These are heady days for Bob Dylan.
It seems that everywhere the legendary song-poet turns these days, he's being showered with a new round of industry honors and gushing career overviews. In the last four years, he's received his first-ever Best Album Grammy Award (Time Out of Mind), his first Oscar ("Things Have Changed," from Wonder Boys), a Kennedy Center lifetime honor, and he was asked to perform at the World Eucharistic Congress for Pope John Paul II. Three months ago, his 60th birthday was treated in some critical quarters with the reverence of a national holiday. And his forthcoming album, Love and Theft (due September 11), is already earning breathless hosannas from the likes of Robert Hilburn and Edna Gunderson.
What's strange about this latent burst of Bob-love is that it followed nearly two solid decades in pop-culture purgatory for Dylan, a period ushered in by his late-'70s transformation into a born-again Christian. Throughout the '80s, and for much of the '90s, Dylan was routinely dismissed as a cranky, croaky-throated has-been (as opposed to the cranky, croaky-throated voice of wisdom he's celebrated as today).
Such revisionist Dylanology has little to do with the man's work itself. Thanks to producer Daniel Lanois' studio wizardry, 1997's Time Out of Mind was a beautiful-sounding record that built and sustained a dark, desperate mood, but it hardly ranked among Dylan's finest collections of songs. No, the album's stature owed more to public sympathy over Dylan's near-death from a heart-sac infection months before its release. Baby boomers reconnected with Dylan on Time because they were fascinated with the notion of an ailing legend confronting his mortality; their fascination didn't take into account the fact that the record was already in the can by the time Dylan took ill.
In the new, updated edition of his definitive Dylan biography, Behind the Shades, Clinton Heylin puts his finger on Dylan's move from the doghouse to the penthouse in 1997: "For the 18 years that separate his [religious] conversion from his illness, it seemed Dylan could do no right," Heylin observes. "Now he could do no wrong."
Dylan's protracted "do no right" phase has special meaning in the Valley, because it began here, at two brutally hostile shows on the ASU campus in late November 1979. These shows put Dylan at odds with his audience in a way that far exceeded the backlash he encountered at the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Although much has been made over the years about a newly electrified Dylan getting booed by folky traditionalists at Newport (and subsequent shows from that period), he also had many enthusiastic adherents of his new sound, loudly supporting him.
By comparison, the 1979 Tempe shows were far uglier than anything he experienced in 1965. For the first time in Dylan's career, an entire crowd angrily turned on him and tried to shout him down. And, unlike at Newport, where Dylan's sin was being too hip for a stuffy crowd that he was leaving behind, at ASU he was ridiculed for being tragically unhip, a hopelessly square Bible thumper.
While both nights in Tempe were unpleasant, Heylin describes the angry mob that showed up for the second night's show as "the most hostile audience of [Dylan's] entire career." Similarly, Howard Sounes, in his recent Dylan biography Down the Highway, describes the show as a performance that swiftly degenerated into a barrage of catcalls.
In retrospect, the Tempe gigs marked a turning point for Dylan: the beginning of a long downward spiral for his commercial standing and creative confidence. At the time, he had a hit album, Slow Train Coming (peaking at No. 3 on the charts), and a hit single, "Gotta Serve Somebody." But after his Valley debacle, he would never again score a Top 40 single, and he would not hit the Top 10 on the album charts for nearly 18 years (and he practically had to buy the farm to make that happen). More important, he would never completely shake the feeling of distance and distrust with his audience that those shows created.
When Dylan's religious conversion went public in the spring of 1979, he had reason to worry that his old fans might not be filled with Christian charity.
After all, this was the same guy who had once sung, "Don't follow leaders." Through all his creative ups and downs, Dylan's enduring antihero appeal had been in his refusal to hew to anyone else's doctrine. Rock critic Greil Marcus made much of this when he noted that Dylan, unlike the Beatles, wouldn't have embarrassed himself by falling under the spell of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And Pete Townshend once lauded Dylan because he "never preached" in his music.
Anticipating a hailstorm of abuse for his newfound spirituality, Dylan took the preemptive martyr route on Slow Train Coming with the song "I Believe in You." The song depicts him as a true believer, turned away by old friends, but unwilling to give up his faith.
So Dylan must have been as surprised as anyone to find that his tough new musical sermonettes were embraced with enthusiasm when Slow Train Coming was released in August 1979. Not only did the album sell better than Dylan's classic Blood on the Tracks had in its first year of release, but the gospel-tinged "Gotta Serve Somebody" was his highest-charting single in six years. And critics lauded the album as the most polished production of his career.
Dylan's first born-again shows, at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco in early November 1979, also offered encouraging hints that the public was open to his stern new message. Although much was made in the San Francisco dailies about a contingent of non-believers walking out of the first Warfield show, Dylan has long insisted that such reports were overblown. And Paul Williams, in his 1980 book Dylan: What Happened?,observed that "some people missed the old songs, but on the whole the audience seemed well satisfied."
