And finally, the main idea behind this trilogy of posts: Bob Dylan’s 1978 conversion to evangelical Christianity and the current reassessment of his musical output that resulted from it. What? I’m really going to talk about this? Why?
Having come of age during Dylan’s creative trough of the 1980’s, all I had to go by when I decided it was time for me to explore his music in-depth were the handful of hits I was familiar with from the radio. My first Dylan album was his Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Vol. 1 was out of stock at Streetside Records that day), and even that was challenging for a 15-year-old to dig into. My first Dylan concert was in 1988 when he was arguably still in the nadir of his career. That I’ve reached the point where I now embrace his most controversial and arguably most inaccessible albums seems a minor miracle.
By 1978, Dylan was spent. Having reached peaks of critical acclaim, fame, and fortune, the downward slope included the end of his marriage and negative reviews of his self-produced 1975 tour docudrama Renaldo and Clara (released in ’78), his ’78 live shows, as well as his album, Street Legal. He began searching for answers as many of us do, and as he’s told the tale (abridged here), one night a fan tossed a crucifix on stage toward the physically and mentally ailing star. Something told him to pick it up and put it in his pocket – something he never did while performing. At the next stop, in Tucson, AZ, he had a vision of Christ in his hotel room. From there he enrolled in bible study at the Vineyard Church in California, where a couple of his band members were involved. Thus began a roughly three-year period when Bob Dylan was transformed and his fans were bewildered by the fire and brimstone gospel rock coming at them from the stage and vinyl.
Dylan released the first of his “Gospel Trilogy,” Slow Train Coming, in the summer of 1979. The album had a contemporary gospel sound thanks to the production of Jerry Wexler (an architect of the “Muscle Shoals sound,” including works by Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin) and lead guitar by emerging star Mark Knopfler, fresh off the release of the self titled Dire Straits album. His use of female gospel background singers carried over from the Street Legal album and would continue throughout the trilogy and accompanying concert tours. I first heard Slow Train in 1992 and liked it from the start, even if the message in the songs seemed a bit odd for a Dylan record.
The only exposure I had to the second and third albums, Saved and Shot of Love were songs included on his Biograph and Bootleg Series: Rare and Unreleased, Volumes 1-3 box sets, which I immersed myself in one snowy, solitary Christmas break during college. I thought the songs were o.k., but just couldn’t bring myself to add those two records to my collection. To be honest, female backing vocals (gospel or otherwise) just seemed so out of place on a Dylan album, and the production seemed too 1980’s. Furthermore, I had read really nothing positive about that phase of his career, and there were just too many other gems of his (and Neil Young’s) that I wanted to absorb.
However, time passed and we reached Vol. 12 of Dylan’s brilliantly curated Bootleg Series (the title is a misnomer for the uninitiated – these are official releases), The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966. Rumors soon began to swirl on the intergoogle that Vol. 13 would revisit the Born Again Bob era, and I was stoked. Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 was released in November of 2017 and covers his live shows from 1979-1981 where once again, as in 1966, Bob went out nightly to do battle with his audiences who went to his shows expecting to hear one thing but who got another. But this time it wasn’t merely that he wanted to play electric music, he now had a very serious message.
You know we’re living in the end times … The scriptures say, ‘In the last days, perilous times shall be at hand. Men shall become lovers of their own selves. Blasphemous, heavy and highminded.’ … Take a look at the Middle East. We’re heading for a war … I told you ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ ‘ and they did. I said the answer was ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and it was. I’m telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation … Jesus is coming back to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years. –Dylan speaking to a concert audience, 1979.
Wow! Just, wow! As with Dylan’s buddy George Harrison regarding the latter’s 1974 tour, 2018 me would love to go back and be in the audience for one of those shows. I find it absolutely fascinating. It takes nerve and conviction to stand before your adoring audience night after night and unload some of the most buzz-killing sermons on the stage-mount ever heard, putting your career and possibly your life on the line. Keep in mind John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan, convinced he needed to eliminate the man he felt was his idol-turned-phony, in December of 1980 while Bob was in the middle of this phase.
I’ve subsequently owned and enjoyed the second two albums in the trilogy for a while now. The music on them is really good, and the production not nearly as bad as I’d allowed myself to believe it was when justifying to myself why I didn’t want to give them a serious listen. I had a pretty good feeling about the impending live archival release as well. Sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I love it. As with live versions of his songs from Desire featured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975, the songs on Vol. 13 are much more powerful and alive than their studio versions. As always, he changed song arrangements from time to time during the tours, each version with a distinct feel. I’ve even gained an appreciation for the backing vocalists – they belong on these songs. Exhibit A:
By the end of the 1981 tour, Dylan began to incorporate some of his classics back into his live sets. His next album, Infidels, was released two years later and was greeted with much positive feedback from fans and critics alike as it was a return to more of a secular, introspective songwriting akin to his mid-1970’s output. Evangelicals and cynics both might say that a three-year period of gospel music and sermonizing which seemed to suddenly end with no explanation suggests Dylan was insincere, but I strongly disagree with such a sentiment.
How do I reconcile my appreciation for this music and this period of his career in general? Despite the enigma that is Bob Dylan, he is human. Many humans search for meaning in life, and for some of us it involves a spiritual seeking that isn’t satisfied in the first discovery. Or maybe even the second or third. Or possibly ever. But like the man sang, we press on. Dylan is also an artist, and as such he expresses himself sincerely. I don’t believe Bob could do otherwise. We may not relate to the message, but it’s real. These songs are an expression of where he was in his life at that time, and I find it very compelling. And as a fan of music in general, I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be another songwriter like Dylan who will produce such controversial material, then survive the media and fan backlash to reinvent him or herself again and again. Springsteen, Neil Young, and U2 have, but only to a musical degree, not one concerning their message. The music industry no longer gives younger artists enough leeway to do so.
A couple of weeks back I attended a theater screening of the hour-long film that was included on DVD in the deluxe edition of the Trouble No More release (I settled for the condensed two disc set). It shows live performances with actor Michael Shannon giving evangelical sermons between songs. About 15-20 of us diehards were present, and I was almost as interested in how the others in the theater audience would respond to it as I would. When it was over, we all applauded. As I was leaving, I ended up in a conversation with a gentleman named Larry, a Dylan fan who graduated from college fifty years ago and who saw Dylan and The Band at the Forum in L.A. in ’74, and a young man named Cade who looked about twenty and who had very recently started on his Dylan journey as a result of Bob being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. How great is that? The three of us – three generations of Dylan fans – talked in the empty lobby for thirty minutes about what we knew and liked and could’ve easily gone on another half hour. One of the many things we agreed upon was that the Gospel Years are very deserving of their current reassessment.
The following clip appeared after the credits rolled, and to me was worth the price of admission by itself. It’s Bob dueting with backing vocalist Clydie King, presumably at a sound check, on a song made famous by Dion DiMucci fifty years ago this August.
Did you know:
1) That Dylan’s touring drummer during these years was Jim Keltner, who was also a friend of George Harrison’s who had been the latter’s drummer on that controversial and much-maligned 1974 tour? He was also the drummer on the Traveling Wilburys albums, which of course included Harrison and Dylan. I wish he would write a book about it all.
2) That Dylan secretly married and had a child with one of his backing vocalists, Carolyn Dennis, in 1986? They divorced in 1992, and they managed to keep it all private until 2001.