Dylan's Gospel Revisited

review by Peter Stone Brown

photo Howard Alk

In 1979, Bob Dylan did what a lot of his fans had been hoping he’d do for years and returned to playing full blown, blues-based electric rock and roll, with a few acoustic guitar-based ballads thrown in for good measure. Many of the songs seemed to deal with contemporary issues and a couple almost sounded like protest songs. However this time, there was no great search for what the songs meant or were about. The message couldn’t have been more clear and direct: salvation by believing in Jesus Christ. Dylan fans used to questioning and pondering were left to dwell on one question, why did this happen at this time? Many fans dropped him then and there. Eventually many came back, some never did.


I’d been tipped off this was going to happen several months before Slow Train Coming was released by a singer-songwriter buddy of mine, and I wasn’t that surprised. I’d been expecting it since John Wesley Harding, a feeling that was reinforced when I managed to get a reel-to-reel copy of what would eventually be known as The Basement Tapes at the end of 1968.

When Slow Train Coming came out in August 1979, I bought it immediately and despite having qualms about some of the lyrics, I thought it was one of Dylan’s best albums. Producer Jerry Wexler captured the right sound at the right time and I dug certain cool touches only he would’ve done like the subtle horns on “Precious Angel.” The drawing on the cover of the workers with a pick axe (signifying a cross) laying down the rails while the train comes up behind reminded me of something you might find on a Folkways Records album cover of labor songs. But what made the album great along with the production and superb musicians like the then new guitar genius Mark Knopfler was Dylan’s singing. It was as intense, passionate and committed as he could get and it really didn’t matter whether I or anyone else disagreed with or had questions about this particular message. Thirty-eight years later, my feelings about that album haven’t changed one bit. When Dylan sang the lines (on “Precious Angel”) Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high/When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die, it was enough to scare the shit out of you.

That said, there are several lines on the song “Slow Train Coming,” and on other songs like “Change My Way Of Thinking” and “When You Gonna Wake Up” that are downright infuriating, and to be clear there are great lines on all those songs as well. Why Dylan chose to embrace a form of Christianity that seemed to encompass the right-wing born again movement occurring at the time is anyone’s guess.


On Christmas Eve 1968, I was living in New York City, and was visiting one of my closest friends in Philly. At the time, he was a film student and suggested we go see Pasolini’s The Gospel According To Saint Matthew at a repertory theater. Shot in grainy black and white, it is a straightforward depiction of that Gospel with music that included Bach, the African Mass, “The Missa Luba,” spirituals by Odetta and the blues of Blind Willie Johnson. In addition to being a filmmaker, Pasolini was a writer, a poet, an intellectual, gay and a communist. Christ is portrayed as a radical peasant. He’s tough, doesn’t suffer fools and you see the divinity in his eyes when he encounters children or a leper. It’s a powerful film, not at all a Hollywood depiction of Christ. When they roll away the stone at the end, it’s almost enough to make you believe right there. The point to telling this story is I knew there could be another version of Christ than the one Dylan portrayed, which is mostly about belief without question, hellfire damnation and most of all, apocalypse. On the other hand, Bob Dylan’s been singing about the end of the world pretty much since he started recording.


This still controversial period of Dylan’s career has now been revisited with Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series Volume 13/1979-1981 (Columbia Legacy) a mammoth eight-disc and (finally) one DVD set that includes 101 songs on the audio portion including two complete concerts from 1980 and 1981. Unlike the last Bootleg Series, The Cutting Edge, the producers didn’t provide every take from every session, instead selecting tracks from concerts, studio outtakes and rehearsals covering a three-year period, making for a more pleasurable and varied listening experience. As usual Dylan fans are already quibbling about the selections. And I have a couple of quibbles myself about a couple of live tracks where there’s lyric flubs. But like any serious Dylan fan, I have other versions I can listen to.


The liner notes are comprised of four articles. The introduction by Ben Rollins goes into what the producers were hoping to accomplish with this set, explaining the sources of the recordings and stressing that they were going for performance above everything else. He also makes it quite clear that in compiling this box, the producers were aware this was and potentially still is controversial. The second set of notes, “Fire In My Bones,” by Amanda Pertrusich deals with the societal and political implications of Dylan’s conversion and the effect it had on his followers. The track by track by music journalist Rob Bowman delves deep into what Dylan and his musicians are doing musically, but also provides many of the sources of the scriptural lines in the songs. It is the best track by track since John Bauldie’s notes on the very first Bootleg Series. In the accompanying photo book, Pressing On, Penn Jillette writes about how to be an atheist and a Dylan fan and love these songs regardless of your religious persuasion. Included in the book are typed copies of the lyrics with various changes Dylan made while working on them.


