Maybe Bob Dylan is a prophet after all. On stage in Omaha back on Jan. 25, 1980, Dylan, in the midst of fierce controversy over having become a Christian, said, “Years ago they…said I was a prophet. I used to say, ‘No, I’m not a prophet.’ They’d say: ‘Yes you are, you’re a prophet.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not me.’ They used to say: ‘You sure are a prophet.’ They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, ‘Bob Dylan’s no prophet.’ They just can’t handle it.” But some contemporary resonances in a couple of those Christian songs suggest that the old folkie was on to something.
Dylan’s three explicitly Christian albums, Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981) were derided by critics at the time. Rock music critics then and now are generally secular Leftists and dope-smoking hippies with scant regard for religious fervor, and even today these albums are considered minor parts of the Nobel laureate’s canon. But Slow Train Coming contains some striking passages — not passages that were striking in 1979, but passages that are striking in 2023.
Consider, for example, “When You Gonna Wake Up?” This song became a particular object of Leftist ire with its suggestion that Dylan had not only become a Christian, but a right-wing one at that: “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts / Karl Marx has got you by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots.” Well, yeah, that’s right, Bob, and even more so in 2023 than in 1979. Kissinger makes Old Joe Biden look as if he is in the bloom of youth; he’s 99 years old and still pontificating on foreign policy, with his realpolitik perspective firmly ensconced in the State Department.
The same song contains this uncanny foreshadowing of the age of Fauci and Birx: “You got innocent men in jail, your insane asylums are filled / You got unrighteous doctors dealing drugs that’ll never cure your ills.” Yeah, and banning the drugs that would actually cure your ills.
“When You Gonna Wake Up?” also contains this line: “Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools / You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules.” Now here, you gotta wonder. Adulterers in churches? We had those in 1979. Jimmy Swaggart’s prostitution scandal was still nine years off when Slow Train Coming came out, but no one who heard the album thought Dylan was way off base about that.
The “pornography in the schools” line, however, was another thing altogether. In 1979, the idea that there would be pornography in the schools, other than a girlie magazine snuck in by some unruly boy, was beyond inconceivable. Fast forward 44 years, however, and we have the husband of the homosexual secretary of Transportation furious that a state authority is actually acting to remove pornography from the schools.
The president of the United States, meanwhile, appears to be the head of a crime family that has been benefiting to the tune of millions of dollars from shady business dealings around the world. “Gangsters in power,” eh, Bob? And “lawbreakers making the rules” puts me in mind these days of the Jan. 6 Committee pursuing its witch hunt even when it knew that its entire “insurrection” narrative was a hoax.
Then there is this line from the song “When He Returns”: “Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask.” In the context of the song, he is calling upon the listener to renounce his arrogance and self-obsession, abandon his pretense, phoniness, and hypocrisy, and turn to God. But the bit about the mask has a new resonance in this age of COVID hysteria.
Of course, there is no way that Dylan foresaw the pandemic and mask madness, and he has a preoccupation with masks anyway; he wears one in the opening scene of his disastrous, appalling, and delightful four-hour movie from 1978, Renaldo and Clara, and his underrated dark comedy movie from 2003 is entitled Masked and Anonymous. Still, the lyric has a new and unintended resonance: don’t rely on masks and the CDC and Fauci; what ails you is far deeper than COVID, and the cure is not a natural one that some doctor can prescribe.
Bob Dylan, of course, couldn’t possibly have really foreseen any of this. But one of the hallmarks of great art is that it does express permanent truths about the human condition. It looks as if Slow Train Coming did just that, more perceptively and precisely than anyone realized at the time.