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35 Years Ago: Bob Dylan Releases ‘Shot of Love’

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Bob Dylan was searching. Searching for a producer. Searching for a sound. Searching for a balance between Christianity and rock ’n’ roll. Shot of Love is widely considered the last installment of Dylan’s “born-again” trilogy, yet the 1981 album found him already transitioning out of his religious phase.

But first, let’s recap: A deeply troubled Dylan had become a born-again Christian while touring 1978’s Street-Legal­ album (during which he said he had a vision of Jesus in his hotel room). He subsequently decided to write, record and perform material of only a religious nature. This era of Dylan’s career began with 1979’s apocalyptic Slow Train Coming and continued with 1980’s gospel-infused Saved.

The singer’s newfound faith had ignited a flurry of songwriting. Immediately following Saved’s release, in the summer of 1980, Dylan began to pen material for his next record. Among the new songs was a composition reacting to the music press’s depiction of Dylan’s religion (“Property of Jesus”) and tunes grappling with a chasm between sex and God (“Caribbean Wind,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”).

In the fall, Dylan reconvened his band in Santa Monica for some rough recording takes on the new stuff, before going out on tour, where they would debut an unfinished version of “Caribbean Wind.” Critics took notice, likely because it stood out against the other “message songs” as a grander tale that, while firmly rooted in religion, wasn’t merely repeating dogma.

It was thought that the new album would be built around this epic song, so “Caribbean Wind” was among the songs attempted in March of 1981, when Dylan was simultaneously auditioning future label impresario Jimmy Iovine as a producer. The situation quickly devolved when Dylan became dissatisfied with both the song (which he felt was still unfinished) and Iovine’s production.

Dylan booked time at various Los Angeles studios, working on new songs with the band while being unable to find the particular sound that he wanted the upcoming record to contain. In the middle of Dylan’s search, he received a visit from legendary producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, whose biggest claim to fame was helming records by another artist torn between religion and rock ’n’ roll: Little Richard. Though seemingly unplanned, Blackwell ended up producing a day’s worth of sessions, including the rumbling version of “Shot of Love” that would kick off the album of the same name.

It’s been suggested that Dylan wanted to retain Blackwell, but that the sixtysomething producer wasn’t in good enough health to help out in a long-term role. So, instead, Dylan chose to work with Chuck Plotkin, who had previous mixed Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River for Bruce Springsteen.

Dylan, Plotkin and the band set to work at Plotkin’s Clover Studio, recording songs both significantly steeped in religion (“Property of Jesus,” “Dead Man, Dead Man”) and compositions inspired by scripture but somewhat focused on love (“Heart of Mine,” “In the Summertime”). They also worked on the final track of the album, “Every Grain of Sand.” The introspective hymn would quickly be enshrined by fans as one of Dylan’s greatest songs due to its vivid imagery and embrace of fragile mortality.

And then there was Dylan’s tribute to late comedian Lenny Bruce (“Lenny Bruce”). It’s an interesting choice to put a secular song, not to mention one that praises a man for his trailblazing use of profanity, on a “born-again Christian” record (proving, again, that Shot of Love found Dylan in the beginning of a transition).

Transition, dissatisfaction, frustration or otherwise, the track selection and mixing phases for Shot of Love were fraught with indecision. Over the years, fans and critics have wondered how the album would have been perceived if some of the outtakes had been included on the record. Not only was “Caribbean Wind” left hanging, but so were the soulful “Angelina” and the growling “Groom’s Still Waiting” (though this error was corrected when this B-side was added to cassette and CD releases in later years). Fans would have to wait for the Biograph boxed set and Bootleg Series to hear an official release of the other two.

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But it wasn’t just which songs, but which versions were picked for the final album. Dylan has admitted regrets over some of these, specifically the “funky” take on “Heart of Mine.” He said he picked the final version because of appearances by Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood, not because it was the best recording.

Dylan and Plotkin also ended up disagreeing on the final mix for Shot of Love, with the producer favoring a cleaner sound and the artist demanding something rougher. According to drummer Jim Keltner, the compromise was that much of the album would be made of monitor mixes.

A few months after the sessions ended, Shot of Love was released with a pop art album cover on Aug. 12, 1981. The rock press, which was already wary of Dylan’s Christianity, dismissed the majority of the album, with the notable exception of “Every Grain of Sand.” Though Dylan and his band toured on the release, playing the majority of the new tracks, album sales were middling. In fact, Shot of Love was his lowest-charting album in the U.S. (peaking at No. 33) since 1964.

Over the decades, fans and critics have softened a bit on the album, which is generally perceived as a missed opportunity rather than a huge disaster. Shot of Love even has some high-profile boosters, among them Bono (who lauded Dylan’s impassioned singing on the LP) and Springsteen (who singled out “Every Grain of Sand” for Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

Regardless, Dylan would keep rolling on. He began performing secular material soon on tour and would steer towards the political, instead of the religious, on his next record, 1983’s Infidels.

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