The first two discs are various live performances, the second two are rare and unreleased songs and/or performances. There are songs that no one knew existed as well as alternate takes of songs that never circulated in the underground Dylan bootleg community.


In November 1979, Dylan started touring behind Slow Train Coming opening with a 16-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. Backing him was one of the best bands he ever put together. The basic unit of the band would stay together for the next three years. Bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Jim Keltner were generally considered one of the best rhythm sections in rock music. Fred Tackett was a seasoned session player. Spooner Oldham was a legendary Muscle Shoals keyboard player. Also on board were gospel organ player and singer, Terry Young and three backup singers, Regina McCrary, Helena Springs and Mona Lisa Young. It was the most disciplined and on target band Dylan would ever have, which is an almost heretical thing to say for a diehard Dylan and The Band fan like myself.


The controversy that ensued at the Warfield shows made the Newport debacle seem tame. Religious groups including Jews For Jesus were handing out tracts at the theater entrance. The show started with Regina McCrary telling a story about a gospel train, followed by a short set of gospel songs from the backup singers. Dylan would then take the stage, sing all the songs from Slow Train Coming and most of the songs that would appear on his next album, Saved. He did not sing any of his older songs. As word spread, at later concerts during the Warfield stand, fans would hold up signs that said “Jesus loves your old songs too.” But you have to give him credit. On what was clearly a career killing move, he would not budge. Writer Paul Williams details all this in his book, Dylan– What Happened? which came out early in 1980. Dylan would often preach between songs, and well, a lot of what he said was way out there, and that’s putting it mildly.

What Trouble No More makes abundantly clear is that three year period featured some of the most amazing concerts of Dylan’s entire career, equal in intensity to the shows of 1966. While (the song) “Slow Train Coming” may have annoying lines, it was one powerhouse in concert and different versions including an early rehearsal version from late in 1978 begin the first four discs.


Not all of Dylan’s songs from this period are what I consider to be gospel music in a strict musical sense. Many of the songs are for lack of a better term typical Bob Dylan songs. But several of the songs such as “Covenant Woman,” “In The Garden,” “Saving Grace” and “What Can I Do For You” show him getting more adventurous in chord progressions as well as being some of his best melodies. Also in the best melodies category is the hymn, “When He Returns.” There are four great versions on the set, a live one from Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1979, that is Dylan on guitar with Spooner Oldham on piano, an incredible outtake from the Slow Train sessions, and one on the Toronto concert. There is another one on the DVD with Dylan on piano that may or not be the same Toronto version (I haven’t compared).

Some songs I consider to be straight gospel, like “Saved,” worked far better in concert than in the studio. Several other gospel songs “Blessed Is The Name Of The Lord Forever,” “I Will Love Him,” “Jesus Is The One” and “City Of Gold,” were only done in concert, and since (apparently) they were never done in the studio, may have been written expressly for that purpose, often serving as energetic rave-ups with the backup singers playing a big part.


It is clear that Dylan was working on several levels musically at this point, and in addition to gospel was writing songs that leaned towards R&B, particularly the soul music of Memphis and Muscle Shoals (which itself came out of gospel), reggae as well as of the hardest rockers of his career. And he had the band that could pull all of it off, sometimes combining all three. “Thief On The Cross” wanders into Rolling Stones territory, and there are two other songs that are also reminiscent of the Stones. “Yonder Comes Sin,” which was leaked on bootlegs years ago has a guitar part that echoes “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” while the chord progression on the previously unknown “Making A Liar Out Of Me” sounds suspiciously like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” However, I always considered “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to be Jagger and Richards writing a Dylan song (something they did more than once), so this brings it full circle. “Making A Liar Out Of Me” was recorded at a tour rehearsal in September 1980, and is one of the reasons the Bootleg Series are important and great. It has all the makings of a great Dylan song, but apparently was abandoned. These lines show that Dylan was starting to move on writing-wise:


So many things so hard to say as you stumble
To take refuge in your offices of shame
As the earth beneath my feet begins to rumble
And your young men die for nothin', not even fame

