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Bob Dylan gets religion in the "gospel years" part 2

As critics were slamming Bob Dylan's movie "Renaldo and Clara", the Street Legal album, and his live performances, Dylan sought refuge in the company of friends and bandmates. And among them, he found one who seemed to have answers, leading to Dylan's conversion to Christianity.
Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's belief that God had given him a voice to preach the Word was encouraged by the Vineyard Fellowship. Paul Till/"Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years"

The train arrives

According to Dylan biographer Bob Spitz, who in turn was informed by guitarist Rob Stoner, it was fellow guitarist T-Bone Burnette, “an early disciple of born-again fundamentalism,” who first began talking to Dylan of Jesus, “although his influence was anything but Svengali-like or irresistible. The steady, low-pressure manner in which T-Bone described things like his ‘inner light’ was persuasive enough.”

What followed was remarkable, even when looked at with the benefit of both 30 years of hindsight and the knowledge that Dylan’s conversion was just another stop on a long and remarkable career.

There was the night in late 1978 when, according to Dylan, he received both “a vision and a feeling,” which his already born-again girlfriend Mary Alice Artres interpreted as a visit from Jesus himself.

“Jesus put his hand on me,” Dylan said. “It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”

There was the sudden appearance in his live set, as the tour finally entered its final strait, of two new songs, “Slow Train Coming” and “Do Right To Me Baby.” There was his willingness to be ministered to in his own home by members of the Vineyard Fellowship in Los Angeles, and his subsequent enrollment in their School of Discipleship, five days a week for almost four months. There was his baptism in May 1979.

But most of all, there was his belief, encouraged by the Vineyard Fellowship, that God had given him a unique platform, a unique voice. He should use both in the service of the Lord — or, as he said in a KMEX Tucson radio interview in December 1979, “I follow God, so if my followers are following me, indirectly they’re gonna be following God, too, because I don’t sing any song which hasn’t been given to me by the Lord to sing.”

“At first I said, ‘There’s no way I can devote three months to this,’” Dylan said of his Bible studies class. “I’ve got to be back on the road soon.” Within weeks of the classes, beginning, however, he was writing new songs.

Composer Al Kasha led those so-influential Bible classes. “Well, Bob’s nature is that he’s very much a seeker, and he was interested to see why a fellow Jew would come to know Christ,” Kasha began. “He started at the Vineyard church, and then when we met there, he came to a first Bible study, and at the second Bible study, he gave his life to the Lord.

“Bob would stay until three or four o’clock in the morning asking me questions beyond my knowledge. The interesting thing is that he felt a comfort that I was a fellow songwriter. He wrote Slow Train Coming mostly in our home. I gave him a key, and I’d be sleeping upstairs with my wife (Ceil), and he’d come in at three or four o’clock in the morning, and I’d hear him picking as he felt a kind of Holy Spirit comfort.”

Dylan admitted he was still finding his way.

“Being born again is a hard thing ... We don’t like to lose those old attitudes and hang-ups. Conversion takes time because you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. You have to learn to drink milk before you can eat meat. You’re reborn but like a baby. A baby doesn’t know anything about this world, and that’s what it’s like when you’re reborn. You’re a stranger. You have to learn all over again.”

Dylan never intended to keep the new songs for himself. Rather, he envisioned handing them en masse to Carolyn Dennis, one of the backing singers on the Street Legal tour.

“I didn’t want to sing them,” Dylan admitted. “I was going to give them to Carolyn and have her sing them. I thought maybe I could produce the record. I wrote those songs — I didn’t plan to write them, but I wrote them anyway. I didn’t like writing them, I didn’t want to write them, I … didn’t want to sing them. I wanted the songs out, but I didn’t want to do it because I knew it wouldn’t be perceived in that way. It would just mean more pressure. I just did not want that at that time.”

Land of confusion

By early March 1979, however, he had changed his mind, and work began on Slow Train Coming, an album considered worthy enough to be included among the career-spanning 14 singled out for SACD treatment a few years back but which is rarely given more than a cursory glance by anybody else compiling their all-time favorite Dylan list.

In critical terms, it made both “Renaldo and Clara” and Street Legal seem well-received; and although sales were strong (“thanks in no small part to an expanded army of born-again Christians who cheered his conversion,” writes Spitz), Dylan’s secular audience had probably not been so shocked or disappointed by a new release since the dawn of the decade. Once again, it is with hindsight alone that the shock of that album is dismissed, to be replaced with curiosity and, perhaps, even admiration.

Certainly there are few “latter-day” Dylan albums that sparkle with the immediacy that hallmarks Slow Train Coming. Dylan had rarely been a slouch in the studio. Blood On The Tracks devoured less than 12 days of studio time, and Street Legal was recorded in just five days and was in the stores two months later.

Slow Train Coming took four days to complete, from the opening sessions at Muscle Shoals on April 30, when the B-side “Trouble In Mind” was recorded, and wrapping up May 4 with “Do Right To Me Baby,” “When He Returns” and the two songs that best characterize the finished disc, the opening “Gotta Serve Somebody” and, later in the set, “Man Gave Names To All The Animals.” Two further songs failed to make the final cut, “No Man Righteous (No Not One)” and “Ye Shall Be Changed.”

The sessions were hard and fast, and the band was tight — keyboard player Barry Beckett, bassist Tim Drummond, percussionist Mickey Buckins and two members of the British band Dire Straits, guitarist Mark Knopfler and drummer Pick Withers, invited along after Dylan caught their day job at The Roxy in L.A. Carolyn Dennis was recalled, alongside fellow veteran Helena Springs and newcomer Regina Havis, and it was this trio whose vocals would do so much to flavor Slow Train Coming, translating what might otherwise have been a straightforward rock album into an astonishingly powerful, gospel-themed set.

The studio’s in-house Muscle Shoals Horns added further color; producer Jerry Wexler bound it all together.

Nobody knew what to expect. Knopfler later revealed that, having run through many of the songs as instrumentals with Dylan beforehand, he was shocked to hear the lyrics as they unfolded during the sessions. “All these songs are about God!”

Producer Jerry Wexler, too, was nonplussed. “Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals — as Bob did — but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived. That’s when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral ... I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel ... [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, ‘Bob, you’re dealing with a 62-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.’”

In 2005, Wexler reflected, “I had known Bob Dylan for a few years. When he called me and asked me to do the next album, I was thrilled to death. I was knocked out. It was ‘How high shall I jump and where do you want me to land?’ My co-producer, Barry Beckett and I went out to California where Dylan was living to select the material. It turned out to be wall-to-wall Jesus. I didn’t care; it could have been the telephone directory. It was Dylan.”

Jann Wenner, over at Rolling Stone, was one of the few writers who was not baffled or outraged by the finished disc. While the New Music Express review saw longtime Dylan supporter Charles Shaar Murray bemoan that the “most powerful arsenal of weapons” at Dylan’s disposal, his lyrics, were now siding with right-wing forces that were already too powerful, Wenner took a less complicated, and decidedly less political, stance. “Faith is the message,” his review insisted. “Faith is the point. Faith is the key to understanding this record.”

The question on a lot of people’s minds, however, was whether that faith would be as easy to summon up once Dylan hit the road again in November, presumably to introduce his audience to his new way of life.

How did live audiences react? Find out in Part 3!

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