It's nearly impossible to know when Bob Dylan is being serious or when he's putting people on. The wooly-haired trickster has been playing games with the press forever. So, when he makes a statement as over-the-top direct as he did on "Shot On Love," it's natural to assume it's a smoke grenade.
"The purpose of music is to elevate and inspire the spirit," Dylan told New Musical Express in 1983. "To those who care where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to 'Shot of Love.' It's my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. It's all there in that one song."
At nearly any other stage in his career, it would be almost impossible to take the quote seriously. "Shot of Love," however, came at a very unique time in Dylan's evolution.
The song was recorded during Dylan's "Christian period." Musically, this started with Slow Train Coming in 1979, continued with Saved in 1980 and finished up with Shot Of Love.
Biblical imagery and Judeo-Christian ideas have always infused Dylan's music, but during the recording of this Christian trilogy of albums, they were very overt. In his personal life, Dylan had found a new faith in Jesus Christ. By all accounts, this faith was very sincere and very powerful. Critics and fans didn't much care about all of that.
Dylan's Christian trilogy was mostly lambasted by the press and ignored by the masses. The music was openly mocked at times.
Knowing this, it's easy to see why Dylan felt such a powerful need for a "shot of love."
The song harks to the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (13:2), which says:
I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth
I may have faith strong enough to move mountains
But if I have no love, I am nothing
Beyond that essential aspect of the song, much of it is pretty mysterious. We're introduced to Veronica and Mavis but no one's every been able to figure out if those are real people or what they may represent symbolically. Then there is the "man who hates" Dylan and who has murdered Dylan's father, raped his wife, tattooed his babies with a poison pen, and mocked his God.
None of these things have ever been definitively explained.
Few people have called "Shot of Love" a highlight of Dylan's artistic output, though Dylan's exceptionally powerful singing has won a lot of admiration. It marks an interesting period in Dylan's story. It's also one (if his own account is to be taken at face value) that was exceptionally meaningful to him personally.
The first time Dylan ever played this song live was in July 1981 at Earl's Court in London.