A Slow Train, Bound for Glory
By Scott D. Elingburg
Sam Goody was a haven set across from a broken decorative fountain in the dimly lit mall I grew up near, a shop where misfits and bankers, smokers and jocks, single mothers and next-door neighbors found themselves assembled by a shared desire for music. It was a place for discovery, a place where unearthing a musical gem, by force or by accident, could help a youth from a small Southern town carve out an identity. An open mind and some disposable income could lead to a treasure that might alter your life.
If, like me, you didn't have any disposable income, then a Christmas gift certificate from your cooler, older cousin would suffice. On this occasion, the winter of 1994, the deck, was stacked against me. When you’re on the cusp of the awful in-between years of adolescence the world is a confusing place. None of your choices matter but, to you, every choice carries the weight of the future. It never once occurred to me that choices were reversible or even inconsequential in the grand plan. Choosing between albums to purchase? You may as well ask me to select an organ to remove.
I knew what I was supposed to listen to, what I was supposed to choose. Radio and social pressures pushed me toward acceptable, popular music of the day: alternative rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam; pop stars such as Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Boyz II Men; contemporary country by the likes of Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. I loved it all and I wanted to opt for the biggest status-achieving album I could afford. I knew that my choices on that day in that Sam Goody would forever elevate my social status and transform me into a wise, sophisticated trendsetter within my church youth group and my inner circle of friends—both of them. God willing, it might even grant me a silent nod of approval from the store employee with the spiked hair and nose ring.
None of that happened. Instead, I chose poorly.
As desperate as I was to have my musical choices accepted, there was a small pang in my head imploring me to do something drastic: to expand my musical horizons. With a world of music at my fingertips, my burgeoning adult consciousness vetoed every decision my adolescent heart came up with. That’s how I ended up with two, bargain-priced CDs: Lead Belly’s Greatest Hits and Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. I may as well have opted to open a 401k with my change jar.
At home, both records sounded awful to my nascent, underdeveloped ears. ‘Awful,’ however, at age 13 really meant, “These songs don’t sound like the other songs I like on the radio.” Even in “CD quality sound!” they sounded hollow and muddled, like a warped picture broadcast to an ancient television. Worse, they sounded like the past, and it was a past I wanted nothing to do with. Yet, here I was, the new owner of two relics from music history.
The Lead Belly CD made for rough listening as it sounded like a copy of a copy of a copy from some ancient field recordings. Out of tune and barely audible even at high volume, I didn’t even make it through once. Like any other proud member of the Alternative Nation, I listened to “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” twice and then watched my (bootlegged) VHS copy of Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York, knowing that Nirvana’s unchained closer, a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, was superior in every way to the original recording. Nirvana’s version was loud, unhinged, and very, very cool. Lead Belly was exactly none of those things.
Dylan’s Slow Train Coming was equally unlistenable, albeit in a different way. Around 1978, Dylan converted to evangelical Christianity, recorded several Christian-themed albums, refused to play his prior secular material in concert, and routinely prophesied to audiences onstage. He was a man transformed and Slow Train Coming was the first recorded output from this “born again” period. It’s an album rife with Christian allegory, sermonizing, and pointed religious imagery. The album’s cover art is an extension of this theme, a literal image of a train moving (slowly, I presume) across tracks being built, one by one. In the foreground, a man holds a pickaxe that resembles a none-too-subtle cross, ready to wield it with power. Dylan fans are not always keen on this period of his career, to put it mildly. I will, however, go one step further: Slow Train Coming was fucking awful to listen to. It was painful, burdensome, boring, and very much the opposite of a religious experience. I just wanted it to end.
I made it through all of Slow Train Coming in one sitting, but it was 46 minutes of my young life I’ll never get back. When I was done listening, I turned right back to my (bootlegged) Nirvana video, and, as the opening chords of “About A Girl” rolled out from the television speakers, I remember thinking, Thank God—thank GOD—I have some real music to listen to. I needed to wash the sour sounds of Dylan’s holy visions out of my ears.
