When Bob Dylan Was Busy Being Born (Again)

By Jon Friedman

No period in Bob Dylan’s six-decade career has produced more controversy than his so-called Born Again conversion from 1979 to 1981. People talked a lot about religion and God and Jesus — but not so much about what really matters the most when the subject is Bob Dylan: his music.

“Trouble No More,” the new Legacy extravaganza set covers the least appreciated part of Dylan’s transformation.

As this Bootleg Vol. 13 confirms, Dylan music was often brilliant during this period that so troubled many of his admirers. Dylan here is fully engaged and passionate about communicating the words and sounds he felt. And as an aside, some bad news for the naysayers: Psst, I suspect that Dylan has never stopped feeling close to his beliefs from this period. Dylan lives in the real world, and I reckon he has realized it’s better for his business if he stopped yakking about it.

When Columbia Records released “Slow Train Coming,” in 1979, Dylan’s fans panicked. Jews feared that he had turned his back on his — and their — heritage, values and faith. Liberals fretted that he was embracing the rowing tide of conservative politics and right-wing thinking. How could their generation’s spokesman do this to them?

The songwriter who had warned his fans, “Don’t follow leaders,” and cried, “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to,” had abandoned his flock. They didn’t listen. They seldom do.

(An ironic sidelight to all of this: Throughout his career, Dylan had tried valiantly to reinvent himself, primarily to get away from the fans’ image of him as their savior. He spends a good chunk of his memoir, “Chronicles,” musing about it. Well, with this one album he had done it, and brilliantly. He may have even wondered why he hadn’t thought of this earlier.)

“Trouble No More” contains many brilliant performances of excellent songs. To hear Dylan perform “Slow Train” in concert is a treat. He is much more artist than craftsman. You get the feeling that he believes every word and wants his audience to get he message. This is similar to his mentality during the tumultuous 1965–66 worldwide “electric’ tour. Back then, he also wanted to drill the music into his fans, from Sydney to San Francisco.

Dylan got booed mercilessly during that tour. The fans hated the notion that he had moved on from them more than they detested the music (How could they? This was some of the greatest music in the history of rock and roll — and Dylan and The Hawks played it brilliantly every night.People are just stubborn and stupid sometimes).

Meanwhile, the Christian movement also contained lots of wonderful Dylan music. Try and find a bad track on “Slow Train Coming.” You can’t. “Saved,” however, blunt where “Slow Train Coming” had been artful,” was not well received. “Shot of Love,” the third and final piece in the trilogy of thematic albums, again featured its fair share of terrific cuts. (And if Dylan had found it in his heart to add the excellent “Caribbean Wind,” then the album would have garnered better reviews, more air play and a higher sales chart number than a disappointing (by Dylan’s standards) 21.

Rumor is that Dylan recorded a two-record set of “Christian” music that has never been released in full. “You Changed My Life,” a song contained on an earlier Bootleg collection, is a catchy recording and shows Dylan at his best, in songwriting and singing. He sounds happy and spirited and, once again, engaged. Dylan, throughout his career, has always been at his finest when he feels fully engaged.

Which brings us back to Trouble No More.

Dylan certainly sounds like he is in the moment. It’s hard to know, for sure, what was motivating him to put forth this level of commitment during the three years. Of course, the novelty of 1979 and “Slow Train Coming” pushed him, just as the advent of every musical movement drove him to special heights. But in 1981, the “Shot of Love” period, Dylan continued to sing like he was on fire. He didn’t sound bored or complacent at all. He believes in what he was doing. If you don’t believe me, listen to these songs.

The ultimate put-on artist in the Sixties, Dylan played mind games on his audience during this period in one respect. Beginning with 1978’s occasional masterpiece, “Street-Legal,” and running through “Shot of Love,” “Saved” and, finally, 1981’s” Shot of Love,” Dylan’s albums all began with the letter “S.” So sly! It’s similar to how Dylan wore the same brown jacket on the covers of the Nashville-lilted albums, “Blonde on Blonde,” “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline.”

What’s so much fun about the ongoing Bootleg Series is that it allows Dylan-philes to revisit a special period in his career. (Every Dylan period stands out in its own way.). This was his most misunderstood and, arguably, under-appreciated time. As he complained bitterly in the Biograph liner notes, fans disrespected him and treated Shot of Love “like a Methodist record.”

Maybe Dylan wasn’t totally kidding around in 1965 when he said he sees himself as a song and dance man. He sees himself as a musician, not an evangelist or a politician or, a political scientist or especially, a spokesman.

His songwriting was as powerful as ever. His singing as fiery as it was at any time. He has never been more definitively a musician than he was in this period, from 1979 to 1981. And that makes all of the difference.