Why would I want to take your life?
You’ve only murdered my father, raped his wife
Tattooed my babies with a poison pen
Mocked my God, humiliated my friends
I need a shot of love!
Bob Dylan, “Shot of Love,” 1981.
Shortly after the release of the album that music writers often call his “last religious album,” Bob Dylan said to an interviewer that “…those who care where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to ‘Shot of Love.’ It’s my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. It’s all there in that one song.”
The lines that make the fourth verse of the song (quoted above), demonstrate how the song defined Dylan’s spirituality, and also reveal the legend’s peculiar and particular brand of morality—where his “sympathies lie.” The verse is unabashedly angry, unapologetically contemptuous, and unromantically hopeful. Self-important members of the media assume this to be an allegory about Dylan’s distaste for journalists, but the stakes of “Shot of Love” are much too high—soaring, if we are to believe Dylan—to believe that Dylan is wrestling with murderous desires against members of the press. Before and after the release of the album Shot of Love (1981), Dylan treated the media as a bothersome, but ultimately insignificant, nuisance. He admits to lying to them throughout his career and has concealed himself from the public eye for decades, only rarely meeting it face to face from underneath his cowboy hat. The towering enemies and heroic allies in “Shot of Love” cast a monstrous shadow that leaves cabals discolored and disinvited. “Shot of Love” is about one gifted artist’s and one impenetrably deep human being’s battle to overcome the limitations, corruptions, and viruses of the material world by crawling, inch by inch, into a spiritual world. The effort, no matter how valiant, is always difficult because Dylan, like the rest of us mortals, lives in a material world—the world that inevitably murders goodhearted people’s fathers and idols, rapes innocence, corrupts purity, and intimidates most people into submission. The chorus’s cry—“I need a shot of love!”—which is powerfully emphasized by a small gospel choir and sung brilliantly by a ferocious Dylan, is the endorsement of an unlikely source of hope: a combative spirituality that measures up the flawed world and, rather than kowtowing for participation or plotting retaliation, seeks to separate.
The separation is not one of presence—Dylan hasn’t exactly dropped out of the world like a reclusive songwriter drowning in obscurity—it is one of priorities. Love, vocation, and integrity matter more than social acceptance, fleshly delight, or pecuniary gain. The inspiration in “Shot of Love” is not Jesus Christ himself, but those around him: “What I got ain’t painful. It’s just bound to kill me dead—Like the men who followed Jesus when they put a price upon his head.” The lyrics elevate men who risked not only their reputation and livelihoods, but also their actual lives in service of Christ’s salvific ministry to the poor, sick, and subjugated, to the status of exemplary, existential heroes in a fallen world that produces conformity and capitulation. “Shot of Love” rejects the sedatives of the world (whiskey, heroin, “picture show,” “book to read”) fully to embrace the sedatives of the spirit.
Novelist Brian Morton created a character called Sally Burke, who is identified by another character as a “Dylanist.” The Dylanist is the novel’s title, and the label is defined as someone who “doesn’t believe in causes… only believes in feelings.” Morton’s “Dylanist” concept is provocative, but “feelings” is a rather weak word to describe what Dylan’s moral vision captures, even if it is true that since the late 1960s he has distanced himself from political movements and only rarely publicly supported social or civic causes. The work of Bob Dylan isn’t as much political or social as it is philosophical and spiritual. Philosophy interprets and understands the world—its conditions, its problems, and their solutions—while spirituality provides individuals with means to examine their own finite purposes in a troubled world, translate that examination into transcendent, vocational, and ethical experience, and then collectively rally with the likeminded. Philosophy identifies; spirituality replies.
Dylan’s entire philosophical-spiritual approach is apparent throughout Shot of Love, as is his approach to interacting with the world. The title track functions as a rock-meets-gospel thesis statement, while later songs draw out its major themes. “Property of Jesus” describes a man who “won’t pay tribute to the king that you serve” or “increase his wealth at someone’s expense,” because he belongs to Jesus. Those who mock him, listeners are told, have “something better”—“a heart of stone.” “Watered-Down Love” takes its inspiration from 1 Corinthians 13 by reflecting on the power of love to transcend and transform the worldly condition of manipulation and exploitation: “Love that’s pure, it don’t make no false claims/Intercedes for you ’stead of casting you blame/Will not deceive you or lead you into transgression… Love that’s pure hopes all things.” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” and “Trouble” depict a dystopian world of war, oppression, and deceit that isn’t entirely foreign to anyone who has spent any time alive, while “Every Grain of Sand” acknowledges the mortality and lack of control that burdens every individual, which makes surrendering to the higher will and calling of God all the more important.
Shot of Love combined overtly Christian songs (“Every Grain of Sand,” “Property of Jesus”) with more secular material that was vaguely spiritual (“Lenny Bruce,” “Heart of Mine”) to philosophically brilliant and musically powerful effect. It followed his two entirely Christian albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and 1980’s Saved. Due to its secular-spiritual mixture, critics look at it as the “last” religious album—an interpretation they feel is strengthened by the fact that since Shot of Love, Dylan has not released any new overtly Christian material. Rock critics’ excitement at the prospect that Dylan may no longer be a religious person provides a useful insight into how uncomfortable educated circles in American culture are with uncompromising moral expression. The truth about Dylan, unsurprisingly, seems to be the opposite of how the critics would have it. Dylan’s albums from 1983 (Infidels) to 2008 (Together Through Life) demonstrate a commitment not only to giving no holds barred moral commentary on modernity and humanity, but also to a steadfast religious sensibility, which does not equivocate or negotiate.
Following Dylan’s Christian conversion in the late 1970s, he released two evangelical albums and Shot of Love, regularly gave testimony from the stage, and publicly embraced fundamentalist beliefs, such as the Rapture. Musically, the trilogy is some of Dylan’s best work, and the lyrical content is almost always intellectually compelling and soul stirring. Despite the inevitable queasiness that results when one hears clips of Dylan predicting apocalyptic events from the stage in 1980, that time period represents Dylan nearly at his creative best. Even militant atheist Christopher Hitchens called Slow Train Coming, “Dylan at his most beautiful.” It also represents Dylan at an important turning point in his career, one that cannot be simplified into a story about a conversion and subsequent lapse of faith.
It is the moment in which Dylan develops a vocabulary, viewpoint, and, most importantly, vision for understanding and engaging the world. It is not merely spirituality, but Christianity. An eschatological Christianity provides the best lens through which to view Dylan’s moral commentary over the latest three decades of his storied career. “Shot of Love” says it all and its detachment from the material world and retreat into a spiritual world still plays out in the ballads, boogie, and blues of Dylan up until the present.
Bob Dylan continues to speak clearly about “where his sympathies lie” during his rare interviews. In a little known discussion with a Scottish newspaper, he continued the tradition of testimony (“Bob Dylan: The Interview,” The Big Issue, 27 November 2009). When a reporter commented on his Christmas album by saying, “You deliver many of the songs—especially ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’—like a true believer,” Dylan responded simply, “I am a true believer.”
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books, 2010). This column is an excerpt from his ongoing study of the music of Bob Dylan. For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.