Still trying to come to terms with the time Dylan went Full Christian
by Sylvie Simmons
A few weeks back I got an email from the British rock mag I write for. They were planning a hefty piece to mark the newest installment in Bob Dylan’s bootleg series – Volume 13, Trouble No More: 1979-1981, which comes out on November 3rd. Its focus is Bob’s Born Again period that resulted in three Christian albums – Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love – and a gospel tour, some of whose footage appears on a DVD in the bootleg’s nine-disc version. They asked if I wanted to write something about it. I didn’t. Though I’d actually written something about it 38 years ago.
I was a card-carrying Dylan fan and reviewing one of those gospel shows for the UK rock weekly Sounds. I hated the show. In the pre-internet age, it wasn’t easy to know what other rock critics thought about it – and with time comes a certain revisionism – but it turns out that most rock critics were hostile too. Even John Lennon was hostile. When John heard Bob’s first Christian single “Serve Somebody,” he wrote “Serve Yourself” in response. The great sage Van Dyke Parks’ reaction was “There goes the neighborhood.” And Leonard Cohen, when he learned of Bob’s conversion, wandered the house wringing his hands, lamenting, “I don’t get it, I just don’t get this. Why would he go for Jesus at a late time like this? I don’t get the Jesus part.” He was not alone.
So where did all this start? According to some, it came down to a drug problem. Others said it was a girlfriend thing; Dylan had been dating one or more gospel singers so they might well have planted the idea. At the show, in one of his disconcerting breaks between songs for a bit of preaching, Dylan told the crowd, “There’s only two kinds of people, saved people and lost people.” As far back as 1966 (in Playboy), he was talking about “salvation” being the one thing he wanted.
In one of the outer suburbs of Los Angeles there was a church, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, that drew hippies and musicians, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, whom Dylan respected. There had been Jesus freaks in the ’60s, but the congregation grew as things turned darker as the ’60s became the ’70s and an apocalyptic pall hung over L.A. Dylan always had a taste for the apocalyptic. In “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” the first example that comes to mind, he sings of “the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.” In another of his evangelical stage raps he prophesized, “We know this world is going to be destroyed.” It was strange enough to hear Dylan even talk between songs, but to hear him enthusiastically evangelize for a religion that, as practiced in the US, had very different values to what the Dylan Cult wanted to hear from him, was really weird.
Dylan got on the phone to the pastor of the church and said he wanted to talk to somebody. He was invited to come to Bible class, which he did. There he felt Jesus manifest in the room. He kept on going to Bible class for three months, four days a week. As Regina McCrary, a preacher’s daughter and one of Dylan’s gospel singers put it, “the Holy Spirit came to live with him.” In February 1979, the New York Post reported that Bob was baptized in Pat Boone’s pool. The Pat Boone part seems to be the only possible inaccuracy. And it was just a few months later that year that Eat the Document, D.A Pennebaker’s iconic film documentary of Dylan’s 1965-66 UK tour came out, which included the 1966 show in Manchester, England where a fan called him “Judas” during the electric half of his set. Now here he was, cozying up to Jesus.
I didn’t know this stuff before going to see him at the Santa Monica Civic in November 1979. My most vivid memories are turning up at the venue and there being all these smiling Christians outside, handing out pamphlets, and the scowling members of the audience who walked out. Dylan did not play any of his old songs on the tour, not even one. Fans were were calling out for them by name; at another show one of his band remembered seeing someone in the front row with sign saying, “Jesus loves your old songs.” It wasn’t the band that was the problem – Jim Keltner, Spooner Oldham, Fred Tackett and Tim Drummond rocked. Someone shouted “Like A Rolling Stone” but he gave us “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” a friggin’ nursery rhyme. It was “wall-to-wall Jesus,” to quote Dylan’s producer Jerry Wexler. The gig I was at began with a sermon given by Regina McCrary and continued with a little gospel-singing set. Being reborn seemed to have wiped out his musical past. Songs that meant so much to so many, whose words were analyzed and learned by heart, that were anthems of the counter-culture, songs that saved people, were all ignored. In an interview, Dylan said, “The old stuff’s not going to save me.”
