When asked in 1997 to explain the enduring popularity of his songs, Bob Dylan said, "What makes them different is that there's a foundation to them. . . . They're standing on a strong foundation, and subliminally that's what people are hearing." On Aug. 29 Columbia Records will release Dylan's 32nd studio album, Modern Times, and judging from song titles such as "Thunder on the Mountain," "Spirit on the Water," and "Beyond the Horizon," the specific foundation to which he was referring-old folk, country, blues, and gospel songs-still serves as the bedrock of his composition. Another title, "The Levee's Gonna Break," eerily underscores the fact that the album's release date coincides with the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Dylan recordings and catastrophes have coincided before. In 1997 he was hospitalized with a near-fatal heart infection after completing Time Out of Mind, and in 2001 his Love and Theft was released on Sept. 11. But his history with hurricanes goes all the way back to 1976, when he hit the top 40 with "Hurricane," his lengthy musical recounting of the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of the boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
The hit marked the beginning of a renewed period of creativity in Dylan's life. The song, the album on which it was included (Desire), and the tour Dylan undertook in its wake (the Rolling Thunder Review) serve as the starting point for Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years (Highway 61 Entertainment), the latest in a series of investigatory documentaries by Joel Gilbert, the leader of the "world's only Bob Dylan tribute band," Highway 61 Revisited.
What makes Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years unique, however, is that it is the only project of its kind to explore the years during which Dylan was scandalizing the pop-culture world with recordings and performances that proclaimed Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation.
"A lot of Dylan fans are not understanding or tolerant of Dylan's gospel period or the music," Gilbert told WORLD. "But they really should love that period. That's why I was happy to delve into the subject and help give an honest appraisal."
By interviewing members of Dylan's ever-shifting inner circles and acute observers on its periphery, Gilbert provides a wealth of insight into both the singer-songwriter (recently dubbed No. 1 of 100 best living songwriters by Paste magazine) and the effect of evangelism on contemporary society as a whole.
Christians will find Gilbert's interviews with those directly involved in Dylan's gospel music particularly interesting. Veteran producer Jerry Wexler, for instance, describes the often humorous challenges faced in recording Slow Train Coming with a largely religiously indifferent ensemble. "I had no idea what the content was going to be," says Wexler, now 89, "that it was going to be wall-to-wall Jesus. But I couldn't have cared less, and I don't care now. It could be the Yellow Pages. It's Bob, you know?"
Wexler also recalls Dylan's attempt to evangelize him: "I said, 'Bob, it ain't no use. You're talking to a 62-year-old, card-carrying Jewish atheist.' . . . He didn't try to work on me anymore."
Elsewhere, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and background singer Regina McCrary give firsthand accounts of performing Dylan's all-gospel sets to often hostile crowds. Providing equally revealing context are Joel Selvin (the San Francisco Chronicle critic whose panning of Dylan's new show both captured and helped set the tone for its hostile reception), Al Kasha (the award-winning songwriter and Messianic Jew at whose home Dylan composed portions of Slow Train Coming), and Mitch Glaser (the Jews for Jesus leader responsible for providing, at Dylan's request, on-the-spot evangelism and tract distribution at the San Francisco shows).
Gilbert's real coup, however, was coaxing Pastor Bill Dwyer, the teacher of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Bible class that Dylan attended for several months, to speak on the record for the first time. "I first spoke to [Pastors] Ken Gulliksen and Larry Myers," says Gilbert, referring to the other Vineyard clergymen usually mentioned in connection with Dylan's conversion, "and they're the nicest people in the world to phone, but they're very hesitant to speak publicly. They were still in 'keep Bob's story private' mode. Even 27 years later, I had to go through quite a bit to convince them to take a different approach." Five months of "long conversations" on the phone and mailing material, he said, preceded a breakthrough.
The persistence paid off. Besides sharing entertaining anecdotes-Dylan's reciting from memory the beatitudes in the King James Version as a condition for passing the course, for instance-Dwyer also explains in uninterrupted detail what it means to be "born again," as does Dylan himself at one point, albeit in more elliptical terms.
Although copyright restrictions forbade Gilbert's inclusion of Dylan's music (a situation remedied in part by Gilbert's Dylan-simulating soundtrack), no such restrictions applied to his use of a brief, seldom-seen post-performance interview that Dylan gave to Pittsburgh's KDKA TV in 1980. "I can understand why they're rebellious about it," says Dylan, referring to the poor response of his gospel-tour audiences to his new music. "Up until the time the Lord came into my life, I didn't know nothing about this. I was just as rebellious and didn't think much about it either way."
