Nick Bollinger inspects one of the controversial corners of Bob Dylan's extensive catalogue
“Miles Davis has been booed. Hank Williams was booed. Stravinsky was booed. You’re nobody if you don’t get booed sometime.” Bob Dylan, 2001.
It’s a cornerstone of the Bob Dylan legend that when the former folk icon first picked up an electric guitar, people booed. But as it turned out, those disaffected folkies were just convenient stooges. Despite the booing, electric albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde were quickly recognised as classics. That Dylan had been a step ahead of his audience simply served as evidence of his genius.
But it’s not the only time Dylan’s been booed. In late 1979 he embarked on a series of concerts that included none of his well-known songs – rock, folk or otherwise – but were made up entirely of new material in a stridently evangelical vein. And to this day listeners have remained divided as to whether that music was genius or just ill-judged.
A strong argument for the defence is made by a new boxed set, comprised largely of recordings from those concerts. Titled Trouble No More, this survey of Dylan’s gospel years comes in two versions: a two-disc package of select live recordings, and a mammoth set of eight discs plus DVD, which contains all of that two-disc set and more.
The set opens with ‘Slow Train’, the song that would lend its title to the first of Dylan’s gospel albums, in a version recorded in November 1979, near the start of his so-called ‘gospel tours’. And if nothing else it is evident that he had put together a terrific band. He’s got such A-list players as former James Brown bassist Tim Drummond, Muscle Shoals keyboard wiz Spooner Oldham and ubiquitous drummer Jim Keltner. Then there’s the bluesy bite of Little Feat’s Fred Tackett on guitar, and the powerful combined voices of several women gospel singers, with whom Dylan – in time-honoured African-American church tradition – sings call-and-response.
It sounds pretty good to me, so why did a number of people at these and subsequent shows insist on heckling or walking out, while reviews bore headlines like ‘Born Again Dylan Bombs’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s God-Awful Gospel’?
While Dylan may be underrated as a bandleader and musician, the thing his audiences have traditionally fixed on above all else is his words. (There’s even an argument that the booing in the 60s wasn’t a protest about his electric guitar, but merely a complaint that he was drowning out his lyrics.) Those lyrics could range from stark literal narratives to surrealist rants. But whether the song was ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ or ‘Visions Of Johanna’, what those words seemed to denote was an independent thinker; someone immune to doctrine, who would always question the status quo. Which surely explains why there were shock waves when Dylan took up the tenets of born-again Christianity and began writing songs like ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’.
It has been pointed out that Dylan had been using Biblical allusions from his earliest days. Still there’s no question that this material reflected some kind of conversion experience. There’s no mistaking ‘City Of Gold’ for ‘Gates Of Eden’.
In a recent conversation, a friend of mine observed that Dylan ‘doesn’t do insecurity or self-doubt’. And while his songbook is so large that you could surely find an exception, if only to prove the rule, it is a valid point. Dylan’s tendency is to write from a position of certainty; he is always a witness with a truth to impart. That’s the voice that distinguished some of his earliest trail-blazing songs: ‘Masters Of War’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’. And it’s not really that different from the voice with which he declares his newfound certitudes here.
In songs like these Dylan has, as ever, a keen eye for hypocrisy. There are lines like ‘I don’t know which is worse/doing your own thing or just being cool’; withering references to ‘spiritual advisors and gurus to make you hold your breath’. And perhaps some of the disquiet among Dylan fans was due to the fact that their countercultural hero now seemed to be training his sights on the counterculture – that is, when he’s not firing shots at Arab oil barons, Karl Marx or Henry Kissinger.
What the record doesn’t include are any of the spoken sermons Dylan delivered from the stage during this time, in response to the jeers and protests. While in recent decades it’s been a common complaint that Dylan doesn’t ‘talk’ to his audiences, at these shows there were evidently those who wished he would shut up. Perhaps it was felt that include any of the dialogue here would break up the musical flow of the discs. And on a purely musical level there is wonderful stuff; like the extraordinary moment on the DVD, in the song ‘What Can I Do For You?’ where Dylan takes up his harmonica and on that tiny instrument plays a solo that seems to be reaching for transcendence, more in the manner of John Coltrane than any humble harmonica blower.
Equally moving are some of the vocals. Of particular note are a couple of rehearsals, recorded with just Dylan and his partner of the time, the singer Clydie King. On the DVD they perform together a beautiful version of the old Dion hit ‘Abraham Martin & John’, with Dylan at the piano. And then there’s “Rise Again’: not one of Dylan’s, but a contemporary Christian hit for the singer Dallas Holm. The delicacy with which Dylan and King trace each other’s voices should be enough to silence anyone still of the persuasion that Dylan can’t sing. It’s a subtle, infinitely nuanced piece of work.
It wouldn’t be long before Dylan’s songs started to show traces again of the mysticism and surrealism that characterised his earlier work. And an example can be found in a dense, image-filled song like ‘Caribbean Wind’, one of the later tracks in the set, where impending apocalypse is interwoven with the tale of a complex love affair.
By the time we get to the last discs in this set – live recordings from Dylan’s 1981 season at London’s Earl’s Court – he has begun to reintroduce earlier, secular and more opaque songs, like ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ in which he famously asks ‘Something’s happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?’
So who is Mr Jones in this instance? The non-believers who booed Bob for evangelising, or perhaps the Christians who tried to claim him as their own, not realising that they were dealing with one of the most stubborn individualists ever to set foot on stage? Either way it’s a scorching performance, and one more highlight in a set that illuminates one of the less explored corners of one of modern music’s richest catalogues.