"The record had some thing that could have been made in the 40's or maybe the 50's...there was a cross element of songs on it...the critics...all they talked about was Jesus this and Jesus that, like it was some kind of Methodist record."
Bob Dylan 1985.
"Shot Of Love" is regarded as the third album in Bob Dylan's so-called religious trilogy, but it is far less spiritual than its two predecessors, indeed, several other Dylan albums ("John Wesley Harding" or "Street Legal" for example) could be considered more so. However, the problem with "Shot Of Love" as with the album that follows it is that it could have been far better than it actually is, as a result of several potentially classic tracks being omitted. The album took a frustratingly long time to come together, sessions began on March 26th 1981 and dragged on until the middle of May, by which time Dylan had lost sight of, and possibly become tired of some of the earlier tapings. "Angelina," "Caribbean Wind" and "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" were all discarded ("Groom" was of course later reinstated) in favour of less meritorious material, different studios were tried and producer Jimmy Iovine was dropped in favour of Chuck Plotkin before the album was finally knocked into shape. The result of all this is that "Shot Of Love" is a patchy album, a thin shadow of what it could have been, but the raw sound suited Dylan who was anxious that Plotkin would clean it up too much and lose the live feel that he always seems to strive for in the studio. On a lighter note, the album cover, (designed by somebody or something called Pearl Beach) is probably the worst in Dylan's entire catalogue. Nigel Williamson imagined someone who had just seen the cover of "Saved" saying "Hey, Bob, you couldn't have come up with a worse cover if you tried," and Dylan responding with "Wanna bet?" But sadly, there is no levity on "Shot Of Love," and even though in 1983 Dylan said that it was the best record he had ever made, few agreed with him, Paul Nelson in his Rolling Stone review went as far as saying that it was "...filled mainly with hatred, confusion and egoism." Strong words perhaps, but "Shot Of Love" appeared to bring to an end Dylan's period of religious fervour and put him in a place where he could please both his born-again audiences and those who were happier with his more secular material.
"Shot Of Love" is one of only three Dylan albums to open with the title track (only nine albums have a title track) and here we have him bemoaning the state of the world and telling us in no uncertain terms that there is only one remedy for his and our various ailments. Heroin, codeine, whiskey or, perversely, turpentine won't do the trick, only love. Dylan is on familiar ground here, and the biblical allusions, "I seen the kingdoms of the world..." and "Like the men that followed Jesus when they put a price upon his head" are much in keeping with the theme. Later in the song, forgiveness seems to become an extension of love as Dylan and co-vocalist Clydie King rattle along at a fair old pace. The worst sins, father murdered, mother raped etc., can be forgiven if one relies on the love of self or fellow man. An even more sinister note is introduced later with the man (devil?) who "...hates me and he's swift, smooth and near/Am I supposed to sit back and wait until he's here?" suggesting, with some confusion, that it is alright to take the law into your own hands. "Shot Of Love" is a frustratingly contradictory song, and although it is a long way from being the worst on the album, it is one that I cannot listen to with any degree of satisfaction.
"Heart Of Mine" with it's innocent simplicity is a fine example of Dylan's so-called minor songs. Starting off with the wonderfully mangled metaphor "You can play with fire but you'll get the bill" this is Dylan laying his emotional cards on the table "Don't let her know that you love her" he says, but he's not fooling anyone. Some might argue that the use of clichés is overdone, but to me, that is the charm of the song. Dylan does this sort of thing so well, talking to his alter ego as if it were another person, "Heart of mine you know that she'll never be true/She'll only give to others the love that she's gotten from you" he says, in this, one of the few truly secular songs on the album. There are more delightful metaphors later on "Don't untie the ties that bind" and "Give you an inch and you'll take a mile," but he saves the best for last "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," excellent stuff. "Heart Of Mine" was the last track to be recorded (May 15th) and has a delightfully loose feel to it, probably the sound that Dylan was going for with the entire album, although he was later critical of the take, "...I chose it because Ringo and Ronnie Wood played on it, and we did it in like ten minutes," he said in 1984, admitting that some of the earlier takes were better.
"Property Of Jesus" was apparently written as partial response to some remark that Mick Jagger had made concerning the validity of Dylan's faith (Keith Richards once referred to him as "...the prophet of profit"), and it is unfortunately songs like this that gave his critics ammunition to ridicule or belittle that faith. Jonathan Cott was probably referring to songs like this when in his 1984 book Dylan he quoted French philosopher Montaigne "It is not for show that our soul shall play it's role; it is with ourselves, inside, where no eyes can see but our own." This was the stance that Dylan adopted with his previous album "Saved" where the air of finger pointing superiority that he took on alienated many of his fans. That said, there is no denying the fact that when Dylan gets the bit between his teeth, he doesn't mess around with half measures, although choosing to (thinly) veil the fact that he was singing about himself by switching to the third person, tends to lessen the impact. Right from the first verse Dylan makes his intentions clear, "Go ahead and talk about him..." and "Laugh at him behind his back..." are self-explanatory, but the biggest indication of intent is "Hope he falls upon himself, oh, won't that be sweet," particularly when you hear the disdainful delivery. Some lines work better than others, "Because he has denied himself the things that you can't live without" and "Because he can't be bought or bribed by the things that you adore" are strong enough to stand alone, but "Say he's hard of hearin', say that he's a chump" smacks too much of searching for a rhyme. All things considered, "Property Of Jesus" would have sat more easily on "Saved."
