Bob Dy­lan’s Gospel, Re­vis­ited

Bob Dy­lan’s re­lease of the 8-CD set ‘Trou­ble No More’ forces us to re­con­sider the No­bel Prize-win­ner’s con­tro­ver­sial born-again phase.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Seth Ro­govoy

The first time I put it on the turntable, I felt a shiver of fear — as if light­ning

might strike.

I re­cently at­tended an alumni re­union at the Berk­shires sum­mer camp where I worked in the kitchen in the 1970s. More than one per­son came up to me at the re­union and said, “I’ll never for­get how up­set you were when Bob Dy­lan be­came a born-again Chris­tian.” When early in the sum­mer of 1978 it was re­ported that Dy­lan had had some kind of Chris­tian con­ver­sion ex­pe­ri­ence, I went onstage at a morn­ing as­sem­bly, and an­nounced that it was the last time I would per­form any Dy­lan songs. I even banned my room­mates in the kitchen cabin from play­ing any Dy­lan al­bums. So yeah, I was pretty up­set — ap­par­ently enough so that peo­ple I hadn’t seen in 40 years re­mem­bered that day.

In late Au­gust of 1979, when “Slow Train Com­ing” — the first of Dy­lan’s so-called gospel tril­ogy — was re­leased, I didn’t know what to do. Up un­til that point, I owned every Dy­lan al­bum and typ­i­cally was first on line when a new one was re­leased. At some point in Septem­ber, I gave in, and out of sheer cu­rios­ity and the need to hear for my­self what Dy­lan had wrought, I bought

the record. The first time I put it on the turntable I felt a shiver of fear, as if I were break­ing a taboo and light­ning might strike. Even the cover im­age — of a train rolling down tracks. and a man wield­ing a pick­axe that might­ily re­sem­bled a cross — fright­ened me. But down the nee­dle went, and there was Dy­lan singing, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve some­body.” I loved it. The record was fan­tas­tic. It may have been his best-sound­ing al­bum up un­til that time — an al­bum pro­duced by real pro­fes­sion­als, rhythm and blues men Jerry Wexler and Barry Beck­ett. The songs were funky and rocking, with soul­ful horns, slinky key­boards, reg­gae beats and, on a few num­bers, bluesy backup singers. Dy­lan’s singing was im­pas­sioned. Most of the songs al­luded var­i­ously to a new­found faith, the Bi­ble (in­clud­ing Part 1), mes­sian­ism and love — ei­ther love of a woman or love of a De­ity. The songs worked ei­ther way. There were few di­rect ref­er­ences to Je­sus Christ, other than that cross on the cover, and the al­bum’s fi­nal, strate­gi­cally placed song, “When He Re­turns.”

The al­bum that came out the fol­low­ing sum­mer, “Saved,” was dif­fer­ent. That one con­tained full-fledged gospel tunes, and there was lit­tle am­bi­gu­ity about to whom they were ad­dressed. There were still a few love songs, in­clud­ing “Covenant Woman,” which in­cluded a line I al­ways found cu­ri­ous — “I’ll al­ways be right by your side, I’ve got a covenant too” — as if the nar­ra­tor were say­ing to the woman that he, too, had a con­tract with the Lord, but a dif­fer­ent one. As in what a Jew might say to a Chris­tian.

Dy­lan went out on tour af­ter “Slow Train” was re­leased, for the most part avoid­ing ma­jor me­dia mar­kets in fa­vor of small venues in the fly­over states, where his con­certs fea­tur­ing only new ma­te­rial might be re­ceived with more sym­pa­thetic ears — es­pe­cially af­ter a rocky se­ries of shows in San Fran­cisco. Dy­lan re­lented on fol­low-up out­ings, slowly mix­ing in old fa­vorites from his back cat­a­log, un­til by the end of the tour the bal­ance had shifted al­most en­tirely in fa­vor of his pre-gospel ma­te­rial.

Un­til now, there has been lit­tle of­fi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion of those no­to­ri­ous con­certs. This month, Columbia Records is rec­ti­fy­ing that omis­sion with the re­lease of “Trou­ble No More — The Boot­leg Se­ries Vol. 13 / 1979-1981.” The pack­age comes in sev­eral it­er­a­tions, but the com­plete ver­sion in­cludes eight CDs plus a DVD, fea­tur­ing 100 pre­vi­ously un­re­leased live and stu­dio record­ings, in­clud­ing 14 pre­vi­ously un­re­leased songs. Those con­cert record­ings are es­pe­cially worth hear­ing; they fea­ture one of Dy­lan’s best tour­ing bands, and the singer him­self was on fire. The box set, plus a pur­posely well-timed new book by Dy­lan chron­i­cler Clin­ton Heylin, “Trou­ble in Mind: Bob Dy­lan’s Gospel Years — What Re­ally Hap­pened,” begs for a re­con­sid­er­a­tion of this pe­riod, mu­si­cally and oth­er­wise.

