'Can’t Let Go No More'
On April 5th 2002, in Stockholm, Bob Dylan chose to perform his first ‘Solid Rock’ since November 21st 1981. About five weeks later, fifteen European audiences had been presented with this rocking gem. In May my wife Catina and I had the pleasure to cross the Irish Sea in order to attend all the eight British concerts at the end of this fine European tour, thus seeing Dylan perform ‘Solid Rock’ three times, in Cardiff, in Newcastle, and in London; and solid rock indeed it was, every time. In August ‘Solid Rock’ was performed twice, once in the US, and once in Canada.
Some probably have asked themselves: Why does Dylan sing a song like this, with a fervour reminiscent of his early Gospel tours where this bold confession had its original setting? Why does Dylan in 2002 pull out these lyrics from 1979 about a lasting relationship with Jesus Christ, saying that for him this Jesus had been chastised, hated, and rejected? Why does he tell us that he won’t let go no more of this ‘Solid Rock’ he keeps hanging on to?
Some might be quick to answer that he is not serious at all in doing so. He might be faking it, detached from his own lyrics; maybe even being a hypocrite, pretending to be someone he is not. Some might say that he is just singing the song for the fun of it, not at all intending to convey any biblical truth, let alone to share any information about his abiding faith. Well, I don ’t think so!
Having followed Dylan’s set lists very closely for some time now, as well as the content of the lyrics presented on stage, it was a bit surprising to see this particular choice after all these years, because Dylan decided to use the words of one of his own songs to communicate the state of his personal belief to his audience. But Dylan has conveyed messages of this sort to his audiences throughout recent years, and it is my contention that he does this intentionally, both with his choice of particular songs on some nights and with several juxtapositions of certain thought-provoking songs.
When commenting on a specific part of Dylan's recent performance repertoire, it is also possible to read a lot between the lines of numerous lyrics. Those lyrics would be very well compatible with the biblical viewpoints clearly conveyed in those performances I would like to spotlight, as I focus on the more unambiguous lyrics of certain cover songs and certain Dylan songs performed from February 1999 to September 2002.
Winston Watson told me in June 1996, during a very nice chat outside the Old Opera House in Frankfurt, that he would love to play ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ while a part of Dylan’s band. Sadly he never got to play it, as that summer tour was his last one as Dylan’s drummer. But even before Dylan reintroduced ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ into his set in June 1998, occasional performances of ‘I Believe in You’ (two of which my wife and I had witnessed in Germany, in Cologne 1994 and Dortmund 1995), of ‘In the Garden’, and of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ gave us reason to believe that Dylan had not renounced the faith he embraced during that time period in which he wrote these songs, and in which I started to listen to his music.
But Dylan did, after almost seven years, reintroduce ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ into his set, and before he began opening his concerts with an acoustic set in April 1999, he would start more than another fifty shows within nine months with this extremely challenging song. Often he would make up new lyrics for the verses, something he had already done before. The rather general yet challenging statement of the chorus was however the most obvious Christian Dylan lyric recurring on stage. In November 1998 ‘I Believe in You’ (a very personal song, if understood to be addressed to God) had one rare appearance, which would be the only one between 1996 and 2002. ‘In the Garden’ (which clearly speaks about Jesus Christ, including his resurrection) had not been performed since 1996 as well, and would not show up until spring 2001 (once only) and spring 2002 (also once).
However, in February 1999 Dylan chose to sing two very old hymns, in versions resembling the ones recorded by the Stanley Brothers. The first was ‘Rock of Ages’, which was performed once that month, two more times the following November, and seven times in spring 2000. The other hymn, ‘Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior’ was performed twice that month and three more times as well in spring 2000. This song appeared since during several sound checks, both in July 2000 and April 2001, and even as late as August 2002, indicating Dylan’s continuing consideration of its inclusion in the set.
‘While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyes shall close in death, when I rise to worlds unknown, and behold Thee on Thy throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee’
‘Let me at Thy throne of mercy find a sweet relief, kneeling there in deep contrition, help my unbelief. Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry, while on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by’
Given the personal history of his relationship with this ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Gentle Savior’, Dylan would probably not have sung lyrics like these, especially in the passionate way he did, if he had totally disentangled himself from the meaning of them. Listening to his humble cry in the words written by a blind lady poet from the nineteenth century, I heard the most vulnerable Dylan since ‘When He Returns’ and ‘What Can I Do For You?’ decades earlier. And it sure sounded like this ‘Solid Rock’ he sang about back then remained both his major place of refuge while he draws this fleeting breath, and the place he is ‘ready to go’ to when his eyes shall close in death.
