Music News

Desolation Row

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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia