Thursday, June 5, 2014

John Wesley Harding: A Record for Long Days

   Northern Ohio, Late January 1981

Tim, a local hippy and one time student of philosophy, lived on the outskirts of town with his brother Jeff. Recently discharged from the Air Force, Jeff came home to an empty house and discovered his wife had run off with a banker. Since then he had grown his hair out and spent his days getting high and listening to records. I often went over there after school.

Jeff answered the door, "Hey Danny boy, we're going to play to some Dylan."

"Which album?"

"John Wesley Harding. It's a good one."  The scent of coffee came from the kitchen.

Dylan's name often came up at their house.

"So what's up with his Christian music?" I asked.

"Hey, the songs are ok - if you can get past the proselytizing."

I tried not to laugh.

Jeff put the record on and "John Wesley Harding" played; a mini-epic of a Western gunslinger.  A perfect song for a Peckinpah film, I thought to myself.

More lucid than usual, Jeff continued on, "I know what you're thinking, these songs are nothing like Blonde on Blonde.  But that's the beauty of it.  It's like he stepped into a time machine and went back to the 1880s and immersed himself in Old West, came back to 1967, and recorded these songs."

"John Wesley Harding came out after the motorcycle accident right?"

"What about it?"

"I think it changed him in some way. Maybe he saw the face of God and it terrified him. I don't know."

"Who knows?  It's a mystery."

Tim walked in holding a can of Old Milwaukee, "Some say the cover is a parody of Sgt. Pepper and you can see the Beatles in the trees.  Like Mount Rushmore or something man!"

I picked up the album cover and looked it over.  All I saw was Dylan standing with some random strangers near his farm at Woodstock.

Jeff laughed out loud, "Hmmm . .  .  Sounds like hippy paranoia to me.  Never bought that story.  Dylan never saw the Beatles as competitors, they inspired each other.  Besides the Beatles practically worshiped him."

"I'm sure an academic will pen a tome on the matter someday," said Tim with a hint of sarcasm.

We listened to the rest of side one. Starker morality tales ensued on "I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine" "All Along the Watchtower" and "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest."  I especially liked "Drifter's Escape."  Was it about redemption? The power of God to strike at any moment? The inherent corruption of all institutions?  Dylan's God appeared cunning and remorseless.

"I don't know. I'm conflicted about Dylan," said Tim.  "Sometimes I think he turned his back on everyone. I saw him back in February of '74 with The Band in Ann Arbor.  The show was ok, but it had the feel of a coronation with the not so subtle message of 'I'm a big rock star now - I'm just here for your money and your women.' "  I checked out after that."

"Really, you checked out with Dylan in '74?"

Tim replied, "Yes and No.  I still dig his music - he's a gifted songwriter.  But everything's a game with him.  It gets tiresome.  Lennon seemed more honest about himself and the sham of being a rock star."

The loss of John Lennon lingered in our minds. We stood in shocked disbelief when Howard Cosell announced the news during a Monday Night Football game.  The brothers almost came to blows that night.  Jeff went into a rage over the senselessness of the act yelling "This is the final straw! Then Tim angrily accused Lennon of not living up to the ideas espoused in his music.  Things got a ugly for awhile.  Eventually the night ended in a melancholy drunken revelry. We hitchhiked as far as Cleveland, never making it to New York.

"So maybe Lennon cared more - or at least became more grounded as he got older. Dylan realized the 60s were over before most of his contemporaries."

Jeff flipped the record over and the second side began with "Dear Landlord" with Dylan sounding weary and desperate. And then more songs about outcasts: "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" and "I am a Lonesome Hobo" dwelt painfully on themes of regret and anger. Things get even stranger with "The Wicked Messenger."  Then another shape shift to country ballads on "Down Along the Cove" and "I'll be Your Baby Tonight" - proving some relief after a very heavy album.

The record spun to a close.  "Let's listen again," I said.  Jeff played it once more as Gunsmoke reruns floated across the television screen.

Outside the freezing wind shook the windows.  It felt like one of those winter days when you feel a sense of the inevitable moving quietly over your head.  You're thankful and perplexed when it's gone. That was John Wesley Harding.