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Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

A LONG, STRANGE TRIP By Scott Marshall with Marcia Ford

In the spring of 1979, just months after his conversion, Bob Dylan began recording his first Christian album, Slow Train Coming. He recorded in Sheffield, Alabama, at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, which one of Dylan’s record producers, Barry Beckett, had helped found ten years earlier. Over the years, the studios—seemingly located in the middle of nowhere—managed to attract a host of top recording artists, including Cher, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Dire Straits, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
But the recording of Slow Train would not be like any other Muscle Shoals had ever witnessed. Full of zeal, Dylan tried to interest his other producer, Jerry Wexler, in the New Testament. Wexler responded, "I’m a sixty-two-year-old card-carrying Jewish atheist." According to Wexler, that was the end of the discussion.

But Beckett’s production assistant, Dick Cooper, maintains that the biblical banter between Dylan and Wexler wasn’t restricted to the brief exchange Wexler describes. During breaks in the recording schedule, Cooper said, the two discussed Scripture. Cooper even has a photograph of Dylan taking notes in which Wexler—hardly a religious man—was discussing specific Bible verses; in another photo, the rest of the crew is going over guitar parts while Dylan and Wexler discuss Scripture in the back of the control room. Talking about the Bible and religion was their leisure activity, but, according to Cooper, neither one could convert the other.

But when he was working, Dylan’s focus was riveted to every aspect of his new project. He had an idea in mind for the album cover and communicated this to his art team at Columbia; the artwork he chose, drawn by freelance artist Catherine Kanner—who is also Jewish—was right on target. "There was to be a train, and there was to be a man in the foreground with a pickaxe [symbolizing the cross of Jesus]," Kanner said of the instructions she received. "A normal pickaxe has the handle and then that piece that goes over it; it usually does not have another piece that sticks up. It was made clear to me that it needed to have that piece sticking up so that it would resemble a cross. I knew at that point that that’s what he was looking for. It was subtle."

As it turned out, Nick Saxton, who provided the back cover photo for Slow Train Coming, was "heavily involved in a secret Bible study" at the time, while Tony Lane, Columbia’s art director, was also coming to faith in Jesus.

Back in the studio, Wexler was "knocked out" when he first heard the lyrics Dylan had written, according to Beckett; both men felt the lyrics stood up to the songwriter’s usual standards. Beckett was especially taken with "Gotta Serve Somebody": "When I heard those lyrics, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is great.’ It wasn’t your typical, corny Christian-related music, having to do with ‘Jesus loves me, this I know,’ all that stuff. It had depth."

Many Dylan fans, though, didn’t seem to see it that way. They weren’t exactly thrilled with the new album, released in August of 1979, less than eight months after the singer’s conversion. Where Beckett saw depth, many of his fans and critics saw judgment; to them, the album’s lyrics depicted a harsh God ready to deliver the hammer blow to humanity at any moment. That may have been an unfair assessment, but it was apparent that a song like "When He Returns"—ironically, Wexler’s favorite—with its image of God with an iron rod was enough to cloud the thinking of some of Dylan’s fans and keep them from appreciating the image of a merciful God found elsewhere on the album.

Even so, the reaction to the album appeared to be out of proportion to its lyrical and musical quality. Why were his fans giving their idol such a hard time over this? Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who still thinks the album is "great," believes that what people saw was the intolerance of Christians. "Christians have created a fair amount of animosity among non-Christians by virtue of their own intolerance, so that there’s a knee-jerk response in a lot of people to any manifestation of devout Christianity," Barlow maintains. "I take the view that the solution to intolerance is certainly not more intolerance. If you want to do something about intolerance, the first order of business is to tolerate those that would not tolerate you."

The intolerance his fans exhibited in reaction to the release of the record was nothing compared to the intolerance that came after Dylan debuted three of his new songs—"Gotta Serve Somebody," "I Believe in You" and "When You Gonna Wake Up?"—on, of all places, the television comedy show Saturday Night Live. Though the audience that night took it well, his critics didn’t.

Rabbi Laurence Schlesinger, who has written a number of articles on Bob Dylan, compared the repercussions of that performance to the shock Dylan’s followers experienced when he traded his acoustic sound—a hallmark of the folk scene that had regarded him as their spokesman—for an amplified electric sound at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where some in the audience tried to boo him off the stage. The rabbi recalled being "completely stunned" at the words Dylan sang and the message he conveyed during his Saturday Night Live appearance.

Another long, strange trip with Bob Dylan had just begun.