Album Art: An artist's look at 'Slow Train Coming'

Depending on whether you’re convinced that his born-again Christianity was just another example of Bob Dylan’s constant need for change to provide him with newfound (and, according to critics, badly needed) inspiration, or whether his late-’70s conversion and eschewing of all things (and songs) secular was for real, Slow Train Coming certainly brought him new fans in the Christian Music genre.

It also served to confound and perturb his fans and the many music critics who, quite vocally, “loved the music, hated the words.”

Recorded with the help of veteran producer Jerry Wexler (who Dylan hoped would bring the soul of “the Muscle Shoals Sound” found in Wexler-produced recordings for Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett), the Muscle Shoals horns (and Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett), and both Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers (guitars and drums) from Dire Straits (who were all unaware of the nature of the material they were about to record), the album went on to sell more copies than both Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks did during the first year of their respective releases.

Sales were driven by the success of the single “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which the TV-shy performer even played as part of his set on “Saturday Night Live.” The record’s cross-genre acceptance was further evidenced by its listings as #16 in the 2001 book “CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music,” #38 in the Village Voice’s “Jazz & Pop Poll” for that year, and a Grammy Award in 1980 for “Best Rock Vocal Performance — Male.”

Also trying to serve somebody was the team at Columbia Records who were responsible for the record’s packaging and album cover. For the record Dylan intended to release as a very public statement regarding his commitment to his newfound faith, Dylan was not going to accept any image that did not illustrate this appropriately.

In a last-ditch effort to deliver something that Dylan would accept, the art director turned to his friend, illustrator Catherine Kanner, who he hoped would use her vast experience as an editorial illustrator to save the day (and it was the last day). I asked Catherine to describe those most interesting 24 hours, and being the precious angel that she is, she was kind enough to comply …

In the words of the artist, Catherine Kanner (interviewed in late March 2008)

My first job out of college was one working at a film titles company in Los Angeles (around 1980), after which I moved on to a permanent freelance illustration and design career which included regular work with the Los Angeles Times Opinion section. There, my editorial pen-and-ink illustrations appeared weekly.

One morning, I received a phone call from out of the blue from one of my former co-workers at the film titles company (sorry, I don’t recall his name) who had also moved on and who had seen my editorial work in the Times. “Drop everything,” he said. “I’m coming over with an incredible job!”

As it turns out, he was now working as a freelance designer and had a good connection at Columbia Records. He rushed over and let me know that this was a potential cover for a Bob Dylan album.

Apparently, Columbia Records had tried several times to come up with an image that would be acceptable to Dylan … but he had rejected them all. They were down to the wire, and my friend told me that we had this window of opportunity to get something in which he might accept … and that it had to be done and turned in that night!

The concept was very concrete as he expressed it to me. As he explained it, this album was to be Dylan’s exploration o

Leave a Reply