Introducing "Lenny Bruce" in Colombes (France) in June 1981, Dylan said that he "...just wrote this song in about five minutes." Four and a half of those minutes were probably looking for a rhyme for Synanon. It's not that this is a bad song (although one has to admit that it is), it is more that it is ill-considered. Bruce was a self-obsessed drug addict who led an unremarkable life and suffered a squalid and sordid death, and to try and equate his life with Dylan's or Christ's (if indeed that is the point) was not a wise move. "He was an outlaw..." sings Dylan, elevating Bruce to the status of so many other outlaws, whether factual or fictional that he has immortalised. He admits that Bruce had "...some problems," and is quick to point out the crimes that he didn't commit, "He never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies heads," but to say that "He's on some other shore, he didn't wanna live anymore" is stretching the point when one considers the circumstances of Bruce's death. The line about sharing a taxi is probably metaphorical (it could have happened but it is unlikely), as Dylan compares his own journey with that of Bruce. Even though he paints Bruce as "sick" and "bad," Dylan is at pains to justify these vices and paints Bruce a demonised victim, never once making him the cause of his own problems. This is an ill thought out song, and Dylan's ponderous vocal delivery and piano playing bring little to it, the album could well have done without it.
"Watered Down Love" brings a change of pace and direction and is in some ways a response to "Heart Of Mine." This is an underrated song that works very well, love that's pure says Dylan "Won't sneak up into your room, tall, dark and handsome/Capture your soul and hold it for ransom" and in case we miss the point there is the wonderful "Won't write it up and make you sign a false confession." The opening lines of the song draw heavily on 1 Corinthians with its "...hopes all things/Believes all things," but Dylan gives it a more modern feel by adding "...won't pull no strings," and emphasises the point with "It don't make you envious, it don't make you suspicious." Not a major song by any stretch of the imagination, "Watered Down Love" is not as insignificant as it may first appear and like other songs on this album needs a little time.
It's difficult now to believe that "Shot Of Love" was originally released without "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" as it seems such an integral part of the album. (It was released as a B side to "Heart Of Mine" in 1981 and then on "Biograph" in 1985 before being reinstated). Dylan explained why he originally left it off the album, "I listened back to the song and it felt too rushed," he said, adding, "I felt we'd lost the original riff to the point where it was non-existent. I listened back to it later and it sounded O.K." (O.K.?) The typically chaotic writing and frenetic delivery make it one of Dylan's best and is only beaten on this album by "Every Grain Of Sand." Rich in imagery, the groom (or Christ) is waiting for the faithful and the frustration is clear "Been treated like a farm animal on a wild goose chase," as is the wilful misunderstanding of people's motives "Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery/Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery." The delivery of these lines is matched by the wonderfully ironic "...the madness of becomin', what one was never meant to be." Later in the song we are introduced to Claudette, another of Dylan's misunderstood (or misunderstanding) women, "Finally had to give her up 'bout the time she began to want me" of whom he says "I'd a-done anything for that woman if she'd only make me feel obligated" and his delivery of the convoluted lines "There's a wall between you and what you want and you have to leap it/Tonight you got the power to take it , tomorrow you won't have the power to keep it" is masterful. The final verse with its "...killing nuns and soldiers" and "...fighting on the border" is reminiscent of African or central American conflicts, and the outrageous rhyming of January with Buenos Aires helps make "Groom" a wonderfully evocative if somewhat confused (and confusing) song. There is a much bootlegged live version that was recorded at the Fox Warfield on November 15th 1981 which is interesting for its different lyrics and Michael Bloomfield's searing guitar (this was sadly, the last gig that Bloomfield played before his tragic death three months later).
Musically if not lyrically "Dead Man, Dead Man" is one of the high points of the album thanks to Tim Drummond's bass and Clydie King's backing vocal. Much in the same vein as "Property Of Jesus," except that this time the finger is pointing in instead of out, "This is a song about myself...I wrote this song while looking into the mirror" Dylan said by way of introduction in Birmingham (UK) in July 1981, and if that is the case then it is an astonishingly candid piece of writing. "Satan got you by the heel..." "Do you have any faith at all?" and "...cursin' God with every move" hark back to the way that Dylan was writing on "Saved." The point is made, possibly over made, but the repetitive chorus "Dead man, dead man/When will you arise/Cobwebs in your mind/Dust upon your eyes" does give one food for thought, even if Clinton Heylin refers to the song as "...half-baked."
