Is he a fake? That question has plagued Bob Dylans career almost from the beginning, ever since this middle-class Jewish kid from the midwest, with a phony name and a Woody Guthrie fixation, landed in Greenwich Village around the time President Kennedy took office. However, once he made a name for himself with songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” he encountered a new level of fame, and inherited a new set of problems. After his background was exposed, and a bogus claim that he did not write “Blowin’ in the Wind” emerged, fans and critics began to ask - Is he a fake?

Dylan has made a career out of making left turns at regular intervals, often leaving his followers in the dust.

Going electric, going country, coming back in the mid-1970s with new masterpieces, only to throw it away with confrontational artistic statements via television ("Hard Rain") and film ("Renaldo & Clara"). Follow that with a public divorce, a hostile press, and the death at the age of 42 of Elvis Presley, Dylan was sinking and needed something to hold on to.

When you reach the top

Religion has always been a part of American popular music, from its gospel roots to its preachy messages. Early on, when rock and roll was defined as “the devil’s music” by some, Presley, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard, among other pioneers, recorded faith-based music among their heretical blasphemies. In the 60s, soon after John Lennon said The Beatles were more popular than Jesus (and he wasn’t far off), the Fab Four, along with Donovan and a Beach Boy, visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India.

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Around this time, Pete Townshend of The Who also studied the teachings of Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba. Many music fans of the era followed suit, exploring these newly discovered, exotic, Eastern religions.

While all of this hippie interest in unconventional religious study was met with skepticism by some, it was mostly taken in stride by an ever-growing legion of disillusioned youth. However, when there were whispers in late 1978 that Bob Dylan - the prophetic figure who once famously sang, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters” - was now studying the New Testament at the Vineyard Fellowship, with music inspired by his experience forthcoming, again some were asking, “Is he a fake?”

Of course, there has been a long history of Jews and Christian music. Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, Sammy Cahn, and Leiber and Stoller, among many others, wrote many of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, and Phil Spector and Barbara Streisand each recorded holiday albums in the 60s.

But when Dylan found Jesus, it was different. How could this rebellious, iconoclastic, non-conformist, reluctant spokesman of a generation suddenly reject everything from the counter-culture world he helped create, albeit unwillingly, and embrace something that seemed at odds with everything he had done before? Was he a fake then? Now?

The Gospel Truth

This Friday marks the release of "Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981," an 8 CD/1DVD set of unreleased performances from Bob Dylan’s “Gospel” period. The deluxe edition, announced on Rosh Hashanah this past fall and featuring Dylan in a Christ-like pose on the cover, is meant to recontextualize this material so that it may be taken for what it is, namely one of the most inspired and productive phases in Dylan’s 55-plus year career.

According to legend, at a November 17, 1978, concert in San Diego, halfway through an American tour being unfavorably reviewed, Dylan supposedly picked up a small, silver cross a fan threw on stage, an act which apparently had a big impact on him, and led him to Christ. Previously, however, on October 5, two recordings included in the "Trouble No More" Box Set from Largo, Maryland, already featured early versions of “Slow Train” and the Hank Williams/Luke the Drifter influenced “Help Me Understand,” fresh compositions addressing his new-found faith. In fact, the setup of the 1978 tour, Dylan’s biggest trek with his biggest band to date, was not all that different from the gospel-tinged tours of 1979-81. Additionally, 1978’s "Street-Legal" album is steeped in religious imagery, even mentioning a “long-distant train” in the closing song, a common Dylan trick sometimes used as a hint to where he planned to go next. In "Rolling Stone," Greil Marcus referred to Dylan’s vocals on Street-Legal as “utterly fake.” Fellow critic Dave Marsh thought the album was a joke.

