“Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way/You’re drifting to far from the shore”
“Maybe when I was about ten, I started playing the guitar. I found a guitar… in the house that my father bought, actually. I found something else in there, it was kind of mystical overtones. There was a great big mahogany radio, that had a 78 turntable–when you opened up the top. And I opened it up one day and there was a record on there – country record – a song called “Drifting Too Far From The Shore.”
The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else… and er, then, uh, you know, that I, I was maybe not even born to the right parents or something.” (Bob Dylan)
This is Bob Dylan in the revealing documentary “No Direction Home”, about an almost mystical experience. Already ten years old he is touched by the beautiful christian hymn. It´s almost as we can see him standing by the mahogany radio, starry-eyed listening to the gospel in the song:
“Out on the perilous deep
Where dangers silently creep
And storms so violently sweep
You’re drifting to far from the shore
Drifting too far from the shore
Drifting too far from the shore
Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You’re drifting to far from the shore
Today the tempest rolls high
And clouds overshadow the sky
Sure death is hovering nigh
You’re drifting to far from the shore
Why meet a terrible fate
Mercy abundantly waits
Turn back before its to late
You’re drifting to far from the shore”
The song has been recorded endless times, but in the early fifties there is not so many versions. In the movie they are playing one Bill Monroe-version that is made later, but I would think that his version with his brother from 1936 might be the right one.
We´ll never know exactly what made the deep impression on the young jewish boy in Hibbing, Minnesota – was it the melody, the music, the high lonesome vocals, the words, all or of the above? Nevertheless, it´s a great example of how the christian message was an integrated part of the music young Robert was exposed for already from his youngest years, as well as he was exposed for the jewish tradition from his family and ancestors. Not later than this day both would be a part of his inspiration, a part of his language and a part of his tools to see and understand life, one would think both in him and around him.
“Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You’re drifting to far from the shore”
As I have mentioned in my earlier post, “Bob Dylan + Gospel = True!“, stories, metaphors and poetic language from both parts of the Bible has been an integrated part of Dylan´s lyrics and performances from the start, both in his own songs and the well of folk, blues and country he has been drinking from through his whole artistic life.
Just remember the last lines of his debut album, with the song – See That My Grave Is Kept Clean:
“Well my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold / Now I believe what the Bible told.”
I think it´s very important to have this in mind when we soon will be listening to the new wonderful treasure chest, “Trouble No More”, The Bootleg Series, Volume Thirteen. That´s not to deny neither the shocking effect of Dylan going “completely gospel” in 1979, nor to deny the new turn, both musically, lyrically and “religiously”. Something was happening, of course it was.
“The Gospel Trilogy?”
According to Dylan the first biblical rock album wasn´t “Slow Train Coming”, but “John Wesley Harding”. Not so strange then, that his mother told us this: “In his house in Woodstock today, there’s a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He’s continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.” This is more than ten years before what later would be dubbed “The Gospel Trilogy” – a landmark starting with “Slow Train Coming” (1979), continuing with “Saved” (1980) and ending with “Shot of Love” (1981).
Of course there is arguments to look at these albums together, but in fact there is no total unity we are talking of, each album has their own distinctive sound, their own distinctive production, their own theological focus and in many ways their own poetic language.
“Slow Train Coming” is the entrance door to a new phase. The last words we heard from “Street Legal” were those:
“There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived
If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived
I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive
But without you it just doesn’t seem right
Oh, where are you tonight?”
“Street Legal” was recorded in the midst of Dylan´s most-touring year, so far, he played 114 shows, more shows than his touring in 1974 with The Band, and the the two parts of Rolling Thunder in 1975 and 1976. There wouldn´t be a year of more shows until 1995. The last concert is in Florida, 16th of December 1978, and he introduces a new song towards the end of the show: “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”, a lesson in the Golden Rule, but not without the freudian start of the refrain, pointing out that your next should use the rule first:
“But if you do right to me, baby
I’ll do right to you, too
Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you”
We also know that Dylan uses an early version of “Slow Train” as a soundcheck before he show in Nashville, 2nd of December. The song is more about a morally awakening, more about a worried mind seeing a need for change, than about the answer. But the train was moving.
The story of the cross someone threw up on the stage at the show in San Diego, he using it in Tempe, Arizona, it´s all a part of the story we know so well. Something was happening.
The next we know, the new day at dawn, at least when it comes to recorded material, is the bombastic presentation of the choice we all have to take, we gotta have to serve somebody – or something – the soon to be Grammy-winning “Gotta Serve Somebody” opens “Slow Train Coming”, that was released the 20th of August 1979.
Not long after the single with “Trouble In Mind” on the B-side was released, a song about the singer´s thoughts of temptation´s angry flame, about Satan´s ways, and about people he is worried about:
“So many of my brothers, they still want to be the boss
They can’t relate to the Lord’s kingdom, they can’t relate to the cross
They self-inflict punishment on their own broken lives
Put their faith in their possessions, in their jobs or their wives”
The singer clearly sees Christ as an answer to many questions at this time, both to the morally, social and politically challenges of the world as well as to the personal – never more so than in “When He Returns”, the song that ends “Slow Train Coming”:
“Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?”
