Journey Through Dark Heat – Part 2 (1978-1982)
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
BY the close of 1978 I could have happily stayed with the music of Desire and Street Legal forever.
That summer’s gig at Earls Court was a natural high and very few fans at the end of that year would have predicted the change that Bob Dylan was about to undertake.
But change he did…
As a high profile, but non-practicing, Jew, Bob suddenly found Jesus… and what a spiritual and musical conversion it was for all concerned.
Like a slow train we just didn’t see it coming.
Three years earlier in 1976 Dylan gave a brief public insight into his own spirituality in an interview for the American TV Guide.
The interviewer asked him about his 1971 visit to Israel and subsequent interest in Judaism.
“I’m interested in what and who a Jew is,” said Dylan. “I’m interested in the fact that Jews are Semites, like Babylonians, Hittites, Arabs, Syrians, Ethiopians. But a Jew is different because a lot of people hate Jews. There’s something going on there that’s hard to explain.”
He was then asked how he imagined God.
“I can see God in a daisy. I can see God at night in the wind and rain. I see Creation just about everywhere. The highest form of song is prayer. King David’s, Solomon’s, the wailing of a coyote, the rumble of the earth. It must be wonderful to be God. There’s so much going on out there that you can’t get to it all. It would take longer than for ever.”
During the 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan found himself working alongside three musicians who were later to become born-again Christians – T-Bone Burnett on bass, Steve Soles rhythm and David Mansfield violin.
Soles and Mansfield accompanied Dylan on the 1978 European tour and were there alongside him at that Earls Court gig.
Soles in particular had spent a lot of time arguing religion with his boss. But the only thing that Soles can recall registering with him was his constantly saying that: “You can’t place your faith in man. I kept telling him that I was so glad that I didn’t have to place my faith in man any longer.”
The turning point for Dylan came when the girl he’d been living with became a committed Christian. She promptly moved out on him as she’d attained a new set of values.
The depth of this commitment caused him to set about investigating for himself.
She is now immortalised as the Precious Angel on his 1979 album Slow Train Coming (which I will come to shortly), who was “The one/ To show me I was blinded/ To show me I was gone”.
His first stop was a Bible study led by Hal Lindsey, an American Christian author whose book The Later Great Planet Earth came out in 1970.
Lindsey’s particular concern – the final events in the history of the world as prophesised by the Book of Revelation – obviously captured Dylan’s imagination and he would have been intrigued by Lindsey’s emphasis on biblical prophecies concerning the role of Israel and the Jewish people in the days before the return of Christ to Earth amid a holocaust in the Middle East involving Russia, China, the Arab nations and many European countries.
Close friends like Soles and Burnett all remarked on the difference in Dylan’s attitude after his conversion.
“He’s excited by the fact that he feels he’s been rescued,” said one. Others commented on the love and warmth that he was projecting.
And so we come to the release in 1979 of Slow Train Coming, an album which was as ground-breaking and life changing for me as for thousands of other Dylan fans.
I received it on cassette tape for Christmas that year and that tape rarely left my side until it was upgraded for the CD some 15 years later!
It takes only one listening to realise that Slow Train Coming is the best album Bob Dylan had made since Blood on the Tracks.
In the 36 years since its release, the more I listen to the album, the more I feel that it’s one of the finest records Dylan has ever made. In time, it is possible that it might even be considered his greatest.
Dylan’s new songs were statements of strength and simplicity, and the lyrics again equal his early classics. The words are rich with the ambiguity of great art. Slow Train Coming’s lyrics are timeless, simple, yet rich in potential levels of meaning.
Gotta Serve Somebody, the opening cut, uses a religious allegory in each chorus. There is no let-up in the power of the rhythm and arrangements from the opening track through the last, because there’s no let-up in the message. Over and over again, Dylan tells us that we have a choice of doing good or doing bad.
Precious Angel is the most beautiful melody on the record, and it matches the beauty of the lyric.
There are numerous Biblical references, but in no way do they overwhelm, or ever become differentiated from the undisguised passion of a lover’s question. The song has intensely sensuous words:
You’re the queen of my flesh, girl
You’re my woman, you’re my delight
You’re the lamp of my soul, girl
You torch up the night.
The refrain: “Shine your light, shine your light on me/I just can’t make it by myself/I’m a little too blind to see”, tears your heart out.
I am struck by two other lines: “Men will beg God to kill them/And they won’t be able to die” — a terrifying idea; and the verse that starts, “Sister, let me tell you/About a vision that I saw/You were carrying water for your husband/You were suffering under the law,” which is a clear essay on the rights of women.
I Believe in You is a story that shifts from the personal to the philosophic to the religious, and may even be a story about Jesus.
