Bob Dylan's Born Again Christian period of 1979 to 1981 - an intense, wildly controversial time that produced three albums and some of the most compelling and confrontational concerts of his long career - will be chronicled on the next chapter of Dylan's ongoing Bootleg Series.
Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981, set for release November 3rd, will be available as a two-disc set and a deluxe package containing eight CDs alongside a DVD of previously unseen live footage. "Once you strip away all the time and all the uproar it caused at the time," a source close to the Dylan camp tells Rolling Stone, "you can appreciate all this as wonderful, impassioned music."
Clinton Heylin, the world's foremost Dylan scholar and author of the upcoming book Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan's Gospel Years: What Really Happened, hopes the collection will clear up numerous wrong ideas about the era. "The set demonstrates, that, in fact, this was probably second only to the great creative burst in the mid 1960s in terms of the amount of material he was writing and the quality of the material he was writing," he says. "And, again, like the mid 1960s, that he was the live performer at the absolute peak of his powers."
Dylan's exact motivation for embracing Christianity with such fierce conviction has never been completely explained, but by 1979, Robert Allen Zimmerman, a Jewish kid from Minnesota, had completely accepted Jesus Christ into his heart. "I told you 'The Times They Are A-Changing' and they did!" Bob Dylan roared to a stunned audience at Albuquerque, New Mexico Kiva Auditorium in December of 1979. "I said the answer was 'Blowin’ In The Wind' and it was! And I'm saying to you now, Jesus is coming back, and he is! There is no other way to salvation."
That was his mindset going into the Slow Train Coming recording sessions in the spring of 1979, stunning producer Jerry Wexler and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knofpler (The pair signed onto the project without understanding it would be a collection of songs about Dylan's conversion to Christianity.) The album was a surprise bestseller in America that produced a genuine hit with "Gotta Serve Somebody," but the goodwill faded when he launched a tour that featured fire and brimstone sermons and zero pre-conversion songs.
Dylan's follow-up album, 1980's Saved, took an even more uncompromising and literal approach to the Bible. It tanked with fans and critics, not even going gold. By the end of the year, commercial pressures forced him to include his older songs into his setlist and 1981's Shot of Love mixed in secular songs with biblical ones. It was the final gasp of Dylan's so-called "gospel years."
But as Trouble No More reveals, Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love represent only a tiny fraction of his recorded output in this period. And not only did many of the best songs not make those albums, but the ones that did were often vastly inferior to their live counterparts. "Where Bob often shines the most, I think, is not when he initially records songs," says the source. "For instance, think of the Rolling Thunder tour [of 1975/76]. The songs from Desire grew and exploded onstage, becoming much more nuanced and much more electric. The same is true of these songs. They were well-recorded with an incredible band."
The band was perhaps the greatest group of musicians Dylan ever toured with outside of the Band. It included organist Spooner Oldham, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Tim Drummond, keyboardist Terry Young, guitarist Fred Tackett and five highly accomplished female backup vocalists. "On a musical level, he was singing amazing things," says Tackett. "He would sometimes do back-phrasing, meaning he would not come in at the beginning of the line in the song. He'd wait several beats and then he'd start singing and play catch up. I'd think to myself, 'He ain't gonna make it before we change chords!' But he would, man. It was almost this jazz-phrasing, improvisatory stuff. It impressed me all the time."
Trouble No More contains 14 unreleased songs from the era that he played onstage or in rehearsals. Most have circulated in fan communities, but "Making a Liar Out of Me" has never been heard anywhere. "It wasn't even known to exist until we started going through the tapes," says the source. "Others were just played a few times on concert. We were able to go to the original sources for everything, even if it's just a cassette source. It's all going to sound better than anyone has ever heard before."
Six of the eight discs open with a version of "Slow Train." "It's a great example of how, in this tiny span of time from 1979 to 1981, Bob would approach the same song in so many different ways. "You hear an early version of it without words, a demo version played at a soundcheck and then you move into a rehearsal with horns and then live onstage where it becomes even more exciting. It morphs every time." Other highlights from the two discs labeled "rare and unreleased" include an outtake of "Pressing On" and rehearsals of "Caribbean Wind" and "Every Grain of Sand."
A professionally filmed show from Toronto's Massey Hall in April of 1980 has been traded within bootleg circles for decades, but the film component of Trouble No More (which premieres at the New York Film Festival on October 2nd) has never been seen. It was shot during another show in Toronto and a Buffalo gig later that month and include scenes of the band rehearsing. "We're assuming it was filmed for a possible television special," says the source. "It's so long ago that nobody can remember." The footage is shockingly intimate with the camera crew actually having access to the stage, capturing incredible moments like Dylan belting out "Pressing On" at the piano and rehearsing Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John" with a backup singer.
