Before we begin, a quick note to say that my wife has held onto this button for thirty-five years, apparently in anticipation of someday being married to someone who decides to blog about Bob Dylan’s religious conversion. Our relationship was clearly preordained.
I’ll be wearing this button for the next three weeks.
As we open 1979, fair warning: Dylan has become a born again Christian. He will release his first, and best, album in the Christian trilogy, Slow Train Coming, and will go on a tour during which he will play only gospel music and antagonize his fans much more than he ever did at Newport.
So before we begin, I asked myself: How did this happen?
Bjorner’s site has a breakdown for every year of Dylan’s life that opens with “At a Glance”. This has been unbelievably useful to me on this project, helping to signal things that are worth considering and keeping me oriented. Here’s what he writes about the November 17 show in San Diego:
“It is at the same show that someone throws up a little silver cross onto the stage. Dylan picks it up and puts in his pocket. This little incident turns out to be the start of a new chapter in the life and art of Bob Dylan.”
I thought: Really?
I listened to a tape of that show last week and you certainly can’t figure out when the cross was thrown (not that I was expecting it to land with an audible clang). Dylan seems uncomfortable during the show, and even mentions something about food poisoning at one point (it’s not a great tape, so I’m not 100% certain what he says). He does sound a bit laboured. This is how Clinton Heylin reports it:
“Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd … knew I wasn’t feeling too well,” recalled Dylan in a 1979 interview. “I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I don’t. But I looked down at that cross. I said, ‘I gotta pick that up.’ So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket … And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona … I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego. I said, ‘Well, I need something tonight.’ I didn’t know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, ‘I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.’ And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.”
Ok, so that’s why Bjorner bring it up. Let’s continue with Heylin:
“Dylan believed he had experienced a vision of Christ in his Tucson hotel room. “Jesus did appear to me as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,” he’d later say. “There was a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus … Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”
So, that’s a pretty clear conversion story.
The question I then had was “How long did it take to impact his performing?”. I knew from listening to one of the December shows (Charlotte, NC – an unbelievably great show) that Dylan changed the lyrics of “Tangled Up in Blue” to reflect his conversion. This was not new, Dylan changed the lyrics a little bit almost every time that he played the song, but it seemed hugely significant. This morning I tried to figure this out. Here’s what I learned.
At San Diego, the night of the cross thrown onto the stage, he played “Tangled Up in Blue” sixth (this was standard by this point – in each of the shows I’m discussing her TUiB is sixth). In the verse where “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe”, the “she” is wearing “a dress made out of stars and stripes” (so: “she lit a burner on the stove, wearing a dress made out of stars and stripes”) and then the verse continues roughly the same, with a reading from a “book of poems written by an Italian poet in the thirteenth century”.
At Forth Worth, TX a week later the version is roughly the same. Now “she” is working at The Flamingo Club rather than at a generic topless place, but she still has that dress and poems. At Austin (November 25, in a bootleg with terrible quality) we get that version for the last time.
The conversion of “Tangled Up in Blue” takes place in Houston on November 26. Now when “she” opens a book it is the Bible and the rhyme for “handed it to me” is “Matthew 33”. The next night in Jackson, MS it has shifted to “Jeremiah, verses one and thirty-three”. Three days late in Memphis the dress has become a housecoat of stars and stripes, and the verses are Jeremiah 22:1 and 33. Dylan will continue with Jeremiah through the end of the tour, eventually quoting Jeremiah 31:31 in the liner notes of Saved: ‘Behold, the days come, sayeth the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah’.
So that’s how it happened, and how fast. For the next three weeks I’l be dealing with the fallout.
Here’s the live version from Charlotte, NC (December 10) and someone has even helpfully subtitled it to draw attention to the Biblical version. As I said, great show.