We explore Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade
Christ comes to Dylan in a hotel room in Tucson, Arizona, in November 1978. Bob senses “a presence in the room that could only be Jesus”, feels the hand of Christ upon him, his body, in his later account, trembling at the holy touch. “The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up,” he subsequently attests. He is ready to be born again, accept Christ as his messiah, in contradiction of the Jewish faith in which he has grown up – and even now will not fully relinquish, as he tries to reconcile Judaism’s rejection of Christ as the son of God with the evangelical Christianity he now fully embraces, in which Christ will deliver salvation to the true believer even as the agnostic are eternally damned.
In the years that follow, there’s much speculation about the apparent suddenness of Dylan’s conversion, as if religion has not been central previously to so much of what he’s done. You could point to John Wesley Harding, that great album of parable and myth, as perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the Bible’s influence on Dylan’s writing, but by any reasonable assessment it’s no more a singular example than his conversion is the result of unpredictable whim.
In one emerging narrative, Dylan at this time is made vulnerable to conversion by the exhausting mental and physical toll of recent events – a costly and bitter divorce, the nine-month slog of the so-called Alimony Tour during which he would play 114 shows in 10 countries on four different continents. Drugs, a lot of them, and much hard drinking would also play their part in this version of things and make him easily susceptible to the word of the Lord. It should not be forgotten, however, that his band at the time includes several musicians who had already, as they say, ‘received Christ’ – Steven Soles and David Mansfield, who along with fellow Rolling Thunder revue veterans T Bone Burnett and Roger McGuinn have lately converted to Christianity.
Whatever, Dylan soon commits himself to 14 weeks of intense Bible studies with the Vineyard Fellowship, an evangelical group based in Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley, from which he emerges gripped by the idea of a returning messiah and an unshakable faith in the inevitability of a coming apocalypse, as predicted in the Book Of Revelation, that will only be survived by the truly righteous. For good measure, he is also now wholly convinced that man is born in sin and Satan is everywhere a malign presence. He also has a bunch of songs that give voice to his new beliefs that he now wants to record, hiring Jerry Wexler as producer and a band including Mark Knopfler on guitar that convenes in April 1978 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama to record Slow Train Coming, a full-blown Christian rock album, the first of three records that test to the point of estrangement his relationship with his audience.
When it comes out in November 1979, the album’s religious ‘message’, the strident imperatives of “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Slow Train”, “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” and “When You Gonna Wake Up”, is not an immediate concern. Most people are simply relieved that they have a Dylan album that unlike his last, Street-Legal, they can listen to without wincing at its plodding production and largely leaden playing. They make Slow Train Coming an enormous commercial success that sells more in its first nine months of release than Blood On The Tracks does in nearly a decade. “Gotta Serve Somebody” even wins him a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal of the year. Dylan is not yet cast as a crass Bible-thumper, despite the dark murmurings of some critics disturbed by what seems to them a terrible allegiance with the emerging Christian Right, the so-called Moral Majority mobilised by Ronald Reagan, Republican evangelists with sorry views on abortion, gay and women’s rights, liberal inclinations of most kinds, to which Dylan now seems also to appallingly adhere.
They listen to Slow Train Coming and hear only the harsh word of Dylan’s unforgiving sermonising. The album for them was pitiless, cold and austere. Nick Cave, whose favourite album it apparently is, would describe Slow Train Coming as “full of mean-spirited spirituality. It’s a genuinely nasty record.” How could anyone who’d been besotted with the libertarian hipster that Dylan had been relate to the grim prophet of doom now before them? The goodwill that has elsewhere been extended to Dylan and Slow Train Coming on its release doesn’t go much further. It in fact almost entirely evaporates when Dylan announces that on his upcoming tour he won’t be playing any of his old songs, the pre-conversion favourites his audience will be disappointed not to hear, some of them now turning against Dylan.
In November 1979, the Slow Train Coming tour opens with 14 shows at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco with a terrific band featuring Jim Keltner on drums, Muscle Shoals veteran Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Tim Drummond, who’s served time with both James Brown and Neil Young, on bass and lead guitarist Fred Tackett, who’s been touring with Lowell George until Lowell’s sudden death in June. There’s a host of backing singers, too, most of them at one time or another romantically involved with Dylan. The shows in many respects are fantastic, as tapes of the dates serially attest. But there are howls of critical disapproval and elements of the audience are made restless and uncomfortable by Bob’s relentless Bible-bashing, song after self-righteous song, and what come to be known as Dylan’s ‘Jesus raps’, fevered sermons about persecution, betrayal and, up ahead, the end of the world.
“Bob was on a mission and we were all doing everything we could to promote it,” recalls Fred Tackett. “And there was a combination of different responses. It was like a circus, sometimes. We had Madalyn O’Hair, the famous American atheist, picketing in the streets outside some of the places we played back East. And at the same time, there was a guy dressed up like Jesus carrying a cross up the street. So, out in the street, outside the shows, there was a complete circus going on. The best thing I saw was when we were playing at the Warfield in San Francisco: there was a guy sitting in the front row, and he’d made this big sign: JESUS LOVES YOUR OLD SONGS TOO. I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Yeah, well, good point.’”