Bob Dylan gets religion in the “gospel years” part 4

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Bob Dylan

Saved, the followup album to Slow Train Coming, was largely panned by critics as a lackluster effort. Bob Dylan himself was reportedly not pleased with Saved and asked his label, Columbia, if he could rerecord it. Columbia said no.

‘Saved’ or savaged?

The reviews were atrocious, setting the stage for the remainder of the tour. Audiences knew what to expect now and arrived at each concert with their ammunition already stored, “filthy mouth stuff” as Dylan oddly described it, although he seemed to remain calm throughout. Just one live recording, from Tempe, Ariz., sees the image crack a little.

“Hmmm. Pretty rude bunch tonight, huh? You all know how to be real rude. You know about the spirit of the Antichrist? Does anyone here know about that? Ah, the spirit of the Antichrist is loose right now  … You talk to your teachers about what I said. I’m sure you’re paying a lot of money for your education, so you’d better get one.”

Later in the show, he told the audience that if they wanted to see some rock ’n’ roll so bad, they ought to go and watch Kiss. They, he spat, “could rock ’n’ roll all the way down to the pit”  — the pit, of course, being the fiery expanses of hell that he believed awaited all non-believers, and which flavored many of the unrecorded songs that featured in the live show. They would also become the heart of his next album, Saved.

Work on Saved began in February 1980.  Returning to Muscle Shoals Studios with the same band that had accompanied him on tour, Dylan set to work with the record already fully formed in his mind.

Arrangements had been nailed down on the road, and lyrical inflections, too, across a crop of songs that could, with so much rehearsal behind them, have blazed with the righteous rage that obviously inspired them. Instead, they sounded lackluster and tired, like a football team playing one final charity game at the end of a long and exhausting season. Just two days separated the final show of the tour, in Charleston on Feb. 9, from the first day in the studio; prior to that, the only break the band had had since rehearsals began in October was a few days off over Christmas.

Tempers were taut, and the musicians were tired, but the songs were even more drained. Compare the finished album, recorded in four days, Feb. 11- 15, 1980, with live versions of the same songs recorded early in the tour and made available via the miracle of bootlegging.

If you don’t like the contents of Saved, the concert versions are not going to change your mind. But at least they sound fresh and excitable, and the stately, piano-led version of “Pressing On” with which Dylan (himself the pianist) closed the shows has a gentle beauty that is at least admirable. By the time they got to Sheffield, Ala., and closed the studio doors on the outside world, however, they were exhausted, and it shows.

Nine songs were recorded, usually nailed in three or four takes — only “Covenant Woman” seemed to cause them any problems, as it rattled to nine takes, and Dylan discographer Clinton Heylin speaks for most listeners when he sighs, “I find it hard to believe that all nine outtakes … are as lacking in passion as the released take, even if Dylan had clearly let go of the leash of this gorgeous love song somewhere down the line.”

Dylan himself was unhappy with Saved and apparently asked his label, Columbia, if he could rerecord it. He had done so with Blood On The Tracks, after all, and the label was rewarded with a masterpiece. This time, however, they said no. The record would be released on schedule, as the next tour got underway in early April, and if Slow Train Coming had received a rocky reception, this new set was to be savaged without mercy.

Nothing about Saved was worth saving, was the popular vote; it was, quite simply, the worst album Bob Dylan had ever made.  Even the utterly unexpected award of a Grammy for the last album’s title track, in the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance category, could not camouflage the fact that Dylan had finally slipped from the pedestal that he had occupied for two decades now. And if there was still some hope that somebody, somewhere, could find value in his new direction, that slipped out of the door the moment tickets went on sale for the latest tour.

Remembering how badly burned they were by the Slow Train Coming tour, and doubting whether Dylan had revised his set list since then, the fan club simply stayed at home. Dylan toured, and his audience didn’t care.

The aftermath

Saved, too, bombed, and Dylan’s personal stock was lower than it had ever been before. It seems strange to look back today and remember how so many heads nodded sagely in agreement when Keith Richards (among others) suggested that Dylan’s Christian conversion was a marketing ploy — “the prophet of profit,” the Rolling Stone called him, and oh, how we smirked.

In fact, it can (and has) been argued that Dylan effectively destroyed himself as a commercial force with the two albums and two tours that ushered him into the 1980s.  “It was a … disaster from which Dylan has never fully recovered,” wrote Clinton Heylin in “Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions” in 1994. “He has not had a Top Ten album in the U.S. since.”

Of course, Dylan would recover. Successive albums through the rest of the 1980s saw him return to secular themes as early as 1981’s Shot Of Love — the last of his overtly Christian records, but not a bad album despite boasting the ugliest cover of any record in his canon.

You could hear the evangelical spark fading as the album played on. Biographers have struggled to place a definitive date on the moment when Dylan passed out of his born-again phase, but the fact that he did became increasingly apparent as the decade rolled on, and the fire and brimstone of Saved was replaced by the piss and vinegar of old.

By the end of the decade and the release of Oh Mercy, the events of 10 years earlier had effectively been erased from the collective memory.

Slow Train Coming and Saved still sit on the shelves, though, and every so often their reputation — one a Grammy winner, the other a career-killer — does encourage the curious listener to blow the cobwebs off the covers and give them another spin. Three decades can repair a lot of damage, after all; and a lot of history has happened since the end of the 1970s.

But Slow Train Coming and Saved, oddly, remain inviolate to any of those changes. The shock that they engendered is still as raw and rich as it ever was, and the lyrical punch is still as discomforting as it was the first time the average Dylan fan felt it, regardless of their own faith (a lot of Christian Dylan fans were shocked as well, remember).

And that might be the reason why Slow Train Coming, at least, still percolates around the back of one’s mind. It’s been a long time since Dylan, or any other major artist come to that, has released an album that physically and emotionally shocked his audience. Slow Train Coming might well be the last one that really did it.

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