"I follow God, so if my followers are following me, indirectly their gonna be following God too, because I don't sing any song which hasn't been given to me by the Lord to sing." Bob Dylan 1979
If Bob Dylan is to be believed (and there is no reason to disbelieve him), his conversion to Christianity and the subsequent album, "Slow Train Coming" was brought about by two distinct and possibly related incidents in November 1978. At a low ebb physically, emotionally and spiritually, he picked up a silver cross that someone threw onto the stage during a concert in San Diego, California, something that by his own admission he would not normally do, and kept it. The following day in a Tuscon hotel room he had what he described as "...a born-again experience" and told of how "Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it...The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up." Clearly in need of inspiration, divine or otherwise, it should have been no surprise that Dylan chose this method of expression when one considers that Biblical characters and events have always featured strongly in his writing. Indeed, a decade earlier "John Wesley Harding" had been a very spiritual album, and seen in retrospect, his most recent offering "Street Legal" had many religious allusions. Perhaps what did surprise was the intensity of his convictions and the strength of his writing. After a three month stint at the Vineyard Fellowship, a Californian Bible study group, Dylan was writing prolifically, but confessed that these songs frightened him, and his original intention was to have Carolyn Dennis record them and not even take the credit for writing them. Thankfully he decided to rethink that decision and after seeing British band Dire Straits at L.A.'s Roxy, he approached band leader Mark Knopfler and asked him to play on the album. Knopfler apparently jumped at the chance to work with his idol, and recruited fellow band member, drummer Pick Withers. The obvious choice for producer was veteran Jerry Wexler, a man whose musical background was steeped in gospel music, and who had recently produced Dire Straits second album "Communique." He in turn enlisted the services of keyboard player Barry Beckett, who would later receive a co-producers credit on "Slow Train Coming." The irony of one Jew turning to another to produce an album of gospel songs was not lost on Wexler, and when Dylan tried to convert him, his response was blunt "Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two year old confirmed Jewish atheist...Let's just make an album" he said, and make an album they did, one of the finest in Dylan's impressive body of work.
"Gotta Serve Somebody" opens the album and very much sets the tone; lyrically strong, a tight rhythm section and a female gospel trio backing up on vocals. The song makes the point very simply; "It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord," no matter what your circumstances in life, or how important you think you are. Dylan even takes a poke at himself with his reference to "...a rock and roll addict prancing on the stage/You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage." Worldly treasures also come under the spotlight, the line "You might be living in a mansion/Might live in a dome" brought a wry smile to the face of anyone who had seen pictures of his Malibu house. Chosen as the first single from the album, it surprised most critics by becoming a chart hit and winning a Grammy (for Best Rock Vocal), illustrating that the uncharacteristic care that Dylan had shown in choosing veteran Jerry Wexler to produce was paying off. His choice of musicians was also inspired, and although Mark Knopfler did voice some early misgivings about the "Bible-thumping" nature of the material,"...these songs are all about God" he confided in manager Ed Bicknell, he was also quick to praise Dylan's professionalism.
"Precious Angel" is one of the stand out tracks on the album. Dylan's vocal and his timing here are both superb, although many might take issue with the uncompromising nature of "You either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground" there can be no faulting the commitment of the delivery. This was the first vocal to be recorded, on May 1st 1979, the previous day's session having only yielded "Trouble In Mind" a track that did not make the final cut. It also set the precedent of getting all the vocal tracks down quickly (the whole thing was done in four sessions) before Dylan's notorious boredom factor took over with the overdubs being recorded a week later. Anyone in doubt of Dylan's sincerity here need only listen to the way he sings the chorus, particularly the second one when the female choir kicks in, and the stark delivery of "We are covered in blood, girl..." and "Let us hope they found mercy in their bone-filled graves" as he visits the oft used Book of Revelation. But more basic images are also used here "You're the queen of my flesh, girl, you're my woman, you're my delight/You're the lamp of my soul, girl, you torch up the night" as he allows a less spiritual emotion to come to the surface. Without doubt, one of the finest songs on the album.
As is "I Believe in You," a song in which the belief could be ambiguous, secular or spiritual. This is a personal favourite, and has Dylan answering his critics in the best way possible, through the lyrics of his songs. This is one of a trio of songs on the album (the other two are "Precious Angel" and "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking") in which Dylan bears witness to his own redemption rather than attempting to show others the error of their ways. "...I don't be like they'd like me to be" he says, casting himself as the outsider, but "...I walk out on my own/A thousand miles from home/But I don't feel alone/'Cause I believe in you" he sings with a vocal that is heart-rending in its intensity. The belief is tested "...even through the tears and the laughter" and "...even though I be outnumbered" and the manifest plea of "Don't let me drift too far/Keep me where you are/Where I will always be renewed" is almost tangible. For some reason, even though this is not the strongest song lyrically (that distinction should probably go to the final track), it is the one I always associate with this album.
There isn't a person on the planet who could write a song like "Slow Train" better than Bob Dylan. In less skillful hands it might come across as preachy or pedantic, but Dylan really nails it with the opening lines "Sometimes I feel so low down and disgusted/Can't help but wonder what's happenin' to my companions." In some ways a companion piece to "Gotta Serve Somebody", the message is quite clear "Man's ego is inflated/His laws are outdated" and "People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting/You know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it," tells how obsessed with materialism we are, and then pointedly "They talk about a life of brotherly love/Show me someone who knows how to live it." The slow train of redemption is all that can save us from the enemy who wears a "cloak of decency."
