‘Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote’ – Bob Dylan, 1989
Bob Dylan, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13, 1979-1981, Columbia 2017
Trouble No More, the thirteenth and latest volume in Bob Dylan’s long-running sequence of archive releases, The Bootleg Series, covers the years 1979 to 1981. In its full deluxe edition, in 8 CDs, one DVD, a booklet with liner notes by Rob Bowman replete with biblical pointers, essays by Penn Jillette and Amanda Petrusich and a book of souvenir photographs, the set documents what has often been seen as the most controversial of all the singer-songwriter’s many avatars, namely his ‘religious period’.
The world of music drew its breath in 1979 at the announcement of Bob Dylan’s conversion to evangelical Christianity, accompanied by the release of ‘Slow Train Coming’, an album consisting exclusively of new compositions in a religious idiom. The album reached No 2 in the US charts and featured Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler on guitar, as if to sweeten the pill. However, it was rejected out of hand by many of Dylan’s long-time admirers. It was followed by two other Christian-themed albums, ‘Saved’ in 1980 and ‘Shot of Love’ in 1981, which were less commercially successful. ‘Slow Train Coming’ also opened a period in which Dylan performed nothing but religious material in concert, though eventually he softened his stance to restore some older songs to the setlists. ‘Shot of Love’ contained a number of non-religious songs, and palpable was the relief in Dylan circles when his album of 1983, ‘Infidels’, proved to be free of overtly Christian material and finally marked the errant idol’s return to the fold. In later years and indeed until fairly recent times, Dylan continued to perform some of the songs from this period in concert, but treating them as elements from his back catalogue without privileged ideological significance.
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 enriches the official Dylan canon with copious servings of material, mostly live (also studio outtakes), complementing the three studio albums from this period. The live material is selected from different dates and venues, except for discs 7 and 8, which enshrine an entire concert (London, 27 June 1981, with some non-religious material); discs 5 and 6 are a compilation from different concerts in Toronto in 1980. The title ‘Trouble No More’ appears to be not from Dylan but from a blues number with that title by Muddy Waters. There are some previously unreleased compositions, and many of the songs appear in multiple versions. For some, this set will mark total saturation with the ‘religious Dylan’; for others, it will be infinitely fascinating.
As the authors of the set’s two essays admit, for a whole host of Dylan devotees ‘Slow Train Coming’ and its successors marked a crisis point. I remember myself the reactions of numerous friends and acquaintances, ranging from desperate disillusion to angry rejection. There were those who now saw Dylan’s earlier work as retrospectively tainted and started to divest themselves of their Dylan collections; those hitherto Dylan completists who conspicuously refused to buy ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love’; those who defiantly declared ‘I just ignore the words and listen to the music’, or responded ‘He always did quote the Bible anyway’; and even those who spoke openly of ‘the death of Bob Dylan’. Equally, these were others who, influenced by the then still uncontested hegemony of Marxism in left-wing circles, rejected the new Dylan for being religious tout court, while others objected specifically to the conservative political connotations of the particular form of religion Dylan had embraced. I myself published a highly critical article in a Portuguese journal:
– ‘Bob Dylan: Do Radicalismo à Reacção’, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, No. 13 (Feb 1984), pp. 45-75 (only available in Portuguese) – on-line at: www.ces.uc.pt/rccs/index.php?id=202&id_lingua=1
berating Dylan for what seemed an inexplicable conversion to values he had once opposed – but in which I made the mistake of supposing the conversion to be final and irreversible. That article was written in 1983 but published in 1984, by which time the unpredictable Bob had disabused me of my error with the release of ‘Infidels’.
It might be added that if one looks objectively today at the lyrics to the three albums, if those to ‘Slow Train Coming’ do indeed at certain points reflect a conservative evangelical ideology (though laced with social protest that would to some paradoxically recall Dylan’s early 60s work), those to ‘Saved’ are far more emotionally focused on the sensations of salvation, while ‘Shot of Love’ can be read as a dramatic monologue, the product of an internal struggle within someone not entirely sure if they are a Christian or not. All in all, the three-album sequence is very far from constituting a homogeneous propaganda tract. Many, even if not all, of the songs on the three albums read as decent pieces of writing acceptably up to Bob Dylan’s usual standards. The recurrent biblical references constitute the songs as intertextual by default. From this period, ‘Every Grain of Sand’, much returned to live in later years, is generally recognised as a major Dylan song, and in that register I would add, at least, ‘In the Garden’, and, in its multiple versions, ‘Caribbean Wind’.
Now, we may ask what the cultural significance might be of the release of this set at this particular point in time, almost four decades on. Many of the live performances are of the highest quality, with Dylan, his band and his back-up singers creatively on edge, emotionally vibrant and musically and vocally concentrated. Today, the Marxian ‘opium of the people’ dismissal of religion has been largely supplanted in Western liberal circles by its polar opposite, the ideology of ‘respect for religion’, which taken to extremes can mean placing anything religiously motivated beyond all criticism whatever. Between one extreme and another, ‘Trouble No More’ raises in acute form the issue of the reception of religious art by those who are non-believers. The world is invited, after all this time, to focus on the religious Dylan at a time when the issue of ‘how to react to art that one disapproves of’ has perhaps never been so charged.
We are living a historical moment at which Western civilisation’s historic commitment (if Western civilisation still exists) to free expression and artistic freedom is under unprecedented attack – in multiple spheres, from universities to the theatre, visual arts and music – and in which certain ideological blocs appear to have thrown all notions of aesthetic value out of the window. The conversion of a certain Californian educational institution, which I shall not name, from free-speech redoubt to hotbed of censorship (as exemplified in recent events there) serves to remind us that today those who consider themselves liberals, be they students or academics – the kind of people whose equivalents 40 or 50 years ago would have been Dylan acolytes – are now more often than not in the forefront of the new puritanism. The ever more frequent reasoning, in more than one ideological camp, is: I disagree with this artwork, so I eliminate it; I disagree with this person, so I shut them up. In extreme cases the two positions are conflated, and the result is: I disagree with you, so I eliminate you (it may not be that difficult to find examples).
I am not aware that anyone at the time actually wanted Dylan’s religious work banned or destroyed. However, in the times we live in, to reposition that religious work on the world stage may prove a salutary act, suggesting to those of us who rejected it back then that perhaps we were not setting such a good example when we said no to a part of an artist’s work that was aesthetically substantial and gave rise to unforgettable performances, simply because we did not approve of its ideological connotations. Had we been more tolerant then, perhaps the world might be a more tolerant place today.
I continue with some more detailed comments, targeted on harder-core Dylan loyalists.
The packaging of this set is – like the music – mostly excellent, though the quality of some of the photos in the booklet (‘Bob Dylan – Pressing On: Photographs and More 1979-1981’). leaves something to be desired. The nine discs have been designed with a suitably retro look and sport various combinations of just three appropriate colours, red, black and gold, suggesting solemnity and passion. Rob Bowman’s notes are detailed, enthusiastic and helpful, with Dylan’s multifarious references to the King James Bible admirably pinpointed, but for some unknown reason stop at Disc 4 – so there is no guidance for the last 4 discs or the DVD, an unfortunate omission surely.
The number of tracks on the 8 CDs is officially 92, but becomes 89 if one excludes a radio check and two band introductions. All the tracks are previously unreleased with the one exception of ‘Ye Shall Be Changed’, taken from The Bootleg Series vols. 1-3. There are, if I have counted right, 13 songs never before officially released, some of them in more than one version. Of these, ten are Dylan compositions and three are cover versions. There is also ‘Trouble in Mind’, left off ‘Slow Train Coming’ but released as the B-side of the ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ single in the US (as Rob Bowman points out) and also (as he does not point out) as the B-side to ‘Precious Angel’ in the UK. Some of the previously unreleased numbers are not totally unfamiliar thanks to cover versions (‘City of Gold’, ‘Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One’) or Dylan lore (‘Yonder Comes Sin’); others (‘Stand By Faith’, ‘I Will Love Him’) were new certainly to me, and I imagine to most.
Of the three cover versions, ‘Help Me Understand’ is a Hank Williams song, while ‘Rise Again’ is a gospel number also covered by Elvis. The most intriguing cover, however, appears on CD 8 (second disc of the London concert), in the shape of ‘Let’s Begin’, a Jim Webb song. To my knowledge this is Dylan’s only known cover of Webb, who as author of compositions like ‘Wichita Lineman’ has certainly staked a decent claim to being a major twentieth-century songwriter. Unfortunately, as the notes stop at disc 4, no further light is shed on the matter.
There are so many good performances, studio and above all live, on this set that to single out individual tracks might seem almost invidious. However, a list of standout tracks might include ‘Covenant Woman’ on disc 1, ‘Pressing On’ on disc 2, and ‘When You Gonna Wake Up?’ and ‘In the Garden’ (disc 8, London); or both versions, live (disc 2) and studio (disc 4), of ‘Caribbean Wind’, with lyrics varying both between each other and from the version that appeared on Biograph (for Dylan geographers, they respectively cite Curacao and Trinidad where the earlier release namecheck Nassau); or, again, the two passionate versions of the hitherto unknown ‘Cover Down, Pray Through’ (disc 4 studio, disc 5 live). On a less perfect note, there are lyric errors on the live versions on disc 2 of ‘In the Summertime’ and ‘Every Grain of Sand’, and would it really not have been possible to choose word-perfect performances of both? (the studio take of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ on disc 4 is error-free). As for the non-religious songs on discs 7 and 8, doubters may note that these are excellent versions, with, notably and thanks also to Dylan’s back-up singers, especially harmonious translations into the gospel idiom of two classic songs that are particularly suited to such a transformation.
The DVD consists of a video entitled ‘Trouble No More: A Musical Film’, directed by Jennifer LeBeau and made up of concert footage interspersed with sermons from a preacher played by US actor Michael Shannon, plus ‘extras” material in the form of further concert material. Dylan’s performances – not identified – come over as intent and moving, both on Bob’s own part and that of his musicians and backup singers. Outstanding numbers include ‘Precious Angel’, ‘Saved’ and, with an epic harmonica solo, ‘What Can I Do For You?’ The DVD also includes two songs that to my knowledge have never appeared as official Dylan audio releases: the traditional ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well’, in two versions (incomplete in the film, complete in the extras), and, in a powerful duet rendition that marks the film’s closure, the oft-recorded standard ‘Abraham, Martin and John’.
All in all, the material of this set appears as a revelation and a challenge, a clarion call at a difficult moment in history for Dylan’s admirers to engage in critical dialogue with a corpus of work from a period in his songwriting career that is not the easiest to handle, but which, approached with an open mind, may prove surprisingly rewarding – another phase in the creative life of one of the greatest artists, in any medium, of modern times.