Bob Dylan‘s John Wesley Harding is an album of half-spoken secrets, hushed whispers, illegible writings, and missing pages. It is grainy black and white. It has the feel of antiquity settled on it, like decades upon decades of quietly accumulating dust. It is beautifully anachronistic and elusive. It is hard, gritty, and seemingly impenetrable. It is blindingly complex; addictively rewarding. John Wesley Harding is classic Bob Dylan.
Dylan vacated his post as the voice of a generation when he crashed his motorcycle in 1966, retreating to Woodstock, New York, to recuperate. After months of quiet country life spent reading the Bible and recording the wonderfully intimate sessions with the Band that were to become The Basement Tapes, in late 1967, Dylan was ready to return to the world of rock music. Sort of.
He went down to Nashville and, backed by a group of local session players, cut the album that exposed the great divide that had grown between Dylan, the folkie, hipster, electric guitar-playing Judas, and the Hippie generation that he had helped to create. He traded in his shades for bifocals; his wild mane of tousled brown hair now neat and shorn; his hip defiant Beat demeanor replaced by a wiser, older, bearded persona; in short, as Dylan had done many times before and would do many times again, he had reinvented himself.
Dylan’s new music was coarse and brittle. The setup was sparse – Kenny Buttrey’s dry, crackling drums, Charles McCoy’s thumping bass, Dylan’s grating harmonica, and occasional piano. Bob Johnston’s production was even sparser. Dylan and his band sound as if they are playing in a vacuum. The album is incredibly still. The songs are stark morality tales in an economical, simple language straight out of Ecclesiastes or Proverbs.
The scene is a stark field – in the distance brews the apocalypse. This is amazingly heavy stuff compared to his previous studio album, 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, a record of exuberant, hazy, ethereal, fluidly electric sounds, swimming in the blues, in acid, in smoke, in shadows.
The Book of Revelation looms large on John Wesley Harding. The album’s best-known track, “All Along the Watchtower” (of Jimi Hendrix fame), begins with the ominous rationalization, “There must be some way out of here”, but there is no way out of here. The album is fated. The doom is inevitable.
Dylan envisions destruction in myriad forms and contexts. In “All Along the Watchtower” the apocalypse is understated and foreboding: “Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl / Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl”. In “Drifter’s Escape”, a grooving morality tale, the coming end is more literal: as the drifter is condemned by the judge and the “cursed jury” (‘cursed’ pronounced in that great archaic way, kurr-sed), a bolt of lightning strikes the courthouse “out of shape” as the crowd outside kneels and prays.
One of the strengths of John Wesley Harding is that even something as dire as the wrath of a vengeful god is approached in both a somber and a comic light. These dark portraits of the apocalypse are contrasted by the wonderful pieces of black humor “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” and “The Wicked Messenger”. In the former, a long, wieldy number reminiscent of the Woody Guthrie-inspired talking blues of Dylan’s early albums, “Eternity” is conceived of as the ultimate dream/nightmare of the lustful seeker: a “big house as bright as any sun / With four and twenty windows/ And a woman’s face in ev’ry one” in which Frankie, after an amorous rampage, dies of thirst.
In the latter, the wicked messenger foretells the end of the world, only to be met with this mock serious retort from the angry, doomed crowd: “If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any!” In Dylan’s vast, complex imagination, the coming doom can take on all these different forms – the result is a sense of fated destruction that is both harrowing and slightly ironic. It is unclear whether Dylan is saying the coming end is a bad thing or not.
Following the lead of the somber side of his nightmare vision, on side two of John Wesley Harding, Dylan attempts to cope with the evil approaching through good old Christian morality. “Dear Landlord”, “I Am a Lonesome Hobo”, and “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” are all odes to the downtrodden, the weary, the dispossessed. In effect, these songs revisit the have-nots Dylan eulogized and celebrated on such early albums as Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and The Times They Are A-Changin. These intimate, simple songs are exhortations to compassion. Whereas the Old Testament dominated much of the first side, these lyrics are taken straight from the Sermon on the Mount. “And anyone can fill his life up with things,” sings Dylan on “Dear Landlord”, “he can see, but he just cannot touch.”
While Dylan was not overtly religious at this point in his life, he certainly was quite the moralizer. If the doom prophesied in “All Along the Watchtower” was to be avoided, it had to be through a Christian sense of spiritual contentment and fellowship with one’s fellow human being. These tracks are achingly archaic and quaint because their Puritan message is archaic and quaint – small individual actions and feelings can help avoid the apocalypse, as Dylan affirms in “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, “So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’ / Help him with his load / And don’t go mistaking paradise / For that home across the road.”
There is an added layer to John Wesley Harding that makes it rich and rewarding. Even this Puritanical path to salvation is subverted and put into question by the album’s final tracks, “Down along the Cove” and “I’ll be Your Baby, Tonight”. The name of the game here is not compassion or grace or brotherhood among men – it is love. That’s love, not in the Christian way, but in the 1950s pop song kind of way. You and your baby on a Saturday night, yeah yeah yeah. These songs stick out like sore thumbs on the album because of their warmth of feeling and up-front emotional directness. “Down Along the Cove” recalls Jerry Lee Lewis in its rollicking piano rhythm as Dylan coolly croons absolute nonsense that is nonetheless amazingly affecting because of its earnestness: “Down along the cove, we walked together hand in hand / Ev’rybody watchin’ us go by knows we’re in love, yes, they understand.”
Even more breathtaking is the album’s closer, “I’ll Be Your Baby, Tonight”. The scene is late at night-as simple guitar strums as a steel guitar and harmonica spin out their soft down-home yarns of intimacy and good humor. Dylan’s voice is tender and loving to the point of sounding ridiculous. It is a comforting vision of two lovers escaping from the world in a comfortable room with a good bottle of wine. After an album devoted to the exploration of apocalypse and salvation, big questions and no answers, John Wesley Harding‘s finalé begins with the simple exhortation of a lover for peace of mind: “Close your eyes, close the door / You don’t have to worry, anymore / I’ll be your baby tonight.” Dylan explored the power and mystery of love more fully on his next album, 1969’s Nashville Skyline (who can forget the bold claim of “I Threw It All Away”: “Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round”?), but it was never as affecting as it was on “I’ll Be Your Baby, Tonight”.
John Wesley Harding draws its immense power from its contrasts-part graveyard folk, part schmoozy country; part biblical allegory, part love lyric; part myth, part fable; part grave condemnation, part whispered nothing. All of these dichotomies are set up and subverted, constantly frustrating the listener looking for a simple message. Somehow all these disparate strands coalesce into an album of intricate variety and complexity.
In its 12 short tracks, John Wesley Harding tells the story of the vast sweep of human experience. There is death, fear, love, redemption sought, and redemption gained. While its flashy predecessors (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde) often claim the bulk of admiration, John Wesley Harding‘s sharp, clear vision and tight execution make it Dylan’s most cohesive album. That should not be overlooked. Chances are John Wesley Harding won’t be overlooked precisely because of its seeming agelessness. In terms of the trajectory of Dylan’s career, it was completely new. But in a deeper, more intuitive sense, it sounded as if it had been around forever, addressing questions that have been around forever and always will be.