1999 also saw the introduction of three new openers, which Dylan probably would not have kept on using if the lyrics did not have a very personal meaning to him. As of September 2002, 30 shows have started with ‘Somebody Touched Me’, 38 concerts began with ‘Hallelujah, I’m Ready To Go’, and 59 times Dylan has walked on stage and opened with ‘I Am The Man Thomas’.
‘Somebody Touched Me’ my wife and I witnessed twice on consecutive Sundays in September 2000, in Glasgow and at the first Portsmouth show. The Portsmouth version, which is as good as it gets, later appeared as the opening track on the officially released Japanese album Bob Dylan Live 1961-2000 - Thirty-nine years of great concert performances, which also was sold in European record stores.
‘Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me. Must've been the hand of the Lord. While I was praying, somebody touched me. Must've been the hand of the Lord. It was on a Sunday, somebody touched me. Must've been the hand of the Lord. Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me. Must've been the hand of the Lord.’
These simple yet powerful lyrics convey an equally simple yet powerful truth, which many a struggling believer has experienced. It is not up to the believer, but up to God to bless and heal with the touch of His hand, which alone imparts lasting glory. After Dylan was ‘Saved’, he told us that ‘by His hand I’ve been delivered’, and this hand still keeps and sustains the singer, who says that he ‘can see the Master’s hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand’.
‘Hallelujah, I ’m Ready To Go’ we saw three times in September 2000, in Aberdeen, in Cardiff, and at the second Portsmouth show.
‘Dark was the night, not a star was in sight, on a highway heading down below, I let my Savior in, and he saved my soul from sin, Hallelujah, I'm ready to go. Hallelujah, I'm ready, I can hear the voices singing soft and low, I'm ready, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, I'm ready to go. Sinner don't wait before it's too late. He's a wonderful Savior to know. Well, I fell on my knees, and he answered my pleas, Hallelujah, I'm ready to go.’
When opening a concert with these lyrics, Dylan chooses to point directly toward his wonderful Savior, telling his audience openly that his soul is ‘saved’, and that he is ‘ready to go’. He seems certain there is not much time left for the sinner ‘on the highway heading down below’. But his Savior still answers the pleas and helps the unbelief of everyone kneeling in deep contrition at the throne of mercy. For Dylan it seems to be the only place where this sweet relief is to be found. And whoever has found it can truly say: ‘I'm ready, Hallelujah’!
‘I Am The Man Thomas’ we have seen six times so far; three times in September 2000, at first the European debut in Dublin, and then both in Birmingham and in Sheffield; and then again in May 2002, when we saw Dylan open three concerts with this challenging song, at first in Brighton, and then both London shows one week later.
‘I am the Man Thomas, I am the Man. Look at these nail scars I carry in my hand. They drove me up the hill … They made me carry the cross … They crowned my head with thorns … They nailed me to the cross … They pierced me in the side … I died on the cross … They buried me in the tomb … In three days I rose … I am the Man Thomas, I am the Man. Look at these nail scars I carry in my hand.’
This is the first song since ‘Rise Again’ (performed 12 times in 1980, and once in 1981), in which Dylan speaks in the first person as Jesus. Both songs are very overt statements about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If ‘these nail scars’ didn’t mean a lot to Dylan these days, he probably would not keep on opening so many concerts in 2002 with this song (25 times already from February to August), telling us the familiar story written down in the Gospel of John. Thomas believed after he had seen his risen Lord. Maybe Dylan intends to remind us that blessed are those (on stage or in the audience) who do not see and yet believe.
In August 2002 Dylan introduced the latest gospel cover song into his song repertoire, opening six North American shows with ‘A Voice From On High’, telling his audiences in very unambiguous words about his lasting relationship to his Lord who died on that old rugged cross.
‘The Saviour has paid a great price for me. He died on the hill so that I should go free. And I'll follow his footsteps up the narrow way, and be ready to meet him when he calls on that day. I hear a voice calling, it must be our Lord. He's calling from heaven on high. I hear a voice calling, I've gained the reward, in the land where we never shall die. He died on the cross, that old rugged cross, so we should be saved in our sins and not lost. And I'll follow his footsteps up the narrow way, and be ready to meet him when he calls on that day.’
‘This World Can ’t Stand Long’, another challenging cover song, was also introduced in 1999, at the last show of the year, and it has been performed in 37 shows until September 2002, usually as the last song of the first acoustic set. In September 2000 my wife and I were among those lucky ones who witnessed the first and so far only European performance of this song, in Glasgow, Scotland.