"Gonna Change my Way of Thinking" is one of the minor songs on the album and tends to miss its mark. This is one that does come across as preachy and the finger-pointing does not really convince. When Dylan sings about the only authority being the "Authority on high" he seems a little lacking in credibility. Jerry Wexler said that a lot of the album was recorded live and this track sounds like everyone needs a bit more direction. There is a flash of wit in the lyric about the God-fearing woman he can easily afford (presumably lest we question his priorities) who can "...do the Georgia crawl/She can walk in the spirit of the Lord," and "You remember only about the brass ring/You forget all about the golden rule" is particularly pertinent.
The structure of "Do Right To Me Baby" is similar to 1964's "All I Really Wanna Do" but here Dylan imbues the song with an ethical or moral tenet rather than a religious one. The opening line "Don't wanna judge nobody, don't wanna be judged" may have raised a few eyebrows, because although Dylan doesn't want and never has wanted to be judged, he is certainly doing some here. That aside, this is probably the lightest song ("Man Gave Names To The Animals" excluded) on the album. This song had its public debut in Nashville at the end of the 1978 world tour and as the least overtly Christian song here, it may have been a case of testing the water. Some amusing things that he doesn't want to be or have done to him include being winked at, burned, shot, buried and used as a doormat, pretty sensible aversions all.
The opening verse of "When You Gonna Wake Up" delivers the lines "You got some big dreams baby, but in order to dream you gotta still be asleep" like a verbal slap in the face. Again we see Dylan admonishing us to see the error of our ways and the futility of "Spiritual advisers and gurus to advise your every move/Instant inner peace and every step you take has to be approved." He bemoans the sick state of the world and asks if we think that God "...is just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires." None of societies ills escape scrutiny, from pornography in schools, through gangsters in power and law-breakers making the rules to the over-emphasis on the power of money to the extent that a life "...is worth it's weight in gold." We must wake up says Dylan and find "Strength in the things that remain." Although not one of the albums strongest songs, it works because Dylan keeps his haranguing in check, and includes himself in those who need to wake up.
I often think that "Man Gave Names to all the Animals" does not really fit on this album, the nursery-rhyme like format that Dylan employs here is a style that has often been ignored and is used to greater effect on other albums (notably 1990's "Under the red Sky". Michael Gray in "Song and Dance Man," his excellent study of Dylan's lyrics devotes an entire chapter to it) and seems out of place here. The structure is amusing in a tongue in cheek way, and its inclusion was apparently partly due to the fact that the three year old son of Regina Havis (one of the back-up singers) liked it. The abrupt ending of the song and the omission of the final and significant line has a certain child-like charm, while adults may just find it irritating and unnecessary.
The album's final song "When He Returns" is the one that gave Dylan most problems, and the one that he least wanted to perform himself. The original intention was for one or all of the back-up singers to record the vocal, but when Dylan heard Barry Beckett's strident piano on the demo track he decided to do the vocal himself, and after several attempts at the final session he produced this amazing take. The song is probably the most unequivocal on the entire album, and Dylan's vocal more than does justice to the lyrics. "How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice/How long must I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness" he sings with an intensity that should banish any thoughts of pretence on his part. The stark imagery of "Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask" and the soul-baring questions of "How long can you falsify and deny what is real?/How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?" show Dylan as a man totally committed to his faith. This intensely personal song closes the album in much the same way as "Every Grain Of Sand" would close "Shot Of Love" two years later, and perfectly illustrates Dylan's ability even willingness to expose his most personal emotions for his art.
Reaction to "Slow Train Coming" which was released in August 1979 was mixed. To many, Dylan was just a dilettante jumping on an increasingly trendy bandwagon, after all several of his colleagues from the heady days of Rolling Thunder, notably T-Bone Burnett, Steve Soles and David Mansfield had taken that route although they all denied influencing him in any way. Some of the reviews had a smirking quality to them "Dylan and God-It's Official" proclaimed New Musical Express and its reviewer said that Dylan had "...never seemed more unpleasant and hate-filled" while Greil Marcus writing in New West accused him of "...trying to sell a prepackaged doctrine he's received from someone else." Support came, perhaps surprisingly from Rolling Stone not always the first in Dylan's corner, where editor Jann Wenner reviewed the album himself. Giving it two pages, he said it "..only takes one listening to realize that "Slow Train Coming" is the best album that Bob Dylan has made since "The Basement Tapes"...In time it is possible that it might even be considered his greatest." He ended his review with "Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No-one is better. No-one ...is even close," praise indeed. Keen to audition his new material, Dylan appeared on Saturday Night Live on October 20th, where he performed three songs ("Gotta Serve Someone," "I Believe In You" and "When You Gonna Wake Up") from the album. He then flew to San Francisco to begin a two week residency at the Fox Warfield Theatre, playing only gospel material and none of his established songs. Many people consider these concerts to be among the best that Dylan has ever performed, but there was also a certain degree of hostility, guitarist Fred Tackett remembers one audience member holding up a sign that read Jesus Loves Your Old Songs Too, but according to Tackett "...he was completely sincere in everything he sang and said." He was not alone in his opinion, Paul Williams author of Dylan-What Happened? after seeing one of the shows said "I have to admit, when I hear "Hanging On To A Solid Rock"( a song that would appear on "Saved," Dylan's next album) I believe in Dylan's God. I can't help it" and Jerry Wexler's son, Paul who was in charge of mastering the album said, "...there was a passion in Dylan's Christian convictions, passion in his view of the crucifixion, passion in his born again beliefs." However, Dylan's next album "Saved" would be a far more overtly Christian affair, and would alienate even his most hard core supporters, but by the release of "Shot Of Love" in 1981 his passion was on the decline, giving rise to the opinion that it had not been that fervent in the first place. With the passage of time, it seems quite likely that Dylan's embracement of Christianity was an emotional crutch to get him over a difficult period in his life, and if that is the case then we should be grateful for "Slow Train Coming," the superb album that it produced.