HIGH FREQUENCIES: ‘Trouble, trouble, nothing but trouble’
The latest installment in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series reflects on the ‘Gospel’ years
Of all the Bob Dylans the world has known — ever mercurial, he changes his style just as his audience thinks they have him figured out — perhaps the least respected, the most reviled, the most persecuted Bob Dylan was the proselytizing Bob Dylan of “the Gospel years.“ A three-year period from 1979 to 1981, Dylan, the poet laureate of popular music and the prophet of the ‘60s, not only turned to Jesus Christ for his inspiration, but turned away from his own compositions, the very ones that inspired so many of his followers.
Dylan’s turn to Christianity left his audience aghast. How could he become a man of the Cross? Religion is the opiate of the masses, many of his liberal followers believed, while more conservative fans were shocked that he would renounce his Judaism.
It wasn’t surprising that Evangelical Bob was rejected. He may have been called Judas in ’66, but this turn was far more than just a peck on the cheek. Dylan didn’t just switch instruments, from acoustic to electric guitar, but he switched roles, from prophet to follower. His songs may have been the answers so many were seeking during the ‘60s, but Dylan had his own questions, and he found the answers, “pressing on to the higher calling of the Lord.”
While ignoring the message and shooting the messenger, metaphorically, of course, though Dylan’s conversion was met with such anger it’s surprising someone didn’t take a shot at him, fans were missing out on some of the most impassioned music Dylan had created in years. He also gave some of the most energized and cathartic performances of his career, but long-time fans chose not to be there for him.
Dylan’s 1978 tour, captured on the album Bob Dylan at Budokan, was lambasted at the time. The big band, the horn section, the backup singers, the new arrangements of old songs … Critics charged Dylan with going “Vegas,” comparing him to Neil Diamond, a raconteur and a showman, rather than recognizing him as the voice of a generation that they had so glowingly regarded him to be in the past.
During the Gospel Years, he did just that.
Not only was his next studio album, Slow Train Coming, a profession of his new-found faith and spiritual calling, but every song reflected his desire to serve the Lord. Nothing on it was even remotely secular. Dylan browbeat those who would listen with songs that found their origins in the New Testament, many which could be traced down to the exact chapter and verse.
And he did so with one of his best-produced and most solid albums to date. Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with famed producer Jerry Wexler (see production credits on albums by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield, Donny Hathaway, Dr. John and others to understand Dylan’s choice) at the helm, Slow Train Coming is a masterpiece. Well-crafted and finely-honed — if only Dylan wasn’t singing about Jesus, fans and critics lamented! Eager to spread the Word, Dylan quickly took his new band on the road. And for all the polish of the material on Slow Train Coming, as if the songs were dressed-up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, Dylan stripped them of their sheen and let the fire-and-brimstone of his evangelical fervor fly on tour.
Dylan didn’t play Atlanta in support of Slow Train Coming, focusing instead on secondary markets where either he figured his message would be better received, or, the audiences were so starved for entertainment they would go see him despite what the critics had to say.
With no Atlanta date, I traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, for two shows at the Civic Auditorium-Coliseum, to see what the hell was going on. It was a small theater, holding maybe 2,000 people, that Dylan played in the multi-venue facility. Onstage, Dylan was a changed man. Electric. Captivating. Invigorated. It may have been the religious zeal that prompted him, but never was he more direct, more personal and more wanting to connect with his audience. The songs on Slow Train Coming were simple Sunday school hymns compared to the Friday night revivalist songs of praise and proselytizing that he let loose with in concert.
The show started with a soliloquy from one of the backup singers, telling the story of “an old woman who needed to take a train ride to see her son. Trouble was, she didn’t have a ticket. The old woman got down on her knees and started praying. Jesus told her, ‘Go on down to the train station,’” at which point the audience started applauding wildly. The story continued. “The woman got on the train. When the conductor came to her, he said, ‘Ticket, please,’ but the old woman just looked at him. ‘Jesus told me to get on this train.’ He told her that without a ticket, she’d have to get off. Outside on the platform, the old woman got down on her knees and prayed, ‘Father, I stretch out my hand to thee.’ She sang it three times. ‘Old woman,’ the conductor yelled, ‘get back on this train. Jesus got your ticket!’” The crowd erupted again. This was not your normal Bob Dylan audience. The singers then went into the spiritual, “If I Got My Ticket, Can I Ride?” As they were building to a crescendo at the song’s end, Dylan walked onstage, and they segued into “When You Gonna Wake Up?” from Slow Train Coming.
