If Street Legal was the Question, Bob Hopped on the Slow Train for the Answer

From the opening fade in at at the beginning Street Legal, a hazy and humid, hungover morning emerges. America's ragged hero meets us out in the fields, amidst flag banners and ancient pageantry. Bob Dylan is here, declaring that it's been "sixteen years. . . sixteen years".

Indeed, it had been a long sixteen years. Sixteen years since a young Robert Zimmerman put out his first self titled album out in 1962. By the late 1970's, Bob appeared worn, was divorced, and had been spit up and thrown around by the press and the public. He was looking for answers. They'd arrive a year later. However, the questions always come first.

The questions and turmoil that lie at the heart of 1978's Street Legal make their faces clearly shown on three important tracks: "Changing of the Guards", "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)", and "Where are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)".

The first track off of Street Legal, "Changing of the Guards", features Bob Dylan asking plenty of questions. He's overseeing a field, a scene, a life, and wondering who or what is in charge. What shepherd directs the flock? Tarot cards? Talmudic wisdom? Eastern philosophy? Or is it all just an abyss? In "Changing of the Guards", Bob lays down these abstract questions at our feet behind a veneer of saxophone, background singers, and Springsteen-inspired 70s rock.

"Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" is a minor key, moody tune that details Bob's weariness in a more direct manner. His wife is gone, and he's wandering the world, looking for a sign. In a live show in 1978, Bob told an apocryphal story about meeting this "Senor" on a train in Mexico. More likely, the "Senor" is a metaphor for anyone or anything that is a higher power and has an answer. Bob puts it best himself: "Senor, senor/ I can smell the painted wagon/ smell the tale of the dragon/ I can't stand the suspense anymore/ can you tell me who to contact here, senor?". Later in the song, Bob reaches his thesis, but not his total desperation (that comes in "Where are You Tonight?"). He's sees "hearts as hard as leather" and needs "a minute to get it together/ just let me pick myself up off the floor/ I'm ready when you are Senor". The floor is seemingly the bottom, here.

Bob Dylan is certainly notorious for organizing his albums and getting the sequence of the songs in an order that puts everything in its right place. That being the case, the final statement of Street Legal is, as the title suggests, truly a journey through the dark, hot night of the soul. In "Where Are You Tonight?" Bob makes his last desperate statement, exclaiming that he "can't believe" he's alive, that he survived. He marches on, even during his most haunted hours.

In thinking about Bob's journey through Street Legal and Slow Train, I am reminded of the Biblical narrative of Jonah. As documented in the book of 2nd Kings, Jonah was swallowed by a whale only to be expelled by divine power to a town called Ninevah, the place where God wanted him to preach. However, that preaching would not have been possible had it not been for Jonah's suffering in the whale that preceded his time of preaching. His suffering had been his school: hard but eternally rewarding. His preaching would be more effective once his life had reached the bottom.

In Street Legal, Bobby was in the whale, suffering in the belly of the beast. He was "suffering under the law" and looking to bend the rules and play a dangerous game with something very precious: the gift life itself. In the midst of that beast, he was thrown a cross, cut the album Slow Train Coming, and began to preach the world, starting in San Francisco. 

He told the world that they gotta serve somebody, that he had changed his way of thinking, and that he knows that the slow train coming around the bend. It may be the same train that Bob met "Senor" on a year earlier. This time, though, his vision had cleared. The 1970's wrapped up like they started: with Bob Dylan keeping on like a bird that flew. 


Popular Posts

"Torch Songs" and "Cast Iron Ballads": Deep Cuts from the Planet Waves Era

Review: Bob Dylan at the Oakdale Theatre

"Tangled Up In Blue": What's the Best Version?

Peace, Bullets, Schools, Chaos, Life, and The Drive by Truckers

Along for the Ride with Tell Tale Signs

Jeff Lynne's on the Phone

Lost in a Dream: Bob Dylan, 1967-1974

This Train is Bound For Glory: Blood on the Tracks

1968: The Songs that Went the Other Way