It was July 1979. I was 17. I had been a follower of Jesus for about two months. I was sitting in the grass in the Toronto sun waiting for my cousin Deborah, who was at swimming lessons, and reading Rolling Stone. That was when I read that Bob Dylan had discovered Jesus too and was working on an album about our mutual faith.
I wasn’t a Bob Dylan fan. The cool kids at school were. I was a Beatles fan but Dylan’s wordy eccentric drawl hadn’t yet seeped into my soul. A few months later I borrowed a friend’s Slow Train Coming and I was hooked. It might be said that Jesus and a little Mark Knopfler guitar converted me to Bob Dylan.
1979 through 1981 became Bob Dylan’s born again years. In the summer of 1980 I sat and typed out every word of the Saved record. I was a naive new believer and Dylan gave it rock star cred but also a voice. These songs expressed the faith that I was discovering. It was simple, effervescent, evangelical, a little judgemental and far too saturated in Hal Lindsay’s crazy theology of the Second Coming.
Along with Dylan himself I outgrew that spiritual youthful exuberance. As my faith matured I wanted faith to see into all of life just as Dylan wanted faith to be a line or two in songs with wider reach. Infidels and Oh Mercy became my favourite Dylan albums. Apart from I Believe In You, Pressing On and Every Grain of Sand I left the Gospel years on the shelf.
In recent years as Dylan has released his Bootleg Series of live concerts and out takes I have always hoped that one of the Series would cover that 1979-81 period. At last, it is here; Volume 13; Trouble No More.
Each of the Bootleg Series releases has been both a thrill to Dylan fans and a dilemma. The dilemma is which version of the releases to buy. There have regularly been an expensive multi disc and a two disc best of. The box set of the multi-releases have tended to be a little over priced. Downloading has been a cheaper option.
With Trouble No More there have been many a Dylan fan discussion. This one adds a vinyl version somewhere between the two discs and the 9 disc box set. Oh what to do?
In the end though, this box set was too good to miss. It was either download or box. Dylan’s Gospel years only lasted three years, and three records, but it was a prolific period for Dylan and there are unreleased tracks aplenty here. Then there are the out takes. Beyond that what Dylan was doing live is fascinating and musically satisfying.
Having spent a few weeks now, saturating myself in the Trouble No More, reading Clinton Heylin’s book Trouble In Mind out just a week or two earlier (no coincidence there!), I have come to reassess the period in Dylan’s career. This was an intense time of fertile creativity. It threw up a unique stand off between the commitment that Dylan had to his fledgeling faith and the opposition from fans and bad reviews from the press.
The lyrics are not Dylan’s most poetic. By 1981 those mysterious wordy allusions and metaphors returned in songs like Caribbean Wind and The Grooms Still Waiting At The Altar but in general the born again years seem lyrically a little clumsy and simplistic.
Yet, that might have been a lazy criticism. I remember what it was like going through the same initial energy of conversion at that time. Dylan has had an enlightenment beyond his hallucinatory drug experiences of the 60s. He is literally full of it. He is full of new beliefs, new Biblical passages and new enthusiastic rebirth. When we are listening to these songs we need to see how Dylan is using his wordy genius to pile into a few minutes all his new learning and texts, in ways that he hopes will have a conversion experience on his listeners.
It makes for some wonderful music. His band at this time cooks. Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Fred Tackett, who I think is the stand out player, on guitars and then a rhythm section of Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner. Add five of the most wonderful female singers and these songs have a fluid gospel sound that is in itself a genre adding collection in the Dylan career catalogue.
Yes, Dylan can come across a tad judgemental and way too influenced by Hal Lindsay’s theologically askew book, Late Great Planet Earth, that still seems to be dogging Dylan’s theology 40 years later, but Trouble No More has given us more positive contributions like Blessed Is The Name and I Will Love Him that might be Bob trying to emulate the spiritual feel of his mate George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord et al.
Other songs like Pressing On, Slow Train, Gotta Serve Somebody, Every Gran of Sand are excellent and are here in various guises. When He Returns brings out some of Dylan’s best and most personal vocals ever. I challenge you to listen to Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody without singing along. The inclusion of the London Earls Court concert of 1981, when he brought back the old songs too, is illuminating. Forever Young really is a prayer in this set list, Blowing In The Wind as a Gospel song is delicious, while Knocking On Heaven’s Door finds a perfect setting, with those vocalists sounding like angels welcoming you home.
All in all. Wow! Self Portrait, another seeming blip in Dylan’s career, was completely reassessed by Volume 10 in this series. Volume 13 is again reassessment time. 1979 to 1981 were vital years in Bob Dylan’s art. He might have left the lyrical style and evangelistic fervour behind as his faith deepened and widened but this box set cannot be ignored. I think even atheists could enjoy it… and of course… for those with ears to hear…!