"In The Summertime" is the type of song that Dylan seems to write with a consummate ease that most contemporary songwriters can only wish for. There is a gentleness here and a welcome return to the harmonica as Dylan ponders on an all too brief relationship "Where the sun never set, where the trees hung low/By that soft and shining sea." This is an underrated piece that can be taken as a simple love song or something a little deeper, "But you were closer to me than my next of kin/When they didn't want to know or see." The recognition of receiving something given with love is poignantly expressed "And I'm still carrying the gift you gave/It's part of me now, it's been cherished and saved/It'll be with me unto the grave/And then unto eternity" in this wonderful song that is often overlooked.
"Trouble" on the other hand is lumpen and repetitive to the point that reducing the albums running time by four and a half minutes might have been a better option, particularly when one considers some of the major songs that were rejected. Lines like "Since the beginning of the universe man's been cursed by trouble" and "Look into infinity, all you see is trouble" do an artist like Bob Dylan no credit at all. "Trouble" like several other tracks that made the final cut of "Shot Of Love" had been recorded late in April, but Dylan decided to re-record it. If he preferred this version, the earlier one must have been pretty grim.
"Every Grain Of Sand" is a perfect example of Dylan using his best available song to close an album, something that he has done often in the past and would also do in the future. This is a remarkable piece of writing, made more so by Dylan's emotional and heartfelt delivery of it. For those who are unfamiliar with the song or perhaps who have listened without truly hearing it, here are the lyrics.
EVERY GRAIN OF SAND - Bob Dylan
In the time of my confession,
In the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet
Flood every new born seed
There's a dyin' voice within me
Reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger
And in the morals of despair
Don't have the inclination
To look back on any mistake
Like Cain I now behold this chain
Of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment
I can see the Master's hand
In every leaf that trembles
In every grain of sand.
On the flowers of indulgence
And the weeds of yesteryear
Like crim'nals they have choked the breath
Of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps
Of time to light my way
To ease the pain of idleness
And the memory of decay
I gaze into the doorway
Of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way
I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey
I come to understand
That every hair is numbered
Like every grain of sand.
I have gone from rags to riches
In the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream,
In the chill of a wintery night
In the bitter dance of loneliness
Fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence
On each forgotten face
I hear the ancient footsteps
Like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn; there's someone there
Other times it's only me
I am hanging in the balance
Of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling
Like every grain of sand.
It would serve no real purpose to quote from this song as it needs to be experienced in its entirety. Dylan wrote the song on his Minnesota farm in the summer of 1980, and a demo version of the song, recorded in September of that year, featuring Jennifer Warnes as second vocalist, can be heard on the "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3" album. The lyrics and imagery are strongly influenced by the bible (not surprisingly) and the poetry of William Blake, but Dylan fashions an intensely personal and concise presentation of his mental and spiritual condition at this time. In an otherwise scathing review in Rolling Stone Paul Nelson called it "...excellent," and Jonathan Cott said that it was "...the presentation of a state of mystery and despair and awe, and the realization that the saving power can come at exactly the darkest hour." This version also has one of the most haunting and beautiful harmonica solos that Dylan has ever committed to record. "Every Grain Of Sand" is an astonishingly sincere performance of a truly wonderful piece of writing. If this is not classic Dylan, then it will surely do until the real thing comes along.
"Shot Of Love" is too uneven to be a classic Bob Dylan album, and that coupled with the fact that even die hard fans were apparently beginning to tire of his religious stance saw it slump commercially (more so in the States than in Europe). The album certainly suffered from Dylan's poor judgement in dropping some of the quality tracks in favour of lightweight and unconvincing material. Chuck Plotkin, a self-confessed Dylan fan, apparently fought to get songs like "Angelina" and "Caribbean Wind" on the album but met with the same resistance that others would in this decade. Before the August release, Dylan undertook a tour of Europe and the UK, but there was none of the frenzy for tickets that there had been three years earlier, in fact seats for the six nights at London's Earl's Court sold very slowly. Dylan did his bit to promote the album, playing most of the songs live during this and the subsequent North American tour. Sadly, he also took the opportunity to criticise the record company for the tardy release of his latest work. Generally, reviews were not good, in the aforementioned Rolling Stone review, Paul Nelson began by saying "When I first heard it, Shot of Love sounded like Bob Dylan's most interesting record in a long time," before going on to say why it wasn't. He ended with "If Bob Dylan is so full of God's love, why is he so pissed off at the rest of the world?" Wilfrid Mellers was equally dismissive, calling it "...an album one finds oneself listening to simply as the latest stage in the Dylan canon, without reflecting on any of the proselytizing intent," and in NME Nick Kent didn't mince his words, calling it "...Dylan's worst album to date." For some though, it remained an important album, in his speech when Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen said "To this day, whenever great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan. Bob's own modern work has gone unjustly underappreciated because it's had to stand in that shadow. If there was a young guy out there...writing Every Grain Of Sand they'd be calling him the new Bob Dylan." However, it is an album that warrants repeated listening if one can overlook the couple of really bad tracks, and it marks the end of an interesting if controversial chapter in Dylan's recording career and one that exposed him to considerable ridicule and cynicism.