnie "Prince" Billy & the Cairo Gang

I'll Be Your Mirror-The Velvet Underground

Granny-Vic Chesnutt

Happy Sunday, friends...


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Help of the Helpless

What keeps me coming back to the record store is the idea that inside each neatly wrapped disc or piece of vinyl might be some little secret that you'd never heard before. That secret might say any kind of truth, any kind of blurring of the truth, a flat out lie or any tall tale that might illuminate the world you live in. It might tell you something about a world somebody else lives in or a world that is to come. You either connect with a song or you don't, & even if you don't connect with it, it can still have a good beat with some nice harmonies. When you do connect with a song, it becomes a part of you, changes the way you see things. It reveals something new to you almost every time you hear it.

A good song is like a well pitched baseball game, you have to be paying close attention to the subtleties & nuances of the game, or it will be boring to you. It's also like a marriage, a performer can be giving it his or her all but if the listener isn't giving it their all the two of them might as well quit each other. A good song has many layers, it might mean something to one listener & something completely different to another. The way a lyrical phrase is turned can affect the meaning, making it completely different from the meaning on the page. Sometimes the meaning of a song is subtle, the performer wants you to draw your own conclusions, other times a performer can be beating you over the head with the meaning.

One song that's been finding me since I was a little kid is the hymn "Abide with Me". I have several recordings of this song (check out Ella Fitzgerald's version) although none quite sound like they did during evening church services sitting next to my mother when I was a kid. A version I've been listening to a lot lately is by Matthew Perryman Jones.

A simple definition of the word "abide" would be to stay with someone or something, but it means a whole lot more than that. To stay with someone can be rather passive, someone can stay with someone else for a lack of a better place to go. To abide, though, requires a persistence to remain with someone or something, even though the conventional wisdom is to leave. To abide with someone is not a pleasant experience. Think of two people holding on to each other while falling from an airplane. It's easier to let go than it is to hold on. What a perfect metaphor, God holding on to somebody that most people would say isn't worth holding on to when it would be easier for Him to let go.

Consider the lyric, "I need Thy presence every passing hour". The way my brain works when I hear this line is I think of a really hard time that I made it through, when I may have prayed for help. This is exactly the opposite of the truth that this song gets to. The inference I make when I think this way is that all the other hours I made it on my own. Every passing hour doesn't mean when I think I need "Thy presence" the most, it means every passing hour, regardless of how easy or hard, jubilant or depressing, exciting or mundane that hour may be.

This leads to the center of the song. A great song for me always has a center, one singular line that the rest of the song hinges upon. The rest of the lyrics are the background & the d'enouement. You have to have a problem if you need a solution, & the problem in this song is the line "thou hast not left me, though I've oft left thee". The reason I say this song has been finding me since I was a little kid, is that I don't think I choose to listen to it because it's got a good beat & some nice harmonies. It's not even up to me when I hear it. I used to think "though I've oft left thee" meant that there were times in my life in the past when I've strayed from God. When I hear it now, I realize that every day I stray from God, & every day he doesn't leave me. Every day He abides, makes a conscious effort to stay by my side, even when I give Him no reason to.

Five Favorite Songs of the Day

Abide With Me-Matthew Perryman Jones

Helpless-Neil Young with The Band

Go Folks Go-Bonnie "Prince" Billy & the Cairo Gang

Up on a Mountain-The Welcome Wagon

Lord I'm Discouraged-Charley Patton

Happy Sunday, friends...


Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Back is Soft but the Seat is Hard, Why Can't They Get it Right?

I haven't been to our church in a few weeks as a result of Christmas parties & work. What I like about our church is that I always leave with a clear understanding of what it takes to be a Christian.

Last summer on a Saturday I was at a party, & I was talking to some people who I didn't know very well, & everyone was talking about what they were doing the next day. They asked me what I was doing & I told them I was going to church & whatever else I was doing. This lady, most likely in her late thirties with a couple of kids, said something to the effect that if she ever stepped in church the place would probably burn down. I missed a good opportunity to witness to her, mostly because I always feel like some sort of salesman. I don't like it when people try to sell me something, so why would anyone want me to sell them something. That's a subject for another day.

If I were to take a poll of people who claim to be Christians about why they don't go to church, I think the majority of people would fall into two categories, or a combination both.

The most common reason would be apathy. I think most people who don't go to church are in a habit of not going to church, & we humans have a hard time of breaking habits, especially when we don't have a compelling reason to do so. We may not think we can come up with a compelling reason, but the answer to this problem can be found in Isaiah 6:8, or in one of my favorite hymns, "Here I Am, Oh Lord, Send Me." "If you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say He died for us all."

The second reason is the same reason that most likely kept the lady at the party from going to church. Many people feel they don't belong at church, that church is for the high & mighty, the people who have it all together. This couldn't be farther from the truth. I like to imagine how much different church would look if it were filled with prostitutes, drug addicts, drunks, thieves & murderers. Would these people be embraced during that always awkward time of greeting at the beginning of the service, or would most people stick their nose up at them & look the other way? I know what my first inclination would be. But consider how much more powerful the message of Jesus' forgiveness would be to people who walk into church thinking they don't belong there but are welcomed once they are there.

Us regular church attenders, whether we are willing to admit it or not, think we have it all together because we are there at church every Sunday. Our sins are no less sinful than the prostitute or the murderer in God's eyes. The two biggest blocks to salvation are the thoughts that I don't need Jesus Christ because I'm such a good person or thinking that Jesus Christ can't & won't forgive someone like me. Which thought is easier to get rid of? Either we have to get our hyper-inflated egos out of the way and/or we need to get the weight of our sins off our shoulders. The good news is that Jesus took care of both of them on the cross, all we need to do is accept it.

Five Favorite Songs of the Day

Late for Church-The Drive By Truckers "All that hollerin' makes me wonder, does a whispered prayer get heard?"

The Wild Hunt-The Tallest Man on Earth

Here I Am, Oh Lord, Send Me-Mississippi John Hurt

Watch Me Fall-Uncle Tupelo

Wall of Death-Richard Thompson

Happy Sunday, friends, no matter what you're doing...


Saturday, January 01, 2011

Save all of your light for those who can't sleep at night.

Every year I tell myself I'm not going to watch the ball drop. This year I thought I wasn't going to even stay up until midnight, but we had some friends over & we were having a good time so I did. If there's one thing that makes me sad is watching all of those people in the cold in Times Square & wondering if they are getting what they want out of life. I don't know that they'll find it wearing one of those hats and the glasses that say the year. Then there's poor old Dick Clark who gets trotted out there like a robot every year, all made up to look like he's perpetually 50 years old, all to hold on to some preconceived notion of what New Year's Eve should look like. The wee hours of the morning make me sad, too. I'd much rather get up at 3 in the morning than stay up until 3. It just feels unnatural, I think God made the day the way he did for a reason. There's enough darkness in the world, why make it any darker by sleeping through the best hours of the day?

I tell you what doesn't make me sad, though, is spending 2011 with the best little family I can imagine. A toast to Christie, Lillian & little Winston doggie. Lillian even gave us a couple smiles this morning, it's going to be a good year.

Five favorite songs of the day

Souvenirs-John Prine

I'm New Here-Gil Scott Herron

Empty Hearts-Josh Ritter

Compared to What?-John Legend & the Roots

This Year-The Mountain Goats

Happy 2011, friends...


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About Me

Grand Haven, Michigan
the sun shines on a dog's ass every now & then...