Dylan continued playing the bulk of Slow Train Coming, the songs now with a funkiness and zeal not found in the studio recordings. The fervor with which he presented them was an indication of how strong his new-found belief was. The intensity with which the musicians played was a testament to their understanding Dylan’s devotion and ability to develop the songs to their full potential. The core group of session players Dylan and Wexler employed in the studio — Fred Tackett, guitar; Spooner Oldham, keyboards; Tim Drummond, bass; and Jim Keltner, drums; with Willie Smith later replacing Oldham and Steve Ripley joining Tackett and Dylan on guitar — proved to be what Dylan needed to take his new songs nearer to the fire burning in his soul.
If any questions remained as to Dylan’s commitment, the even newer songs he introduced that tour made it clear Dylan’s conversion to Christianity was not only sincere, but incredibly intense, extolling the virtues of being “born again.” He was on a mission. And that mission was not only to spread the word of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior, but to convert anyone and everyone who ever had a passing interest in him.
The songs “Covenant Woman,” “Solid Rock,” “Saving Grace,” “Saved,” “What Can I Do For You,” “In The Garden” and “Pressing On,” all of which would later be released on Saved, were ferocious in their attack, Dylan spitting out lyrics as if his very soul depended on it. And, indeed, at this point in time, he believed it did. Dylan had foregone the personas he’d carried around throughout his career, whatever labels he’d been tagged with, and given himself to Christ.
During the tour, which was met with contemptuous coverage, Dylan refused to perform any of his pre-conversion material. At one show, a fan yelled out for “Lay Lady Lay!” He rebuffed her, “I don’t know why I ever wrote that song.” It appeared Dylan had left the songs, and his past, behind for good.
At the end of the second Knoxville show, before walking off stage, Dylan looked out at the small crowd, admonishing, “They say seeing is believing, but you’ve got to believe before you can see.”
I left believing I had seen a man transformed, a man who, for once, was searching to find himself rather than pretending to have all the answers. For all the questions he had raised over the years, all the answers he’d given, for all the prophetic insights we’d attributed to Dylan, he was no different than the rest of us, searching for something to fill the void, and, in his case, to fill the void of someone who appeared to have it all.
By Shot Of Love, the third “gospel” album in the acknowledged trilogy, Dylan was comfortable with his faith, though many of his fans, and even his record company, were not. His label, Columbia Records, delayed releasing Shot Of Love, though it had been finished for months. With advance copies already in circulation, it was evident Dylan had not returned to writing more secular material. Instead, with this new set of songs, Dylan altered his approach. Not only were they no longer solely devotional, extolling his embrace of Christianity, but they were written with the same sardonic wit and underlying wisdom of his past songwriting style. By integrating the spiritual into the real, Shot Of Love was a series of compositions detailing the intricacies of life one encounters while maintaining the straight and narrow on the road to salvation.
In fact, Dylan seemed so comfortable with his calling, he began an offensive of his detractors with vehemence. “Property Of Jesus” was a biting attack on his critics. “Trouble” took jabs at the world’s ills suffered by those who didn’t believe. “Watered-Down Love” acknowledged the dichotomy between those who chose to live their lives without Jesus Christ and those who had accepted Him as savior. “Dead Man, Dead Man” questioned when non-Christians would heed the call. The title track was a sarcastic play on words: the protagonist didn’t need a shot of heroin, no shot of codeine, nor a shot of whiskey to make it through — only “a shot of love.”
With a world tour in support of Shot Of Love scheduled to start in France in late June of 1981, Shot Of Love was not released until August of that year. A handful of warm-up dates in the U.S. were announced, only days before Dylan and the band headed to Europe.
One date was Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. An outdoor amphitheater, it was an incongruous group of Dylan fans in the audience that 14th day of June. There was the season-ticket subscriber, in dry-cleaned designer jeans with the spouse and baby in tow; the typical concert-goer, there to see whoever was onstage; and the new Dylan faithful, passing out free Christian tracts and carrying a picture of Jesus, asking everyone, “Do you know THIS man?”
The show started with a short gospel set by keyboard player Willie Smith and four back-up singers. No one took much notice. The stage turned dark. When the lights came up, Dylan and band steamrolled into an apocalyptic, bludgeoning version of “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Dylan looked younger than he had in years, his usual ashen face and unkempt hair replaced with a tan and tightly-curled locks. He animatedly punched his fist in the air, punctuating the end of each verse. The forcefulness of his delivery was relentless. The second song, “I Believe In You,” once a plaintive prayer of acknowledgement, was now an urgent plea of admission and acceptance. With the organ’s last notes of the song fading out, barely audible, yet seemingly familiar, sinewy lines began to be played. The guitars joined in, and, before the audience realized what was going on, Dylan spewed out the words, “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime didn’t you?” The intensity of Dylan’s delivery — and the unexpectedness of the familiar lyrics — forced the audience to its feet with uproarious, almost victorious applause. Dylan’s delivery of a vengeful “Like A Rolling Stone” affirmed what many in the audience surely hoped to witness: Bob Dylan was back!
