Just after his conversion to Christianity in 1979, Bob Dylan took his new songs of faith recorded on "Slow Train Coming" straight to San Francisco's Warfield Theater for a two-week engagement that didn't exactly win the local media over. After the opening night, Philip Elwood's article in the San Francisco Examiner--"Bob Dylan: His Born-Again Show's a Real Drag"--set the stage. "I thought that night was a pretty incomprehensible performance and senseless.Not the band, just the whole theme of the material," Elwood recalled.
Because of all of the hubbub surrounding Dylan's conversion, the other Bay Area newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, sent Susan Sward to cover the second concert as a news story. As Dylan fans stood in line outside the old vaudeville theater, Sward gauged the atmosphere before the show. What she discovered was a contingent of faithful fans who were willing to overlook Dylan's conversion just for the sheer pleasure of seeing him perform again. But this was before the show.
What Sward discovered during and after the show was a different matter. Several fans who ducked out before the end expressed their disappointment that Dylan hadn't played any of his classic songs from the sixties. Despite shouted requests from the audience, Dylan only played his new gospel songs, and that did not sit well with the crowd that night. One visitor from England complained that he had stood in line five hours to buy tickets only to come away with the feeling that he had been to church instead of a concert.
In the Chronicle's review of the second night--"Bob Dylan's God-Awful Gospel"--Joel Selvin wrote that although some catcalls and boos echoed throughout the theater, the audience mostly sat in "stunned silence." Sward claimed Dylan's songs were met with loud applause; Selvin described it as polite applause. Selvin concluded that Dylan's conversion to the "opium of the masses," as Karl Marx described religion, reflected the emptiness of the times and had stopped Dylan from asking the hard questions he had historically asked.
The musicians also couldn't be bothered by the placards and protest signs that greeted them as they pulled into the parking lot each day. One sign read "Jesus Loves Your Old Songs, Too," which pretty much summed up the message Larry Myers had tried to convey to Dylan; the singer had disregarded the Vineyard pastor's advice to mix in some old songs with the new. Throughout most Dylan concerts, fans typically shout out the names of the songs they want to hear, but during this series of concerts, the fans were more vocal than ever. And it seemed that most didn't even care which old songs he sang; instead of naming individual titles, they simply shouted that they wanted to hear the oldies.
"People were surprised by Bob's religious songs because Bob did not fit the stereotype of a Christian fundamentalist," said lead guitarist Fred Tackett. "Bob Dylan was a whole other world. He represented the intelligent, the literate. He was East Coast hip, but he was completely sincere in everything he sang and said."
And Dylan was not about to change his concert playlist to suit the crowd; he had never done that before, and he was not going to start now that he had a new message to convey. Even the concert promoter tried to get Dylan to play some oldies, to no avail. "Bill Graham came up and said, `Please, Bob, just sing one old song,'" bass player Tim Drummond recalls. "Dylan wouldn't. And then Bill said, `Oh, I don't care, I'm going to retire anyway.' It was a funny scene." But according to Drummond, the audience was one step short of throwing fruit at Dylan.
Barsotti may have been blown away by the gospel songs and the passionate performance, but he was clearly in the minority, at least for the first few nights. All around him he was hearing fans complain that they had been gypped, which he felt was more a reflection of a bias against Christian music than a criticism of the quality of the concerts. Meanwhile, he was thinking, "Hey, is it a good song or not?"
"Take a song like `In the Garden,' what a powerful song about Jesus' death and suffering," Barsotti said. "I mean, wow. I never thought I'd hear a religious song in my whole life that would be anything remotely like that. Then the first reviews came out, and a lot of them panned it."
According to Rolling Stone magazine, some "disgruntled fans" did try to get a refund, but by the third night of the run, the word was out about the content of the playlists, and things started to settle down. Fans knew what to expect, and those who were unhappy with that either tried to sell their tickets or simply did not show up. The audience responded positively and gave Dylan his first standing ovation of the concert series.
So how did Dylan himself take all this controversy? Tim Charles, Dylan's stage sound manager from 1978 to1981, recalls Dylan working very hard, especially that first night, as if he was in the middle of a battle. "There was a war going on between the audience and Bob," Charles said. "Bob liked that. He likes it when it's controversial. He made a really good record, and he was going out there to sell it.He didn't disappoint me. I loved the born-again shows. I thought they were cool; they had energy."
It had been a rocky year for Dylan fans as well as some of his colleagues. No one quite knew what to expect next. Had Bob Dylan, the larger-than-life icon of the sixties, dug his own grave? Would he be able to rebound from the criticism and disgust his conversion had engendered in some of his followers? And how long would Columbia, his long-time label, put up with his gospel output?
To be sure, there would be consequences to Dylan's expression of his faith. He had once again created a phenomenon that simply had no precedent in the world of rock and roll.