‘This world it can't stand long. Be ready, don't wait too late. We should know it can't stand long, for it is too full of hate … For a long time this world has stood, gets more wicked every day. The good maker, who created it, surely won't let it stand this way … This world has been destroyed before, ‘cause it was too full of sin, for that very reason it's going to be destroyed again … If we only give our hearts to God, let him lead us by the hand, nothing in this world to fear, He'll lead you across the burning sand.’
Dylan also seems deeply convinced of the sombre message he tries to convey with this song about this world ‘too full of sin’, which ‘gets more wicked every day’, as he warns his listeners to ‘be ready, don't wait too late’. But he also seems confident that the same hand that led him through seas most severe will kindly assist him home.
From a Christian point of view, this hand of God, with which He would take the believer by the hand, and lead him beyond the burning sand, is the same nail-scarred hand Dylan is pointing out when performing ‘I Am The Man Thomas’. It is the same hand that would ever keep on touching the trusting believer, prompting him to shout ‘Glory, glory, glory’.
Of course, all these interpretations of these lyrics only make sense assuming that Dylan believes what he sings when covering these old songs, and that he intends to convey a message to his audiences with them. The last song mentioned, ‘This World Can ’t Stand Long’, has a very apocalyptic tone to it, which can also be found in both old and new Dylan songs. In recent performances of old songs like ‘A Hard Rain ’s a-Gonna Fall’ or ‘Down in the Flood’ I always hear this apocalyptic tone, as well as in those rare performances of ‘God Knows’ (with its blunt statement ‘…gonna be no more water but fire next time’) or in those not so rare performances of two of his finest masterpieces, ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’ (‘… before they close the door’) and ‘Not Dark Yet’ (‘… but it ’s getting there’).
‘Not Dark Yet’ probably has several layers of meaning, but one of them clearly conveys an important part of Dylan’s belief in the last line of each verse: ‘It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.’ There will definitely be an end to this ‘world full of lies’ and there is little time left until then, for already the ‘shadows are falling’. The two simple words ‘not ... yet’ however indicate that ‘saving grace’ is still available, and the cover songs mentioned above leave no doubt where the singer believes this grace to be found. Dylan recommends his audience to ‘look at these nail scars’ of his ‘wonderful Savior’ and to ‘kneel in deep contrition’ ‘at the throne of mercy’.
‘Look up, look up, seek your Maker, ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn’, the last line of the last verse from ‘Sugar Baby’, conveys the same message. It is also a perfect example of Dylan taking words from another song, which convey a biblical thought, and incorporating them into one of his own compositions. Lines like these, as well as the very biblical messages of those cover songs examined above, have been part of many a concert in recent years, and I do believe Dylan includes them for a reason, intending to communicate something very important to him.
In addition to this some of his own Christian songs have been performed here and there; not only the already mentioned ‘I Believe in You’, ‘In the Garden’, and ‘Every Grain of Sand’, but also the rare ‘Man of Peace’ with its grave warning about the craftiness of the father of lies, performed three times on the East Coast of the United States in November 1999, as well as in Newcastle in September 2000, where my wife and I were a part of the audience, two days after I had seen the song already printed out on the cue sheet in Glasgow. The rocking gem ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, which had opened so many shows in 1998 and 1999, also appears once in a while, in different positions in the set, and it shines every time, like the Portsmouth performance in 2000, which was the first one I had seen since 1991. In the summer of 2001 Dylan even chose to perform ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ eleven times within two months.
All these songs mentioned, including the newly reintroduced ‘Solid Rock’ of spring 2002, clearly speak for themselves. But I would also like to spotlight a few examples of the numerous juxtapositions of certain songs, which I do not see as accidental, but as intentional, giving a valid indication about Dylan’s biblical viewpoints. Some of those observations might seem pure speculation to some, while others might share my opinion that Dylan selects his set lists with just such things in mind.
Assuming that Dylan himself is the creator of his ever changing set lists, and that the songs are chosen not at random but deliberately, it is very interesting to see what kind of songs appear together on certain nights, and in what position within the set. For example, when I hear within consecutive songs, ‘If you go down in the flood, it ’s gonna be your fault ... I ’m trying, trying to get to heaven before they close the door’ (as we did in Birmingham 2000, in a show which had already started with ‘I Am The Man Thomas’), I wonder if Dylan did this on purpose. Another most thought-provoking juxtaposition presented several times in consecutive songs was: ‘This world has been destroyed before, because it was too full of sin, for that very reason it's going to be destroyed again. ... Be ready don't wait too late ... If you go down in the flood it's gonna be your own fault ... It's gonna be the meanest flood that anybody's seen.’ Pure coincidence? I don ’t think so.
