Bob Dylan gets religion in the “gospel years” part 3

Get Caught Up: Part 1 | Part 2 | Bonus: Bob Dylan Price Guide

Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming was finished in four days. Sessions began April 30 in Muscle Shoals and ended May 4. While sales were strong, much of Dylan's secular audience was shocked and disappointed by the album. (Paul Till/"Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years")

A night at the Warfield

Early portents were good. On Oct. 20, 1979, a bearded Eric Idle welcomed Dylan and band onto the stage of “Saturday Night Live” for a tight and funky “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

“I Believe In You” followed, a gorgeous ghost of a song that tipped a mischievous hat toward the old ballad “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” before the set wrapped up with “When You Gonna Wake Up?” — tightly coiled and electrifyingly arranged, twin keyboardists “Spooner” Oldham and Terry Young jamming round Fred Tackett’s lead guitar. As tickets went on sale for the tour, it was apparent that Dylan was in as good form as he’d ever been.

No more than a year had passed since Dylan’s last American tour wound up, but there’d be no trouble filling the seats, and that included the unprecedented two weeks’ worth of shows that opened the outing at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco.

The show opened with as excitedly noisy a crowd as Dylan had ever faced, 2,300 souls jammed in, and all with their own loudly exclaimed wish list of favorite Dylan songs and expectations. Fourteen years earlier, you could imagine the 1965 Newport Folk Festival buzzing with similar anticipation and excitement … and reacting with similar bemusement as the show took shape. Only it was not the sacrilegious explosion of electricity that left the audience reeling in its seats.

The show opened with backing vocalist Regina Havis taking the stage alone to deliver what some commentators politely describe as a religious monologue, and which others dismiss as a sermon. Helena Springs and Terry Young’s wife, Monalisa, then joined her on stage, and with Terry Young taking up his position at the piano, the trio regaled the crowd with a gospel number, “If I Got My Ticket Lord.”

Then another one, “It’s Gonna Rain,” and then another, “Do Lord, Remember Me.” “Look Up And Live By Faith” and “Oh Freedom” followed … six songs they sang, with the crowd growing ever more restless; then the lights dipped as “This Train” chugged away, and when they came up again, there was Dylan and the band. At last, it was time to rock ’n’ roll.

Or not. “Gotta Serve Somebody” opened the show; “I Believe In You” and “When You Gonna Wake Up” — the show was eight songs long before Dylan finally turned his attention away from Slow Train Coming and delivered a new song, “Covenant Woman.” Dylan had continued writing in the months that followed the completion of Slow Train Coming and was impatient to air the new material.

As he led the band through a 19-song set, Dylan did not play a single song that predated his religious conversion. Even the encore was uncharted territory. “Blessed Is The Name Of The Lord” and “Pressing On” were both new songs, and though the former rocked and the latter soothed, the crowd was in no mood to be impressed.

Afterwards, Dylan congratulated himself on not playing a single song he’d ever performed onstage in the past, and when the subject of his fans’ expectations was broached, he simply shrugged. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. They want the old stuff. But the old stuff’s not going to save them, and I’m not going to save them. Neither is anybody else they follow. They can boogie all night, but it’s not gonna work.”

Besides, he insisted, the crowd response was never as bad as the papers made out.  He told MTV VJ Martha Quinn five years later, “The reception’s always good. The problem is media problems. For some reason the media reportage of the shows I’ve done has never been entirely accurate since 1978 … They say it was all gospel or the crowd booed and walked out. This wasn’t true. Maybe three or four people walked out.”

The view from the stage was clearly distorted. Pittsburgh’s KDKA TV station even filmed the fans’ exodus, with one disgruntled ticket-holder snapping to the cameraman, “He stinks. He’s the worst. He’s bad. It’s a waste.”

Dylan’s audience was furious. Shocked.  Cheated. It was Newport all over again, or maybe the Manchester Free Trade Hall, later on in that so-controversial 1965 tour, when the bootlegger’s tape was suddenly interrupted by a bellow of “Judas!” Well, Dylan must have smiled as he read the following day’s reviews; that was one accusation that nobody could fling at him now.

What happened next? Find out in the final installment, Part 4

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