Bob Dylan’s new box set The 1966 Live Recordings isn’t hitting shelves until November 11th, but his team is already thinking about their next archival release. For the thirteenth chapter of the Bootleg Series, the musician is strongly leaning toward a box set devoted to his gospel period, which ran from 1979 to 1981. The only other set under major consideration is one that chronicles the 1974 Blood on the Tracks sessions.
“Personally I think the gospel set is more interesting,” says a source close to the Dylan camp. “Blood on the Tracks is similar to The Cutting Edge in what you’re hearing is different version of the same thing. You’re hearing process. The gospel is a lot of stuff that people ignored. Bob continued to tweak the gospel stuff on the road for a couple of years. It kept mutating.”
Dylan’s brief gospel period is one of the most controversial chapters of his career. It began in August 1979 with the release of Slow Train Coming, a collection of eight songs about Dylan’s reawakening as an evangelical Christian. “My so-called friends have fallen under a spell,” he sings on “Precious Angel.” “They look me squarely in the eye and they say/’All is well’/ Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high/When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?”
The album hit Number Three on the Billboard Album Chart and was met with largely favorable reviews, but in September, he hit the road with a show that didn’t feature a single non-gospel song. Most nights, Dylan preached to the crowd as well. “I know not too many people are gonna tell you about Jesus,” he told the crowd at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater on May 15th, 1980. “I know Jackson Browne’s not gonna do; it he’s running on empty. I know Bruce Springsteen’s not gonna do it, cause he’s born to run and he’s still running. And Bob Seger’s not gonna do it cause he’s running against the wind. Somebody’s got to do it, somebody’s got to tell you you’re free! You’re free because Jesus paid for ya!”
He followed up Slow Train Coming in 1980 with Saved, another collection of religious songs. Gospel-only shows continued through much of that year, but in 1981, he released Shot of Love – a mixture of secular and religious songs – and supported it with a tour that spotlighted many of his 1960s hits along with many gospel songs. “The 1981 shows were all professionally recorded,” says the Dylan source. “There’s also a bunch of video that nobody has ever seen. Besides the stuff on YouTube, there’s really interesting [footage] that was shot onstage. It’s beyond imagining, and it’s gonna come out.”
A documentary about Dylan’s 1975/76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour is also in the works. Much footage was shot for the 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, and over the years, many of the surviving members of the tour have been interviewed. “You’ll see that sooner rather than later,” says the source. “I’m hoping in two years.”
At some point in the future, visitors to the University of Tulsa, home to an “endless ocean” of Dylan recordings, should able to hear any recording he made throughout his entire life, both onstage and in the studio. The plan is allow visitors to access it via computer. “There will be some kind of database,” says the Dylan source. “Right now, they are struggling with the enormity of what they have to deal with and how to present it.”