Details have been released on a huge collection of cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, featuring about 80 different artists, which is coming out next year as both a tribute to Bob Dylan and a benefit for Amnesty International. It’s called Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (and the album cover features Bob Dylan as Doctor Who). Most of the tracks are brand new recordings; an exception is the single track by Bob Dylan himself, which is his original recording of “Chimes of Freedom” from 1964.
I knew something along these lines was coming out, but when I saw the scope of it and the track list, my first reaction was: Isn’t this kind of excessive? Four CDs worth? Some of it will be good, no doubt, but some of it will be pretty painful too. Well, I guess it’s too late to stop them now. Might as well face it: we live in an age of huge excess. Something like this wouldn’t even have been dreamed of in the ’60s or ’70s, because it would have required something like 8 or 10 LPs. Now it’s just some space on an iPod, for most listeners. Ten tracks; eighty tracks; two hundred tracks: what difference does it make? People will just listen to the ones they care to hear anyway.
Amnesty International has long seen fit to link their mission with the resonance of some well known Bob Dylan songs—songs that are associated with themes of freedom and justice, like “Chimes of Freedom,” and “I Shall Be Released.” As an organization, Amnesty may sometimes be perceived as indulging in sanctimony by some of us in the U.S., but if you’re a political prisoner languishing in a dungeon in China, North Korea or Iran, then they are a friend you very much want to have. Bob Dylan himself, however, has not been above tweaking Amnesty and their rock-star-spokespeople for the use of his songs.
In 1988, he played four nights at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. On each and every night, he regaled his audience with essentially the same elaborate joke, and it was a joke on Amnesty International, which was around that time promoting its message with big benefit concerts featuring the likes of Bono and Lou Reed. The joke went like this (words transcribed from a recording of the October 17th, 1988 show):
You know this Amnesty Tour is going on and I was very honored last year they chose a Bob Dylan song to be their theme song. “I Shall Be Released” that was. This year they surprised me again by doing another Bob Dylan song as their theme song — they used “Chimes of Freedom.” Next year, the Amnesty Tour, I think they’re going to use “Jokerman.”
Anyway, I’m trying to get them to change their mind. I’m trying to get them to use this one.
“This one” references the song he then played: “In the Garden,” from Saved. It’s about as powerful a gospel song as he ever wrote: a full-on, no-holds-barred Jesus-is-Lord number.
The joke is a dual one, obviously. First, there’s the ludicrous idea that Amnesty would adopt “Jokerman” (from the great but widely dismissed Infidels album) as their theme song. And then, of-course, there’s the suggestion that they should ditch the likes of “Chimes of Freedom” and “I Shall Be Released” and that all of those deep, socially-conscious rock stars should get up on stage and sing a great big song about Jesus instead. It’s pretty hilarious, as Bob well knew, and his repetition of the joke four nights in a row while playing gigs in the media capital of the world was hardly a random drunken impulse. He actually wanted to say something, albeit in a funny way.
What was he saying? Well, since he used the medium of a gag to express himself, it’s probably wrong to try and spell out what he was saying in literal terms, but surely he was at least alluding to the idea that there’s a bigger picture to be tapped into, beyond the political one. Also, both by making the joke and performing that song so passionately, four nights in a row, he was surely attesting that this was still where he was at. (And remember this is some years since conventional wisdom had maintained that he had “moved on” from beliefs he had espoused during his gospel epoch.)
It’s a bit of an irony, therefore, that out of the eighty-plus artists on this new release, none chose to perform “In the Garden.” According to my own perusal of the track list, there are precisely two artists who chose a gospel-era song. Eric Burdon performs “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and Sinéad O’Connor performs “Property of Jesus.” Then there are a few of his latter-day songs of spiritual reflection; for instance, Natasha Bedingfield performs “Ring Them Bells,” and Lucinda Williams sings “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven.”
There are those who are suffering in prisons, bound in metal chains, and they can sure use the help of an organization like Amnesty International. But then there are also those suffering under different kinds of bondage, persecuted by enemies who aren’t so visible. In fact, there’s arguably no one on earth who doesn’t fit into that category, to different degrees at different times. Bob Dylan’s songs can be cognizant of both kinds of bondage and oppression: the physical and the spiritual. And the former can be a pretty good metaphor for the latter.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released