In November 1980, Dylan returned to the Warfield for 12 shows. At the urging of Bill Graham, he started including a few of his older songs in the set. Other musicians, Carlos Santana, Mike Bloomfield and Jerry Garcia dropped by during the show and joined Dylan onstage. He also included a few covers, but more importantly debuted a few new songs that were not stridently religious. One of those songs, “Let’s Keep It Between Us,” which Bonnie Raitt did a fine cover of, is one of the songs seriously missing from this set. Two of those songs from the shows, “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Caribbean Wind” (in its only live performance) are included. The live version of “Groom” features Carlos Santana on a totally explosive lead. (There is an equally great version from the Warfield shows with Mike Bloomfield that appears on the box set From His Head To His Heart To His Hands released a few years ago.)  The song also appears on Disc Four in a speedy studio version. The song contains one of my all-time favorite Dylan lines, “They mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery,” and represent something of a return to Dylan writing lines that have a razor’s edge. A different studio version of “Groom” was released on the flip-side of “Heart Of Mine,” the first single from Shot of Love, and an interesting thing happened, it started getting airplay, so much airplay that Columbia added it to the album. One of the few things Rob Bowman gets wrong in the liner notes is when he says it was only added to the compact disc. It was added to the vinyl version (long before compact discs), and is sitting on the shelf right behind me.     


“Caribbean Wind” is a major work, and the live version features Dylan playing 12-string guitar, something that has rarely happened in concert. Dylan introduced the song by talking about Leadbelly doing children’s songs, and how he was the same man who also sang blues songs. There is another version of the song on Disc Four that is slower and features Dylan on piano and Ben Keith playing gorgeous pedal steel guitar. No one knew about this version until this set. Both this and “Groom” emphasize one of the virtues of The Bootleg Series – they show how Dylan works on every level, as a songwriter and as a musician, constantly revising lyrics, changing chords, melodies and arrangements. Why these two songs (and “Angelina” from The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3) were not on Shot Of Love will remain one of the great mysteries of Dylan recording decisions. It would’ve been a way different and far better album.


In 1981, it started to appear that changes were afoot. My first inkling was early in the year when through sheer luck or possibly divine intervention a thoughtful friend called me up and said, I had to come to his parents’ house in the suburbs because an old high school friend was visiting and had a new Dylan song that I had to hear. The friend turned out to be Joel Bernstein, a photographer and musician best known for shooting Neil Young and CSNY album covers, who had worked with Dylan in 1976 and ’78. When I arrived, Bernstein said I couldn’t tape the song, but he’d play it as many times as I wanted. Now at the time I was extremely pissed off at Bob Dylan. The previous May I attended the only totally gospel Dylan show I saw in Hartford, Connecticut. The tour probably for good reason avoided playing the major cities of the East Coast. Before “Solid Rock,” Dylan delivered what is generally referred to as The San Francisco rap, about iniquity in San Francisco. I was shocked and appalled and stayed that way for a long time, giving Saved a savage review in the program guide of the radio station I did shows at. (I’ve changed my opinion of Saved since that time.) The song was “Every Grain Of Sand,” the piano version with Jennifer Warnes, Fred Tackett, and a dog barking in the background that appeared on the very first Bootleg Series. My mind was totally blown. It was a major work of startling poetry that recalled William Blake. I thought it was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard, and probably asked Joel to play it about ten times, which he totally understood. I didn’t hear that version again for ten years. Two excellent versions of the song are on this set, a live one done at the last show of the ’81 tour that is the best live version I’ve heard coming very close to the Shot Of Love version. The other is a rehearsal from September 1980 with celestial keyboards from Willie Smith. On both versions, Dylan doesn’t mess with the feel, the lyrics on the melody.


One song from that Hartford show that stuck with me was “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody,” which is here two very different versions. The version from Montreal that appears on Disc Two (which is more than likely the version I saw a couple of weeks later) opens with an a cappella part by the background singers coming in one at a time, almost in a round) shows how good they really were. The song is close to being pure soul pop. The later version from the end of the year on Disc Four is faster, and the vocal intro has been dropped. In June 1981, I saw Dylan at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. The backup singers still opened the show, but there were lots of changes. There was a new keyboard player, William “Smitty” Smith who’d replaced both Spooner Oldham and Terry Young the previous fall, and an additional guitarist, Steve Ripley. Dylan did ten old songs including a beautiful “Girl From The North Country” highlighted by Smith’s piano, as well as two covers, Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree” and Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” sung as a duet with Clydie King, with both seated at the piano. But the song that validated my feeling things were changing was “Lenny Bruce,” which is part of the London ’81 concert included. There was no way a tribute to Lenny Bruce jibed with right-wing born again thinking. Another song at that show that grabbed me was “Dead Man, Dead Man” which would appear on the then unreleased Shot Of Love, and appears three times on the set in an outtake and two live versions from 1981. Both live versions are faster than the album version and feature a very cool twin guitar solo. Recorded only a few days apart, there are subtle differences, though the sound quality is better on the June 27th version, allowing you to hear more of the organ with drums more prominent. The outtake on Disc Four is way slower than the live versions, features only Clydie King on backup vocal, Benmont Tench on keyboard, Danny Kortchmar and Steve Ripley on guitars, and Dylan playing a very strange almost dissonant harmonica. There are also major changes in the lyrics including entire verses that were eventually abandoned.   


