Keep Me Set Apart

80’s Dylan

1. “I Believe In You” – Slow Train Coming (1979) Album version Live performance, Dylan’s only one ever on SNL (you’ll see why)


The first time I heard “I Believe In You,” I was leaving town; it was only a weekend trip yet there was a distinct feeling that I was abandoning something. Maybe it was the petty troubles of my life at the time. Maybe it was the feeling that has always haunted me that whatever I was doing was the wrong thing and as long as I was moving, I was moving closer to what was right, closer to home. Whatever was going on in my head, Dylan’s weakened voice and pleading lament struck on such a powerful level that I misheard the hook. What I heard him repeat, time and time again was “I’m leaving you.”

This banner of faith is not so much a song about Dylan’s unyielding devotion to a savior as it is about Dylan’s own faithful, the disciples of the counter-culture who stoned their messiah in their own feeling of abandonment. By the time “Slow Train Coming” hit the shelves in 1979, Dylan’s career had already begun a slow decline. Reviews for Dylan’s tour in 1977 along with 1978’s “Street Legal” had been disappointing. Music itself was changing, now full of anger, dissonance and an utter rejection of the blues inspiration. It’s easy to see how Dylan must have felt left behind.

Whether Dylan’s transformation from rock star to Christian crusader was an act of genuine faith or publicity stunt is not for the critic to decide; but no entertainer can truthfully claim to be indifferent to the reaction he gets from his fans. Dylan may well have always hated the fame and 24-hour spotlight off the stage and yet for all his ardent deflection of the many labels he’s been given, he’s always loved his fans and craved their approval at least enough to justify a “never-ending tour.”

I think of a gospel song as beginning with and repeating “You,” (note the capital ‘Y’). This song begins with “They” and “They” means everybody. It means the angry fans saying they came to see a rock show, not a sermon; it means the kids who will say Bob Dylan is a relic of his parents generation and the critics that say we’ll never see another “Blood On The Tracks;” and the intellectuals who say Bob Dylan has thrust a fatal blow into the guts of the 60s idealism that empowered, anointed and worshiped him, so what comes next? The assassination of John Lennon?

The Dylan theme of motion and change is featured in the choruses. The singer will continue to believe even when the dawn is nearing and night is disappearing. He’ll believe when winter turns to summer and black turns to white. But he will never change his heart. He acknowledges that faith has been necessary to get through difficulty (night, winter, black) but even though he’s overcome these hardships, it won’t change his resolve. By summoning a classic gospel theme, Dylan seeks to separate himself from Savior status by passing the impossible responsibility to a higher power. Uninspired, he cannot inspire others; jaded, he cannot spread the seeds of optimism and the power of the human spirit.

To understand “I Believe In You,” as a simple, maudlin song of worship and acceptance of Jesus is short-sighted and unduly dismissive. The song is, in fact, a rejection and utter hand-washing of the leadership of an entire generation. It will introduce a new world of introspection and a new point of view to Dylan’s writing that will allow him to examine life through the myopic lens of human eyes rather than through the omniscience of a prophet.

This is a song, not of a sheep reborn, but of a beaten and frustrated shell, once an icon to millions but now only a joke.

Where will he go from there?

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