It was unsettling. You always think of Dylan as a force – caustic, scornful, non-conformist, confrontational, imperious in his fury at the treachery and dishonesty of it all. Being a messiah suited him; he always had something to announce. He had always been anti-authority. “Don’t follow leaders,” he sang in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And here he was, following the Big Leader.
I was thinking – as I keyed in the faded carbon-undercopy of my review, ignoring the temptation to expand on or edit it – on how Dylan’s always been changing directions on his albums and reshaping, sometimes obliterating, his old songs onstage. By all accounts this Christian period invigorated him creatively just as going electric (equally-shocking to diehard folkies) did, even though I much prefer the results of one over the other. I rarely listen to those gospel records. Though I must say that when I do, they sound so lush and human – maybe the last albums to sound like that before everything went to hell in the ’80s. Still, this is the first of the Bootleg Series I have no interest in blagging.
Here’s that 1979 review, warts and all…
Bob Dylan, Santa Monica Civic, Los Angeles
by Sylvie Simmons for Sounds – Nov 1979
“THERE IS NO FIRE ESCAPE IN HELL!” This warming thought, printed on a pamphlet, was thrust in my hand by a gaggle of smiling Christians outside the venue. It was half way through the show and I’d been wrestling with my conscience as to whether I should escape from one of the worst musical evenings of my earthly existence, thereby incurring the wrath of the record company that paid for my $15 ticket, the magazine awaiting a review, and no doubt the Almighty Himself. I decided to accept my martyrdom and slunk back into my seat behind two testifying Dylanites applauding and Amen-ing, contenting myself with counting the number of people in the audience who were shouting out things like “We got the message” and “Godawful” and walking out. There was a lot of them.
So what’s it like, Dylan abandoning rock ‘n’ roll for the Rock of Ages? Sober (no alcohol at the Civic) and sermonising, fire and brimstone with some Pat Boone-isms thrown in for luck. Wonderful huh? If it’s all a joke or a big publicity stunt, there being more Born Again Christians than MacDonald burgers in the US these days, all with money to spend, then it misfired. If he’s serious, Heaven help us.
The show starts with a sermon. Really. One of the female gospel singers narrates the story of a young man, hurt and in hospital, who writes to his Mama, “Mama, I’ve been hurt.” Mama hasn’t got the readies to go and see her son, so she puts on her best dress, gets on her knees and says “Jesus, what can I do?” Jesus sends her to the train station and she gets on the train, only to be thrown off because she hasn’t got a ticket. But the train won’t move until the old lady is put back on. The punch line: “Jesus got your ticket”. “Hallelujah,” says the audience looking on with blind adoration/blank disbelief/boredom at the goings-on. Two more female gospel singers join in – nice voices, but it doesn’t half go on – more songs about churches and trains, everything but the Salvation Army.
And then, at last, Dylan comes on. He is wearing a leather jacket, seemingly un-altared from last year’s one-of-the-boys rock tour, except there isn’t even a trace of a smile or anything so trivial as entertainment. The set that follows ranges from low-key to turgid – more than half a dozen new songs with simplistic religious themes, the lyrics sometimes seem rewritten from the Bible or Born Again speeches. There’s none of his old heathen stuff. The person behind me who called out “Like a Rolling Stone”, go straight to purgatory. It’s ironic really. This is the guy who for years went around standing up for rebellion and protest and people who don’t fit in. And now he’s up there accepting, and admonishing everyone to accept, the ultimate authority without the slightest questioning. And it’s all so lifeless, the songs, even the little speeches between songs asking, Who among us knows that Satan was defeated at the cross? or, cheerful bugger, Why watch the news on TV and lament the world’s problems when we all know the world is coming to an end very soon. Sign up now or be a cinder. Come to think of it, that sort of arrogance does fit Dylan rather well.
Okay, sifting through the dross, there were some good moments. A lovely song called “When He Returns,” which is almost a love song; or “I Believe in You,” almost “Lay Lady Lay”-ish; or “Slow Train Coming” and “Serve Somebody.” The rest were either boring, too alike or insulting to the intelligence, like “Man Gave Names to all the Animals”, Dr Doolittle via the Holiday Inn.
Those that didn’t walk out before the end went predictably loony. Those who like music and once liked Dylan were less amused. If Bob is aiming to get crucified by the press on this tour, he’s going about it the right way.