by Todd McGovern
It’s been said that it happened in a Tucson hotel room in 1978, when Jesus first visited Bob Dylan. Dylan later said that he “sensed a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus… the glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”
In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that Bob Dylan would come to Jesus (or vice-versa). At various stages during his career, Dylan’s lyrics invoked God, the Bible and Scripture. More importantly, numerous members of his 1978 touring band (guitarist Steven Soles, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield and back-up singers Helena Springs, Carolyn Dennis and Mary Alice Artes) were devout Christians. True, Dylan was Jewish and raised in a traditional Jewish household. He’d learned Hebrew, spent his summers at a Zionist camp, been Bar Mitzvah’d and spent his 30th birthday at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, but Bob Dylan was always searching. In early 1979, after an introduction from Mary Alice Artes, he began attending classes at the Vineyard Fellowship in the San Fernando Valley. The Vineyard’s pastors found him to be “kind of skeptical,” but “also open.” He had questions about the nature of the Messiah as well as what the pastors meant by “Son of God.” What was meant by the claim of Jesus “dying for my sins”? They found in Dylan “a man who was very interested in learning what the Bible says about Jesus Christ.” In an interview in 1980, Bob Dylan described his conversion this way:
“You have to learn to drink milk before you can eat meat. You’re reborn, but like a baby. A baby doesn’t know anything about this world and that’s what it’s like when you’re reborn. You’re a stranger. You have to learn all over again.”
Some time during his three and a half months of study, Dylan accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.
Bob Dylan – “Gotta Serve Somebody”
The tour that followed began in late 1979 and ran through May, 1980 and included not only incendiary performances, but perhaps as much talking to the audience as Dylan had ever done from the stage.
On November 1, 1979, Bob Dylan opened a stint of 14 shows at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater – shows that would later be described as some of the most inspired of his career. The set list consisted entirely of songs from his recently released “Slow Train Coming” album as well as some new songs that would be later released on his next LP, “Saved.” His refusal to play his older material resulted in mixed reviews at the time as well as catcalls, boos and even walk-outs at earliest dates, though when it became clear he wasn’t there to play his back catalog, the crowds responded positively during later shows.
As the San Francisco dates proceeded, Dylan became more talkative with the crowd. There was a lot happening in the world and it did not pass by unnoticed. On November 4th, 52 Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. Dylan responded, saying to the audience:
“…we’re not going to be bothered by all that because we know the world is going to be destroyed and we look forward to the approach of the Second Coming. And if the gospel is hid, it is hidden to those that are lost. So anyway, we’re hanging on now to a stronger rock. One made before the foundation of the world.”
A few weeks later at a show in Tempe, Arizona, many in the crowd had had enough of his new Christian material and repeatedly yelled for “rock and roll.” Dylan responded, “You wanna rock ‘n’ roll, you can go down and rock ‘n’ roll! You can go see Kiss. You rock ‘n’ roll all your way down to the pit!”
Bob Dylan: “Solid Rock”
At a concert in Syracuse, Dylan ramped up his in-between song preaching:
“I know a lot of you haven’t heard of Jesus before. I know I hadn’t up till a couple years ago. Jesus tapped me on the shoulder, said, ‘Bob, why are you resisting me?’ I said, ‘I’m not resisting you!’ He said, ‘You gonna follow me?’ I said, ‘Well, I never thought about this before.’ He said, ‘When you’re not following me, you’re resisting me.’ John the Baptist baptized with water; Jesus baptizes with fire. Fire and the Holy Spirit. Oh, so yes, there’s been a change in me.”
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This international act of aggression was not lost on Bob and by the time his tour hit Toronto’s Massey Hall in the spring of 1980, he’d incorporated the current geo-political landscape into his End of Days patter:
“…You just watch your newspapers. You’re gonna see, maybe two years, maybe three years, five years from now, you just watch and see. Russia will come down and attack the Middle East. China’s got an army of 200 million people. They’re gonna come down in the Middle East. There’s gonna be a war called the Battle of Armageddon which is like some war you never even dreamed about. And Christ will set up His kingdom. He will set up His kingdom and He’ll rule it from Jerusalem. I know, as far out as that might seem, this is what the Bible says.”
Bob Dylan – April 20, 1980, Toronto
While Dylan’s version of Biblical prophecy has yet come to pass, I’m not going to scoff at it– that’d be too easy. Fact of the matter is, I love all three of his so-called “Christian” albums: “Slow Train Coming” (1979); “Saved” (1980) and “Shot Of Love” (1981), finding the material to be, um, inspired.
Here’s what Bob has to say about Gospel music:
Bob Dylan – “I Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody”
Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.