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“What Happened?:” Paul Williams’s take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Born Again’ Period

September 27, 2008

Bob Dylan’s turn to premillenial, charismatic Christianity in the late 70s is a baffling chapter in his career. From writing anthemic ‘protest’ songs to introspective love songs, Dylan had spent more than fifteen years speaking into the lives of countless fans. Although he had renounced all prophetic mantles, Dylan couldn’t live up to or escape his iconic status. Even when he found Jesus.

The 1979 album, “Slow Train Coming,” represents a shocking turn to what most fans considered backward religion. Confident, strident, and uncharacteristically well-produced, the album features Dylan sermonizing with reckless, patriotic abandon. “When You Gonna Wake Up” and “Slow Train” both chronicle the personal, political, social, and spiritual ills of American life. It’s an album of binaries: “you’re gonna have to serve somebody (it may be the devil, or it might be the Lord)”, “lost” and “found” companions, a “different set of rules,” “you either got faith or unbelief, and there’s no neutral ground.”

The change was so shocking that Rolling Stone’s co-founder Jann Wenner reviewed “Slow Train Coming” himself, explaining the album from a “broadly drawn historical perspective” of Dylan’s work. Thus, Wenner claims Dylan’s “apocalyptic visions and Biblical symbolism are wholly consistent with the ‘protest’ or ‘message’ songs that are the historical foundation of his work.” The album is nothing less than the “logical progression of Dylan’s Manichaean vision of life and his pain-filled struggle with good and evil.” As great a review as it is, Wenner casts doubt that Dylan has truly been ‘born again.’

As a Dylan buff with a bit of experience with fundamentalist Christianity, I find this period fascinating. Fascinating because it’s a bit of a “slow train” wreck… Fascinating because Dylan took such a personal risk and brought religion into conversation with pop culture… Fascinating because Dylan’s “Christian trilogy” of “Slow Train,” “Saved,” and “Shot of Love” features some very underrated work… and fascinating because I’ve always wanted to know what happened.

So I finally got my hands on the 1979 Paul Williams book, “Dylan: What Happened?” Rare and long out of print, the book is well-known to fans Dylan’s “Born Again” period. Williams wrote the book in November 1979, two or three weeks after attending a week’s worth of concerts in San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. The concerts marked the warm up for Dylan’s first Christian tour, where he introduced the songs which would become “Saved,” and also notoriously refused to play his old, “secular” songs. According to rumours, Dylan himself was so pleased with the book that he purchase hundreds of copies for his own distribution.

“What Happened?” is really worth the read (and needs to be reprinted [and apparently has been, see the comment]). The book is great rock journalism and an excellent contrast to other takes on the “Born Again” Dylan, such as the truncated one in Todd Haynes’s film, I’m Not There. Although not a Christian, Williams is capable of great sympathy to Dylan’s new, strident faith. He disagrees with Dylan at points, takes him to task on social conservatism and ‘America,’ but is careful to ease the “Born Again” Dylan’s reception to reluctant fans. Williams is passionate and insightful and the book even hazards a couple of guesses, based on a few lyrics, that turned out to be true: 1) Dylan was secretly married during the time, and 2) there was a decent possibility that Dylan’s Christianity (at least in its most explicit form) might only be temporary.

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4 comments

  1. You may be interested to know that “What Happened?” is in print. It is included in Paul Williams anthology Bob Dylan: Watching the River Flow : Observations on His Art-In-Progress, 1966-1995. http://astore.amazon.com/gottaservesom-20/detail/0711955700/105-8647623-8730832

    http://dylangospel.blogspot.com/

    http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=baddaboom


  2. Thanks for that… I’ll have to check it out. Thanks also for the link to the blog – a definite resource I’ll have to spend some time perusing!


  3. I remember reading “What Happened” soon after it came out and really being drawn in. There was so little information at that time before the dawn of the internet. It provided all kinds of insight into what we had in the albums like Slow Train. Another good source of information on this period to consider is Joel Gilberts: “Bob Dylan World Tours 1975-1981 Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years — DVD Documentary (2006) which is available at:

    http://www.highway61revisited.com/

    It is a bit rambling (it should have been two separate stories/DVDs) but the interviews with the Pastors of the Vineyard (Pastor Bill Dwyer) describes Dylans born-again transformation and the interview with the founder of Jews for Jesus Moishe Rosen is very good. The interviews with Jerry Wexler, background singer Regina McCrary, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, songwriter Al Kasha, San Francisco Chronicle rock reporter Joel Selvin are also very good.

    After seeing these interviews it is difficult to question the reality of Dylans conversion.


  4. I’ll have to check it out, especially for the late great Wexler. I have no doubt Dylan was genuine… but what happened afterwards?



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