By all accounts, Dylan began to radiate confidence over the course of his 14-night stand at the Warfield, as audience response grew progressively warmer. And four subsequent shows in Santa Monica were received with all the rapturous fervor of a Billy Graham revival.
Then there was Dylan's first Christian show outside of California -- in Tempe at the Gammage Auditorium, on November 25, 1979.
Although word from the California gigs had made it common knowledge that Dylan was eschewing his monumental classics in favor of new born-again material, the ASU crowd reacted with shock and anger from the moment Dylan's three female back-up singers opened the show with a short set of gospel songs.
Heylin writes that on the first night, "the audience refused to sit still, shouting between songs until Dylan asked his lighting crew to 'turn the light on them down there.' As the heckling continued, he began to sermonize, this time minus the gentle coaxing tone adopted in San Francisco and Santa Monica."
Dylan's disgust at the abuse he received in Tempe hadn't worn off in 1985 when he offered a rambling critique in the sleeve notes for his boxed set Biograph. Although he doesn't mention ASU by name, there's little doubt who he's targeting when he says, "College kids showed me the most disrespect" on the Christian tour.
In the Biograph notes, Dylan demonstrates a strange sense of alienation from his core audience, an alienation that took root in Tempe and which he has never fully overcome.
"We'd play theaters in the mission and Time Square districts in some of the larger cities. . . . [T]he people that would come to the shows, you know, they'd be more or less from the neighborhood, prostitutes, pimps, whatever, shady looking characters," Dylan says in the notes. "In these areas, this particular show went down well, audiences would be very receptive and even if I say so myself, wildly enthusiastic.
"Then we'd play the so-called colleges, where my so-called fans were," Dylan adds. "And all hell would break loose -- 'take off that dress,' 'we want rock 'n' roll,' lots of other things I don't want to repeat, just really filthy mouth stuff. This really surprised me, that these kids didn't know any better, all from good homes and liberal minded to boot. . . . During the gospel tours I saw what the nation's universities were about. It was extremely fascinating."
If the first night at Gammage was a punishing blow to Dylan's psyche, it was a virtual love-in compared to the reception he faced the following night.
Dylan's reaction to unruly audiences in the mid-'60s had been to charge into the next song and drown out the dissidents with rock 'n' roll volume, but in Tempe he began to deliver lengthy speeches between songs, which only heightened the tension in the air.
While hecklers shouted, Dylan shot back: "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."
As audience demands for "rock 'n' roll" continued, Dylan sneered, "If you want rock 'n' roll, you go down and rock 'n' roll. You can go and see KISS and you can rock 'n' roll all the way down to the pit!" In the face of more taunts, Dylan grew more indignant: "You still wanna rock 'n' roll? I'll tell you what the two kinds of people are. . . . There's saved people and there's lost people. Remember I told you that. You may never see me again. You may not see me, sometime down the line you remember you heard it here, that Jesus is Lord. Every knee shall bow!"
The show grew more and more surreal as Dylan launched into detailed spiels about Armageddon, which he apparently believed was right around the corner. His raps included prophecies of the Soviet Union invading the Middle East, which would lead to a cataclysmic world war (months later, at a show in Toronto, Dylan took credit for anticipating the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). Ultimately, he couldn't resist a dig at the college students who dominated the crowd that night.
"You talk to your teachers about what I said," Dylan said. "I'm sure you're paying a lot of money for your education, so you'd better get one."
For one of the few times in his career, Dylan did not return for an encore.
Three months after his Tempe debacles, Dylan went into the studio to record Saved, his follow-up to Slow Train Coming. This time, however, the public wanted nothing to do with Dylan's brand of salvation. The record swiftly bombed, and was ignored by rock radio. Dylan, formerly the revered spokesman for a generation, was now widely viewed as a narrow-minded crackpot. Even his old pal John Lennon took a swipe at him with the unreleased song "Serve Yourself," a direct response to "Gotta Serve Somebody."
Although Dylan eventually dropped the overt Christian sermonizing from his songwriting, the scars of his public rejection in 1979-'80 are still evident. From that point on, Dylan seemed to withdraw from the modern world, alternately finding solace in the America of his dead blues and folk idols, or longing for a better afterlife. Even his best post-Christian songs, like "Blind Willie McTell" or "Trying to Get to Heaven," are filled with distaste for the hollowness of contemporary society, and a sense that there's no longer a place in this world for Dylan.
And, however coded his messages may have become in recent years, Biblical prophecy has never left Dylan's work.
In his most recent release, the Oscar-winning "Things Have Changed," Dylan sounds remarkably like the same apocalyptic messenger who chastised that Gammage Auditorium crowd more than 20 years ago: "I've been walking 40 miles of bad road/If the Bible is right, the world will explode." Later in the song, he bitterly sings, "All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie."
So, even as the outside world has once again decided to embrace him, the open question is whether Dylan will ever again feel comfortable enough to reciprocate, by embracing the outside world. If not, at least part of his reticence can be traced back to his soul-crushing, two-night ordeal in Tempe.
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