To flesh out the film, Dylan's team hired actor Michael Shannon to portray a preacher and read sermons written by essayist Luc Sante. "We wanted to do something that could be timeless and make it more of a piece rather than a strict concert or formal documentary," says the source. "And you can't ask for a better actor than Michael Shannon." Dylan delivered his own sermons on the gospel tours, often speaking for upwards of 15 minutes and warning the audience about an impending apocalypse. "We've had a lot of previews of what the Anti-Christ could be like," he said to the crowd at a Toronto show. "We had that Jim Jones, he's like a preview. We had Adolf Hitler, a preview. Anyway, the Anti-Christ is gonna be a little bit different than that. He's gonna bring peace to the world for a certain length of time. But he will eventually be defeated to. Supernaturally defeated. And God will intervene."
None of these will be included on the set. "You had to be there at the time for those things to really work," says the Dylan source. "We wanted to find something that would be a little more dynamic." Heylin, who quotes Dylan's sermons at length in his book, is disappointed by the decision to leave them off the set. "It does slightly dull the edge," he says. "I do think that there was an element of power, particularly in the live performances, that comes from some of the things that Dylan was saying between the songs. This does tone down some of the seriously apocalyptic nature of Dylan's performances and some of the things he was writing. I guess that's understandable in 2017."
The deluxe edition of Trouble No More opens with two discs of live material culled from every leg of the gospel tour. They had a breadth of material to draw from since an Otari MX-5050 captured every night of the tour. The tapes are two-track, but the sound quality is extremely high, far better than the many bootlegs from the time that exist. There's also a complete recording of the Toronto 1980 show, the only one on the tour captured on 24-track since it was meant to be paired with the film. The package wraps with a show at Earl's Court in London taped June 27th, 1981. By this point, Dylan was mixing older tunes with the gospel songs. "We thought that was the best show from the Musical Retrospective Tour," says the source. "The way he goes from 'Maggie's Farm' to 'Man Gave Name To All The Animals' is a really interesting segue. He's really committed throughout the entire concert."
By coincidence, Heylin was in the audience that night. "Dylan was in a filthy mood," he says. "The crowd booed the girls [during their opening set of gospel songs] and Dylan came onstage really mad. He prowled up and down the stage as he sang 'Gotta Serve Somebody' and really hammered it. It was the most animated I'd ever seen him in concert. He was pointing the finger was much as he did in 1966, but the end the audience was loving him. He even came back for a third encore of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door.' It was a really special night."
Taken as a whole, the box set (which includes essays by Ben Rollins, Amanda Petrusich, Rob Bowman and Penn Jillette) is likely to radically change perceptions about this period of time, though the Dylan source insists that wasn't the goal: "I don't care about changing perceptions. All I care about is people hearing the music and enjoying it for what it is."
Trouble No More Track List
Disc 1: Live
1. Slow Train (Nov. 16, 1979)
2. Gotta Serve Somebody (Nov. 15, 1979)
3. I Believe in You (May 16, 1980)
4. When You Gonna Wake Up? (July 9, 1981)
5. When He Returns (Dec. 5, 1979)
6. Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Jan. 16, 1980)
7. Precious Angel (Nov. 16, 1979)
8. Covenant Woman (Nov. 20, 1979)
9. Gonna Change My Way of Thinking (Jan. 31, 1980)
10. Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) (Jan. 28, 1980)
11. Solid Rock (Nov. 27, 1979)
12. What Can I Do for You? (Nov. 27, 1979)
13. Saved (Jan. 12, 1980)
14. In the Garden (Jan. 27, 1980)
Disc 2: Live
1. Slow Train (June 29, 1981)
2. Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody (Unreleased song - Apr. 24, 1980)