1979’s Slow Train Coming album, the first of the so-called trilogy, was generally well received, and Bob Dylan won his first major Grammy Award for “Best Male Rock Vocal Performance of 1979” for the leadoff track, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The more evangelical follow-up, Saved, fared less well, and the garish cover art didn’t help. (It was later replaced.) Dylan also reportedly wanted to put out a live album, titled "Solid Rock," but it was rejected by his label. By the time Dylan got around to releasing his next album, 1981’s "Shot of Love", it was a brilliant but flawed affair. Soon, Dylan would reconnect with his Jewish roots, joining the Chasidic Lubavitch sect, visiting Israel for a son’s Bar Mitzvah, and writing the pro-Israel song, “Neighborhood Bully.” Yet gospel songs, some his, some traditional, would periodically creep back into his concerts, confirming Dylan does not subscribe to any one religion.

Revelations

Nearly 40 years after this biblical about-face, critics, scholars, and fans of Bob Dylan’s music are no longer, for the most part, offended by Dylan’s religious screeds. Listening to the 8 ¼ hours of audio and watching the 60 minutes of video included in "Trouble No More," it’s easier to see where Dylan’s compositions fall in his overall oeuvre. If songs like “When You Gonna Wake Up” and “Do Right To Me, Baby” were performed solo with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica, it would have fit with his earlier “topical” songs, which were also often set in religious contexts. Sensitive ballads like “I Believe In You” and “What Can I Do For You” are reminiscent of the love songs on "Nashville Skyline" and "Blood on the Tracks." Dylan’s new religious sentiments echo his 1967 parables for "John Wesley Harding."

Mostly, the music rocks out not unlike "Highway 61 Revisited." It’s as if Dylan is some sort of voodoo priest, mixing up a potion of funk, soul, and R&B, with a pinch of reggae. The lyrics come at you at full speed, and there are glimpses of humor throughout - “She can do the Georgia crawl/She can walk in the spirit of the Lord,” “Do you ever wonder just what God requires?/You think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires?” and the self-deprecating lines in “Gotta Serve Somebody” - “You might live in a dome,” and “You can call me Zimmy.”

However, it’s the sometimes didactic, overtly religious material that alienated some fans, as did some of his sermons from the stage, absent from this set. It seems silly now, to place such importance on a musician, but such were the times. Dylan’s personal life was shattered, and it was reflected in his art. Did he really find religion? Was it just another new challenge, like Newport beforehand, that attracted him to explore Christianity? Or was it a love interest? These types of things should not affect our interpretation of his art, but being obsessive fans, it cannot be helped.

The 102 tracks included in "Trouble No More" feature mostly live takes. The first two discs mix renditions of the new material from all three years, showing how the songs morphed over that period, but discs three and four are the main reason to get this set. It features outtakes, rehearsals, and rare live cuts, ranging from sketches (“Stand By Faith”), to one-dimensional demonstrations of faith (“Jesus Is The One”), to more than a dozen brilliant songs not included on his studio albums, including “City Of Gold,” “Thief On The Cross,” “Yonder Comes Sin,” and “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody.”

Prophet vs profit

What I found particularly interesting about Trouble No More was how life influenced Dylan’s art, and then commerce dictated and constricted his next move. For me, the earliest material is the most effective. The paint was still wet on the canvas, and Dylan was finding his way. (For a taste, Dylan’s October 20, 1979, tentative appearance on "Saturday Night Live," 11 days before his first all-gospel shows at San Francisco’s Fox Warfield Theater, is available on Hulu.) Dylan said at the time he chose to play new material exclusively because he wasn’t sure if the sentiments in the older songs could comfortably coexist with his newer ones.

When Dylan went back on the road in late 1980, it was billed as a “Musical Retrospective” tour. In other words, it was a guarantee that you’d hear some of your old favorites, and not just the Jesus stuff. The final two CDs, capturing similar shows during his 1981 residency at London’s Earls’ Court, starts with Dylan taunting the crowd by playing two Slow Train songs, creating tension, then surprising everyone with his biggest hit, “Like A Rolling Stone.” The arrangements have the feel of a Broadway play, the drums pushing the songs along, a “Musical Retrospective” indeed. Near the end of the gig, Dylan says, his words dripping with sarcasm, that he hopes the audience heard songs they came to hear. (Translation: “You’re living in the past, and cramping my style.”) He couldn’t even be bothered to introduce all the band members. Then he repeated his Newport blow-off, a solo acoustic version encore of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Now you tell me … Who is being fake?