Trouble No More

I’ve been listening to the latest entry in Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series, Trouble No More, which catalogs his “born again” years, 1979-1981.  It’s mostly just live versions and alternate takes of the songs from his three born again albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. It’s a pretty limited time frame, not presenting one of Dylan’s most prolific periods (compared to, say, the equally-narrow Basement Tapes era or the early-career Witmark Demos from ’62-’64), and tends to present the same six or seven songs over and over again. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting, worthwhile listen for the Dylan fan.

On the whole, it’s more than a little fascinating listening to these songs. Where the studio versions always seemed a little flat and passionless (ironic, given the subject matter), these live versions come…well, alive. There’s an energy and passion that were definitely absent in the studio versions. Songs like “Precious Angel” and “Solid Rock” sound vital and interesting in a live setting, while songs that were already pretty good — “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Dead Man, Dead Man,” or “Slow Train Comin'” — sound amazing. The band is pretty solid, the backing vocalists are fabulous, and Dylan sounds like a man with conviction, something he was sorely lacking in the studio versions. And this is Dylan, so even though you hear the same song six times in some cases (“Slow Train Comin'” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” both pop up at least six times over the course of the 102 tracks), they often sound drastically different from version to version. This is still Bob Dylan, after all, and he’s always tweaking things and changing it up. The studio version of a Dylan song has always ever been a foundation to build on, not a blueprint that has to be slavishly followed. He changes up time signatures, rhythms, vocal delivery, instrumentation, all in the name of finding the heart of the song. It makes for some fascinating listening.

It’s particularly interesting hearing the few songs from that era that didn’t end up on an album, such as the breezy “Caribbean Wind,” the reggae-tinged “Cover Down, Pray Through,” or the bluesy, chugging “Yonder Comes Sin.” One wonders why these songs were left off the albums in favor of other (in many cases, weaker) songs.

I will admit, 102 tracks is a bit of a slog. I have to listen in smaller chunks (and not just because I really only listen to music on my way to and from work), mostly so I don’t hear two versions of “Slow Train Comin'” on the same drive. Trouble No More does, at least, reframe this part of Dylan’s career, presenting these songs as vital and energetic instead of flat and lifeless. It’s a nice look at such a divisive period.

Confession Time

I was once a Republican.

Now, in my defense, it was 1998, I grew up in Oklahoma, and I was pretty naive and didn’t know much about anything outside of my small town life.

But yeah, for a single midterm election in 1998, I voted Republican.  It was during my first semester of college, and honestly voting in Oklahoma for anyone other than the Republicans on the federal level (or even the state level, most of the time) was an exercise in futility.

But I did it because I was, in that first semester in college, very much a Republican.

I remember the first time my college biology professor mentioned evolution in class.  I had a bit of a tantrum, demanding to know how evolution could work if God existed.  I don’t recall correctly, but the professor was far kinder to me than I deserved.  He didn’t taunt me or belittle my beliefs, though he may have heaved a laborious sigh (this probably wasn’t a common position to come across when you teach science in a small, church-affiliated private university in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas).  He said there was nothing in evolution that contradicted the notion of God or God creating everything.  I wasn’t 100% convinced, but I subsided.

And by the time I came home for Winter Break a couple of months later, I’d be basically unrecognizable as that naive young man.  I’m not saying Republicans are naive, just that I sure was.

I spent the next several years trying to tell myself and those around me that I was a left-leaning moderate, when the reality was that I was tipping so far to the left that I just about fell off that end of the spectrum.

I’m not saying education automatically makes everyone more liberal.  I know plenty of well-educated people who nonetheless remain conservative.  But it’s hard to go through several years of education in the social sciences and not come out of it thinking maybe the government needs to have some compassion for those outside the majority because, let’s face it, the government has spent centuries mistreating those in the minority.

 

tl; dr: College turned me liberal, and I’m super okay with that.

Flash-Fiction Friday #1: Snake Handlers

 

There are basically two types of tent revivals.