I wonder how many of those few hundred lucky people who witnessed Dylan’s fine performance in Horsens in May 2000 agreed with his message that night: ‘Hallelujah, I'm ready to go, it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall, sooner or later we all gonna have to serve somebody, I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door.’ When my wife and I saw Dylan at Vicar Street in September 2000, and almost five and a half years after his previous concert in the Republic of Ireland he pulled out ‘Ring Them Bells’ in Dublin’s fair city again (as he did in April 1995), singing the ‘chosen few who will judge the many when the game is through’ verse twice again (as he did in April 1995), I had the strong impression that he probably still believes it.
Another connection of ‘Tryin’ to get to Heaven’ with ‘Hallelujah, I'm ready to go’ struck me as well when I first noticed it. Both songs were performed within the same set several times, not only in Horsens. I wrote in my Cardiff review back in September 2000: ‘The third verse started with “People at the station (sic), waiting for the train.” We all know that the train image is an important one for Dylan. I never saw last night's opener in connection with that, but in hindsight he sang “Hallelujah” like someone who just had been handed a vital train ticket, someone who is “well dressed, waiting on the last train”, the slow train coming, which is picking up speed, as this world can't stand long. People get ready, there's a train a- coming. Hallelujah, I'm ready to go. - Powerful indeed.’ Today I might add: ‘Some trains don't pull no gamblers.’ It is a serious subject Dylan sings about, and actually there might be not much time to gamble, so he keeps on warning: ‘Be ready, don’t wait too late.’
When ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ appears in the same concert with one of the three gospel openers examined above (as in both its 2002 performances in Florida, and several others before that, for example in Portsmouth and in Horsens), I see this as a deliberate statement about his faith on a certain night. No believer is inclined to share his belief all the time, and on some nights Dylan simply stays silent on the subject (as he does in most interviews or press conferences). He alone, and no journalist or audience member, is the one who decides when to share something about his faith, or how much.
So, when during his latest European tour Dylan performs in consecutive shows ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and ‘In the Garden’ (‘Grain’ in Stuttgart and ‘Garden’ in Munich), or ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and ‘I Believe in You’ (‘Grain’ in Oberhausen and ‘Believe’ in Brussels), it is not a coincidence that he does this. When ‘In the Garden’ has its first appearance after almost twelve months, on the night after a concert that had featured ‘Hallelujah, I ’m Ready To Go’, ‘Solid Rock’, and the first ‘Every Grain of Sand’ of the year, it is a very fitting surprise. And when the first show in London is the third concert within a month (after Berlin and Frankfurt) where Dylan performs both ‘I Am The Man Thomas’ and ‘Solid Rock’, thus presenting an audience with two songs about Jesus Christ (one about his death and resurrection, and one stating that for him this Jesus Christ was chastised, hated, and rejected by a world that He created) he probably does this on purpose.
The first ‘Solid Rock’ during the latest North American Tour was performed during the show in Omaha, which had started with ‘A Voice From On High’, so on this occasion Dylan again chose to sing two songs about Jesus. And the second ‘Solid Rock’ in Saskatoon was directly preceded by ‘This World Can’t Stand Long’, which I see as another deliberate juxtaposition: ‘This world it can't stand long ... but I'm hanging on to a Solid Rock made before the foundation of the world.’
I am convinced that Dylan believes what he sings in those songs, and that the biblical viewpoints conveyed on stage are his own. I assume, that Dylan has experienced, like countless other believers, his Lord and Saviour as the Good Shepherd, who cares for His sheep, and who is looking out for them, even when they go astray in their own ways. Dylan did not initiate his relationship with Jesus; it was his Lord who began the good work in him. And it is not Dylan, but his Lord, who will be the one fulfilling his promise to be faithful and complete this good work.
Dylan keeps on ‘hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan’, just as he keeps on ‘hanging on to a solid rock’. So when Dylan is singing certain songs in recent years, it not only tells me something about him and his never ending belief. It also tells me something about the one he keeps believing in, the one who in His never ending mercy keeps on touching Dylan, and who keeps on prompting him to confess this in concert. I am confident that Dylan's risen Lord will keep on touching him with His nail-scarred hand, and will finally lead him ‘beyond the burning sand’, for Dylan is ‘ready to meet him when he calls on that day’. Jesus Christ, whom Dylan let in, and who saved his soul from sin, remains for Dylan ‘a wonderful Savior to know’, a ‘Solid Rock’ he ‘can ’t let go no more’.