Perhaps audiences were baffled because between the Rolling Thunder tour and the gospel albums, was Dylan's short-lived "Las Vegas" phase, his 1978 world tour with flashy onstage outfits and versions of his songs that were radically rearranged for his 11-member, i.e., "big," band. And even on this brief, seldom-examined period of Dylan's career, Gilbert unearths insightful information.
In an interview with Rob Stoner, for instance, Gilbert gets the former Dylan bassist and bandleader to reveal that he came up with that tour's notorious arrangements and did so to keep the then-37-year-old Dylan from being bored with performing songs that he had composed in his 20s ('60s hits like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Like a Rolling Stone").
Gilbert admits that casual viewers might lack the background necessary for appreciating his latest DVD's almost obsessive attention to detail, but it's not, he says, the casual viewer that he's targeting. "This is for a Dylan fan that has some knowledge, has seen some of these performances, has heard the music. It's not intended as an A&E [production], where you show everything from the beginning. You only have time to go to a certain point. It starts at a midway point and takes you all the way to the end. Otherwise it would be an eight-hour DVD."
Gilbert, a conservative Jew reared in Oak Ridge, Tenn., brings an unusually varied perspective to his subject. "There were churches on every corner, and the people were very serious Christians," he says of Oak Ridge. "I grew up with respect and appreciation for who they were, and they respected my being part of a small Jewish minority in the Bible Belt. So I think I have a lot of sensitivity, appreciation, and respect for different religions."
As an adult Gilbert studied economics, Islam, and Arabic in London, working as a boxing promoter in Israel and managing alternative-rock bands in Los Angeles. It was while a student in London in the mid-'80s that the seeds of his career as a Bob Dylan impersonator were planted. "I saw Don't Look Back [D.A. Pennebaker's film of Dylan's 1965 British tour] on the BBC," he recalls. "And what struck me was that when Dylan was just speaking, he sounded like I did when I listened to myself speaking on tape. So I thought, 'Gee, if I can talk like him, maybe I could sing like him.' But I didn't take it seriously as a tribute for quite some time. It was more like something fun to do."
In carrying out the study necessary for him to perfect his act, Gilbert became aware of gaps in common Dylan lore, gaps that his DVDs seek to bridge. His first project, Bob Dylan World Tour 1966: The Home Movies (2002), consisted largely of amateur footage shot by the oft-overlooked drummer Mickey Jones, who temporarily filled in for Levon Helm when the group that would eventually become known as the Band was helping Dylan "go electric." Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1975 (2005) combined a Gilbert-narrated visit to Dylan's late-'60s Woodstock home with the unveiling of dozens of previously unpublished photos by Dylan's erstwhile official tour photographer, Barry Feinstein.
With increased complexity has come increased viewing time, and casual viewers may complain that at four hours Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years runs too long. Not that anyone who has sat through Martin Scorsese's three-and-a-half hour No Direction Home, Dylan's own sprawling four-hour Renaldo and Clara, or such misbegotten, too-long-at-any-length celluloid Hollywood Dylan vehicles as Hearts of Fire or Masked and Anonymous is likely to suffer impatience where Dylan films are concerned.
Sadly, Dylan seldom performs his gospel material these days. Despite occasionally revisiting "Saving Grace" several years ago, only "Every Grain of Sand" made the cut on his two most recent tours. So whether or how much such songs reflect his beliefs or affect his life is anyone's guess. Speculation will rise once again with the release of Modern Times and a month-long tour beginning this month playing 20 minor league ballparks with guitar legend Junior Brown. One thing that Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years makes clear, however, is that those songs permanently affected, and continue to affect, the lives of countless others.
Selecting the best or even most representative Bob Dylan albums is difficult. Not only has Dylan undergone more stylistic changes than any other popular performer, but even his least heralded recordings contain excellent songs that fill in the otherwise inexplicable musical, emotional, and spiritual gaps of his major works. The list that follows constitutes a rough sketch of his peaks.
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
The finest of Dylan's early acoustic phase; chock-full of inspired whimsy and now-classic socio-political anthems and love songs.
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
The fullest flowering of his "going electric" (more consistent than Bringing It All Back Home, harder edged than Blonde on Blonde); the album whose songs are most likely to turn up during a Dylan concert.
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
A masterpiece that comes at the loss of love from multiple angles; contains some of Dylan's most beautiful lyrics, singing, and instrumentation.
Slow Train Coming (1979)
His relentlessly biblical and thoroughly uncompromising announcement of his faith in Christ, so "controversial" that only recently has its sharply crafted music begun getting the attention it deserves.
Traveling Wilburys Volume One (1988)
A fun and funny Dylan-dominated super session with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison; viewed by many as reigniting his long-dormant creative spark.
Time Out of Mind (1997)
The most carefully recorded album of his career, alive with eerie, raw rock 'n' roll and gravelly vocals that movingly embody the romantic despair of the lyrics.