As the ti­tle in­di­cates, Heylin’s book, which re­counts the pe­riod be­gin­ning with Dy­lan’s three-month at­ten­dance in Bi­ble class at the Vine­yard Fel­low­ship, and trav­els through the record­ing ses­sions and sub­se­quent tours, is meant to por­tray “what hap­pened” as the prod­uct of an au­then­tic faith ex­pe­ri­ence that pro­pelled Dy­lan into a kind of rock ’n’ roll evan­ge­lism. Dy­lan de­liv­ered preacher-like ser­mons at many of th­ese con­certs, in which he ad­mon­ished the au­di­ence and his fel­low rock ’n’ rollers to change their ways of think­ing (and be­hav­ing), lest they be left be­hind in an im­mi­nent and in­evitable apoc­a­lypse.

Heylin demon­strates that much of the in­spi­ra­tion for th­ese ser­mons came di­rectly from the con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous writ­ings of pop­u­lar Chris­tian au­thor Hal Lind­sey. In “The Late, Great Planet Earth” and “Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth,” Lind­sey put forth an ob­ses­sively es­cha­to­log­i­cal brand of Chris­tian­ity that saw the es­tab­lish­ment of the State of Is­rael and the Cold War as ful­fill­ment of prophe­cies in­di­cat­ing that the end of days was im­mi­nent. Rather than of­fer­ing any kind of per­sonal tes­ti­mony, Dy­lan was very much par­rot­ing Lind­sey’s line.

Equally, and per­haps un­in­ten­tion­ally, Heylin also of­fers ev­i­dence that at­tributes the gospel ac­cord­ing to Bob Dy­lan to other in­flu­ences, in­clud­ing a se­ries of girl­friends, sev­eral of whom were his African-Amer­i­can backup singers (and one of whom would even­tu­ally, and for a brief time, be­come his sec­ond wife). More to the point, Heylin quotes English jour­nal­ist Neil Spencer this way: “I saw Bob’s ‘con­ver­sion’ as part of his spir­i­tual quest. He had al­ready checked out his Jewish roots. What I ab­so­lutely didn’t re­al­ize was that, far from Chris­tian­ity be­ing another sta­tion in Bob’s quest, he had been ‘con­verted’ by… some kind of dumb Sun­day school for ad­dled coke heads.” In­deed, when I in­ter­viewed the poet Allen Gins­berg — a good friend of Dy­lan’s — Gins­berg spoke mostly not of Dy­lan’s new world­view, but of how healthy Dy­lan had be­come: drug-free and phys­i­cally fit.

As quick as Dy­lan was to adopt the blan­ket of Chris­tian­ity in song and onstage, he was equally as quick to drop it. The prophetic im­pulse re­mained, how­ever, as did Dy­lan’s the­o­log­i­cal mus­ings, es­pe­cially on al­bums like the 1983 “In­fi­dels,” with its in­vo­ca­tion of Moses on “I and I,” and Is­rael in “Neigh­bor­hood Bully.” And on the 1989 “Oh Mercy,” with its ex­plo­ration of kab­bal­is­tic themes in songs, in­clud­ing “Ev­ery­thing Is Bro­ken.” For the next 35 years, Dy­lan would oc­ca­sion­ally re­turn to one or two of his gospel songs in con­cert, where they sat com­fort­ably along­side songs from through­out his 50-plus year ca­reer, songs that had warned of an apoc­a­lypse at least as far back as 1962, with “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and up through 2006, “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” Dy­lan con­tin­ues his mis­sion to­day, proph­esy­ing, in the an­cient sense, each and every night of his Never End­ing Tour.

Or as Heylin quotes Gins­berg back in 1981: “Dy­lan is re­act­ing with a kind of ter­ror to what’s go­ing down in civ­i­liza­tion and [to] be­ing a prophet, and [is] tak­ing it very se­ri­ously.”

Can I get an amen to that?

Seth Ro­govoy is a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at the For­ward and is the au­thor of “Bob Dy­lan: Prophet, Mys­tic, Poet” (Scrib­ner, 2009).


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