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 Scribd.com 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.
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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.
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Shot of Love, Dylan's last explicitly Christian release, is also the most solid of his "born again" era. The album features the best overall collection of songs penned by Dylan at the time, and the record isn't as heavy-handed as the two previous outings, though it's not without one massive clunker — the plodding "Lenny Bruce," Dylan's eulogy to the late comedian. The title track balances its theological lyrics with some biting blues riffs, while "Heart of Mine" is one of Dylan's best pop songs, period. "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" rocks like "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and "Dead Man, Dead Man" rides a reggae vibe, with an insisting baritone sax blurting away under the chorus. "Trouble" examines the curse of Adam with a nasty, dry snare-heavy rhythm, and closer "Every Grain of Sand" features beautiful harmonica work and one of Dylan's finest vocal performances.
Following these albums, Dylan quickly distanced himself from strident, "born again" proclamations. In a 1997 interview with Newsweek, he stated: "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else."
Thus, the Christian Dylan remains simply another chapter in his string of chameleon-like public personas, as anthologized in Todd Haynes' brilliant 2007 film I'm Not There. Who knows where or when exactly Dylan experienced his moment with Christ, or whether it was ever as literal as Heylin suggests? What we're left with is an enduring myth, a story that illustrates in vivid detail a moment when Dylan decided he was going to "serve somebody," resulting in three interesting albums and a couple of killer gospel tunes.