A friend of mine, Jason Bennett, a talented songwriter who lives in Colorado Springs, recently got a call from The Bob Dylan Radio Hour, a program hosted by Michael Tearson on the Sirius Satellite Radio network, asking for a couple of his recordings for possible inclusion on a upcoming show.
Excited, and deservedly so, Bennett sent an email blast to his mailing list. Like me, he is a fan of Bob Dylan. Though we have never met, we have been exchanging emails for five years now, dating back to when I was a disc jockey on KCUV-AM and we were Colorado’s Underground Voice!
Bennett had misunderstood and thought the call was from Theme Time Radio Hour, the XM satellite program hosted by Bob Dylan. Which is understandable and which is what he said in his email.
Bennett is still waiting to hear if “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” or his cover of Dylan’s “Shooting Star” will be heard on the Sirius show.
But it was the mass email about being on Dylan’s program that brought on a heavy case of déjà vu.
It all started when I got a phone call the first week of April, 1980, from Rose Ricciardella, managing editor, pop product, for CBS Records editorial services. She told me that Bob Dylan wanted to print five reviews, including one I had written, on the inside sleeve of his new album, due in the late spring. Would I be interested?
At the time I was working at The Kansas City Times, as a news clerk who also wrote about music (this was just before most newspapers began employing full-time rockcrits). I had reviewed the first show of Dylan’s three-night stand at the Uptown Theater in late January. The dates were part of a tour of small theaters in support of his divisive Slow Train Coming album. He had sold more than 10,000 tickets in Kemper Arena not two years before, and this time he couldn’t sell half that number for the three nights.
Dylan played no songs except from the gospel bookends Slow Train Coming and Saved. There was no “Like a Rolling Stone,” no “Masters of War,” not even in encore. To say many paying customers were disappointed would be putting it mildly. Some fans I knew were heartbroken.
His excellent band of southern soul veterans and gospel singers took these songs, pardon the pun, to a higher level. I had never seen a performer of his stature play a concert that the audience, to put it mildly, wasn’t expecting. It was a full-blown gospel show, and easily the gutsiest performance I had ever seen, in my mind comparable to the then-bootleg recording I had of a 1966 English audience taunting him for doing what came natural to him, in that case switching to electric guitar.
But I digress. Would I want my work on the cover of a Dylan record? Does the pope … ? All I asked Ricciardella was where I needed to sign. Dazed, I checked the legalities with the attorney at The Kansas City Times, who gave his approval. Ricciardella sent a letter a couple days later that gave CBS “permission to reprint the article on Bob Dylan” and promised two copies of the album when it was released. I sent it back.
Between then and June 20, when the album eventually titled Saved was released, I told every one of my friends and relatives to go out and buy the new Dylan album and see a big surprise on the inside cover.
The big surprise came, when the album came out sans the review, or any review, for that matter. Instead, the sleeve contained a line drawing of Dylan playing harmonica onstage. Everybody hated the album.
Visibly upset, I called Ricciardella. “Bob changed his mind.” Sigh. I didn’t get two copies of the record, either.
Answering the inevitable phone calls from my friends who bought Saved was as humiliating as it sounds, my first real taste of crow – and certainly not the last.
I have tried to stay true to the second thing I learned, with varying degrees of success: Keep your yap shut until after the album comes out.
Only later did it really dawn on me that Dylan, probably sitting there in the dumpy, old President Hotel in downtown Kansas City, where he stayed those nights, had actually read and liked the review that I wrote in 35 minutes on a typewriter for the next morning’s edition. Somehow, today, that’s more than enough.
Oh, and I need to mention that Bennett’s new album, Slow It Down, Take a Step Back, which is well-titled and which he says is about “rain, fog, love, the first hundred miles, too much paperwork, being a daddy and shooting stars,” comes highly recommended, too.
Here’s the image that replaced the reviews on the inside cover of Saved.
And just for kicks, here’s the review:
Dylan Uptown Theater 1.28.80
Published: KC Times 1.29.80
By Leland Rucker
A Member of the Staff
There have been a lot of questions concerning Bob Dylan’s state of mind the past couple of years. Stories have appeared that he is now a “born again” Christian, and his latest LP release, Slow Train Coming, confirmed that suspicion. But a record is only a piece of vinyl; it’s the live presence that shows what a performer is all about.
For those expecting a run-through of old hits, there might have been disappointment. Likewise, those thinking he would try to convert the audience Billy Graham style might have been disillusioned. But for those interested in a magical musical experience, the results were spectacular.
The tone of the show was gospel and blues, from the black female vocal quartet that opened the show to the last inspirational rock song. As in the past, when Dylan gets involved in an idea or concept, he does so with complete abandon.
Regina McCreary began by telling a story about a woman trying to ride the train to see her son one more time, which became an analogy for the whole show. This led into a soulful rendition — complete with letter-perfect harmonies — of a song with a chorus that went: “If I’ve got my ticket can I ride/Ride up to heaven in the morning.”
The foursome, in sequined outfits that sparkled in the spotlights against the sides of the theater, proceeded to do a six-song gospel set accompanied only by their tambourines and pianist Terry Young. Their final number, the well-known folk song “This Train” served as an apt introduction for the main event.
Dylan began with “Serve Somebody,” also the opening cut on Slow Train Coming. Dressed in a black leather jacket, white shirt and black pants, with his tousled curls and wispy thin beard encircling his face, he looked no different than he did ten years ago.
As expected, he performed all the songs from Slow Train Coming, plus several new ones. There were a few calls for oldies, and it takes a rare performer not to fall back on familiar melodies in concert. For me, this was a wise move; Dylan has performed and recorded his older songs enough times by now to not continue to have to rely on them.
In a sense, Slow Train Coming is not really that distant from Highway 61 Revisited or The Times They Are a Changing. There is the same reliance on apocalyptic ideas, though they are now flavored with more Old and New Testament images instead of the street-wise lines that characterizes his older material.
Besides, everyone looks upon Dylan as more than just another musician anyway. Slow Train is actually “Desolation Row” tempered with experience and faith instead of youth and chaos.
The railroad image works for the music as well. Dylan’s musicians this time are the cream of the studio crop, and they make music that thunders like shiny wheels on steel tracks. Jim Keltner and Tim Drummond provide the bottom end, while Spooner Oldham, Fred Tackett and the girls’ pinpoint harmonies produce the frills behind Dylan’s sometimes petulant, often whining nasal drawl.
At its strongest moments, during “When You Gonna Wake Up,” “Precious Angel,” “Slow Train” and a few of the new numbers, it was as turbulent and moving as anything Dylan has ever produced. Only on the silly reggae number, “God Gave Names to All the Animals,” did the set lose its spirit. The rest had all the qualities of a gospel revival tent show. Dylan even got into the spirit of things by dancing, playing harmonica and clapping his hands.
Actually all the mention of Dylan’s conversion and/or personal beliefs is purely academic. Put quite simply, he is making some of the best music of his entire career. Judging from the abundance of new material, he is obviously enjoying it, and the enthusiasm is contagious. The audience cheered wildly from beginning to end, especially at the recognizable cuts from Slow Train, and I heard no boos or catcalls throughout the more-than-two-hour performance.
As he says, “there’s either faith or unbelief, there’s no middle ground.” Dylan has found his ticket to heaven, and his slow train this night was a sight to behold.
May 8, 2008 4 Comments