Bob Dylan’s “Trouble No More” Bootleg Vol. 13

In November 2017, Bob Dylan released Volume 13 of his bootleg series. The deluxe version was made up of 8 CD’s and a DVD all containing previously unreleased rehearsal takes during the making of his three gospel albums and several CD’s of recordings of live concerts from the tours during that period. My wife got me that deluxe set of “Trouble No More” for my birthday in 2017. I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to all the music from this very exhaustive collection.

The deluxe edition also has 2 books included. In one of the books is a review of the entire set by Penn Jillette. He’s the verbal half of Penn & Teller, and someone whom i respect. He’s a deep thinker, and has some interesting and profound viewpoints on a wide variety of subjects. I don’t always agree with him, but his ideas always make me think.

The thing which really caught my interest is that Penn Jillette is an atheist. Why is he reviewing 8 CD’s of Bob Dylan’s Christian music? And even more intriguing, What did he think of them?

Well, it took some time and work, but i’ve scanned and converted his review in full, and i’m posting it below, because it’s extremely insightful and worth reading by both Christians and atheists. I’m fully attributing and quoting this article in full. I hope this doesn’t violate copyright laws. If so, i’ll need to start a gofundme for legal fees. Since i’m taking the risk on this, please read what Penn Jillette has to say.

IN THE TIME OF MY CONFESSION
By Penn Jillette 


Here starts my confession: I’m a lifelong atheist and a lifelong Dylan fan, so 1979 was a bit rough for me. From the time I started buying his records with Bringing It All Back Home, I bought every Bob Dylan record the day it came out. On August 20th, 1979, I bought Slow Train Coming. I had been warned it was going to be a gospel record but I wasn’t sufficiently prepared. I was shocked. I was bummed. I got a telegram that day from a Christian friend gloating that my boy had seen the light. Yup, a real telegram. 


I listened to that record but I didn’t hear a note. I listened just once, shook my head, and filed it away. My world had fallen apart. I fell back to Street Legal and played that as much as I’d played Blonde on Blonde. “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on Street Legal has: “The last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled…” and I kept coming back to that line. Out of context it came to represent that last moment before Dylan saw the light. I got an early Japanese pressing of At Budokan and that concert was the last thing I wanted to remember of Dylan before he stripped and kneeled. I loved the sound of Street Legal, Budokan, and later, Infidels. I loved the passion, the searching, the poetry, the images, the big fat band sound. I loved the backing vocals. Everything I loved about those three records was even better on the gospel records, but I didn’t find that out until 35 years later. They were still in shrink wrap.


Yeah, Saved and Shot of Love came out, were purchased, and sat unopened in my collection. I was living in San Francisco at the time. 


Dylan came to town…I didn’t go to the show. It was the first time I passed up a Dylan concert. I didn’t give him a chance. I wouldn’t give him a chance. He never got to preach to me. For Dylan’s gospel years, I stuck my fingers in my ears and sang “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat)” over and over to myself. I couldn’t face a Christian Dylan. I wouldn’t open my ears, let alone my heart. Finally, Infidels came out and my crisis of faith was over. All was well with the world again. I loved that record. Bob and I had artistic make up sex. 


Here starts my search: Over thirty-five years have passed and I’ve been asked to write my thoughts on Dylan’s gospel period from my point of view. While I was waiting to hear this Bootleg Series, I did a little homework. I took Time Out of Mind off my turntable and finally listened to Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love carefully. Gonna change my way of thinking. 


Now Dylan’s gospel records are good. I know the records haven’t changed over these years, so it’s me. I come to Dylan for passion, and profundity. I come to Dylan for truth. I come to Dylan to question what I’m feeling. I come to Dylan to understand what I’m feeling. I come to Dylan to change what I’m feeling. I come to Dylan to knock me out of the trivial. To make life seem more important than TV movies, Facebook and Twitter. I come to Dylan to make life more important than just today, and these records deliver everything I want. At the time these recordings came out, I asked myself, “What’s wrong with Dylan?” Now listening to these recordings full of heart, and truth, and passion, naked power, the question suddenly becomes “What was wrong with me?” 


Not all the songs from the “gospel records” are new to me I had to seek out “Lenny Bruce” as soon as it came out and listen to that no matter what record that was on. some of the gospel songs snuck into my world through the radio, from Greatest Hits compilations, and just through living in our culture: “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “I Believe In You,” “Heart Of Mine,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter,”Every Grain of Sand,” and even one of my favorite songs of all time, “Caribbean Wind” is kind of from that period and shares some of the straight forward passion and biblical imagery. I love every one of those songs and catch them running through my brain and heart when I need them. I may have kept the records sealed, I may have closed my heart to evangelical Bob, but he weaseled in there. While doing my homework I was glad to hear these great songs in context. These studio albums got me warmed up for the bootlegs.


Here starts my revelation: When these recordmgs of live versions, outtakes, and rehearsals from the gospel period arrived, I experienced the burning bush. I was on the road to Damascus. These records changed me. I’m not Chiistian, but I’ve changed. I’ve been listening to these records all day, every day, and my life and life in general seem more important. Dylan never deals with the trivial, and these records frighten me with the awful truth of how sweet life can be. Bob has said that the purpose of art is to inspire. I am inspired. I want to be a better person and think more about things that matter. I have the spirit. 