At the end of the concert, which was a well-balanced offering of past hits (“Maggie’s Farm,” “Girl From The North Country,” Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Just Like A Woman” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” among them) intertwined with his Christian songs, Dylan implored the audience, “Clap if we played something you came to hear.” He got a round of applause, but short of the tumultuous response he must have been expecting, having just performed highlights from two decades-worth of greatest hits. He asked again, twice, “Clap if we played something you came to hear.” He appealed one more time. “Clap louder. I’m confused.” Whether to the audience, or to himself, Dylan leaned forward to the microphone, remarking, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
Almost 40 years later, many still look back with disdain, if not confusion, on Dylan’s “Gospel years.” Indeed, there are those who claim to have bought the albums Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love and never opened them. For such a contentious period, it was surprising when Columbia Records announced earlier this summer that Volume 13 in the Dylan “Bootleg Series,” Trouble No More, would focus exclusively on the period from roughly 1979 to 1981.
The news was extremely exciting. That one of Dylan’s most intense and personal chapters in his varied career was finally getting the recognition, and the scrutiny, it deserved was remarkable. The just-released eight-CD, one-DVD deluxe edition is more than remarkable. It’s astounding. From an early version of “Slow Train,” recorded during a Largo, Maryland soundcheck October 5, 1978 while Dylan was still on the Street Legal World Tour, through various rehearsals (discs 1 - 4) and the late ’79/early ’80 tour for Slow Train Coming (discs 5 and 6), to a night at London’s Earl’s Court during the ’81 tour (discs 7 and 8) which brought Dylan full-circle, Trouble No More righteously captures the sound and fury that was Dylan’s “Gospel years.”
In addition to the prerequisite outtakes, alternate and live versions of previously-released songs that make-up a “Bootleg Series” release, a number of songs appear here first time. If the material released during “the Gospel years” was cause for consternation, the previously-unreleased tracks now available may be cause for even more concern. “I Will Love Him,” “Cover Down, Pray Through,” “Making A Liar Out Of Me,” “Yonder Comes Sin,” “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody,” “You Changed My Life,” “Thief On The Cross” and other Dylan originals are gritty and soulful gospel songs at their best — and Dylan is unapologetic for them in the least.
If you allow yourself to surrender to the music, regardless of your religious views, the songs captured on Trouble No More finds an artist at his purest — inspired and inspiring, nothing else — with nothing left to lose.
Dylan finally played Atlanta before his “Gospel years” are said to have come to a close, for two nights, November 16 and 17, at the Fox Theater. The first night, he kept peering over the edge of the stage, looking into the lowered orchestra pit that separated the stage from the audience.
“The pit,” he said, motioning to the expanse, “I don’t want to be tempted by the pit.” “I can’t be tempted by the pit” he would repeat a few more times between songs.
Before “Heart Of Mine,” Dylan noted, “I’ve been accused of serving everybody. This is a song about just that.” During “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” a woman ran onstage, straight for him. As she was being subdued by a member of the road crew, he laughed, “Somebody must’ve taken me too seriously. If they had done that last time I came through here, they wouldn’t have been pulled off like that.” He continued to talk between songs for most of the concert. Introducing “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” he said, "This is a song I wrote about 15 years ago. Not much has changed.”
Whether it was because the tour was finally coming to an end, only two more cities were on the itinerary after Atlanta, or because he had resolved whatever conflict between the sacred and the profane he might have experienced when he returned to performing his secular material at the beginning of this tour, the one-time self-described song and dance man was clearly happy with his place in life.
After the show, Dylan, his band and I had dinner together in the restaurant at the Sheraton Biltmore. Dylan was especially convivial. While waiting for our food to be prepared, he discussed the film he was working on, one that was being shot at stops on the road. The scene they worked on in Atlanta had to be shot over and over. It involved him approaching a woman on the street, stopping at her side, and remarking, “I think I’ve seen you somewhere before? On Peachtree Street?” With so many Peachtree Streets in Atlanta, I asked him how he knew which one he had seen her on? “Maybe that’s why we couldn’t get the take right,” he grinned.
It was then that the servers appeared with our meals. It took two of them to place a large kettle of bouillabaisse in front of Dylan. It was huge. My eyes must have grown wide as I wondered if he was going to eat the whole thing by himself. He leaned towards me. To this day, I’m not sure if he was trying to make me feel comfortable, offering me to share in his meal, or if he was joking in rebuke to his detractors of the past three years who had satirized and criticized him in general, and his song “Gotta Serve Somebody,” in particular, when he looked me squarely in the eye, nodded towards the kettle, and said, “You can serve yourself.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Then Dylan laughed. Then the entire band started to laugh.
