t was a couple of years ago now that Mike Koop invited me over to his house to talk about Bob Dylan, and specifically about what Dylan songs might actually work in the context of worship. As he pulled out the various Dylan recordings he owns, I noticed a copy of the 1980 album Saved, which I met with a dismissive, “you actually like this?” Almost as if he’d rehearsed the moment, he shot back, “I’ll bet you’ve never even listened to it.”
He was right. When the album first came out, I was an intense young university student. I prided myself on being musically savvy, and took delight in what I considered to be the impeccable taste reflected in my large collection of vinyl. I was also very slowly making my way from an upbringing in the conservative bible church tradition toward the Anglicanism that has become my spiritual home. The interim period was one in which I immersed myself in the liberal Christian intellectual tradition of the mid-twentieth century; a tradition I later came to realize was then at a point of a fairly serious flame-out. In 1980, however, under the tutelage of two dynamic university professors, I was all about Paul Tillich, whose book The Courage to Be was still influencing students years after its publication. If I was going to have anything to do with Christianity, it would have to be of this intellectually credible and rigorously skeptical kind.
An album called Saved, with its original cover image artlessly picturing a hand coming out of the heavens to touch the fingertips of five hands groping up from below… I mean, really? No wonder the record company brought it out with different cover art when it was re-released as a CD. And when I asked what he thought of Saved, the owner of the record store across the street from the university blew it off as being a “bunch of religious crap,” which was echoed by the hip young woman standing at the counter, wearing a button that read “The Moral Majority is Neither.” That was enough for me.
For almost thirty years, I dismissed Saved as one of Dylan’s “fundamentalist” records. Give me the great recordings from before his embarrassing conversion, or give me the best of his later work – in which he really does wrestle with issues of faith and God – but save me from Saved.
“See, you’ve never listened to it,” Mike chirped. “No one who blows it off has. And even if they have, they don’t understand it. You’ve got to hear it as an old-time gospel worship service, anchored by a really great band.” And then he instructed me to buy it, telling me where I could get it at the best price.
Buy it I did. And I listened to it, and I heard in it precisely what he suggested I might hear: a rollicking proclamation of grace and mercy – complete with a call to renewal – of the sort you won’t hear outside of the best of that tradition. Dylan works with a very fine band, but lets them get a bit ragged. The whole thing preaches – in the best sense of that word – speaking far more to the soul than to the head. And sometimes that is just fine.
I can still quibble with Dylan over some of the songs, but for the most part I just have to acknowledge that I’ve grown up and become more generous in how I hear things. The residue of my old liberal reservations regarding the apocalypticism of “Are You Ready?” has been put in a whole new perspective after 22 years of preaching on the lectionary texts for the season of Advent. And as for the raw musical preaching of “Pressing On”, I can’t get enough of it. In fact, my only complaint is that rather than letting the song really build, Dylan opts to wind it down too soon.
It would be hard to find a record from that era, or a CD from our own, that “gets” and conveys the raw power of the real deal in quite this manner. Lay down your reservations, and give it a listen. It’s more than worth it.
Oh, and Mike is about to release a quite wonderful version of “Pressing On” on his upcoming album, Music is Worthless. Stay tuned for more information. And in the meantime, here’s a sample of the Dylan song:
Bob Dylan’s “Pressing On”, as interpreted by “Mike Koop and his Multitude of Sins”