Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bob and Larry

By Nick
Not this Bob and Larry
 Bob Dylan is one of the most influential singers and songwriters of our time. His influence has spawned countless imitators such as Connor Oberst, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan.
There is not one Bob Dylan. There are many Bob Dylans. There is the 60s Greenwhich Village Folk Scene Dylan, the Electric Dylan, The Nashville Skyline Dylan, The 70s Leisure Suit Dylan, The Artiste Auteur Dylan, the 80s Dylan (“Jokerman” sounds like a lost cut from the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack.) The 90s Comeback Dylan, the Living Legend Dylan, and the World-Weary Troubadour Dylan. (Coming soon: Retirement Home Dylan.) In the movie I’m Not There, a really weird Dylan biopic that I have not watched, he is played by 6 different actors, including a woman. (I pity any woman ugly enough to pass for Bob Dylan.)

One phase that many people don’t know about or dismiss is the Saved Dylan. From 1979 through 1981 Dylan was a born-again Christian and recorded two Christian-themed albums. But unlike many secular artists who become Christian and then make lame music for Jesus, Bob Dylan didn’t dumb down his songwriting when he became a believer. You won’t find Jesus-is-my-girlfriend ballads on Saved and Slow Train Comin’. Instead, Dylan takes his style and Christianizes it, with good results. Unlike many Christian rock artists of today, his songs deal with theological concepts like covenants and sanctification. And not only did Dylan have good Christian lyrics, he backed it up with good Christian music. The music on Dylan’s Christian albums sounds like Gospel cranked up to 11. Listening to “Solid Rock“ or “Saved“ might give you the impression that it would be enjoyable to be a Christian. I’m sorry, but you can’t do the praise hand to anything on Air1.

Dylan and Gospel: an unlikely Combination

When Dylan was a Christian he had a brief acquaintance with Larry Norman. Larry Norman is often thought of as the first Christian rock artist. This is not true: the first Christian rock band was David and the Five Smooth Stones. Norman’s music seems babyishly tame today compared to Air1 staples like Skillet or Flyleaf (How come Christian bands can’t come up with cool names?), but in his day he was criticized for playing rock with a Christian message. He was also known as the Christian answer to Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Larry’s music was very much worldview music. He took his Christian worldview and applied it to different areas of life. For example, in “I Am The Six O’Clock News,” he criticized the media’s reluctance to take a moral stand on what it reported, and the way it transformed tragedy into entertainment. Try finding anything of that depth on Christian radio. Another personal favorite is “Christmastime”, with lyrics like “I gotta buy a present can’t remember who it’s for/but I’ll see you in an hour when I get back from the store.” Larry seems to have anticipated The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” by several years. And finally, there’s “Baroquen Spirits,” a tale of lost love from the point of view of someone living in the 1500s. Not your average subject for a rock and roll song.

Serious Songs With Larry
Larry was a good songwriter, but he was often hampered by his pre-millennial theology. One of his best known songs is “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” a somewhat melodramatic 70s ballad about the Rapture. Regardless of whether you agree with its lyrics or not, it’s still a gorgeous song, and we can be glad that even though Larry believed premillenially, he acted postmillenially.

Why Should The Devil Have all the Good Music?
Secondary doctrine aside, both Bob Dylan and Larry Norman reached back to the roots of rock music: gospel. Rock music’s heritage is black and white gospel music of the south. Jerry Lee Lewis used to crawl up underneath a black church with his cousins (some kids named Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart.) and play air piano. Elvis was briefly a member of the Blackwood Brothers and sang Gospel music throughout his entire career. Little Richard started out in church (?) and briefly became a minister. Don’t forget Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the highly influential guitarist. Even the AC/DC hit “Highway To Hell” sounds like a Gospel song gone wrong.
Yet today’s Christian rock scene ignores the gospel roots of rock music and instead gives us bland soundalike pop acts and metrosexual metal bands. For those of us who haven’t had frontal lobotomies, there’s very little to choose from that has both good music and good lyrics. If you’re looking for solid Christian rock music, you can do no better than to start with Larry Norman and Bob Dylan’s Christian albums.
And no discussion of Bob Dylan's Christian Albums could be complete without mentioning the awesome tribute Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, which features covers of Dylan's Christian songs by great artists like Shirley Caesar, Aaron Neville, Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Sounds of Blackness.

Gospel Albums by Dylan: Saved!
                                       Slow Train Comin'
                                       Shot Of Love (Don't have this one.)
Larry Norman's Trilogy: Only Visiting This Planet
                                     So Long Ago the Garden
                                     In Another Land



  1. "From 1979 through 1981 Dylan was a born-again Christian and recorded two Christian-themed albums." Just curious, if Dylan was a Christian frm 79-81, what was he afterwards?

    David L.

  2. I don't know, and I don't think Dylan himself quite knows either.

    Knick H.