Holy Slow Train Coming: “Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born… Again!”

By on September 26, 2017

All of the massive earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and the otherwise insanely cataclysmic weather events our planet has been experiencing lately seems to be sending some bible readers back to the Book of Revelation with a yellow highlighter.

It’s also reminded us that Sixties rock icon Bob Dylan was a big fan of quoting from that same apocalyptic book of dire end-of-days prophecies during his compelling and ultimately confrontational concerts in the late ’70s.

Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born…Again! — just one of the many Dylan-related music documentaries we’ve got streaming over on Night Flight Plus — chronicles this polarizing born again period, back when he had converted to Christianity and then penned a bunch of new fire & brimstone-reeking songs that sometimes confused or even angered his most loyal fans.

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Producer/director and Dylan fanatic Joel Gilbert — director of Bob Dylan 1966 World Tour-The Home Movies and Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1974-Through the Camera of Barry Feinstein — provides viewers with a fascinating peek into many private moments behind-the-scenes that would inspire Dylan to give sermons from the stage.

Dylan doesn’t make an appearance here, but Gilbert did manage to get several of his colleagues to talk with him on-camera, some for the first time, about this period in Dylan’s storied career.

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Here’s what it says on the back cover of the DVD release:

At first called “Dylan’s God-Awful Gospel” by his most loyal fans, Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years are today regarded as among the best of his career. How did a Jewish folk singer from the Midwest come to Jesus? Finally, here is an insider’s view of Bob Dylan’s “Born Again” transformation, and its effect on his life and music.

In late 1978, Bob Dylan fell into the Arms of the Lord through the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church. In his first-ever interview, Dylan’s bible class teacher, Pastor Bill Dwyer, details Bob Dylan’s embrace of Jesus Christ and Christianity. Dylan then made three Gospel albums, winning a Grammy for Gotta Serve Somebody. However, Dylan’s radical new direction alienated fans and enraged critics as he preached apocalyptic messages from the Book of Revelation.

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Jerry Wexler, the legendary Atlantic Records executive who produced Dylan’s Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980) albums

Director Joel Gilbert weaves the intimate story Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years through revealing interviews, including legendary Slow Train Coming producer Jerry Wexler, background singer Regina McCrary, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, iconic San Francisco Chronicle rock reporter Joel Selvin, award-winning songwriter Al Kasha, Jews for Jesus pioneer Mitch Glaser, and Dylanologist AJ Weberman.

Included are rare photos and exclusive live concert footage from 1978-1981, while Bob Dylan himself explains the impact of Jesus on his art and soul in a recently unearthed interview from 1981. Visits to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the Vineyard Church, and the Fox Warfield Theatre all take us deep Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years.

Read more about Bob Dylan’s “Jesus Years” below.

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Dylan’s Slow Train Coming — released on August 20, 1979 — featured eight songs tinged by his evangelical born again reawakening.

The lead-off track, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” reached #24 on Billboard‘s Hot 100; it also earned him the Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal, Male, in 1980.

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The album — Dylan’s own liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited had hinted at the album’s title years earlier, referring to a holy slow train– peaked at #3 on Billboard‘s album charts right around the same time he was touring the album (and declining to play any of his non-gospel hits) and preaching to jaw-dropped concertgoers.

On May 15, 1980, at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater, Dylan told them:

“I know not too many people are gonna tell you about Jesus. I know Jackson Browne’s not gonna do; it he’s running on empty. I know Bruce Springsteen’s not gonna do it, cause he’s born to run and he’s still running. And Bob Seger’s not gonna do it cause he’s running against the wind. Somebody’s got to do it, somebody’s got to tell you you’re free! You’re free because Jesus paid for ya!”

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Decades later, Night Flight contributor Chris Morris — writing about Slow Train Coming in his 2016 book about Dylan’s recordings and their impact on his life, Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (Rothco Press), said:

“It felt narrow (and, by Dylan’s own definition, it was), self-righteous, unloving, wrathful and almost entirely humorless – a ‘my way or the highway’ type of faith. And I resented the music he was using as his pulpit. He was writing a new kind of ‘finger-pointing song,’ and he was sticking that ‘one way’ finger right in my eye. I extended another finger in kind.”

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Dylan followed up Slow Train Running with a similar collection, 1980’s Saved, and he gave more gospel-only concerts, but by the time he was touring to support 1981’s Shot of Love, he began mixing in some of his secular Sixties hits with the new bible-inspired tunes.

One of the highlights here are interview segments throughout with his bible class teacher, pastor Bill Dwyer, a founder and leader of the L.A.-based Vineyard Christian Fellowship, talking for the first time about star pupil (Dylan’s girlfriend had introduced him to Dwyer’s evangelical church).

You’ll also hear from Spooner Oldham, organist and piano man and part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who toured with Dylan from 1979-1980.

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This so-called “Jesus Years” period of Dylan’s has been in the news of late because it was recently announced that an 8-CD/1 DVD set — titled Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981 — will be released on November 3, 2017, featuring unreleased music and film footage unearthed from the hallowed Dylan vaults.

Watch Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born…Again! — and other Dylan docs — over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.