In 2008, a documentary titled “Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born … Again!” (bobdylanjesus.com) examined the folk-rock legend’s conversion to Christianity and the music that resulted from it.
A fascinating account of perhaps the most controversial era of Dylan’s hallowed career, “… Jesus Years” was produced and directed by Joel Gilbert, who followed the story to Muscle Shoals, Ala., and the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church to get the whole story. Gilbert, who will release a new film, “Bob Dylan Never Ending Tour Diaries: Drummer Winston Watson’s Incredible Journey,” on April 7, on MVD Visual, shared his thoughts about Dylan’s “Jesus Years.”
In what ways did this period of Dylan’s career resemble the controversy regarding his switch to electric instrumentation, or do the two periods have any similarities at all?
Joel Gilbert: In both periods, Dylan followed a musical path that he believed in, albeit for different reasons, disregarding the fact that it would undoubtedly alienate his core audience. Dylan’s career has been dotted with these moments of integrity when he was compelled to express himself, and he did so despite certain negative consequences. That’s what makes Dylan a force in our culture, and that’s why we care about him. As San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin said in my film “Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years,” “Neil Diamond doesn’t make those kinds of statements; that’s why we care about Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond doesn’t matter.”
How did Dylan come to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, and what was it about the church’s teachings that appealed to Dylan?
JG: The Christian evangelical movement was “what was happenin’” amongst the Los Angeles musician scene in the mid-to-late ’70s. Most of Dylan’s old pals like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, songwriter Al Kasha and recent band mates like Steven Soles and TJ Burnett were all joining in this movement. Dylan’s unique poetic skill is the ability to experience, feel and describe in words what’s going on around him. In the early ’60s, it was the civil rights movement. Now it was the “Jesus” in the air.
Pastor Bill Dwyer explains in my film that Dylan became suddenly involved with the Vineyard Church due to a phone call he made seeking help, and [Dwyer] sent three pastors to meet with him and speak with him, and give him a Bible. Dylan’s girlfriend at the time was a singer named Mary Alice Artes who was already in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church — she probably recommended the Vineyard to Dylan in a moment of need. Dylan immersed himself in Church teachings by attending the Vineyard Bible Study Class for three months. One could assume the church’s messages helped him overcome the problems he was having at the time.
Was he feeling that the apocalypse was coming, at least to some extent, around that time?
JG: Apocalypse was in the air — the book and then film “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey, who studied at the Vineyard Church, was very popular at the time. Meanwhile, the Vineyard Church emphasized the Book of Revelation in its teachings to a great extent. No doubt Dylan was aware of the talk of the apocalypse; he often ranted about it in concerts, saying on more then one occasion, “You know this world is going to be destroyed; it says so in the Bible, and Jesus will return and set up his Kingdom in Jerusalem where the lion will lie down with the lamb.”
Being the difficult character to read that he is, was Dylan at all