Sunday, December 03, 2017

Bob Dylan: Trouble No More 1979-1981 - The Bootleg Series - Volume 13 (Part 2)

I follow God, so if my followers are following me, indirectly they're gonna be following
God too, because I don't sing any song which hasn't been given to me by the Lord to sing.

– Bob Dylan, December 7, 1979, Interview with Bruce Heiman (KMEX, Tuscon, Arizona)

I was 15 years old, growing up in northwest Vermont, when Slow Train Coming was released in August 1979. I heard "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Slow Train" on CHOM, an FM rock radio station in Montreal. I liked the title track, but wasn't very impressed with "Gotta Serve Somebody". (I read many years later that producer Jerry Wexler didn't want what he felt was a weak song on the album at all, let alone as the opening track.)

I was also at that time bristling under the strict rules of my mother's house. In 1972, she became involved, through her older sister, with Jehovah's Witnesses. Her deepening involvement in the religion led to my parents' divorce about five years later. I lived a kind of double life, going to meetings but fervently hoping that no one in the neighborhood or at school knew. I was listening to and reading about rock and roll, and while I certainly knew about Bob Dylan, I was not exactly running to buy an album of religious songs. Looking at the back of Slow Train Coming, I remember thinking: What could a song like "Man Gave Names To All The Animals" possibly sound like?

The next thing I heard about Dylan was that his born-again period was over and Infidels, released in October 1983, was a "secular" album. It was the first Dylan album I bought in real time. (It was not entirely secular, but I liked it anyway.) As far as the two records between Slow Train Coming and Infidels, I knew next-to-nothing. Shot of Love was a mystery (with a cheesy cover) and I believed the opinions of others that Saved was just about the worst album in the entire history of sound. (Not the history of recorded sound, but of all sound, back to the Big Bang.) Saved was unlistenable, in other words. (And yet that information did not make me curious to hear it.) It would be many years before I listened to all of Slow Train Coming and Saved and when I did, I liked what I heard. And when I heard tapes of the concerts Dylan played in 1979 and 1980 ... I was truly astounded. His band was fantastic, and he was singing with so much passion, warmth, and sincerity. I was an atheist, but the preaching – delivered in what some critics referred to as a hectoring tone – did not bother me. I found it fascinating.

I began tracking down more live tapes and trying to learn more about this period of Dylan's career. Most books on Dylan devoted very little space to the "gospel years", however. For a while, I considered researching and writing about this overlooked era myself (my previous post about this box set was taken largely from my book proposal to the editors of Bloomsbury's 33.3 Series), but I retired the idea in January 2015, when I heard that Tim Drummond, who had played bass with Dylan during this period (and with many others, including James Brown and Miles Davis, in his life) had died. Note: Clinton Heylin, the author of several solid books about Dylan, has just released Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan's Gospel Years - What Really Happened.

It was only a few years ago that Dylan fans believed Sony/Columbia would never release a volume in the Bootleg Series devoted to this period. It was assumed the label felt it could not possibly sell enough copies to justify the effort. But perhaps, after the positive reviews for Another Self Portrait (Volume 10, 2013), which offered a re-examination of another much-maligned point in Dylan's long career – Greil Marcus began his Rolling Stone review with: "What is this shit?" – Sony thought the same rehabilitation could be performed on the Gospel Years. And here we are!

The Bootleg Series has evolved in interesting ways since 1991. Two-disc sets of live recordings from 1964, 1966, and 1975 were nice, but they paled in comparison to The Cutting Edge (Volume 12, 2015), an 18-CD behemoth of nearly every note Dylan recorded from 1965-66, when he recorded three seminal albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Sony then made available, exclusively to purchasers of that overpriced set, an access code to download The 1966 Live Recordings, a 36-CD set (!).

