Bob Dylan's Christian Era & The "Trouble No More" Bootlegs Review
It was not just that Bob Dylan got religious in the late 70's. It was that he went all in with a bombastic sort of Christianity akin to a late night televangelist: "The end of the world is coming!", "Jesus is the only way to salvation!" "Sinners be damned!" His back catalog was jettisoned in favor of an entirely new set of religious songs. Concerts took on the airs of tent preacher revivals complete with sermons between songs, stopping just short of Bobby jumping into the crowd to tap wheelchair'd old ladies on the foreheads. Audiences were baffled, if not outright hostile.
So what happened? Religious metaphor and biblical allusions had always been part of his music, but they didn't play a central role and were often treated with the same wise guy cynicism as love, politics, and every other Dylan topic. A line from 1966's "Visions Of Johanna" has always seemed to me like the best summation of our search for meaning, religious or otherwise: "We sit here stranded but we're all doing our best to deny it." Rather bleak sentiment, and hardly the words of a true believer. But something happened in 1978 that suddenly changed his way of thinking.The key to my theory can be found in the lyrics to "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)," the final track on Street-Legal, which immediately preceded the conversion.
"Horseplay and disease is killing me by degrees
While the law looks the other way
Your partners in crime hit me up for nickels and dimes
The guy you were lovin' couldn't stay clean..
There's a white diamond gloom on the dark side of this room
And a pathway that leads up to the stars
If you don't believe there's a price for this sweet paradise
Remind me to show you the scars"
There are some clear drug references - nothing new in Dylan's music - with new elements of desperation and despair. His marriage had fallen apart and the creative energy that fuels his best work was wearing out. Perhaps his drug use - which seemed to peak on the mid 70's Rolling Thunder Revue tour with its speedy versions and onstage singing in pancake makeup - had gotten out of control. Or at least he'd reached a spiritual dead end, running from concert to concert and hotel to hotel with all the 70's rock star accoutrements. At some point he may have received some counsel which included Christian literature. And something obviously clicked, big time.
The three albums of his Christian era - Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love - only tell part of the story. Slow Train was well received at the time despite the drastic change in message, thanks to the catchy tunes and slick production. Saved was the one that caught a lot of hate, often regarded as his worst album. Of course it's one of my favorites. By this time, he was all in with the religious stuff and the lukewarm reception - to say the least - from audiences had strengthened his resolve. There's some bitterness and paranoia here, with warnings of the apocalypse and perhaps some persecution complex. But I could appreciate it as a sort of genre exercise, like Ween's 12 Golden Country Greats album. The next album Shot Of Love ends with "Every Grain Of Sand," one of his finest song that provides a fitting finale for the era. It even made sense to me - a cynical athiest and Christoper Hitchens fan. I can hear his faith beginning to waver and there is some real fear palpable. "Every Grain Of Sand" gets real and asks big questions about the world and faith and what this shit is really all about.
Here's something else real - a live performance of "When He Returns." I remember hearing an audience bootleg of one of the big religious concerts, complete with hooting and hollering and some booing and shouting out for the old classics. You really get a sense of the vibe of the whole scene, and there is confusion and dissatisfaction evident. But when he plays a solo version of this song, they seem to get it, the way I did with "Every Grain Of Sand." He sings, "Don't you cry, don't you die, and don't you burn," and there's an appreciative roar from the audience. Dylan has not changed. He's still speaking the same truths. "Don't you burn" could be an anti-war sentiment, or a message of personal redemption or whatever you want it to be.
Trouble No More is the latest collection in the ongoing Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, a massive box set with several full concerts and two discs of outtakes from this gospel era. It is similar to the Basement Tapes set - an outpouring of inspiration, songs and songs that couldn't be contained by conventional albums. Even as it stands, there are a few tracks missing from the set. "Let's Keep It Between Us" has always been one of my favorites, though that seems to address his crumbling marriage more than his faith. Plus there's another disc of pre-Shot Of Love demos floating around that would have fit nicely. And the concerts are clean soundboards that don't include his between song sermons which really add to the whole experience. But I'm not complaining - this is religious music, so I'm trying to stay grateful for what we have. And these live recordings are tremendous, with the best backing musicians he ever had outside of The Band themselves. The music flows, it's alive and full of intricacies and riffs that were never apparent on the studio albums.
His songwriting was never so sophisticated as during this gospel era. Early acoustic Dylan often recycled old folk progressions, leading up the rock era with Blonde On Blonde's more inventive melodies and bridges. In the mid 80's and beyond, he's often relied too much on 12 bar blues for my tastes with song after song based on the same structure. But during the gospel era he was playing with different modes and modulations, surely inspired by the band and religious music he was soaking up. "In The Garden," for example, uses some odd changes quite unlike the traditional Dylan sound. There are a few new revelations on the two discs of outtakes as well - "No Man Righteous, No Not One" is funky gospel that reminds me of Randy Newman on a Jesus kick, and "Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody" is so damn catchy that I've wandering around singing it to myself and getting some strange looks. "Caribbean Wind" is also here in yet another incarnation. That track is something of a Holy Grail for Dylan fans, one of his potentially greatest songs that was never quite brought to fruition. The core story seems to involve a menage a trois that the singer remembers and pines for, and the lyrics suggest the other participants were a hooker and her pimp. Dylan completely rewrote the lyrics several times, perhaps in an attempt to conceal the taboo nature of its narrative. He never really completed a final version but what we get here are good additions to its chronology.
Bob Dylan has since disregarded his gospel era, only occasionally playing a song or two at shows. His 1983 album Infidels returned to 'normal Dylan' stuff, though it did include the Jesus analogy "Jokerman" and the oddly jingoistic "Union Sundown." (It did not include "Blind Willie McTell" or "Foot Of Pride," probably the best songs from the sessions - thus the necessity for the Bootleg Series.) The Christian stuff that had been a burning matter of life and death was just dropped. Again it begs the question - what happened? We must remember that Dylan has always been iconoclastic, bucking trends and audience expectations. But the other lesson is the depths to which he'll explore various avenues. Bob Dylan the artist was born from an early obsession with folk music. He didn't just learn a few tunes - he studied entire catalogs, absorbed meanings and motivations, got to the very soul of American folk. On the back of his 1967 John Wesley Harding album there's an absurd story about some foolish kings looking to hear the new Dylan album. "How far would you like to go?" they are asked and they reply, "Just far enough to say we've been there." This is wrong! Don't be those guys. Don't just scratch at the surface. Embrace your interests and passions, learn from them, contribute to the narrative whatever the consequences. "Don't you cry, don't you die, don't you burn."