Volume 13 in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series has just been released, Trouble No More, covering the so-called “gospel years” of 1979-1981. There’s a two CD pack with 30 songs, including a couple never before released, and then a whopping 8 CD + DVD offering which, at over £135, I’m afraid priced me out. I might have a friend who can help me out though!
Dylan’s three “gospel” albums from the period were widely pilloried at the time, but the release of this material, all recorded live from concerts in the United States and Europe, has shown what anybody who attended these gigs at the time knew – the performances were nothing short of electrifying. I went to my first Dylan concert on July 1, 1981 at Earl’s Court, London, which was kicked off by four tambourine swinging female gospel singers, Regina McCrary, Carolyn Dennis, Clydie King and Madelyn Quebec, before Bob weighed in with Gotta Serve Somebody. By this stage, Dylan was beginning to mix in some of the old songs with the gospel material, so it wasn’t long before the whole place was erupting to Like A Rolling Stone. I was in Bob heaven with the set list that night, but it was the energy and conviction of the performances that pulsated through the arena that stayed with me long after the final chords of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door had died away.
Rolling Stone, never a fan of Dylan’s gospel material, admitted of Trouble No More, “What’s often lost in those arguments is that it produced some of his greatest concerts,” while the Times of London grudgingly confessed that “the two-disc version is ample proof that Dylan finding God was, in musical terms at least, no bad thing.” The New York Times understood better what went on: “What comes through these recording is Mr. Dylan’s unmistakable fervor…[the songs are] “anything but routine…Mr. Dylan flings every line with conviction.” Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin says simply, “Like the mid-1960s, he was at the absolute peak of his powers.”
This was a prolific period. More than a dozen songs that didn’t make it onto the three albums from 1979 to 1981 show up in Trouble in Mind. The body of work composed by Dylan during this time “more than matches any commensurate era in his long and distinguished career – or, indeed that of any other twentieth century popular artist,” says Heylin, and it’s hard to disagree.
The song performances are in turns exhilarating, rowdy, playful, and combative, combined with moments of prayerlike reverence. It’s hard not to be moved by What Can I Do for You, from San Diego’s 27 November 1979 performance. This was a centrepiece of Dylan’s performances in these concerts and his passion and sense of gratitude is undeniable. The gospel backing and the mournful harmonica adds to the poignancy. “You have given all there is to give; what can I give to you?” Dylan’s sense of indebtedness oozes from the song. My wife and I were listening to this song the other day in the car. She doesn’t really like most of the music I listen too – she’s more of a classical music fan. But she suddenly said, “He’s really a fantastic singer, isn’t he?” The character of Dylan’s voice will always, I guess, be something of an acquired taste, but he is indeed a very fine singer, able to phrase a song exquisitely, and, as he does on this one, wring the emotion out of it.
What I found interesting listening to these performances is how much they are blues songs. Gospel blues, yes – but nothing wrong with that – we have a long line of such songs from Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Robert Wilkins onwards. Slow Train, Gotta Serve Somebody, When You Gonna Wake Up, Do Right to Me Baby, Are You Ready and Dead Man, Dead Man are all served up in a heady mixture of the blues, rock and gospel. There’s something about the blues, when it’s played right that just manages to get right inside you and touch you deeply. And that’s what’s going on here with these songs – aside, of course from the deeply felt lyrics.
And then there is the very solid blues rock of The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar. The November 13, 1980 performance of this from San Francisco features Carlos Santana on guitar with a couple of blistering solos and Dylan as intense as you’re likely to hear him. The song is not on my vinyl version of Shot of Love, but was eventually added to the CD version.
The Groom’s lyrics are not anywhere near as explicit in Christian meaning as most of the other songs, which speak clearly of God, Jesus, the need for faith, repentance and Christ’s second coming. Here Dylan seems to be in enigmatic prophet mode, speaking of a world of chaos, madness, war and misunderstanding. But remember, this is a period where Dylan has steeped himself in the scriptures, and with his prodigious memory, all this theology and apocalyptic imagery is still swirling around his head. The talk of the groom, the implied bride and waiting at the altar seems to me has to refer to Christ and his bride, the church, straight from the pages of the Revelation of St. John. The stage, says Dylan, is burning and the curtain is rising on the new age, but we’re not quite there yet – the groom (Christ) is still waiting at the altar for his bride (Christ-followers) to be welcomed to the new age. For now, there is chaos, massacres of innocents, enough to nauseate you. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
The song is a powerful one – “a fiery piece of molten fury” [album liner notes] and the repetitive blues riff drives home the prophet’s urgent message. Before anyone gets too dismissive of this apocalyptic thread in Dylan’s songs, here and elsewhere, let’s realize that, like it or not, the idea of a second coming of Jesus has been part of orthodox Christianity for the last two thousand years. Yes, recently some Christians have got a bit confused about the idea of heaven as a golden city in the skies and about expecting a so-called “rapture,” but Christians have always hoped for a new world forged out of the old, where peace, love and justice would prevail. And that idea comes through loud and clear in, for example, When He Returns: “Like a thief in the night, he’ll replace wrong with right, When he returns… Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease, Until He returns?”
Dylan gives us, as the New York Times put it, “a sense of moral gravity, a righteous tone, apocalyptic thoughts and a delight in the rich and powerful receiving their come-uppance.”
The important thing for Christians is to live now as if that new age mentioned in The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar had already arrived – peaceably, loving neighbours and enemies alike, and seeking justice for all. That’s the answer to Dylan’s question, What Can I Do For You?