By the time a musician passes three quarters of a century, picking a favorite musical period from his or her catalog can be a bit like a trip to Baskin-Robbins. It doesn’t matter if some of the flavors aren’t to your liking, because there are 30 other varieties from which to choose. So it is with Bob Dylan, the prolific singer and songwriter who has lived a thousand musical lives in his 76 years.
There’s Tin Pan Alley Bob, barely 20 years old and doing his best imitation of Woody Guthrie; folk singer-activist Bob, performing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” at the March on Washington in 1963; and then the “electric” Dylan of the Newport Folk Festival. Then there’s the country-inflected Dylan of the late ’60s, singing “Girl from the North Country” with Johnny Cash; the seething, wounded loverboy Dylan of 1975’s monumental “Blood on the Tracks”; and the circus ringleader in white face-paint overseeing the Rolling Thunder tour. Then the dilettante Dylan of the mid- to late-1980s, dabbling in music with the Grateful Dead, with Tom Petty and the Traveling Wilburys, with rapper Kurtis Blow; and the cryptic oracle of the early and mid-1990s who returned to the best-seller lists and Grammy honors in 1997 with “Time out of Mind.”
For many of his fans, Bob Dylan’s brief sojourn as an evangelical Christian from the late 1970s to the early 1980s was nothing less than a betrayal.
The last two decades have seen Dylan try a variety of experimental styles, including rockabilly, swing and jazz. He has also released a somewhat surreal collection of Christmas songs as well as a 30-song set of covers, along with other albums stuffed full of 12-bar-blues songs. Along the way, he’s garnered a Nobel Prize in Literature, appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, toured 100 nights a year, and continued to be a puzzling, mesmerizing bard always singing his own song.
Of course, that exhausting list of musical twists and turns leaves out the most controversial: Dylan’s brief sojourn as an evangelical Christian from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. For many of his fans, it was nothing less than a betrayal (and not Dylan’s first), and his concerts in those years were often marked by choruses of boos as Dylan stubbornly refused to sing his old standards and stuck to the “gospel songs” of “Slow Train Coming” (1979) and “Saved” (1980). “Shot of Love” (1981) is also largely Christian in theme, though true Dylan heads would not consider it as one of his “gospel” albums, because Dylan had by then largely returned to rock n’ roll arrangements.
Two new releases invite Dylanologists and neophytes alike to a new appreciation of this phase of his career: a two-disc set of bootleg tracks as well as a movie with rare footage of Dylan’s performances during this era, both titled “Trouble No More.”The former, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/ 1979-1981 (part of a vast, decades-long project to remaster and release Dylan outtakes from distinctive periods of his career), collects tracks from 1979 through 1981, including several songs never before released. The movie, directed by Jennifer Lebeau, first aired on Cinemax on Feb. 26, and includes concert footage from two 1980 shows as well as other footage giving a more intimate glimpse of Dylan and his backing band. The footage is interspersed with Christian sermons delivered by actor Michael Shannon; in a haunting bit of historical congruity, Shannon’s appearance and performance are both reminiscent of a young Billy Graham—who died only five days before the movie’s release.
Hearing the songs again, and seeing Dylan perform with his gospel-era band (Fred Tackett on guitar, Tim Drummond on thumbed bass, Jim Keltner on drums, and Terry Young and Spooner Oldham on keyboards, all backed by singers Gwen Evans, Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Regina McCrary, Mona Lisa Young, and Clydie King), provides a reminder that while Dylan’s Christian music was uneven in its quality, some of it is first-rate. “Pressing On” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” are both catchy songs with an underlying intensity to the lyrics (and performance) that makes them stand out even in Dylan’s long and impressive catalog.
Perhaps it is time we stop treating Dylan’s evangelical period as a cul-de-sac on his journey through life.
I would personally rate “Every Grain of Sand” as among Dylan’s 10 best songs ever written, and the performances on the album and the film both do justice to the song’s haunting, wistful stanzas. This is not a musician putting on a show; this is a shaken believer making a confession of faith:
I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I'll always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
that every hair is numbered like every grain of sand
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.
Watching Dylan perform these songs live is also a reminder that while he might never have seemed weirder than in 1980, he was also never more kinetic a performer. Whatever one thinks of these songs, the Bob Dylan performing them loves them.
Perhaps it is time we stop treating Dylan’s evangelical period as a cul-de-sac on his journey through life, and instead see his musical efforts to praise Jesus and spread the gospel as a fruitful and rewarding step along the way.