Cover Story

Like a rolling stone

Nearly three decades of summers since Slow Train Coming captivated new and old believers, reclusive rock legend Bob Dylan surfaces in a new album this month and a revealing documentary

Issue: "Living a legend," Aug. 19, 2006

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.

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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.


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