There is perhaps no part of Bob Dylan’s career that is more controversial than his “Christian period.” Nothing compares to it… Not going from acoustic folky (although I always heard as much Robert Johnson or Son House as Woody Guthrie in that music) to electric rocker; not his retreat after a motorcycle accident and return with the quiet statement of John Wesley Harding when the rest of the world was dressed in psychedelic day-glo colors; not his turn to country music on Nashville Skyline – none of those stylistic turns and changes evoke more controversy and full throated criticism as Dylan’s Christian music. Even the universally loathed Self Portrait may be more valued than his trinity of gospel albums.
People tend to forget that after the collapse of the 60’s Hippy Dream came the decadence and selfish 70s with Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War in defeat. America was kind of reeling. There were a lot of people who were groovy hippies in the 60s only to turn to God or EST or some other higher power in the 70s. Why would Dylan be any different? I’m not a religious man. On a good day I’d be considered a Pagan, but who wouldn’t want to dance naked around a tree? On a bad day I’d be considered a non-believer. I’ve always respected the tenets of Buddhism, especially karma and I dig Jesus, just not many of his followers. I’m like the Lloyd Bridges’ character in the movie Cousins, when he said, “God makes me nervous when you get him inside.”
I like to think of religious faith the same way I do sexual preference: Practice whatever brings you joy/happiness, just don’t talk to me about it. Despite all that, I can still appreciate art inspired by God. I can listen to Dylan’s religious albums the same way I can walk through a Cathedral and admire the passion of the workers and architects in building a beautiful monument to God with gorgeous stained-glass windows or a beautiful painting of Jesus in the arms of Mary. La Pieta is one of my favorite sculptures. But I can walk through that Cathedral, look at that statue and admire it without being drawn in by the message. I can admire the art for purely artistic purposes and despite my lack of faith, I can be moved by that art. I respect God as a perfectly acceptable muse. My muses have always been a bit more… temporal in nature.
It’s with that backdrop that I admit one of the first Dylan albums I ever bought, after his single LP Greatest Hits, (he’s pictured on the cover in a jean jacket, which became part of my wardrobe immediately) was 1979’s Slow Train Coming, the first salvo in what would be a trio of religious-themed albums. There had been hints Dylan had become born again. On the tour for the terribly received Street Legal, he’d been making sermon-like speeches from the stage. He’d also been seen wearing a silver cross. While critics weren’t crazy about Slow Train Coming, I loved it. I remember spending the night over at friend of mine’s house, who I’ll call Eddie, with a couple of other guys. We had the radio on that night and were drinking warm beer. I think some of the crowd were also on acid. Our local radio station kept playing “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Dylan’s single from Slow Train every thirty minutes or so. Every time he’d sing, “you might be sleeping on the floor, might be sleeping in a king sized bed,” we’d all break out laughing because we were sleeping on the floor. Of course that hysterical laughter might have been caused by the acid crazies who were there that night. Anyway, I went out and bought that record the next day. “Serve Somebody” is just a great song and it went on to win the Grammy that year. There were other great songs on that album, including the blues rave-up “Change My Way of Thinking” and the title track. To this day when I feel bad things are coming, I’ll invariable look at somebody and say, “There’s a slow train coming.” To me Slow Train was still a rock and roll album only with religious themes. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar is amazing on this record.
After that Dylan returned in 1980 with Saved which was an all-out gospel album. It sounds like a tent revival with guitars. That’s where I got off the bandwagon, although in retrospect I did like a couple of the ballads from that record, “Covenant Woman,” and “What Can I Do For You?” Dylan’s final “Christian album” from the trilogy was 1981’s Shot of Love. Shot of Love, to me was a bit of a retreat from the strident Christianity of Saved. The album felt more like a rock and roll album with secular themes and lyrics full of religious references as opposed to full-on gospel. Dylan, it seemed, took the arc that many religious converts go through. I’ve always seen faith like a pendulum. The new convert swings hard to the right and is a strident solider for the Lord, trying to convert everyone through fear and fire and brimstone. Then the pendulum swings back to the left and they move to that “thankful phase,” where they’re just giddy to be saved… and then it starts to wear off. The pendulum falls back to the bottom, and they are still religious, but it doesn’t dominate every conversation any more. They see the world differently, but they see the world a little more clearly again. At least, those are the phases a guy I went to college with went through and it’s eerily similar to what I saw Dylan go through. Prior to 81, he’d refused to play any of his old songs and was only doing gospel stuff. By 81 he’d started to sprinkle older tunes back into the setlist. By 1983’s Infidels, Dylan was back to conventional rock and roll. Although I think his lyrics have been influenced by his Christian period ever since… the bible is an incredible source of lyrical content.