Dylan’s transformation from revolutionary poet and songwriter to Christian evangelist happened unbeknownst to my young self. All I heard in the music (all two times I listened to it) was gospel backup singers, big brass horns, noodling, non-grunge guitar, and a man whose voice can best be described as unique. The lyrics read like they were ripped straight from Wednesday night choir practice (e.g., “For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears/
It is only He who can reduce me to tears”). Worse, I was being preached to on (what I thought) was a rock and roll record. At a time in my life when I was actively attempting to rebel against those same ideas Dylan embraced, I had just blown what little musical capital I had on albums that were brutally out-of-step with who I wanted to be. The adult choices I made that day in Sam Goody delivered unto me some adult consequences. This was music that my parents might enjoy, and I had to eliminate that evidence with a quickness.
I trashed both CDs. I dropped them in the garbage bin and hauled it to the curb. It didn’t occur to me to try to return them, and the nearest place I could have tried to sell them off was at least 100 miles away. I don’t even think I knew selling used CDs was a thing until I was 16 or 17. Besides, drastic times call for drastic measures. Or so I reckoned.
I know what I’m supposed to say: “I was young then, I’m older now and learned a valuable lesson about life. I realized that there’s more to music than the first listen and I wish I still had those CDs.” But, no. I’m not sorry I got rid of them. They were useless to me at the time, a form of musical currency I couldn’t cash in and they would be equally useless to me now, I suspect. In the time I’ve devoted to discussing, writing about, and dissecting music, I never once thought, “Man, I still wish I had those CDs.” Not once. I’ve gone back to listen to Slow Train Coming and most of Lead Belly’s recordings. They are perfectly fine documents that I understand are culturally important. I acknowledge their value, but they did not have the intended consequences of a Dylan-esque conversion. Not the way I hoped they might, anyway.
I've encountered music since then that has transformed my mental faculties, my listening habits, and my understanding of music’s role in our culture. I’ve had moments when my young life was altered by music’s more holy qualities, times when it felt like music could unlock knowledge of my identity. I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been transformed by at least one song or one musical moment in their lives. Being transformed by music, however, is a lengthy process. It is full of false starts and terrible choices along the road to enlightenment. No listening experience remains the same from month to month, let alone year to year.
What strikes me about that moment, what keeps that memory encased in my hippocampus, is how much I tried to force a transformation to happen that day. I believed that if I sacrificed momentary indulgence for lengthier gratification, if I played the long game and opted for a slow train rather than the fastest method of arrival, I would be better off; I could even win at life. Not only would I achieve lasting happiness by shunning those immediate urges to pick up a copy of Throwing Copper on CD, eschewing trends and current cultural commodity and elevating the status of my capital-S Self, but I would also be recognized and rewarded for my intelligence. Instead, it all ended up the trash and I was out $30 in Sam Goody gift certificate cash.
Forcing a musical transformation left me broke and broken, unhappy and unfulfilled. I didn’t learn any lessons after being burned by my choices. At the time, I was just mad and disappointed with the unfairness of it all. Still, remnants of that 14-year-old holding a Soul Asylum album in one hand and a Velvet Underground album in the other, knowing which one I want and opting for the other, still exist every time I make a musical selection. I’ll never outrun these choices—the ‘should’ and ‘should nots’—so I’ve learned to work around them and to choose whatever works for me in the moment.
By the time I was old enough to revisit Dylan’s catalog, the entire mall and the Sam Goody from my youth was wholly abandoned. As shoppers migrated to Best Buy and Target, the interiors stayed empty and unrented until one day, without celebration, the entire mall, and the world of music it once contained, was leveled into a flat piece of earth.
Almost ten years after that regrettable Sam Goody experience, on a visit home, a passing train forced me to stop my car outside of town, a few miles from the spot where the mall once stood. I watched as train cars creaked along slowly, covered with graffiti and littered with odd, disjointed images, artist tags and colorful tableaus. I looked up from my CD wallet in time for one oddly familiar image to roll by. On a train car in black spray paint, a man with a floppy hat and cross-shaped pickaxe, similar to the man centered on the album cover of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, was poised mid-swing. “This slow train is bound for glory!” was spray-painted above his head. Maybe so, maybe it was headed to that destination. But I wasn’t on that train. Instead, I rolled over the tracks after the last train car disappeared from sight. I had some other destination in mind. Somewhere very similar but also very different.