The 20th of October Bob Dylan and his band participated in “Saturday Night Live” with three songs – “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “I Believe In You” and “When You Gonna Wake Up”, the second song a strong performance about the nature of newfound faith, and the prize of believing. One could say the song was a bit prophetic in its nature, because it must have been written before there had been any greater public reaction to Bob Dylan´s new turn. Of course he might have felt hostile reactions already before the album was out – never the less the song is a great and heartfelt description of the cost of going your own way, taking your own choices, no matter what. “When You Gonna Wake Up” is another song of morally indignation, a list of problems in a troubled world, but this time concluding with the sign of the cross:
“There’s a Man up on a cross and He’s been crucified
Do you have any idea why or for who He died?”
The song “Slow Train” was rehearsed in October, and we already got one of the tracks from the forthcoming box, displaying a great and fully developed live arrangement with horns, about a month before the tour starts. The horns were, sadly, skipped from the tour.
When the tour starts, 1st of November in 1979, at Fox Warfield Theatre in San Fransisco, the set is all brand new songs, and includes both the songs of “Slow Train Coming” and of the forthcoming “Saved” album, but the last are not recorded yet. The shows are some of the best he has ever done from a stage, but the divisive effect of Dylan is the same as when he went electric in 1965/66. Many of the audience wont accept “the new Dylan”, they want the old songs and the old Dylan. The christian believers of course love what´s happening, and many people is able to see that, even if they don´t share the beliefs, what´s coming out of the new phase is an impressive stage show, great music and maybe the strongest vocal performances of Dylan ever.
Here is the version of Slow Train from the show 16th of November, also from the forthcoming “Trouble No More”:
“Blessed Be The Name” is part of the set from day one. Never released and not included in “The Lyrics”.
In one show he also introduces the song “Ain´t No Man Righteous, Not One”:
“When I’m gone don’t wonder where I be
Just say that I trusted in God and that Christ was in me
Say He defeated the devil, He was God’s chosen Son
And that there ain’t no man righteous, no not one”
Another outtake from “Slow Train Coming” was “Ye Shall Be Changed”, never played live, but released on Bootleg Series, Volume 1-3. The first verse might shed some light to the position a man could be in, when the need for change is experienced:
“You harbor resentment
You know there ain’t too much of a thrill
You wish for contentment
But you got an emptiness that can’t be filled
You’ve had enough of hatred
Your bones are breaking, can’t find nothing sacred”
Dylan takes the “Saved” songs to a studio in February 1980, after playing them live in about fifty concerts. Some think the recorded versions lacks some of the intensity from the live versions, and in a way that´s of course true, but nevertheless I think some of the more low-key versions on the album shows us different qualities of the songs, as in both “In The Garden”, “Pressing On”, “What Can I Do For You” and “Saving Grace”, the last, for me, the highlight of the album. And of course, we get the beautiful a cappella cover version of “Satisfied Mind”, Dylan making the old country hymn his own and into a full blown song of the soul, like a prologue to the album, and to the story of the need for salvation.
After much complaints about his live shows, it must have been an especially great victory for Dylan to get his first Grammy the 27th of February, for Best Rock Male Vocal Performance for “Gotta Serve Somebody”. He also made a great performance of it under the Grammy show.
The album is released 23rd of June in 1980, actually after Dylan finished his three 100% gospel tours, consisting only his new material. When he starts touring again in November, the old and new will come together in a new phase of Dylan´s live performing.
The tone of the album is quite different from “Slow Train Coming”, all songs more about the soul of man, the soul of the singer, and about salvation of this soul, from “Saved” to “Are You Ready”. The one exception is “In The Garden”, more of a storytelling song about Jesus Christ, from a more outward position. One could think that this is the album mostly inspired by Dylan´s period of studying the bible inside Vineyard Christian Fellowship, during the winter of 1979, bathed as it is in the language of Canaan.
Never the less, if you are a believer or not, most people who actually attended the shows was flabbergasted over the intensity of the delivery of the new material. Soul music, in deed.
Between the tour ending in May and the next leg in November, something is happening. Dylan are starting to write, rehearse and record new songs, a new kind of songs. It´s like he is opening a new door. I see it like “Slow Train Coming” is looking at life and society from the outside, pointing a way in to “the church”, then “Saved” is the gospel show with the congregation, inside “the church”, before Dylan again finds his own way, starting with his writing of new songs, where some of them will appear on “Shot of Love”.
In September 1980 he records the first versions of one of his most beautiful songs ever, “Every Grain of Sand”.
The first known recording was released on Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3, backed by Jennifer Warnes and a dog (!):
Then, as part of the “Trouble No More”-collection, we are presented for another beautiful recording, maybe with more confidence than the first. There should be almost a year before the song was taken to the stage.
One of the songs from this period is “Making A Liar Out of Me”, new for us all. To the groove of “You Can´t Alway Get What You Want”, it´s a song without no easy answers.