As far as the theological content of these records – I still disagree. One of the many robot-killeis of modern science is that placebos still work, even when the patient knows fully well it’s a placebo. I am the fool who still says in his heart there is no God, but Dylan’s gospel music is stronger than my lack of faith. These bands have a wonderful sound and the songs are great, catchy and important. But the medium isn’t the message, the message is the message, and fortunately for me, I can hear the message on these records as not just the revealed word of Christianity. The singing on this record is some of the best of Bob’s career. He cares. It all matters. Even the sound checks and rehearsals are full of fire. I’ve changed. I no longer care that I don’t agree with the cosmology. Art isn’t supposed to be an essay or a debate. Art must be deeper and richer than theology.


I must face some of my own hypocrisy. I never sequestered Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion on my shelf in shrink wrap. I listen to all the Bach sacred music without the chip on my shoulder that I had for Bob. I feel the music, the inspiration and the passion directly. Bach’s faith doesn’t get in the way. The faith is a big part of what I love about it. I don’t pretend to understand what inspired Bach and it doesn’t matter to my heart. I love the music. Was that okay with me because Johann’s long dead and I don’t understand German? I don’t know. I love Ray Charles singing “Amazing Grace.” Why was that always okay with me? Why did it take so much longer for me to hear Dylan’s gospel? I’m afraid there aren’t any good reasons and there may be some bad ones. 


I don’t know why Dylan bothered me more than other religious music and I don’t even know why Dylan’s gospel music bothered me more than Dylan’s other music. Looking back, I never agreed much with Dylan on the prosaic level. I don’t insist that everybody must get stoned. He’s not speaking for me, I’ve never even been stoned, but I love that song. I didn’t marry Isis on the fifth day of May, that’s not me, I’ve never even been in a tomb. I’m not even that sure the times they are a-changin’ and I could make a strong case that all those answers are not blowin’ in the wind. Yet those songs are a constant part of me. Without those Dylan songs in my heart, I would be unable to recognize myself. But, those songs weren’t ever meant to contain my personal philosophical world view. They weren’t about me, they weren’t even about Bob Dylan. They were songs. And songs are more important than me or even Dylan. 


All songs are more important than their literal content. It’s hard to find any song by anyone that I agree with intellectually. I’m not sure old MacDonald had a farm and I never wanted to just hold her hand. Maybe I’m too Sexy (for my Shirt) by Right Said Fred speaks directly for me, but that’s a very short list.

 
I must be careful that my new tolerance doesn’t fall into disrespect. Listening to these records I mustn’t pretend that Bob could be singing about any old thing. I can’t pretend that we can replace the word “Jesus” with “Chuck Berry” and the songs would mean the same thing. They would not mean the same thing. I mustn’t patronize a Nobel Laureate with some sort of ugly work-around of “God to him is what art is to me.” All of that would be an insult to Dylan and I would never do that. So, as I listen to these gospel songs, I try to take his faith and passion seriously and honestly and feel it as best I can from his point of view. I need to let his preaching the word of god speak to me of human conditions, uplift me, inspire me, and not in any way cheapen the depth of his belief.


And not just for these gospel records. Common wisdom is that Dylan went back to being a secular song writer after this period, but that’s a lie. The truth is Bob Dylan never was and never will be a secular song writer: “God said to Abraham kill me a son”- is not “Fly Robin Fly.” “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, must be the mother of our Lord.” “I’m sworn to uphold the laws of God.” And “Narrow Way” is more about Jesus’s “narrow gate” than an answer song to Sir-Mix-a-Lot.”


Every one of these records starts with a version of “Slow Train,” and for those who are familiar with the previously released versions, it’s a wonder to listen to the passion and the importance grow as the band gets hotter and hotter. I hear “Gotta Serve Somebody” lose its silliness, and it’s a mystery how that happens. Dylan takes the goofy “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” and makes it goofier by changing up the obvious rhymes. Gospel Dylan can be fun. Every version I hear of “Caribbean Wind” speaks directly to me. “I hear a voice calling ‘Daddy,’ I always think it’s for me” and “Paying attention like a rattle snake does.” Oh. My. God. 


The covers he chooses for these tours include Hank Williams’ (as Luke, the Drifter) “Help Me Understand” and the weirdest cover, “Rise Again,” which sure sounds like it’s first person from the Christ’s point of view, and you don’t hear something like that every day. We get to hear Santana wailing on “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” in San Francisco 1980 (yup, that’s the concert I passed up – this fool said in his heart, I’m not going to that gospel show). I’ve always loved “Every Grain of Sand,” but the versions here are really something else. The ad included here for a Portland show is what’s called in the business “a quote ad,” but the quotes don’t start out flattering to the Bob’s gospel music. The patron wants to hear “rock and roll” and if he wanted to hear preaching he could go to church. It ends with some quotes from people who like it, but make it sound like hard work… it’s a mixed review at best. To my ear the people who are recorded sound like voice actors and that makes it so much weirder and so much more beautiful. Bob is making it clear that this decision is real and wasn’t made for commercial purposes. I even love the marketing of this period. 


My favorite tracks on this record are the two very different versions of “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody.” I was listening to these records while my real friends and social media friends were bouncing from one political outrage to another and every side of every issue seemed to be competing for who could spew the most hate and demonstrate the most damage. To stop my heart from breaking, I just played over and over again:


I can persuade people as well as anybody 
I got the vision, but it caused division. 
I can twist the truth as well as anybody. 
I know how to do it, I’ve been all the way through it. 
But it don’t suit my purpose and it ain’t my goal 
To gain the whole world, but give up my soul. 
And I sang along with it. I screamed along with it. I cried along with it. 


The epiphany: There are atheists in foxholes and there are atheists singing along with “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody.” I’m listening now.

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