You’ve got to feel for 1979 Bob Dylan. Recently born-again, he’s taking the songs that will form Slow Train Coming and 1980s Saved, to a hostile audience who only want to hear the old songs. Referencing his infamous “Judas” performance at Manchester Trade Hall in 1966 ( the very night after playing an identical set in Sheffield, folk fans, where no one shouted owt – it’s that kind of city), he says: “Back then, they wanted me to stop playing rock n’ roll, now they want me to start playing it.”
Le Zim has of course always polarised people. I know of perfectly rational people with excellent tastes who go virtually purple when his name is mentioned. But in Clinton Heylin’s excellent new Trouble In Mind book, out soon on Route, he explains that during this revival period of Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love, Bob was polarising his own audience, night after night. Latterly famous for virtually mute between song chatter, back in 1979 Bob was turning his between song patter into a sermon about the end of days. Cheery stuff all round. The hecklers who backed Judas were bemoaning too much Jesus 10 years later. And there was no way they were getting Lay Lady Lay.
But this is only part of the story. This trio of albums, and the preceding (and truly peerless) Street Legal (1978) are amongst Dylan’s finest, or if not, contain some of his most deeply personal treasure.
The book offers a timely look at the years 1979 to 1981, hot on the heels of the latest bootleg series Trouble No More which features tracks from those biblical tours, minus the preaching. Luckily Heylin has kept these in the book and there’s no doubt that Dylan was a believer.
For me, Dylan was already starting on his religious journey on Street Legal. Take this line from the transcendent True Love Tends To Forget…
“I was down there in the reeds without any oxygen, I saw you in the wilderness among the men.”
and other gems such as Changing of The Guards, Senor and Love In Vain.
By the time of Slow Train, he was so far down the righteous road that every song was based on a Biblical verse or other: “Precious Angel, Gotta Serve Somebody, I Believe In You.” Of course, this road to Damascus also include Dire Straits and the musical arrangements are sometimes noodly, not like Street Legal’s wonderfully loose Springsteen saxophone vibes. Saved was a continuation of this journey but Heylin’s book brings a new perspective of Saving Grace or Covenant Woman, songs that were tooled and retooled on the road with one of Dylan’s finest ever bands. Shot of Love completes the trio by which time he has alienated his audience (some), record buyers (fewer) and journalists (most) but got a superb band playing to his strengths as the new Bootleg Series shows – check out Gotta Serve Somebody for a start. These songs work regardless of the words that inform them.
To read a far more informed blog about how Dylan then reflects us now, and read the Rev Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds blog here. https://nickbaines.wordpress.com/2017/10/26/dylans-gospel/
Jokerman aside, Infidels never quite delivers on the promise of the previous trio, and of course by the mid 1980s, Dylan was going off in a different direction yet again with the Heartbreakers in tow.
Heylin’s book, which he will discuss at Sheffield’s superb new venue Edwards on November 14, did a wonderful thing for me and made me return to the records that I’ve always loved, regardless of the message. Even when Slow Train gets a bit slick, there’s no dounting the beauty and majesty of I Believe In You or When He Returns. Street Legal for me is the true delight from this period. Dylan was definitely drinking from a more spiritual cup, but the sermons were still in the future and he swaggered with a raunch that was missing from his revival years.
The book is pitched at your Dylan obsessive and relies on a certain amount of scholarly knowledge of the man. But it debunks the mystery from this period when Dylan wasn’t just challenging himself, or the listener, but pretty much everyone. The roots of his latter-incarnation as a “let’s change the key and not play the hits” later years is laid down here, and it’s a mighty fine thing indeed.