With the release of Trouble No More, perhaps Dylan’s most ardent — and most obstinate — fans, too, can now laugh, not at Dylan, but at their own fallibilities for being resistant to the change and the growth he sermonized in these recordings.
“The Gospel years” were a time of urgency, a time to “shake the dust off of your feet” and not look back. To look back now is to gain insight into three of the most compelling, heart-felt albums of Dylan’s enigmatic, now five-decades-spanning, career. Dylan is an enigma because of his own motivation. While other artists fall to the wayside, having lost sight of their purpose, Dylan has — and continues to — follow his muse, always growing in the process.
A Space Odyssey dept. … Cindy Wilson has spent the first 40 years of her musical career at a party gone out of bounds with the B-52’s. With her new solo project — which finds her playing the Earl this Friday with Olivia Jean and Material Girls opening — she hasn’t changed her approach. Wilson is still coloring outside the lines with her new musical vision.
Surrounding herself with a group of Athens musicians who were not a part of the original scene that spawned the B-52’s, Pylon, the Method Actors, and others, Wilson and her core collaborators — Ryan Monahan, Sony Lyons, and Lemeul Hayes — offer vivid and challenging electro-pop paintings that, while sometimes chill, are more often seductive and entrancing.
Two EPs, Sunrise and Supernatural, released in 2016 and 2017 respectively, chart the territory they explore, blending originals with select covers. While, by association, you might expect Wilson to pay tribute to Athens compatriots OH, OK (Wilson covers the band’s “Brother”); re-workings of “Take My Time” by Junior Senior and “Corporeal” from Broadcast seem to be out of left field. Yet, within the context of these adventurous EPs, they fall right into place.
Wilson and Monahan first decided to enter a studio in 2014, “to see what we could write together,” the singer explains. While contemplating what trajectory the music should take, Lyons, who was manning the boards, “asked me what I was imagining for a sound. I said that I was listening to Tame Impala, so we headed toward a modern electronic psychedelic experimentation.” Realizing Lyons’ input to be more than just that of an engineer, Wilson asked him to join the collaborative effort. “We met once a month, for three days at a time, working on the sounds — and what we were going for. It was a great collaboration, and school for me.” Not only did Wilson love what was coming out of the studio, “I was having a good time. It was easy to work with Ryan and Suny. Other musicians would come in, too. We had violin, flute , horns ... Coke bottles … It’s wonderful to really like working in the studio and being creative,” Wilson acknowledges, “It’s good for the soul.”
Once they laid down tracks, Wilson knew this project was “something I could put my energies behind. I loved Ryan’s guitars and melodies and, harmonies. Lemuel’s drums can’t be beat … LOL. Everybody in the band are very good musicians … and fun! I love to be able to start over again.”
Wanting to share what they created, Wilson decided it was time to take the show on the road. With Marie Davon joining the tour on violin, keyboards and vocals, they packed into a van, kicking off their on-going road trip with a showcase at SXSW. Positive reaction from fans and critics alike have encouraged them to continue. With December promising their first full-length album, CHANGE, on Kill Rock Stars, the band’s video for its first single, “No One Can Tell You,” is up now, with a new video set for release this weekend.
“We are still evolving,” Wilson maintains, which, in itself is good reason to catch the band on this first tour. Without knowing where they are now, you’ll have no idea how they got to where they’re going. Wilson claims the current show, a multimedia experience, is “dream.” Listening to the new material, that’s certainly an apt description.
Careering dept. … Martin Atkins, one time drummer for Public Image Ltd., Ministry, Pigface, Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails, and other post-punk and industrial groups, is more than just a musician. He’s an agent provocateur in an otherwise tired music business. Having lived and toured the DIY approach common at the beginning of punk rock, Atkins has written the book on how to best take control of your band and its business affairs. Literally. In 2007 he published Tour:Smart: And Break The Band, 2012’s offering was Welcome To The Music Business: You’re Fucked!, and next year will see the publication of the prequel to these titles, Band: Smart: And Succeed On Your Own Terms.
Atkins was in Atlanta recently, giving a talk at the SAE Institute. In a room filled primarily with students of the college’s various business and production programs, he presented a multi-media experience while throwing out candy and turning the tables on anyone who thinks they know the music business. Not unlike his approach to music, Atkins’s offered a refreshing perspective, certainly one that any person with even a passing interest in music should have been present for. For those of you who weren’t there, Wendy Day was live on her Facebook page that day. If you listen closely, you’ll learn something. Many thanks to Day and Tony Guidry for capturing the moment.
Tony Paris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. If he doesn’t answer, leave a message.