Bob Dylan Bold for the Lord

In the spring of 1980, Bob Dylan toured the country to promote his second Born Again Christian album, Saved, which was released in June. The year before he had given the record industry and music culture a shake by releasing Slow Train Coming, which sold at the Platinum level in America. The hit song on the album, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance (male). Here’s my report on one of his two Worcester, Massachusetts, concerts that led a round of performances in New England. This review is being published for the first time.

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Bob Dylan Bold for the Lord

BOB DYLAN ON MAY 4th opened a New England tour with the first of two concerts at the city auditorium in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the central part of the state, a good location to draw out-of-state fans from the region. He presented himself as a wise man traveling from the west unto the east with a sure-footed spiritual stance rooted in his new-found Christian beliefs. Rock journalists who chart Dylan’s progression much as art critics discuss Picasso in terms of his Blue Period and so forth may rank this dramatic change in the musician-poet alongside his disruption of the folk music scene at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he wielded an electric guitar. Dylan produced an evangelical church service presided over by a new convert and a gospel group who brought a holy message minus pipe organ and purple robes.

From the outset it was a strange event, another of Dylan’s guises. In 1975, he pulled up in Lowell, Mass., with the Rolling Thunder Revue, a mix of old folkies and compatriots, making a film on the road, Renaldo and Clara. In 1978, I caught up with him in Augusta, Maine, where he had a stage loaded with musicians and back-up singers who helped him power through new material and upbeat versions of early songs. This year, Dylan showed up declaring he would play only Christian songs from his last album, Slow Train Coming, and works in the same vein from a forthcoming record.

Christian rock music is big where Dylan lives in Southern California. The Orange County Evangelical Christian radio station, KYMS, caters to a generation raised on pop, rock, and soul music who are now getting religious sustenance through that medium. Last summer I first heard that Dylan was Born Again and had been “saved” through the network of evangelical Christian musicians in the region when I was visiting a friend of Karen Lafferty’s, a popular young singer. With Dylan, Donna Summer, and Arlo Guthrie being more forthright about their spiritual journeys, I would not be surprised to see the audience grow.

The average age of the conservatively dressed ushers was about fifty years old. Maybe they were regular auditorium employees. They looked like the ancient and honorable who collect donations and hand out bulletins at the local church. I didn’t see one young security guard shaped like a football player. This was not going to be a typical rock show. The audience was a blend of loyal Dylan fans (some with their kids), compulsive concert-goers, senior citizens, leather-clad bikers, high schoolers, and a large contingent of Born-Again Christians who may have arrived in buses. They were thrilled with Christian Bob. One woman said to me, “Dylan has alway been outspoken, and now he’s bold for the Lord.” She then asked, “Are you a Christian?,” making me think that my Catholic upbringing somehow didn’t qualify for her brand of belief. Behind me, a man told his friends: “Look, you just have to adapt to him. The music is still super.”

I was surprised to find tickets available at the door and more surprised to see many empty seats. How is it that Dylan, ranking with The Beatles and the Stones, could not fill a 3000-seat hall? The show began a half-hour late or for Dylan-specific fans a hour late because the first thirty minutes featured five gospel singers who delivered richly sung although little appreciated pieces. At times their solos were interrupted by rude shouts of “Dylan, Dylan, Dylan!”

Finally, the man himself appeared, kicking off with “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He sang-shouted, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” He discarded past work and stuck to a limited program, playing almost every cut from his recent album and new Christian numbers. His unique phrasing and voice quality challenge the ear even when one knows the words, but with new material and a poor sound system he was nearly impossible to understand. The over-amplified sound just about ruined the vocals. Of the new songs, I caught the choruses on some and figured the titles might be “I Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” and “What Can I Do for You?”

All evening people paraded down the center aisle where they stopped squarely in front of the stage, just a few feet away from Dylan. Before being ushered aside, person after person peered deeply into his form, as if checking to be sure he was really there like a kid pulling a Santa Claus beard. Dylan played electric and acoustic guitar. On “What Can I Do for You?” he took his famous harmonica from his famous pocket to the cheers of the crowd and wailed a virtuoso piece that held the place up and drove applause through the roof. He’s always been a front-end loader pushing private and public emotions onto Main Street, shifting elaborate gears as he plows ahead for justice and romance. The guitar-plucking lynx at the wheel, his mouth-harp flashing in red stage light, white boot shiny as the microphone chrome, sang with such conviction that I expected him to begin calling the faithful down to the front to dedicate themselves to Christ. The religious focus has magnified his poetic powers, and the new passionate, truth-smacking songs sting the soul like the best of his early work.

Between songs, Dylan delivered little sermons, punctuating his assertions with guitar chords. At one point he said, “There are a lot of people running for president this year saying they’re gonna save the country. Well, they can’t save anything unless they’ve saved themselves. I’m not gonna say, ‘God bless you,’ I’m gonna say, ‘God save you!'“ He said, “We’re living in dangerous times,” and many in the crowd hooted their approval and raised index fingers high in the sign for “One Way.”

I slipped out during the stomping and hollering for an encore. In the stairwell a man handed me a holy picture from a Bible church, and then another guy running back in to the main hall yelled to me, “Whatever you do, don’t give up on Jesus!”

May 1980