We explore Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade
Dylan’s sets across the 14-night stand at the Warfield mainly put a spotlight on Slow Train Coming,
but he also debuts new songs, including “Saved”, “Saving Grace”, “Covenant Woman”, “In The Garden”, “What Can I Do For You” and “Hanging On To A Solid Rock Made Before The Foundation Of The World”. There are enough of them in fact for a whole new album, which he starts recording in Muscle Shoals on February 11, 1980, with Jerry Wexler again producing with Barry Beckett.
Pathologically opposed to modern recording techniques, unswervingly attached to the idea that his songs are best-served by spontaneity, suffer when they are over-rehearsed and inevitably ruined by overdubs, multiple takes and constant revision, Dylan sets aside a mere four days during a break from touring to make the record.
“Saved was done real old-style,” says Fred Tackett. “Jerry Wexler was talking to us about it and he said it was just like when he worked with the Ray Charles band. We were on the road, doing the tour, and we basically just pulled the bus into Muscle Shoals, Alabama, went into the studio for four days, then got back on the bus and drove away. And, you know, Bob’s basically saying as we leave, ‘Send me a copy when it’s done.’ He didn’t participate in the mix: we recorded the songs, basically live, and then got back on the bus to get to the next show. And, yeah, Jerry Wexler pointed out, that’s the way Ray Charles and all those other people would do it, too. There wasn’t like some big, months-long preparation, and then months spent in the studio. It was, ‘Well, today, we’re dropping by the studio, and we’re going to record.’ That’s the way that one worked. It was a real lot of fun, it was great. It felt kind of historic.”
Dylan’s first album of the decade, Saved is released in May, 1980. Critics and fans agree it’s entirely superfluous. They’ve indulged Dylan one religious album, much as they had allowed the country eccentricities of Nashville Skyline. They are not now inclined, however, to accommodate more of the same from an artist not previously known to repeat himself. Reviews are scathing, sales poor. This is a nadir for Dylan many high-handedly decide on everyone’s behalf – even the few who find it demonstrably a more exciting album than either Slow Train Coming or the lumpy Street-Legal. Such is the contempt in which Saved continues to be held that even now such an admission is sure to bring down the wrath of know-it-all Dylan scholars upon the lonely contrarian.
The opening version of the venerable “Satisfied Mind” is genuinely weird, Dylan and his four backing singers murmuring and wailing, a mingling of testifying voices over snatches of scratchy guitar, speculative bar-room piano and military snare drum rolls. It sounds like something made up on the spot and lasts barely two minutes. “Saved” itself is as sensationally rowdy as “Covenant Woman” is dreamily lovely. “Solid Rock”, meanwhile, blasts off like something hard-riffing by the Allman Brothers while “What Can I Do For You” has a warmth and humility entirely absent from Slow Train Coming, although the subservience to which Dylan attests is disturbing for a lot of people who have invested so much in Dylan’s supremacy and are uncomfortable with this subordinate version. “Pressing On”, in John Doe’s version one of the highlights of the I’m Not There soundtrack, is wonderfully stirring and is even to the unbeliever genuinely uplifting. “In The Garden”, meanwhile, vividly dramatises the arrest of Christ in Gethsemane, from which he was taken for trial and crucifixion, more measured in its telling here than the firestorm it would be in concert.
The album may, however, be best remembered by many – typically, with an unpleasant shiver – for its sleeve, a lurid illustration by Tony Wright based on a dream Dylan had of the bloodied finger of Christ pointing down to the upraised hands of the suffering world. It looked like something you might see tattooed on the back of a serial killer, Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Scorsese’s fevered remake of Cape Fear coming quickly to mind.
There’s slightly better news for Dylan fans who have not been thrilled by the turn of events that has delivered Dylan to God when he goes back on tour and surprises them by relenting on his earlier dedication to playing only post-conversion songs and reassuringly including in his sets a raft of old classics. Was this a tactical retreat on Dylan’s part, an attempt to appease disgruntled followers, or early evidence that he too was beginning to find the religious songs confining?
“There was nothing said about it,” Fred Tackett recalls. “We just started rehearsing them again at this place he owned in Santa Monica. One day we started playing ‘Girl From The North Country’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and stuff like that. It was just that we’d be doing that instead of ‘Saved’ or something. But we were still doing those tunes as well, and we were also doing songs from what would be the next record, Shot Of Love, which had some more secular songs on it. But I’ll tell you, the tour we did then, we played two or three weeks at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco – we did that twice at the Warfield, first in ’79 and then again at the end of 1980 – and the first night of the second time was the first time we came out and we did ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. I think we’d done a couple of the religious-style songs first, but when we started to play the intro to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and the crowd started to realise what was going down, people were going, ‘Oh, my God…’ You could hear the joy from people, just hearing this song – it honestly sent a chill down my spine. That was really, definitely, a big moment in my musical life, being on that stage when he started doing that again. People were just hollering out, you know.”