The Gospel According to Bob Dylan

Alan Light

4 Min Read

In 1978, Bob Dylan was a mess. His divorce from Sara Lowndes had been finalized, followed by a bitter custody battle. His four-hour film “Renaldo & Clara,” shot during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, had opened (and quickly closed) to savage reviews, and the “Street Legal” album didn’t fare much better. The big band — heavy on horns and background singers — that he had taken on the road for an outing often dubbed “the alimony tour” was being dismissed as a tacky sell-out. 

At the Nov. 17 date in San Diego, an audience member tossed a small silver cross onstage. Dylan put it in his pocket and soon after, said that “Jesus put his hand on me... The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.” Encouraged by his girlfriend, back-up vocalist Mary Alice Artes, and colleagues including Rolling Thunder band member T Bone Burnett, he began attending the Vineyard Fellowship church, and his newfound faith started turning up in the songs he was writing.

After the 1979 release of the “Slow Train Coming” album, Dylan set out on another tour, playing smaller halls and performing only his new, gospel-inflected material. He assembled an extraordinary band for this journey: Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett, Muscle Shoals organist Spooner Oldham, bass legend Tim Drummond (who had played with James Brown), drummer Jim Keltner, pianist Terry Young and an accomplished group of female African-American gospel singers. 

In a career marked by controversial creative choices and the frequent confounding of his audience’s expectations, this chapter still stands alone.

Footage from two of the tour’s final shows, in Toronto and Buffalo from April 1980, makes up the bulk of “Trouble No More,” an hour-long film that was initially released as part of the nine-disc 2017 “Bootleg Series” box set chronicling Dylan’s Christian era. In a career marked by controversial creative choices and the frequent confounding of his audience’s expectations, this chapter still stands alone — musical zig-zags from “going electric” to singing Frank Sinatra covers are one thing, chiding your listeners that “you either got faith or you got unbelief/And there ain’t no neutral ground” is quite another. 

But what this documentary reveals, beyond debate, is the power of the music Dylan was making. The messages may sometimes be strident, but the conviction is obvious and the delivery is electrifying. Those of us who have attended more Dylan concerts than we can count will attest that the difference between the good and bad nights isn’t a matter of the material, but of his engagement, and the simmering “Slow Train Coming” or the intense self-examination of “What Can I Do for You” captured in “Trouble No More” are performances for the ages. 

In the film, the songs are interspersed with newly shot scenes of actor Michael Shannon as “The Preacher,” pontificating to an empty church about matters including spiritual hypocrisy and the dangers of alcohol and fast food, his speeches written by critic and historian Luc Sante. It may seem like an arbitrary decision, but these interludes functionally replace the on-stage sermons that Dylan was delivering every night. Presumably these monologues, which sometimes included lectures on the evils of rock ‘n’ roll or homosexuality, felt too revealing too include (or maybe the shows that were filmed were off nights for Dylan’s own preaching). 

Forty years later, Dylan’s gospel years (which extended across two more albums, “Saved” in 1980 and “Shot of Love” in ‘81) can still be difficult to reconcile with our sense of the songwriter as a countercultural icon. But one possible key is to consider all of Dylan’s career — all of his life, really — as an exploration of the history of American music. In this context, so many of his unpredictable paths make sense. Having already absorbed folk, blues, rock and country, how could he go deeper into the nation’s musical heritage without understanding the gospel tradition? And, later, without trying out Christmas music or the Great American Songbook? All of these worlds remain part of Dylan’s landscape and lexicon. 

He never disowned the Christian chapter of his life. Some of these songs still show up in his sets, including a hopped-up, revamped “Gotta Serve Somebody” that was a highlight of his recent tour in 2019. The apocalyptic imagery and stark morality in these lyrics infuse his work to this day. And “Trouble No More” ends with a clip of Dylan and singer Clydie King seated on a piano bench, dueting on Dion’s 1968 hit “Abraham, Martin and John” — a reminder that maybe religious music and pop music were never that far apart in the first place.

Alan Light is a music journalist, author and the co-host of the daily music talk show “Debatable” on SiriusXM. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Vibe and Spin magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. Alan’s books include biographies of Prince, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and the Beastie Boys, and he co-wrote best-selling memoirs by Gregg Allman and Peter Frampton. His book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’” is currently being developed as a documentary, and he was the writer for the acclaimed HBO film “Elvis Presley: The Searcher.” He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Mojo and Esquire.

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