Bob Dylan Comes to God in an Arizona Hotel Room

According to legend, it was a chilly November night in 1978 when Bob Dylan experienced a vision of Jesus Christ. Holed up in a Tucson hotel room, he had just finished a set and was mentally and physically exhausted. His marriage to Sara Lownds had ended a year earlier, and the pain hadn't faded. Earlier in the tour, someone had tossed a silver cross on stage, and Dylan had taken to wearing it around his neck, foreshadowing his encounter that night.

"Stuck in a Tucson hotel room, after a lifetime of visions that caused divisions, Dylan experienced a vision of Christ, Lord of Lords, King of Kings. His state of mind may well have made him susceptible to such an experience. Lacking a sense of purpose in his personal life since the collapse of his marriage, he came to believe that, when Jesus revealed Himself, He quite literally rescued him from an early grave," writes Clinton Heylin in Behind the Shades. (The book has been twice revised and reissued, including this year.)

Heylin's not without his critics, though. Many argue that his book favors sensationalism over fact, and in a masterfully executed essay titled — get ready for it, because it's a mouthful — "Clinton Heylin's Dylan-Salvation Myth-Hoax of a 1978 Tucson Arizona Hotel-Room Jesus Epiphany: The Wind Blows Where It, Not Heylin, Wills," published on around the time of Heylin's book reissue, Paul Kirkman argues that the Dylan conversion story is a fabrication, the result of Heylin painting in broad strokes purely for dramatic effect.

Dylan examines The Big Guy's handiwork.
Dylan examines The Big Guy's handiwork.

Location Info


Comerica Theatre

400 W. Washington St.
Phoenix, AZ 85003

Category: Music Venues

Region: Central Phoenix


Bob Dylan is scheduled to perform Monday, July 18, at Comerica Theater.

Kirkman is probably right. No one can identify at which hotel in Tucson the divine sighting supposedly occurred and, he argues, "There's no reason per se why Dylan's Jesus epiphany could not have happened in a Tucson hotel room at the time, but Heylin's assumption of it neither constitutes evidence of it nor is warranted or even suggested by Dylan's own statements or the biographical 'facts' as far as they can be gleaned." Kirkman even argues that that if such an event did occur, it could have very well happened in Tempe or San Diego, based on tour itineraries.

But, ultimately, does it even matter how, when, or whether the event actually occurred? The story makes for a beautiful rock 'n' roll myth, up there with Robert Johnson's selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, Rod Stewart's getting his stomach pumped after blowing the members of his band, Keith Richards' receiving a full-body blood transfusion to continue his massive drug use, and whatever the hell went down with Led Zeppelin, the groupie, and that shark.

Of course, it can be argued that these things never happened, or happened differently from how they are widely reported. These tall tales illustrate our collective perception of an artist or band and serve to further contextualize the sounds of their albums and live shows.

What isn't disputed is that sometime in 1978-79, Dylan underwent a complete conversion, devoting his life and music to the cause of Jesus Christ. Another rock rumor suggests that T-Bone Burnett, who toured as part of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour in '75 and '76, converted Dylan personally, but in an interview with the Onion AV Club in April 2010, Burnett shot that speculation down: "That's completely untrue . . . It's just at that time . . . it was such a wild tour . . . The spirit of God was moving across the world."

That spirit certainly was moving in Dylan, who recorded Slow Train Coming in 1979, followed by Saved in 1980, and Shot of Love in 1981. Together, the three records make up Dylan's gospel trilogy and are some of the most divisive records in his catalog. Fans may have called him Judas when he went electric, but the idea of the man who sang "Blowin' in the Wind" and "With God on Our Side" plying earnest contemporary Christian music like "I Believe in You" was too much for many fans to bear.

Though, indeed, a mixed bag, the records have their share of excellent moments. Slow Train Coming is generally considered the best album of the period, due in no small part to Mark Knopfler's stinging guitar work and the Muscle Shoals soul sound. "You've Got to Serve Somebody" is the best-known track, with its funky electric piano and an understated vocal from Dylan, but there are better songs to be found here, namely the baffling, politically paranoid title track and the stomping brass- and cowbell-charged "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking."

Saved is the most overtly gospel-sounding record of the trilogy, adorned by a Tony Wright painting of God's hand reaching down to touch hands that are reaching for his, and heavy with contributions from backing vocalists Clydie King, Regina Havis, and Mona Lisa Young, who testify behind Dylan's characteristically nasally voice. The title track is pretty rough — too blatant to be taken seriously, but the album features a couple of truly stunning songs. "Covenant Woman" oozes with a sexy vibe, recalling The Rolling Stones' "Angie" with its yearning, and "Pressing On," with its church service piano and extended finale, is genuinely ecstatic — a true expression of joy and determination.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Hey thanks for such a great story, but I coulda done without the Rod Stewart rumour after reading about Bob Dylan's spiritual experiences.. yuk!

Jason P. Woodbury
Jason P. Woodbury

Hey, sincere and gracious thanks for you taking the time to read. I don't claim that Dylan "abandoned Jesus." I have no idea where he stands religiously as of today, but he certainly isn't making explicitly Christian records like the three I discuss here these days.


Do you really believe he has abandoned Jesus? He never did this. If he did why would the tour speaker on each and every concert - for so many years on end now - proclaims that "who (that is Dylan) emerged to find Jesus"? Your article just doesn't make sense.


I strongly disagree that Lenny Bruce was a bad song. You're also giving Haynes' movie far too much credit, because it perpetuates a myth: that Dylan keeps "changing." If you truly follow his career, he's remained true to his core. He began his career singing about God and he's never stopped (hence, your comment that he "distanced himself" is too simplistic). He's not a "religious" or "Christian" singer, but he's a spiritual one...and thank God for that!


What was Bob smoking?

Found God in a hotel? Usually people find "him" when they are in PRISON.Sounds like a bit of a stretch...


great article Jason. very balanced! looking forward to the future w you at the helm.


Jason - the truth is as near as the Maricopa County Recorder of Deeds. Take a look.

Jason P. Woodbury
Jason P. Woodbury

Thanks for reading, R Kelly. I guess we'll have to disagree about "Lenny Bruce," but I completely agree with you that Dylan is a "spiritual" singer.

Phoenix Concert Tickets

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri