We explore Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade
As the 1970s draw to a close, BOB DYLAN is embarking on the weirdest and most controversial phase of his storied career. He has embraced Christianity with apocalyptic fervour. His fans, though, are less faithful: “Jesus loves your old songs, too,” notes one infidel. In the first part of a major new survey, Uncut and many of his old collaborators reconsider Dylan’s 1980s, and discover a neglected treasure trove of music. “People felt that Bob disappeared into a kind of black hole. Whereas Bob would say, ‘No: that’s a hole full of light…’”
October 14, 1987. A couple of nights later, a hurricane roars through the south of England, but it’s nothing compared to the inclemency that attaches itself to Bob Dylan’s appearance this evening at London’s Wembley Arena. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers are already lined up onstage, waiting for him, when Bob blows out of the wings like something scary out of Revelation, that book of wrath and apocalypse, a wicked messenger, fire in his eyes and blood coming to the boil. He’s wearing a bandana around his head, Apache-style, a grubby silk shirt tied in a knot at his waist, weather-beaten leather trousers and jacket, biker boots and fingerless motorcycle gloves.
His arachnid scurry brings him quickly to a microphone, already singing the opening lines of “Like A Rolling Stone”. Petty and The Heartbreakers, perhaps not expecting this as the show’s opening number, jump to attention like dozing sentries startled by gunfire. There’s an all-hands-on-deck bustle about them as they manfully respond to what looks like being caught on the hop – and not for the first time, you imagine, on a two-year tour of duty with Dylan that most nights have found them on a knife edge, no predicting where from moment to moment Bob’s legendary whim will take them.
That night at Wembley Arena in October 1987, one of the last dates of the aptly named Temples In Flames tour, storm clouds already massing somewhere and a great wind beginning to stir, Dylan’s 15-song setlist is a generous career-span that includes alongside more recent songs from largely unpopular albums crowd favourites “Maggie’s Farm”, “Forever Young”, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, “I Want You”, “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Chimes Of Freedom”. These aren’t, however, songs that Dylan revisits happily and few of them bear an exact resemblance to what they sounded like when the audience first heard them.
The sound that comes to me now when I think of the show is a garage band howl, abrasive, unruly and loud. It’s at times cacophonous and ragged enough to make large sections of the audience feel witness to a kind of desecration, Dylan vandalising his own past in what seems as the show goes on increasingly like a conscious attempt to reconnect with songs that by his own later admission had lost all meaning for him by first dismantling them. By the time the set ends with a delirious version of “Shot Of Love” that at one point begins to resemble the calamitous rumble of “Gimme Shelter”, and the nightmarish two-chord shriek of “In The Garden”, the audience is for the most part palpably aghast.
There’s a rippling disgruntlement in the seats around me where many venerable Dylan fans are gathered in muttering disapproval of what’s happening, which is as dreadful to them as it is a revelation to me. John Peel about now taps me aggressively on the shoulder and asks if I agree that what we are sitting through is a grim travesty, a reduction of a formerly great artist to abject mediocrity and worse. He’s shocked, I’d say even angry, when I contrarily offer a different opinion. He subsequently writes a scathing newspaper review describing Dylan as an irrelevant has-been, an embarrassment to his loyal and now long-suffering fans.
This is increasingly the prevailing view of Dylan. For many at this point in the ’80s, Dylan is coming to the end of a dismal decade during which he has found God, embraced messianic evangelism and as a born-again Christian fundamentalist cast himself as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, the stage a pulpit from which he delivers hell-fire sermons about the coming end of the world that have made him seem like a demented crackpot. His faith, it’s commonly held, has ruined his music, reduced its former poetry to harsh dogma to a point where it’s mostly rejected, at best held up to ridicule. His albums have stopped selling, their rapidly declining sales alarming his label who are as distraught as his audience by the ‘new direction’ he’s stubbornly been determined to follow whatever the cost to a reputation that by now has also been tarnished by the further embarrassments of the dire Hearts Of Fire movie and an appearance at Live Aid in July 1985 whose apparently crass incompetence leaves even staunch admirers cringing in disbelief. As the decade ends, in other words, Dylan is almost universally reviled as hapless, bereft of anything you could call inspiration, creatively bankrupt, in terminal artistic decline, a deluded clown, a religious fanatic unmoored from reality, or what usually passes for it, pathetic and forlorn.
This at least is one way of looking at Dylan in the ’80s. What follows is another.