I Believe in You is about someone who adopts unpopular beliefs and faces an outcast’s fate, yet the lines “I believe in you/Even on the morning after” are a rather obvious clue to quite another, yet parallel interpretation.
The power of this song is the discovery of faith and belief, and the release and pleasure of accepting them.
Slow Train is nothing less than Dylan’s most mature and profound song about his own land of America.
He begins this song “wondering what’s happening to my companions,” and verse after verse explains who his companions are and what is happening to them. There’s his “backwoods girl from Alabama”, then, there’s the nation itself — a people frustrated — because they lately see themselves as powerless to affect their own national destiny. “Look around you/It’s just bound to make you embarrassed.”
Among other things, he says: “The enemy I see/Wears a cloak of decency” and “They talk about a life of brotherly love/But show me someone who knows how to live it.”
The guitar solos by Mark Knopfler, like the lyrics, are angry. They suggest vengeance and a desire to strike out. The most powerful lyric of them all:
My baby went to Illinois
With some bad-talking boy she could destroy
A real suicide case
But there was nothing I could do to stop it
I don’t care about economy
I don’t care about astronomy
But it sure does bother me
To see my loved ones turning into puppets.
Set in a tough, relentless rhythm, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking is a fire-and-brimstone sermon stripped of subtlety, though not of poetry. Lines like these are priceless:
I got a God-fearing woman
One I can easily afford
She can do the Georgia crawl
She can walk in the spirit of the Lord.
When You Gonna Wake Up is another assessment of the USA. The tune is a swinging, lowdown groove, which showcases the musicians, including Dylan, whose singing is tough, full-voiced and urgent, sounding like a zealot.
Dylan’s chorus, “Strengthen the things that remain,” is the sentiment of a deeply concerned citizen. The lyrics are more acidic than practically anything found in rock music at the time.
These are parables, more numerous and closely woven than ever before, assembled with judgmental and righteous morality.
Slow Train Coming is pure, true Dylan, probably the purest and truest Dylan ever.
The haunting and foreboding guitar groove senses that train coming up around the bend.
When He Returns, the most religious song on the album, is Dylan’s richest and most beautiful effort as a singer. He sings with a sound that needs no words because he has the sound of the soul itself.
Musically, this is probably Dylan’s finest record, a rare coming together of inspiration, desire and talent that completely fuse strength, vision and art.
At its release critic Charles Shaar Murray wrote: “Bob Dylan has never seemed more perfect and more impressive than on this album. He has also never seemed more unpleasant and hate-filled.”
Personally it is an album that has the deepest meaning for me of any that he has ever produced.
On 1 November 1979, Dylan began a lengthy residency at the Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, California, playing a total of 14 dates supported by a large ensemble. It was the beginning of six months of touring North America, performing his new music to believers and heckling fans alike.
Despite the mixed reactions to his new direction, Gotta Serve Somebody was a US Top 30 hit, and the album outsold both Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde in its first year of release.
During this period, Dylan refused to play any of his older compositions, as well as any secular material. Many fans wishing to hear his older songs openly expressed their disappointment.
Hecklers continued to appear at his concerts, only to be answered by lectures from the stage.
Dylan was firmly entrenched in his evangelical ways, and it would continue through his next album Saved in June 1980, whether his audience would follow or not.
During his 1979/80 gigs Dylan took audience provocation to a new level by presenting nights of music devoted exclusively to his new material, often pausing for long, rambling sermons about Christ’s imminent return and the wickedness of man.
After taking one month off for the Christmas holidays in Minnesota, Dylan resumed the tour on 13 January 1980 with a three-night engagement at Paramount Northwest Theatre in Seattle.
The second leg of the tour concluded with a two-night engagement at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia on 9 February.
Dylan and his touring band immediately travelled to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama to record the new songs they had been performing for the album Saved.
Saved is a raw, passionate affair. Dylan cut it with his band over a quick five days.
The producer was Jerry Wexler, the former Atlantic Records executive behind key albums by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Dusty Springfield, and Saved sounds as good as that pedigree would have you hope.
In many ways Saved is an even more aesthetically gratifying album than the masterpiece of Slow Train Coming.
With Jim Keltner on drums and bassist Tim Drummond irreverently goosing things along, the group actually approaches flat-out rock and roll on two cuts: the gospel raveup, Saved, and the unabashedly syncopated Solid Rock.
Perhaps the most likable aspect of Bob Dylan’s genius has always been his ability to evoke the phantom strains of traditional American music, from country blues to gospel to good old rock and roll. This gift is again in evidence on Saved, particularly in the bravely eccentric, almost disembodied reading that Dylan gives the folk classic, Satisfied Mind. He lays out the song’s stately melody like a winding pilgrim’s path through the wailing melismatics of his three backup singers, Clydie King, Regina Havis and Mona Lisa Young.
Subtly gathering harmonic power behind Dylan’s rough but finely felt vocal, Saving Grace is so persuasive on its own terms that one can disregard the lyrical lapses – “There’s only one road, and it leads to Calvary” – and accept the track as a genuinely moving paean to some nonspecific Providence.
In a similar manner, the serenely stoic Pressing On utilizes a gentle gospel piano and some inspired lead and backup singing to make a simple statement of spiritual commitment, with Dylan acknowledging both his past and present in the lines: “Shake the dust off of your feet/Don’t look back/Nothing can hold you down/Nothing that you lack.”
Covenant Woman is one of Bob Dylan’s most engaging love songs. A gospel-tinged ballad written in Dylan’s mid-60s chordal style, it posits a God who “must have loved me oh so much/To send me someone as fine as you.” There’s an American Gothic earnestness to such a sentiment that’s rather winning.
What Can I Do for You? is the weakest track, but In the Garden, which is also explicitly Biblical, is blessed with a lovely, billowing arrangement, and Dylan sings with stirring conviction. It would become a regular number in Dylan’s live sets for the next 20 years.
Are You Ready is as close as Dylan comes to R&B on this record. His harmonica playing harks back to many southern Blues legends of the 1920s and 30s. “Are ya ready to meet Jesus?” he asks. “Are ya where ya oughta be?/Will He know ya when He sees ya?/Or will He say, ‘Depart from me’?/Am I ready?”
Saved is a work of some distinction.
Producer Jerry Wexler later recalled: “The arrangements were built in, because the band had been playing the songs live. Most of the licks are their own licks, which they perfected on the road.”
After taking the month of March off, Dylan and his band resumed the tour on 17 April with a four-night engagement at Massey Hall in Toronto.
At the Toronto concerts, Dylan introduced three new Christian songs not included on Saved, Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody, Cover Down, Break Through, and I Will Love Him.
A professional camera crew captured the stop at Massey Hall on 20 April, 1980.
Before launching into a stunningly powerful Solid Rock, Dylan delivered a nearly seven-minute sermon. It’s almost more than he’s said onstage at every show of the last decade of the Never Ending Tour combined.
“We’ve had a lot of previews of what the Anti-Christ could be like,” he said. “We had that Jim Jones, he’s like a preview. We had Adolf Hitler, a preview. Anyway, the Anti-Christ is gonna be a little bit different than that. He’s gonna bring peace to the world for a certain length of time. But he will eventually be defeated too. Supernaturally defeated. And God will intervene.”
It’s an amazing speech, and the sound quality is incredible too.
The tour then headed back to the United States and concluded with four concerts in the Midwest.
By the summer of 1981, two whole years had passed since Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and three years since his Earls Court gigs in 1978.
Those of us in Europe were still untouched by his presence and had to wholly rely on varying press reports, his two released albums and a small – but growing – handful of bootleg tapes of stateside gigs.
Then our prayers were finally answered.
The Bob Dylan World Tour 1981 lasted from June to November 1981 and consisted of 54 concerts in three legs: 31 in North America and 23 in Europe.
The tour promoted the release of the final part of Dylan’s Born Again album trilogy: Shot of Love.
Shot Of Love is regarded as the third album in Bob Dylan’s so-called Gospel trilogy, but it is far less spiritual than its two predecessors, indeed, several other Dylan albums (John Wesley Harding or Street Legal for example) could be considered more so.
However, the problem with Shot Of Love is that it could have been far better than it actually is, as a result of several potentially classic tracks being omitted. Angelina, Caribbean Wind and The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar were all discarded (Groom was later reinstated) in favour of poorer material.
Shot Of Love opens with the title track and here we have him bemoaning the state of the world and telling us in no uncertain terms that there is only one remedy for his and our various ailments.
Heroin, codeine, whisky or, perversely, turpentine won’t do the trick, only love.
A more sinister note is introduced later with the Devil who: “Hates me and he’s swift, smooth and near/Am I supposed to sit back and wait until he’s here?”
Heart Of Mine with its innocent simplicity is a fine example of Dylan’s so-called minor songs. Starting off with the wonderfully mangled metaphor “You can play with fire but you’ll get the bill” this is Dylan laying his emotional cards on the table “Don’t let her know that you love her he says, but he’s not fooling anyone”.
Property Of Jesus was apparently written as a response to a remark that Mick Jagger had made concerning the validity of Dylan’s faith.
Right from the first verse Dylan makes his intentions clear: “Go ahead and talk about him… and Laugh at him behind his back” are self-explanatory, but the biggest indication of intent is “Hope he falls upon himself, oh, won’t that be sweet” particularly when you hear the disdainful delivery.
Introducing Lenny Bruce in Colombes, France in June 1981, Dylan said that he: “Just wrote this song in about five minutes”. And it shows! This is a poor song, and Dylan’s ponderous vocal delivery and piano playing bring little to it, the album could well have done without it.
Watered Down Love brings a change of pace and direction and is in some ways a response to Heart Of Mine. This is an underrated song that works very well.
The opening lines of the song draw heavily on 1 Corinthians with its “Hopes all things/Believes all things”, but Dylan gives it a more modern feel by adding “Won’t pull no strings”, and emphasises the point with “It don’t make you envious, it don’t make you suspicious”.
It’s difficult now to believe that Shot Of Love was originally released without The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar as it seems such an integral part of the album.
The typically chaotic writing and frenetic delivery make it one of Dylan’s best and is only beaten on this album by Every Grain Of Sand.
Rich in imagery, Jesus Christ (the Groom) is waiting for the faithful and the frustration is clear “Been treated like a farm animal on a wild goose chase”, as is the wilful misunderstanding of people’s motives “Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery/Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery”.
The final verse with its: “Killing nuns and soldiers and …fighting on the border” is reminiscent of African or central American conflicts, and the outrageous rhyming of January with Buenos Aires helps make Groom a wonderfully evocative if somewhat confused (and confusing) song.
Musically if not lyrically Dead Man, Dead Man is one of the high points of the album thanks to Tim Drummond’s bass and Clydie King’s backing vocal. Much in the same vein as Property Of Jesus, except that this time the finger is pointing in instead of out
In The Summertime is the type of song that Dylan seems to write with a consummate ease that most contemporary songwriters can only wish for.
There is a gentleness here and a welcome return to the harmonica as Dylan ponders on an all too brief relationship “Where the sun never set, where the trees hung low/By that soft and shining sea”.
This is an underrated piece that can be taken as a simple love song or something deeper.
Trouble on the other hand is heavy and repetitive to the point that reducing the album’s running time by four and a half minutes might have been a better option, particularly when one considers some of the major songs that were rejected.
Whereas Every Grain Of Sand is a perfect example of Dylan using his best available song to close an album, something that he has done often in the past and would also do in the future.
This is a remarkable piece of writing, made more so by Dylan’s emotional and heartfelt delivery of it.
In the time of my confession,
In the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet
Flood every new born seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me
Reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger
And in the morals of despair
Don’t have the inclination
To look back on any mistake
Like Cain I now behold this chain
Of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment
I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles
In every grain of sand.
On the flowers of indulgence
And the weeds of yesteryear
Like crim’nals they have choked the breath
Of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps
Of time to light my way
To ease the pain of idleness
And the memory of decay
I gaze into the doorway
Of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way
I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey
I come to understand
That every hair is numbered
Like every grain of sand.
Shot Of Love is too uneven to be a classic Bob Dylan album, and that coupled with the fact that even die-hard fans were apparently beginning to tire of his religious stance saw it slump commercially.
Before the August release, Dylan undertook a tour of Europe and the UK, but there was none of the frenzy for tickets that there had been three years earlier, in fact seats for the six nights at London’s Earl’s Court sold very slowly.
But those who attended the gigs were in for a rich surprise.
Dylan did his bit to promote the album, playing most of the songs live during this and the subsequent North American tour.
The tour started on June 10, 1981 in Chicago, Illinois.
Dylan performed a further three concerts in the United States before travelling to Europe for a series of spectacular shows.
The set list grew considerably as more of his older songs were added.
Recordings of those shows find Dylan totally at the top of his game. The arrangements made sense, the background singers never seemed out of place, and revisiting his then extensive catalogue of songs, Dylan was making them come alive and shine again, almost as if he was remembering who he was and what he’d written.
The European leg of the tour started on June 21 in Toulouse in France and consisted of twenty three concerts, the largest number of concerts taking place in England where eight shows were performed.
All shows from July 1 onwards were recorded by members of Dylan’s crew.
Dylan returned to the United States in October to perform 23 concerts there. Dylan also performed four concerts in Canada. The tour came to an end in Lakeland, Florida on November 21 after 54 concerts.
Sadly, due to family commitments and moving house I missed all of Dylan’s nine UK shows (six at Earls Court and three at Birmingham’s NEC) and would have to wait three more years before I could see him again.
And once again my journey with Dylan would become more personal.
To be continued