With God (and Socrates
and Augustine) on Our Side
JAMES S. SPIEGEL
The world of Dylan's songs features an endless cast of characters, from one-eyed midgets and jelly-faced women to Willie McTell and Charles Darwin. But the one constant presence— sometimes appearing on stage but usually looming behind the curtain—is God. Prior to 1967, Dylan's references to the divine were scant and mostly playful. His fabled motorcycle accident in Woodstock changed that. This event simultaneously signaled the end of Dylan's beat poet period and introduced a moral-spiritual seriousness to his lyrics that has never waned. If Dylan was always an American cultural prophet, this tag has been more literally applicable since John Wesley Harding. Whether speaking of, to, for, or about God, the post-accident Dylan is consistently God-concerned.
For the most part Dylan's music is colored by faith, rather than obsessed with it. His (in)famous gospel phase, from 1979 to 1981, is an exception, of course. But the self-righteousness and theological dogma of that period eventually settled into the brand of faith that characterizes most believers—a continuing quest to make sense of God and an anxious hope for life beyond the grave. Dylan's once bold proclamations have been tempered by life's fits and storms, but his reliance on God for salvation remains unshaken. Occasionally, Dylan still offers spiritual counsel, as on the closing line of “Love and Theft”: “Look up, look up—seek your Maker—'fore Gabriel blows his horn.” But the attitude is less insistent, the posture more humble.