Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Trouble in Mind' spotlights Bob Dylan's gospel years

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Clinton Heylin's 'Trouble in Mind.'
Clinton Heylin's 'Trouble in Mind.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

So many people have asked, for so long, why Bob Dylan went gospel that they often forget to ask the converse question: why did Bob Dylan stop preaching the gospel, after hitting it hard from 1979 to 1981? When asked a couple of years later, Dylan just shrugged. "Jesus himself only preached for three years."

That conflation of Jesus with the man famously called "Judas!" in 1966 is key to understanding Dylan's gospel years, suggests Clinton Heylin in his new book Trouble in Mind. Dylan's preaching was persistently marked by an animus towards non-believers, an attitude he's harbored for his entire career if you allow that Jesus has been just one of the Nobel winner's many muses.

Heylin, as Dylan himself did, likes to draw comparisons between the gospel years and Dylan's epochal mid-1960s transformation. In both cases, Dylan followed a new path and refused to give his audiences what they wanted to hear, trusting his own sense of what he urgently needed to play. (When one fan called out for "everybody must get stoned," Dylan responded by telling the story of Jesus and the prostitute saved from stoning.)

Pointing out how lackluster Dylan shows were just before (remember Bob Dylan at Budokan?) and just after (remember the Tom Petty tour?) the gospel years, the author implies that if you had to pick a Dylan show to attend any point between the Rolling Thunder Revue and the late-1980s dawn of the Never Ending Tour, it would be a no-brainer: go with a gospel show.

One of the virtues of the Bootleg Series album and movie Trouble No More (2017) is that it highlights Dylan's live shows from the gospel era, a time when conventional wisdom had it that no one wanted to see Dylan because all he was doing was preaching. The shows garnered plenty of positive reviews, Heylin points out, but it was the pans that got syndicated and talked up because they fit the narrative of Dylan going off the deep end.

A principal reason the gospel years remain underrated, writes Heylin, is that Dylan was even more impatient than usual with studio recording, frustrating producers' efforts to improve his releases. Slow Train Coming (1979) was given a tight commercial sheen by Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals — with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar — but Saved (1980) was a muddy mess and Shot of Love (1981) fell victim to Dylan's self-defeating habit of leaving superb songs ("Angelina," "Caribbean Wind") on the cutting room floor. On "Heart of Mine," Dylan perplexingly consigned Ringo Starr to playing toms while producer Chuck Plotkin, not a good drummer, sat at the Beatle's kit.

When people said Dylan was doing a lot of preaching at his concerts, though, they weren't wrong. Heylin includes extensive quotations from Dylan's gospel-era onstage banter, which reveals that the average Dylan concert circa 1980 contained more words than Dylan may have uttered onstage in the entire 21st century. A lot of the chatter concerned, yep, salvation, with Dylan riffing on Biblical themes. Occasionally, though, he got more pointed and named names.

"Ol' Jackson Browne," said Dylan on night in Rhode Island, "he's running on empty. Bob Seger, he's running up against the wind. Bruce Springsteen, he's born to run and still running. Some time sooner or later, you gotta come home."

Although some of Dylan's finest songs from these years ("Every Grain of Sand," "When He Returns," "I Believe in You") were tender paeans, by and large he wasn't exactly glowing with fresh grace: he was growling at the fallen, telling them they'd better get up. "You do wonder," wrote Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone, "if Bob Dylan is so full of God's love, why is he so pissed off at the rest of the world?"

Dylan caught that love bug in fall 1978. He was dating Mary Alice Artes, one of a series of vocalists he'd date during that era, and she found God by way of California's Vineyard Fellowship. When someone threw a cross onstage, Dylan took it back to his hotel room and had a born-again experience on the spot. "There was a presence in the room that couldn't have been anybody but Jesus," he said two years later.

He started going to church and writing new songs, debuting "Slow Train" live that December. He never formally announced his conversion, though, and even by the time Dylan was in the studio recording Slow Train Coming the following year, Knopfler had to call his manager in confusion. "All these songs are about God," the Dire Straits frontman said in surprise. NME put it less subtly in a 1979 headline: DYLAN AND GOD — IT'S OFFICIAL!

Heylin also helpfully illuminates the historical context of the era, when tensions were roiling over the Iran hostage crisis. Troublingly, Dylan seemed to pick up some of the millennialist ideas of Hal Lindsey, whose books — then popular among evangelicals and Zionists — had a distinctly anti-Arab slant. In that context, the "Slow Train" lyrics decrying "sheiks walking around like kings" and "foreign oil controlling American soil" sparked protest from contemporary listeners who heard intimations of religious intolerance.

Stocked with helpful quotations and original research, Trouble in Mind is a tremendously valuable — and readable — guide to one of the most perpetually confounding periods of Dylan's career. Eventually Dylan meandered away from gospel, in part by way of cover songs; he was considering (yes, seriously) a Self Portrait Vol. 2 featuring a cover of "The Rainbow Connection."

As Heylin points out, Dylan's transition away from Christianity was much slower than his transition to it: as late as 1990, he was still making evangelically-tinged statements. He certainly never rebuked the work he did from 1979-1981, or his statements from that era.

"I seen a lot of people in my time who do exactly what I do," he said onstage in 1980. "I've known Jimi Hendrix, I knew Janis Joplin and I knew Jim Morrison and I knew Lowell George, and if they knew then what I know now, they'd still be here."

He then turned to his band, and cued "Solid Rock" with a "Hit it!"

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