Culture & Criticism Since 2003
“An artist doesn’t work for money, or for God, or for the audience, or for personal satisfaction – he works for all of those reasons at once, and for none of them. He sings because he has a voice. He performs because that’s the work to be done…” (At Page 125)
– Paul Williams, from Dylan – What Happened? (and books/Entwhistle Books, 1979).
“Keep me set part/ from all the plans/ they do pursue.”
– Bob Dylan, from “I Believe In You.”
Back in 1964, Bob Dylan introduced his poem “Advice For Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday” this way: “Stay in line. stay in step. people are afraid of someone who is not in step with them. it makes them look foolish t’ themselves for being in step. it might even cross their minds that they themselves are in the wrong step. do not run nor cross the red line. if you go too far out in any direction, they will lose sight of you. they’ll feel threatened. thinking that they are not a part of something that they saw go past them, they’ll feel something’s going on up there that they don’t know about. revenge will set in. they will start thinking of how t’ get rid of you…”
I surmise Dylan chose those words to carefully describe walking away from the folk movement and into electrified rock and roll. But in the wake of the release of Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13, 1979-1981, the lines from that 1964 poem also serve as a profound statement on his exploration into Christianity and Gospel-Rock – the very period which the record chronicles.
Looking back, I think the reason for the public’s disdain of Dylan’s ‘Gospel Period’ had nothing to do with the music he was producing, which, as these records attest, was incredible. No, the vitriol his 1979 and 1980 shows conjured had to do with fear – dark-stained primal fear. I really believe that the things their self-proclaimed prophet was saying scared his fan-base to death. They simply didn’t know what to do with the pictures that songs like “Saved” and “When He Returns” painted.
Moreover, they didn’t want to see these pictures, or think about the message. And they certainly didn’t want ‘their’ poet singing about the return of Christ. So they panned the concerts and the records. And they called Dylan a phony and a fraud, dismissing the music as the ravings of a 60’s rock star gone over the edge into some gospel-splattered madness.
Unfortunately for Dylan, he was being forced to relive the same myopic, self-centered revolt he first endured when he went electric in 1965. But here in 1979, it was so much worse. The attacks on him and his most intimate beliefs were cruel and personal, with the public refusing to give him any space through which to grasp his own thoughts.
It was also unfortunate that so few critics had the guts to step out and evaluate the music on an artistic plane, evaluating it for what it was – riveting Blues-inflected Rock that used God as platform and subject. Instead of applauding what Jerry Wexler was able to pull out of Dylan during those Slow Train sessions, they collectively decried the fact that Dylan refused to rewrite his 1960s’ songbook and update “Like A Rolling Stone” for the 1980s. Didn’t anyone see that he’d already written “Tambourine Man” and “Gates of Eden?” Didn’t anyone realize that a poet draws from each well once and then moves on to the next river, to that next great bay of discovery?
For Dylan, it was pointless for him to go back to the 1960s. So he went forward into the future. He followed the hum of his muse and it brought him to God. These lines, from 1980’s “Pressing On” seem key to his mindset: “What kind of sign they need/ when it all come from within /When what’s lost/ has been found, /what’s to come /has already been?”
As noted, Trouble No More covers Dylan’s music circa 1979 through 1981, and it is a beautiful ride, indeed. The record collects live performances and out-takes from the three records of the period – Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love. There is so much magnificent material here that it will take repeated sessions before one makes sense of its magnitude. However, highlights immediately spring forth: The deluxe box-set spotlights 6 different versions of “Slow Train Coming,” allowing us to see the evolution of the bloom as Dylan molds his voice into a vehicle to drive the poem.
The live version of “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar,” fed by Carlos Santana’s hot-blistered guitar line, is a treasure that makes one wonder what it was like to hear these shows in person in the smaller halls that Dylan was playing at the time – this recording conjuring a 1966 sound as Dylan bites the tongue off the syllables that close each line. Meanwhile, “Ain’t No Man Righteous” is a totally new discovery: This previously unreleased song pushes a door open on Dylan’s secret room as he offers his listeners a chance to understand the pain and trauma that brought him to the edge.
In addition, the live versions of “Pressing On,” “When He Returns,” “What Can I do For You?” and “In The Summertime” are astounding – the way the band slips around the skull of his voice, framing each subtle inflection, evinces that Dylan was at his Zenith during these shows. The featured players (Tim Drummond, Jim Keltner, Fred Tackett, Spooner Oldham) had an instinctive feel both for Dylan and the music; in turn, their performances are just as great what The Band did in backing Dylan’s 1966 electric tour through Europe.
Finally, the version of “Every Grain Of Sand” will leave you in tears. This is Dylan’s greatest post-60s classic – a song on the level of “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Chimes of Freedom.” And in this performance he has connected with his own spirit guide. No longer a writer, he is an instrument here, as the words and music pass over the cliffs of his heart into us.
In reality, Dylan’s “Christian Period” wasn’t that unusual an event: Poets from Blake to Dante, from Everson to Ginsberg to Kerouac, each came to find inspiration and solace in their own deep investigations of faith. And as I’ve already inferred in this essay, it’s all only a personal journey being played out on a public stage, and no one has the right to judge it, or interfere with the course of the path being forged.
Rather, our job is to listen, and if we’re not inspired, then to walk away. For in the end, a poet’s job is only to illuminate the signposts that rise tall in the fog. At that point, it’s up to the reader/listener to seize them with his own eyes and go forward, alone.
Thank you for the great review. I am not a believer but when Slow Train and then Saved came out, I loved them immediately and have treasured the songs ever since. As you well describe, this is simply great music. If we can cherish the Psalms and great Anglican Hymns of the past, for example – why not Dylan’s gospel sings too?