Now, it was clear: bigger was better. A box devoted to Blood On The Tracks was supposed to be next. But it was bumped for The Basement Tapes Complete (Volume 11, 2014) and it has been sidetracked again for Trouble No More. If Volume 14 covers Blood on the Tracks, I hope it contains every note from every recording session. I'd like to think Sony has now boxed itself into a corner, where they are almost forced to give Blood the same exhaustive treatment as those three mid-60s classics. (Also, the Rolling Thunder tours of 1975-76 deserve more than the 2-disc set released in 2002. There were two concerts filmed, including the gloriously intense Fort Collins show, part of which was broadcast on ABC-TV in 1976.)

Trouble No More contains eight CDs and one DVD. The discs are housed in a book with an introduction from Ben Rollins, an essay from Amanda Petrusich, and notes on the songs by Rob Bowman.

Rollins describes the gospel concerts as "a true revival meeting ... tightly paced and wonderfully played ... riveting and exciting". Several of the songs are in a "perpetual state of lyrical development" as Dylan "continues to search for their musical essence". He notes that most shows were captured only on cassette mixes off of the soundboards (although four nights in Toronto in April 1980 were recorded on 24-track tape). For music pulled from 37-year-old cassettes, these songs sound fantastic!

Petrusich, the author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records, discusses the "incongruous" nature of Dylan becoming born again. If we think of Evangelicalism "as a kind of sense-making rubric – a stern and unambiguous system in which hopelessness and existential worry are addressed and corrected for", she states, then Dylan's change of heart is "maybe not so mystifying. ... Dylan has always performed devotional material ... He has always been searching." She concludes:
If you can separate the teachings of Jesus from the trappings and mistakes of organized religion, there is nothing but beautiful lessons. ... What's maybe most remarkable to me now about Dylan's gospel recordings is the humanity they inadvertently betray ... Feeling remorseful about your failures, and wanting both to prostrate yourself and to be forgiven – it's hard to think of anything more instinctive to the human heart. Listening to Dylan's music from this era, all I can hear any more is that plaintiveness. It's a pure signal. A man looking for a way forward.
I'll likely cite bits from Bowman's notes as I discuss the various songs. But at the start, he writes of hearing a song from Slow Train Coming prior to the album's release, at a Dylan convention in England.
One could hear a pin drop while we all focused our ears, neurons and emotions on the first public airing of "Precious Angel". You could cut the tension with a knife. After the last note vanished into the ether, a very divided room spent the rest of the conference arguing vociferously ... Many assumed that the man who had always asked questions was now unquestioningly accepting doctrine that left no room for critical thinking. ...

I personally loved the whole scene. It reminded me of nothing so much as the furor surrounding Bob's decision to go electric in 1965 ... Once again, Bob Dylan, the questor, was on the move forcing himself and, by extension, his audience to, despite what many thought, ask questions about their beliefs, values, existence and what life was really worth. All great art makes its audience think. All great art makes its audience question. This was, undoubtedly, great art ...
A second book, entitled Pressing On, contains photographs from the recording sessions and tours. (Why do box sets like this always include so many photos (from concerts, of foreign album covers, etc.? A few of these go a very long way. I'd rather have more essays and information about the music.) Among these photos are some real jewels: pages with typed and/or handwrittten lyrics to 14 songs, many of them further edited by Dylan in pencil.

Random phrases and lines are scrawled everywhere and it's sometimes impossible to decipher Dylan's handwriting. The lyrics for two songs – "Slow Train Coming" and "When You Gonna Wake Up?" – bear almost no relation to the recorded versions. There are also many wonderful lines that Dylan discarded, a testament to how prolific he was as a writer during these years.

