by Jochen Markhorst
Between November 1, 1979 and May 21, 1980, 202 days, Dylan undertakes three “Gospel Tours”. 79 Performances, during which, just as in the good old days, he has to endure a lot of booing and swearing. Dylan only plays new, evangelical work, lets the background ladies sing entire songs, in between losing himself, in long, humourless, often dramatic sermons, which is not always equally well-received.
Like on November 26 in Tempe, Arizona:
“There’s only one gospel. The Bible says anybody who preaches anything other than that one gospel, let him be accursed.
[shout from the audience: “Rock-n-roll!”]
Anyway, you know, this fellow stopped by my house one time and wanted to, so called, “turn me on” to a … well I’m not gonna mention his name, he’s a certain guru. I don’t want to mention his name right now, but ah, he, he has a place out there, near LA.
And ah, he stopped by and he gave me this taped cassette to show me …
… You wanna rock-n-roll you can go down and rock-n-roll. You can go see Kiss and you rock-n-roll all your way down to the pit.”
The angry rock fan has just had his share of the second song of the set, “I Believe In You”, and enough is enough, apparently.
Dylan’s assertive outburst is unusual; in general, criticism doesn’t bother him too much. Thus, at all 79 concerts the song remains in second place on the set list, after the traditional opening “Gotta Serve Somebody”.
The evangelical concerts are exceptionally good. Excellent musicians, a passionate Dylan and fantastic songs – but still, some sympathy for the disappointment of many ticket buyers can be felt. This is Bob Dylan!
“What do you believe in?” a reporter asks Dylan in 1966 during a somewhat surreal press conference at Syney airport. “I believe in you,” Dylan replied back then, “I believe in things I can see. Don’t you?”
That Bob Dylan. Right?
So, thirteen years after that creed in Sydney, the master “betrays” not only his fans, but also his old self. In 1979 he converts to Christianity, celebrating it quite radically. With purely evangelical concerts, sermons and a first gospel album, Slow Train Coming.
The discomfort among critics is huge. On the one hand, it has been a long time since Dylan delivered an album sounding this good. Moreover, the songs are beautiful too, but then again: those lyrics. Almost all of the lyrics sing his newly found faith in and awe of the Lord. Unfortunately, the master thereby opts for the subtlety of the sledgehammer, avoids poetic ambiguity and often… well, distressing might be the word covering it.
It is all tolerable thanks to the power of the music and all things around it; vocally Dylan delivers the most passionate and dedicated performances in years, the accompanying musicians are top notch and the production is great. Dylan has hired producer Jerry Wexler and has so much respect, possibly for the first time in his career, that he does as the boss says, after a rough first recording day. So Dylan willingly re-sings a part, and again, and is even prepared to record vocals after the instrumental basic track is recorded.
Well, the 62-year-old Wexler is not your everyday producer, of course – he is the man behind Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, to name just two giants. He and Dylan have known each other for a while and six years ago they produced Barry Goldberg’s eponymous LP.
A second smart decision from Dylan is to follow Wexler’s advice and invite Mark Knopfler, the new guitar god who is just taking over the world with his Dire Straits. Dylan’s habit of giving a lot of freedom to the studio musicians works out very well this time. Knopfler is not only a very talented guitarist, but he also has a good sense of what a song needs and interferes with tempi, arrangements and even melody.
“I Believe In You” is a highlight. It is one of the tenderest ballads from Dylan’s oeuvre, rich in attractive melodies and performed with fairly rare vulnerabilities. Knopfler’s playing is tasteful, intimate even, and the piano accompaniment by seasoned studio musician (and co-producer) Barry Beckett is outstanding. Even the reviewers who cannot get over the aversion to the evangelical content give in here.
In terms of content, this song lyrics are not half bad either. Because of the songs around it, we know that the “You” must be the Lord, but if we look at it from an ignorant distance, we could fill it in differently, of course. And regard the song as maybe singing a forbidden or controversial love. Unlikely, but hey, if it helps to enjoy the particular beauty of this song, why not. Although even then the howling self-pity of phrases like I walk out on my own – in the pouring rain on top of that, poor chap – is actually not very uplifting.
One of the more prominent fans is Sinéad O’Connor, the Irish enfant terrible with the angelic voice and the confused personality, who knows both the controversy and the pitfalls of openly professed Christianity. In 2011, the Huffington Post publishes Sinéad’s congratulatory love letter to Bob Dylan. The letter is a partly squirmingly embarrassing, partly moving testimony of an unstable teenage girl (the Irish lady is then 45), but at least it is genuine. Stumbling, she makes it clear how Slow Train Coming has changed her life and has given her direction, she thanks him “for making Christian music sexy”, calls Dylan “Rabbi” and concludes her confetti canon with a fairly comprehensive retrospective of “the incident”:
“I had to do what I did in Madison Square Garden. Even if it meant being treated like a mental case for years after,”
… underlining the statement with the best possible words:
Even if they showed me to the door. And said don’t come back no more cuz I didn’t be like they’d like me to. Even if I walked out on my own. A thousand miles from home, I didn’t feel alone. Cuz I believe in you.
I believe in you, even through the tears and the laughter. I believe in you even though we be apart. I believe in you even on the morning after. Though the earth may shake me, though my friends forsake me, this feeling’s still here in my heart.
Don’t let me stray too far. Keep me where you are. So I will always be renewed. And Lord, what you’ve given me today is worth more than I could pay. And no matter what they say, I believe in you…
But, I digress, Bob. I only meant to tell you you’re gorgeous. So have seventy kisses for yourself on Tuesday.
… with (exactly) half the words of “I Believe In You”.
Appropriate, because “the incident” to which Sinéad refers, involves a thwarted performance of that song. Originally she would sing it at the 30th Anniversary Tribute Concert at Madison Square Garden, 1992. Shortly before, however, she tore a photo of the pope on TV, resulting in, among other things, insurmountable shouting, hissing and whistling. On the spot, Sinéad switches to a short, furious performance of “War”, subsequently in tears seeking comfort in Kris Kristofferson’s arms behind the scenes. However, her interpretation still is released on a Christmas album (A Very Special Christmas, Volume 2, 1992) and later as B-side of the single “Fire On Babylon”.
It is a brilliant execution. Even more intense than the original, more moving too, and enriched with Irish melancholy – thanks to the almost classical arrangement, especially. O’Connor’s slightly hysterical tendency towards the Mystical and her ability to reach rarefied, ethereal heights now yield a perfect pairing; precisely with this song, both qualities are huge plus points. Her live version in the Royal Albert Hall (1999) is hardly inferior, but unfortunately misses the clarinet solo from the studio version, the utterly utmost beautiful cover of “I Believe In You”. Even through the tears and laughter.
Here’s the live Royal Albert Hall 1999 performance…