Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Weirdly Moving Christian Rock Period, When He Briefly Embraced Spokesman Status

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On Saturday, Bob Dylan will be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Dylan doesn’t plan on attending the ceremony in Stockholm, but reportedly he did send a speech to be read in his absence. Perhaps the Nobel people should be counting their blessings. Supreme unease with award ceremonies has long been part of Dylan’s brand, which in a way is unfortunate, because people have been trying to honor Bob Dylan for nearly as long as he’s had a career.

Way back in 1963, when he was handed the Tom Paine Award by the Emergency Civil Liberties Union “in recognition of distinguished service in the fight for civil liberty,” a 22-year-old Dylan responded with a wildly insulting, extemporaneous speech in which he expressed sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald, just one month after John F. Kennedy was killed. Two years before he was booed for going electric, Dylan was booed that night for going rogue.

Since the Nobel was announced in October, Dylan’s apparent disregard for the award has provoked a series of backlashes and counter-backlashes. After one Nobel committee member called him “impolite and arrogant,” knowing Dylan defenders rushed to point out that of course Dylan would act this way, because Dylan always acts this way when somebody tries to turn him into a figurehead. What did these Swedes expect anyway?

However, there is one instance in Dylan’s career when he embraced the mantle of spokesman. For once, he wasn’t evasive or downright contrarian when it came to pinning specific meanings to his songs. Instead, Dylan waved the flag for a specific cause, and happily explained how his lyrics furthered this agenda. Instead of speaking in riddles or answering questions with more questions, this Dylan claimed to have all the answers.

The catch was that Dylan, a Jew from rural Minnesota, did these things as a born-again Christian.

For the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with Dylan’s “gospel” period, which includes the albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and about half of Shot Of Love (1981). Some Dylanologists (including Clinton Heylin, as sharp and as cranky as a man devoted to studying Dylan minutia should be) have claimed that this God-obsessed period never ended — it’s just that Dylan, after a brief flirtation with forthright evangelism, returned to obscuring his spiritual beliefs behind an enigmatic veil. (That Dylan’s most recent album of original material, 2012’s Tempest, contains enough bloody retribution to rival the Old Testament supports this thesis.)

Still, there was a time when Bob Dylan was moved to write directly and explicitly about his love for Jesus and his belief that the world would soon be over. And then he went on the road and for many months refused to play any of his old songs, fearing that they were “anti-God.” And then, after the relatively restrained Slow Train Coming sold well and produced a Top 40 hit, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Dylan doubled down yet again with the album cover for the overtly born-again Saved, in which God literally reaches down with an oversized paw to touch the outstretched hands of true believers. Dylan conceived the cover himself, and later told Rolling Stone‘s Kurt Loder that he wished he could have had the image “posted up on Sunset Boulevard — [this] big bloody hand reaching down.”

While I don’t share Dylan’s beliefs, I do admire, as always, displays of Dylanesque resolve, and Dylan’s gospel period is perhaps the greatest display of Dylanesque resolve ever. Compared with Dylan’s far more celebrated mid-’60s “plugged in” tour with the Hawks — recently immortalized in a box set collecting every single show in which Dylan was booed by folkie purists for playing with an electric band — the decision to write and perform evangelical songs represents Dylan at his most confrontational and least willing to compromise. Most people quickly came around on Dylan’s turn from folk to rock. But Dylan’s Christian records still confuse and even infuriate a lot of fans.

And yet, from Dylan’s perspective, he was making himself available in precisely the way that his followers had always demanded. For years, people had asked Dylan explain himself, and plainly articulate his vision of the world. Now, he had finally codified his lyrics into a clear message that left little wiggle room for interpretation. If you were sick of Dylan playing games, well, this was as close as he would ever come to unequivocal.

“I follow God,” Dylan told a Tucson radio station in 1979. “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.”

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. But, because this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, the most straight-forward version of himself somehow wound up being the most confounding.

Dylan’s spiritual awakening occurred in a Tucson hotel room in late 1978, as he was winding down a lengthy, glitzy greatest hits world tour that was savaged by stateside critics. In the past year, Dylan had suffered a series of setbacks, including the failure of his long-in-the-works tour film, Renaldo And Clara, and his dissolution of his marriage to Sara Dylan, the mother of his five children. Dylan was also nearing 40, which was uncharted territory for a rock star in the late ’70s.

During the previous night’s show in San Diego, a fan had inexplicably thrown a silver crucifix on stage. Dylan — who had been feeling ill and under normal circumstances would’ve ignored any assorted “gifts” tossed his way — pocketed the cross.

In Arizona, “I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego,” he recalled later. “I said, ‘I need something tonight.'” Dylan reached in his pocket and found that cross.

Suddenly, Dylan sensed a supernatural presence in his room. “Jesus put his hand on me,” he told an interviewer in 1980. “It was a physical thing. I felt it.”