Earlier this year, Dylan released the 13th volume of his Bootleg Series, revisiting his Christian period, entitled Trouble No More. Santa brought me the deluxe, 9-disc (8 CDs, 1 DVD) edition. I posted a guide to Dylan’s brilliant Bootleg Series as one of my early posts, Dylan’s Bootleg Series – A User’s Guide. Dylan’s Bootleg Series falls into several categories. There are purely live/concert releases, (Vol 4, The Royal Albert Hall Concert, or Vol 5, The Rolling Thunder Review Live, Vol 6 Live 1964) that capture a certain important moment in his career. There are vault clearing releases, similar to Springsteen’s Tracks, (Vol 1 – 3, Rare and Unreleased or Vol 12, The Cutting Edge, 1965-1966). Finally, there are the releases that are meant to shed new light on a particularly maligned period of time in Dylan’s career (Vol 10, Another Self Portrait or Vol 8 Tell Tale Signs) that are typically chock full of live cuts, unreleased/different versions of tunes that were released and unreleased material from the aforementioned maligned period. Trouble No More is clearly in the latter category. This release is obviously intended to shed new light on this controversial part of his career. However, it also has the flavor of the first category, the purely live releases, in that most of this release is live stuff.
Discs 1 & 2, (which is the standard edition release of this set), contain live highlights from 1979 to 1981. These 2 discs, really do cast new light on Dylan’s religious period. There are some passionate, dare I say, joyful performances of the gospel material. His band was exceptional. Fred Tackett on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and Tim Drummond on bass are all playing their asses off. Dylan augmented the band with four female back-up singers, Regina McCrary, Carolyn Dennis, Regina Peebles and Mona Lisa Young and these soulful ladies take you to church. There’s gospel, rock and roll and ballads. Dylan and the band are really committed to these performances. I particularly enjoyed the performance of “Caribbean Wind,” “In The Garden,” and the rocking “Slow Train.” For the casual fan, the standard edition, which only contains these performances, would be a good addition to your Dylan collection. These two discs capture that spirit of reevaluation that I think Dylan is looking for.
Discs 3 & 4 are the rare and unreleased stuff. Most of the stuff on 3/4 are rehearsals and early versions of previously released music. Although I’ll admit there are only a handful of truly unreleased material that I hadn’t heard before. The highlights from these discs are “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One,” “Trouble In Mind” and “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Nobody.” There is also a great version of “Caribbean Wind” done with a pedal steel guitar. It might be the definitive version of that song. Most of the unreleased stuff was performed live. There aren’t many studio outtakes. Since Dylan was refusing to play any of his older, “classic” material, he was augmenting the setlist with his new, unreleased stuff which must have been slightly baffling to his audience. There’s a lot of good stuff on these two discs. These discs are what made the deluxe edition essential for me… but I am a bit of an OCD completist.
Discs 5 & 6 contain highlights (which recreate the set list) from a series of concerts in Toronto in 1980. These are great, impassioned performances. I’m not sure they add much to the first two discs, though. Any reimagining of this material, without the studio gloss of the late 70s/early 80s will probably be realized by listening to those first discs which render these two discs somewhat superfluous. The performances of the songs have changed, Dylan always changes things up on stage (tempo/lyrics etc) so that part is fascinating.
Discs 7 & 8 contain a full concert, start to finish, from London in 1981. By 1981 Dylan, who had on previous gospel tours refused to play any of his older material, finally started to sprinkle old hits into the setlist… he called that tour “The Retrospective Tour.” I think this is an interesting performance in that it shows Dylan playing his older classic material alongside the gospel material. His aforementioned band members play with passion and the old stuff sounds great. This really was one of Dylan’s best backing bands.
Finally, Disc 9, the DVD is a curious film. In between live concert footage, they put in actor Michael Shannon playing a preacher, preaching sermons. I couldn’t hit the fast forward button quick enough. If you’re buying this set for the DVD, save your money.
I think Dylan’s Christian period is a fascinating chapter in his story. While I’m not sure all 8 discs of material are essential listening, I’d say the first two discs in the standard configuration of this set is essential to any Dylan fan. For the completist you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Discs 3/4 and the final concert on discs 7/8. Don’t even put the DVD in, it’s not worth it.
Those are my thoughts folks. Happy New Year! Be safe out there!