There is also an essay from Penn Jillette. I thought he was an odd choice as a contributor, but it turns out that his Gospel Bob experience was somewhat similar to mine (and, likely, many other fans). Jillette is eight years older than I am, and he had been buying Dylan albums since Bringing It All Back Home. On August 20, 1979, the 24-year-old Jillette walked into his local record store.
I bought Slow Train Coming. I had been warned it was going to be a gospel record but I wasn't sufficiently prepared. I was shocked. I was bummed. ... I listened to that record but I didn't hear a note. I listened just once, shook my head, and filed it away. My world had fallen apart.
Jillette says he purchased Saved and Shot of Love, but they remained in plastic, unplayed, for years. He was living in San Francisco but did not attend any of the 14 shows Dylan played in that city just over two months later. Now, Jillette admits that he has changed his way of thinking.
Dylan's gospel records are good. I know the records haven't changed over these years, so it's me. I come to Dylan for passion, and profundity. I come to Dylan for truth. ... I come to Dylan to knock me out of the trivial. ... I come to Dylan to make life seem more important than just today, and these records deliver everything I want. At the time these recordings came out, I asked myself, "What's wrong with Dylan?" Now listening to these recordings full of heart, and truth, and passion, naked power, the question suddenly becomes "What was wrong with me?" ...

Here starts my revelation: When these recordings of live versions, outtakes, and rehearsals from the gospel period arrived, I experienced the burning bush. I was on the road to Damascus. These records changed me. I'm not Christian but I've changed. ...

As far the theological content of these records – I still disagree. ... But the medium isn't the message, the message is the message, and fortunately for me, I can hear the message on these records as not just the revealed word of Christianity. The singing on this record is some of the best of Bob's career. He cares. It all matters. Even the sound checks and rehearsals are full of fire. ... I no longer care that I don't agree with the cosmology. ... Art must be deeper and richer than theology.

I must face some of my own hypocrisy. I never sequestered Bach's Saint Matthew's Passion on my shelf in shrink wrap. I listen to all the Bach sacred music without the chip on my shoulder that I had for Bob. I feel the music, the inspiration and the passion directly. Bach's faith doesn't get in the way. The faith is a big part of what I love about it. ... I love Ray Charles singing "Amazing Grace." Why was that always okay with me? Why did it take so much longer to hear Dylan's gospel? ...

I must be careful that my new tolerance doesn't fall into disrespect. Listening to these records I mustn't pretend that Bob could be singing about any old thing. ... [A]s I listen to these gospel songs, I try to take his faith and passion seriously and honestly and feel it as best I can from his point of view. I need to let his preaching the word of god speak to me of the human condition, uplift me, inspire me, and not in any way cheapen the depth of his belief. ...

Common wisdom is that Dylan went back to being a secular song writer after this period, but that's a lie. The truth is Bob Dylan never was and never will be a secular song writer ...
The first two discs of Trouble No More are live recordings, presented in roughly the same order as a concert from 1979-80. Discs 3 and 4 have previously unreleased studio recordings and soundchecks – alternate takes of songs we know, songs that have appeared only on bootlegs (but in higher quality), and one song that almost no one (even hard-core collectors) knew existed.

Discs 5 and 6 are taken from Dylan's 1980 concerts in Toronto and the June 27, 1981 concert in London (when Dylan had re-introduced his older material into his set lists) is on Discs 7 and 8. The DVD includes concert and rehearsal clips interspersed with sermons written by Luc Sante and delivered by actor Michael Shannon. This was apparently done at Dylan's suggestion or insistence.

Dylan preached to his audiences quite a bit during these tours. However, you will hear none of that preaching on this box set. (Even the 2-CD bonus that people (like me!) received if they ordered from Dylan's website, a recording of the San Diego concert from November 27, 1979, is devoid of sermonizing.)

Sony made the wrong decision in axing the sermons. They were an important part of these tours – additional evidence of Dylan's sincerity and zeal – and their absence short-changes listeners of exactly what went on during these shows. Sony could have make each spoken interlude a separate track and people could skip over them if they chose. Not including the six-song opening set by Dylan's background singers was also a mistake. But for those who need the full experience, the bootlegs remain available.

(Next: The music. (Finally!))

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