3. Gotta Serve Somebody (July 15, 1981)
4. Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One (Unreleased song - Nov. 16, 1979)
5. Saving Grace (Nov. 6, 1979)
6. Blessed Is the Name (Unreleased song - Nov. 20, 1979)
7. Solid Rock (Oct. 23, 1981)
8. Are You Ready? (Apr. 30, 1980)
9. Pressing On (Nov. 6, 1979)
10. Shot of Love (July 25, 1981)
11. Dead Man, Dead Man (June 21, 1981)
12. Watered-Down Love (June 12, 1981)
13. In the Summertime (Oct. 21, 1981)
14. The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar (Nov. 13, 1980)
15. Caribbean Wind (Nov. 12, 1980)
16. Every Grain of Sand (Nov. 21, 1981)
Disc 3: Rare and Unreleased
1. Slow Train (Soundcheck – Oct. 5, 1978)
2. Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) (Soundcheck – Dec. 7, 1978)
3. Help Me Understand (Unreleased song – Oct. 5, 1978)
4. Gonna Change My Way of Thinking (Rehearsal – Oct. 2, 1979)
5. Gotta Serve Somebody (Outtake – May 4, 1979)
6. When He Returns (Outtake – May 4, 1979)
7. Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One (Unreleased song – May 1, 1979)
8. Trouble in Mind (Outtake – April 30, 1979)
9. Ye Shall Be Changed (Outtake – May 2, 1979)
10. Covenant Woman (Outtake –February 11, 1980)
11. Stand by Faith (Unreleased song – Sept. 26, 1979)
12. I Will Love Him (Unreleased song – Apr. 19, 1980)
13. Jesus Is the One (Unreleased song – Jul. 17, 1981)
14. City of Gold (Unreleased song – Nov. 22, 1980)
15. Thief on the Cross (Unreleased song – Nov. 10, 1981)
16. Pressing On (Outtake – Feb. 13, 1980)
Disc 4: Rare and Unreleased
1. Slow Train (Rehearsal – Oct. 2, 1979)
2. Gotta Serve Somebody (Rehearsal – Oct. 9, 1979)
3. Making a Liar Out of Me (Unreleased song – Sept. 26, 1980)
4. Yonder Comes Sin (Unreleased song – Oct. 1, 1980)
5. Radio Spot January 1980, Portland, OR show
6. Cover Down, Pray Through (Unreleased song – May 1, 1980)
7. Rise Again (Unreleased song – Oct. 16, 1980)
8. Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody (Unreleased song – Dec. 2, 1980)
9. The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar (Outtake – May 1, 1981)
10. Caribbean Wind (Rehearsal – Sept. 23, 1980)
11. You Changed My Life (Outtake – April 23, 1981)
12. Shot of Love (Outtake – March 25, 1981)
13. Watered-Down Love (Outtake – May 15, 1981)
14. Dead Man, Dead Man (Outtake – April 24, 1981)
15. Every Grain of Sand (Rehearsal – Sept. 26, 1980)
Disc 5 - Live in Toronto 1980
1. Gotta Serve Somebody (April 18, 1980)
2. I Believe In You (April 18, 1980)
3. Covenant Woman (April 19, 1980)
4. When You Gonna Wake Up? (April 18, 1980)
5. When He Returns (April 20, 1980)
6. Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody (Unreleased song - April 18, 1980)
7. Cover Down, Pray Through (Unreleased song - April 19, 1980)
8. Man Gave Names To All The Animals (April 19, 1980)
9. Precious Angel (April 19, 1980)
Disc 6 - Live in Toronto 1980
1. Slow Train (April 18, 1980)
2. Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others) (April 20, 1980)
3. Solid Rock (April 20, 1980)
4. Saving Grace (April 18, 1980)
5. What Can I Do For You? (April 19, 1980)
6. In The Garden (April 20, 1980)
7. Band Introductions (April 19, 1980)
8. Are You Ready? (April 19, 1980)
9. Pressing On (April 18, 1980)
Disc 7 - Live in Earl's Court, London – June 27, 1981
1. Gotta Serve Somebody
2. I Believe In You
3. Like A Rolling Stone
4. Man Gave Names To All The Animals
5. Maggie's Farm
6. I Don't Believe You
7. Dead Man, Dead Man
8. Girl From The North Country
9. Ballad Of A Thin Man
Disc 8 - Live in Earl's Court - London - June 27, 1981
1. Slow Train
2. Let's Begin
3. Lenny Bruce
4. Mr. Tambourine Man
5. Solid Rock
6. Just Like A Woman
7. Watered-Down Love
8. Forever Young
9. When You Gonna Wake Up
10. In The Garden
11. Band Introductions
12. Blowin' In The Wind
13. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
14. Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Disc 9: Bonus DVD
Trouble No More – A Musical Film
Shot of Love
Cover Down, Pray Through
Jesus Met the Woman at the Well (Alternate version)
Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody (Complete version)
Precious Angel (Complete version)"
Slow Train (Complete version)