Before he was born-again, Dylan had read the Bible, but only as a work of literature. The book’s apocalyptic language squared with Dylan’s own cataclysmic worldview in songs like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” With 1967’s John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s knowledge of the Bible infused his words with a mythic weight that seemed to foretell an impending period of war, riots, and political assassinations. Perhaps the greatest lesson Dylan took from the Bible was that language which is rhetorically striking but textually vague can be construed to mean whatever listeners need them to mean.

Several members of Dylan’s band were members of the Vineyard Fellowship, a New Age-y L.A.-based church that reached the hippie generation with end-of-the-world prophecy culled from the Book of Revelation. Soon, Dylan was taking Bible classes at the fellowship, where he learned about Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a 1970 bestseller that connected apocalyptic Biblical teachings to present-day unrest in the Middle East. This became the basis for Dylan’s own on-stage sermonizing during his tours in 1979 and 1980, when he claimed that the Bible predicted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during lengthy rants between strident new songs like “When You Gonna Wake Up?” and “Solid Rock.”

Inspired by his conversion, Dylan commenced writing songs at a prodigious clip. A few years later, Dylan claimed that he “didn’t like writing” this material, and he initially planned to have one of the backing singers in his band, Helena Springs, record them. While Dylan wrote some of the prettiest music of his career during this time, there was little beauty in the lyrics. For every song like “I Believe In You” from Slow Train Coming, a plaintive ode to devotion, or “What Can I Do For You?” from Saved, which expresses humility in the presence of the divine, there were many more songs like “Slow Train,” a deeply foreboding warning about evil’s slow, inevitable creep across the Earth.

The train metaphor is among the most obvious in Dylan’s canon, in line with the bluntness that Dylan now favored. Not since his “finger-pointing” protest songs of the early ’60s was Dylan so willing to hector his audience. Now that he was born again, Dylan temporarily suspended his penchant for obscurity — on Slow Train Coming and especially Saved, his lyrics could only be interpreted as the straight-up “word” from a doomsday Bible-thumper.

“Now there’s spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down,” Dylan sings in “Precious Angel,” a lilting ballad from Slow Train Coming with an uplifting melody that barely softens the song’s bruising message. “You either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain’t neutral ground.”

I could say that current events finally drew me into the one era of Dylan’s career that I’d avoided. After the election, I was suddenly more amenable to songs about how the world is doomed. Besides, there was something reassuring about Dylan believing that everything was about to end in 1979, not long before a Republican promising to make America great again assumed the presidency, and not having it come to pass. (Not for the time being, anyway.)

But, honestly, I started to digging into Dylan’s Christian records because they were the only Dylan records I didn’t already know inside and out. It was either explore Slow Train Coming and Savedor put on Blonde on Blonde or Desire or Love And Theft for the millionth time. I chose the uncharted Christian records.

Even among Dylan fanatics, Dylan’s spiritual material is often derided. Slow Train Coming has a decent reputation — due mostly to the production by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, who helped the studio-averse Dylan sound professional in accordance with high-tech late ’70s standards — but Saved and Shot Of Love are defended only by the staunchest of hardcore Dylan fanatics. When I was going to as many Dylan concerts as I could in the early ’00s, the percentage of people who loved Saved would go up the closer I pushed to the stage. Many of these people resembled fans profiled in David Kinney’s excellent 2014 book The Dylanologists, particularly the woman who kept a shrine in her home that co-mingled photos of Jesus and Dylan with excerpts from the Bible and Dylan’s gospel-era concert rants.

The strange intensity of Dylan’s spiritual albums, coupled with the strange intensity of Dylan’s spiritual-minded fans, kept me away from those albums for a long time. But recently, I’ve come around on Slow Train Coming and, yes, even Savedand Shot Of Love. What helped to open these songs up for me was delving into the concert bootlegs from Dylan’s gospel tours, including a show in Toronto from 1980 that was originally recorded for a live album that Dylan’s label, Columbia, declined to release.

In a live setting, backed by one of his finest bands ever, Dylan’s gospel songs swayed and rocked with newfound force and passion. It was a big, warm, bouncing ball of sound. On the breathtaking version of “When He Returns” from the Toronto tape, Dylan sings about as well as he ever has, opening up his heart and making himself vulnerable on stage in ways that he rarely does now. On the albums, Dylan can come off as preachy and judgmental; Slow Train Coming and Saved are unique Dylan LPs in that the lyrics must often be completely ignored in order to be enjoyed, at least for nonbelievers. In concert, however, Dylan let the music carry him toward something more ecstatic and heavenly. Even if you don’t believe in God, you feel the spirit.

Dylan’s born-again phase comes from a similar place as his devotion to folk music, a tradition that exists beyond the ephemera of mainstream/secular culture and aspires to a greater, permanent truth. “I’m pressing on,” he sings in “Pressing On,” one of his best gospel era tracks. “To the higher calling of my Lord.” Dylan has always been an artist who has looked past this life and to a world that is hidden but omnipresent if you’ve trained yourself to see it. If you love Dylan, this constant pushing against all that’s temporary and fleeting is what makes his work so profound. When that’s your mission, who has time for something as relatively inconsequential and earthbound as the Nobel Prize?