After that show, Dylan toured Europe for the first time in three years, playing London for six nights. The concert the second night makes up discs seven and eight and is presented in full. Several other songs from that tour are presented throughout the set. From that tour are truly ferocious versions of “Slow Train Coming,” “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Shot Of Love.”


In October, Dylan toured the US, playing parts of the Midwest, Canada, major East Coast cities, as well as several dates in the South. Unlike the previous gospel tours which played small theaters, this time he was playing arenas. Al Kooper had replaced Smitty Smith on keyboards resulting in Kooper resurrecting some of his classic organ on parts on such songs as “Like A Rolling Stone” and “I Want You.” For the US tour, the opening set by the backup singers had been dropped from the show. For the Philly show, the first of three shows I saw that tour, he was bopping around the stage like a madman. Of the 26 songs at that show, 15 were written prior to the gospel albums and some song would change from show to show. There are two songs from that tour on the set, the previously mentioned “Every Grain Of Sand” and a slowed down version of “Solid Rock” that while not rocking as hard was every bit as effective generating a spookiness the fast versions did not have. 1981 was one of my favorite Dylan years. The band was on fire and he was at the top of his game. The London concert included is a fine representation.  


The DVD is an hour-long film, Trouble In Mind that was shown once in various theaters across the US. It’s been known for years that Dylan’s shows at Massey Hall in Toronto in April 1980 were professionally filmed, and copies have circulated. In the past two years it was also revealed that the shows in Buffalo were filmed as well. The performance footage is stunning and ranks with the best of Dylan concert films. The film starts with a snippet of previously unknown version of the traditional song “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well” shot at a rehearsal studio, with Dylan on bass and Tim Drummond on guitar along with the rest of the band. It is followed by a pretty funny commercial for a 1980 Dylan concert in Portland, Oregon with various fan reaction. The opening song is “Are You Ready” which was usually the first song of the encore of the concerts at the time. As Dylan walks off stage afterwards his footsteps dissolve into those of Michael Shannon delivering the first of eight sermons, this one on hypocrisy. The sermons were written by writer Luc Sante at Dylan’s request. Other topics, and sometimes the sermons are divided into parts include, virtue, temperance, justice and prudence. They’re okay, but ultimately a one or two-time watch, and thankfully and thoughtfully you have the option of watching the concert footage without the sermons. The film ends with a beautifully intimate version of “Abraham, Martin and John,” a hit for Dion but written by Dick Holler sung by Dylan and Clydie King both seated at the piano (with no other instruments). Every Dylan fan will want to see this. The song was performed in concert several times on the spring and summer 1981 tour.


Dylan and Clydie King who joined the backup singers in the spring of 1980 did two other duets in 1981, the Tommy Edwards hit, “It’s All In The Game) during the fall tour, and a great and not well known Jimmy Webb song “Let’s Begin” which debuted in June and was kept in the set during the fall tour. The latter song is part of the full 1981 London concert included in the set and a most welcome addition to the set. Of all the singers Dylan has done duets with over the years, Clydie King truly knew how to sing with him, and the song is a special moment.


Trouble No More makes it clear that the years from 1979 through 1981 were not by any means the lost years, whether or not you agreed with the direction he decided to take. Many of the songs here not previously recorded are as deep as anything he wrote. It also makes it quite clear that the live versions of the songs on Saved blow the studio versions out of the water, and that goes for a lot of the songs from Shot Of Love and Slow Train Coming as well. It was a creative time for Dylan both as a songwriter and a musician. The set also makes clear that Fred Tackett deserves consideration among the great Dylan guitar players. Check out his solo on “Bless Is The Name Of The Lord Forever,” and there are many more that are equally on fire. It is also obvious that a lot of thought went into the selection and sequencing of the songs on this set. It is beyond question an important addition to The Bootleg Series.