First, there’s the hoopin’ an’ hollerin’, hallelujah-callin’ jumped up revivals, where everyone is dancin’ in the aisles and throwin’ their hands up in the air and shoutin’ praises.  There’s lots of singin’ – some of it is even on-key – and folks sharin’ their stories and their joys and their lives.

The other kind is all fire and brimstone, hell and damnation and suffering eternal.  You’re a sinful creature and you rightly belong in the deepest pit of hell for all of eternity.  The preacher wants you to know you’ve done wrong, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do to overcome your depravity.

But they’ve both got the same message, the Good News, capital letters an’ all.  In the good times tent revivals, it’s all about celebrating that fact, reveling in the joy of salvation.  In the darker sort of revivals, it’s the spark of hope, the single lifeline to grab hold of an’ cling like the Devil his-own-self was tryin’ to drag you under into darkness.  But you can only get there if you repent, if you accept your depraved nature and strive to earn that hope you can’t ever possibly earn.

When I was a kid, we had more of the latter kind of revivals than the former.  My daddy wasn’t much for softness, either physically or emotionally.  He’d hide us good when we did wrong – and my daddy could always find things you did wrong, even things you weren’t aware you’d done – and drive us hard even when we were doin’ the right thing.  He drove himself even harder, though, preachin’ as though there was a fire in his belly eatin’ him from the inside out.  He’d shout and holler and accuse, hurl invective and judgment from the pulpit like he was God sittin’ in judgment from His throne.  My daddy’d sweat and spit and near as like to catch fire; he’d work himself up into a frothing lather, foamin’ at the mouth like a rabid dog, screaming at the depraved congregation.

And they’d take it, accept his judgments as God’s own truth.  And they’d strive to be better folks.  They believed every word my daddy told ’em, all evidence to the contrary.

When I was 16, daddy decided to try snake handling.  He’d seen another preacher do it down in Okemah in early June, and he liked how it grabbed everyone’s attention.  So daddy found a snake wrangler and bought a whole mess’a snakes and put them all in a glass case and brought them to the next revival.

Daddy was a good preacher, full of fury and fire and passion, but he weren’t the smartest guy around.  He didn’t pay real close attention to the snake handler he’d seen, didn’t notice that the guy had only used harmless, non-poisonous snakes for his bit.  Daddy missed that part, and ended up with a whole bunch of poisonous snakes.  I dunno if the snake wrangler he used was stupid, too, or just didn’t care much for daddy’s preachin’, but he loaded daddy up with a couple dozen cottonmouths and a copperhead or two.

The night daddy tried out the snake handling, the tent was packed.  Every makeshift pew – usually made with a couple of boards and a few barrels – was stuffed so full the boards sagged and groaned.  People stomped and clapped and hollered along to the hymns, and the heat in the tent was so great that a couple of folks in the back passed out.  Daddy said it was just the Holy Spirit takin’ hold of ’em, but of course he’d say somethin’ like that.

It was gettin’ towards the end of daddy’s sermon, and he was tellin’ everyone their faith weren’t strong enough.  “But if you believe with all your heart and soul, the power of our Lord Jesus will descend upon you, and you can do wonders!”  And he reached into that glass case and pulled out a handful of angry snakes.  I remember watchin’ ’em writhe in his hands, coiling and hissing and lookin’ none-too-happy about the whole situation.

Of course, when a snake ain’t happy, it’s only got one way of lettin’ you know.  An’ these snakes sure let daddy know.  They sank their teeth into the flushed flesh of his hands and forearms, pumpin’ venom into him faster than the dickens.  Daddy yelped and tried to rip them snakes off his arms, but it weren’t no use.  They weren’t gonna let him go.

Daddy collapsed beside his pulpit and went into convulsions, shakin’ and shiverin’ like a body possessed.  Folks cried out in fear and surprise; some figured it was the rapture, others thought it was demon possession, and some folks with a bit of know-how recognized it as the venom killin’ daddy.  No one wanted to get near him, not with all those damn snakes sittin’ there, so we all just watched in fear and anguish as my daddy died.