About the same time, rehearsing for the November shows, more new songs are rehearsed, both “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind” and “Groom´s Still Waiting At The Altar”, songs with a richer poetic complexity, some of them turning up in the live shows named “The Retrospective Tour”. Maybe not the best of names for the tour, it surely is a new phase, not returning to previous times, but now mixing both new and old songs, cover versions and old folk songs. Dylan also invites a series of friends to participate in the shows, people as Jerry Garcia, Michael Bloomfield, Santana and Roger McGuinn. He sings Shel Silverstein´s “A Couple More Years”, he sings “Abraham, Martin & John”, “Mary From The Wild Moor”, even “Fever”, mixed with “City of Gold”, “A Hard Rain´s A-gonna Fall” and “Blowing In The Wind”. The mood of the shows are more relaxed, but still with much of the intensity of the earlier gospel shows. These concerts are really special but surely points towards the touring of 1981, in Europe, USA and Canada, starting in June.
From March to May, the new album, “Shot of Love” is recorded. A long string of songs are recorded, both Dylan´s own and lots of cover versions, from “Mystery Train” to “Let It Be Me”, from “Half As Much” to “Almost Persuaded”, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. Lots of songs and recordings that aches for another compilation from the period “Trouble No More” spans?
One of the songs from Drammen, Norway, 9th of July in 1981, will be part of the new collection, “Trouble No More”.
“Shot of Love” is released 10th of August, 1981, consisting a new kind of songs, compared to “Saved”. The journey goes on. The songs are still about search for fulfillment, for love and for bringing light to the world, but it´s more of Dylan´s own language that are used to get there. Still, it´s combined with some drops of bitterness against his critics and haters, answering them that they “got something better, (they) got a heart of stone” or they want “Watered-Down Love”, opposed to the singer.
Several great songs from the sessions are not released. Among them is “You Changed My Life”, later released on “Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3”, interestingly describing a story of the before and the after of the last years.
“I was listening to the voices of death on parade
Singing about conspiracy, wanted me to be afraid
Working for a system I couldn’t understand or trust
Suffered ridicule and wanting to give it all up in disgust
But you changed my life
Came along in a time of strife
In hunger and need, you made my heart bleed
You changed my life
My Lord and my Savior, my companion, my friend
Heart fixer, mind regulator, true to the end
My creator, my comforter, my cause for joy
What the world is set against but will never destroy
You changed my life
Came along in a time of strife
You came in like the wind, like Errol Flynn
You changed my life”
“Caribeean Wind” was performed in the fall 1980, and released on “Biograph” 1985, with disturbing pictures of a world in turmoil.
“Atlantic City by the cold grey sea
I hear a voice crying, “Daddy,” I always think it’s for me
But it’s only the silence in the buttermilk hills that call
Every new messenger brings evil report
’Bout armies on the march and time that is short
And famines and earthquakes and hatred written upon walls”
The same could be said of the unbelievably beautiful “Angelina” from the same period, never performed live.
“I see pieces of men marching; trying to take heaven by force
I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse
In God’s truth tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course
Just step into the arena
Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases
Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces
Begging God for mercy and weepin’ in unholy places
The 1981 tour lasted to December, and the last show on the tour let us have the first live version of the beautiful “Every Grain of Sand”, luckily included on the new box set of “Trouble No More”.
The journey continues for Dylan. Two years later he releases “Infidels”, singing that “Sometimes Satan Come As A Man of Peace”. In 1984 he is touring again, singing both “When You Gonna Wake Up” and “Every Grain of Sand”. In 1986 he is singing “In The Garden”, introducing the song as a song about his hero. The song also remains in the show at the Europe Tour in 1987, together with lots of other songs, also “Dead Man, Dead Man”, “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train”. It´s much too easy to draw a line after the three albums from 1979, 1980 and 1981, like this was just a limited period that Dylan left behind him, hunting for other religions and so on. The truth is that he integrated both the experiences and the songs from this period on his never-ending-journey on his long way home.
So – did he leave Jesus to find Moses in the eighties? I don´t think so. He already knew Moses, and I don´t think it´s a coincidence that Dylan chose a verse from the old testament on the inner sleeve of “Saved”: “Behold, the days come, sayeth the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah’ (Jeremias 31:31)”. I´ve never seen Dylan renouncing his jewish heritage and I would think it´s been cherished and saved in both his life and his art, living side by side of the spirit of the christian gospel as he explored it from “Drifting Too Far From The Shore” to “Saving Grace”, to “Somebody Touched Me”, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” and “Stand by me” and until this day. Even on the morning after.
In a couple of weeks all will have the possibility to listen to the fabulous “Trouble No More”, Bootleg Series, Volume 13, a beautiful document of some of the strongest live performances of Dylan ever captured, inspired by his life and soul in the years of 1979-81.
“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a PeacefulMountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” (Newsweek, 1997)
”Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book,” he adds. ”All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest on That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.” Dylan says he now subscribes to no organized religion.” (New York Times, 1997)