It Ain’t Easy Being Bob : A Retrospective on Dylan on His 70th Birthday

(A form of this article was originally published in the Weekend Edition of the Kankakee Daily Journal)

On May 24th, Bob Dylan turned 70 years old. Just living that long is an amazing achievement considering he came through the wild 1960s as a rock star with millions of dollars and worldwide fame. Many others did not fare as well. And it can’t have been easy being Bob. How about trying to live up to the title “Voice of a Generation,” particularly when it was that generation – the baby boomers of the ’60s who turned pop culture into high art and looked closely at both the sincerity and inner meaning of everything? When I was in college nearly everyone who had a stereo had a part time hobby of trying to decipher Dylan lyrics like the following:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at             — Like A Rolling Stone

The beauty of it was that there was no wrong answer especially since Bob was nearly always mum on the subject. It was like he thought his words were clear as a bell and if you couldn’t understand them you must not be listening close enough. Of course, later we learned that much of mystery of Bob lyrics and those of other symbolic lyric writers at the time like John Lennon was that “it rhymed”. Often it was about the flow, but it’s important to note that it was the flow that made the lines we could understand resonate so clearly:

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’        — The Times They Are A-Changing

Bob Dylan has been a major figure in music for five decades. In the 1960’s he became a somewhat reluctant leader of the protest movement. Bob was just saying what he thought needed to be said but the disgruntled American youth and those few adults who sympathized with them made his songs anthems to be sung at Civil Rights rallies and chanted at anti-war marches. But Dylan wasn’t all political by any means. He was a philosophizer who gushed forth literary influences and he wasn’t afraid to go against the grain. While most recording artists were singing about their girlfriends Dylan was lamenting the murder of Black Panther leader George Jackson in San Quentin Prison or what he believed was the unjust imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. There are a lot of thing one can criticize about Dylan, but playing it safe is not one of them.

In 1978, Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian. He became acquainted with the faith through fellow musicians Paul Emond, Larry Myers, T-Bone Burnett and David Mansfield. Burnett and Mansfield were part of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Myers and Emond were assistant pastors at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles and both Burnett and Mansfield attended church there. Emond taught a bible class and Dylan and his Christian girlfriend showed up. I also attended the Vineyard from early 1979 to 1984, after which I attended Jack Hayford’s Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California. I later became good friends with T-Bone Burnett, Larry Myers and Paul Emond and I knew David Mansfield, but I did not meet Dylan through them. I met him on my own in a somewhat unique way.

I had just moved to L.A. in November of 1978 and was looking around for a church to attend. I had been born-again in 1976 and attended church regularly before I left Kankakee, Ill. This, however, was L.A. which is big, broad and pulls you about twenty different ways at once. A publicist at RSO Records told me about the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which at that time was located in the San Fernando Valley. I was living in Malibu at the time and it was a good 45 minute trek to the church. Elaine, the girl who told me about the Vineyard, said it was loaded with musicians and other kinds of artists and that Bob Dylan even went to church there. It still took me a month or so to try it out. They had Sunday afternoon services at that time. But on the day we were going to go, my wife felt sick and I had some serious doubts about driving through the Sunday beach traffic (which was always heavy in Malibu) and then over the Santa Monica mountains and onto the Ventura Freeway to check out a church I wasn’t sure I would like in the first place. Most things that have a bunch of well known people involved in them tend to be decidedly unspiritual. But, on the other hand, I didn’t even know of any other churches and I’d been putting off what I felt my spirit was telling me to do for several weeks. So I got in my Datsun and headed over the mountains to Reseda alone.

The place was packed and I had looked around and finally found a seat near the back on the left side of the church. I noticed that there were a lot of people in their late 20’s like me, a few older folks and several who were even younger. There was no dress code at the Vineyard and most people wore jeans or shorts. When the service started I was amazed by the lack of pretense. Everything was simple and straight forward and totally sincere. No pomp, no ritual and absolutely no hypocrisy. Then about ten minutes into the service we sang Amazing Grace and I heard this distinct rough edged nasal whine coming from the seat behind me. “Aaaamaaazing Graaace, how sweeeet the sound” the voice sang, and I thought, “could this be Bob Dylan?” I had already interviewed lots of rock stars including George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers and many others but I’d never met anyone I truly idolized. Probably because the only people I idolized back then were John Lennon and Bob Dylan, whom no one but the top tier of rock journalists ever got access to and even that was rare. I decided I would sneak a peak so at one point, as I was sitting down, I glanced over my shoulder and… there he was! It was the classic Dylan image – wild hair, sunglasses and leather jacket. “Yep, that’s him,” I thought. Then, later in the service, we were asked to greet the people around us. I shook hands with Bob and his black girlfriend, Mary Alice.

As the service progressed, I became very impressed with the pastor, whose name was Kenn Gulliksen. Kenn taught with an amazing candidness so different from the churches I grew up in. To use an important phrase from the time, “he told it like it was”, even admitting the things like being in an airport and thinking about buying a Playboy magazine because, “after all, no one would know” and then chiding himself because “God would know”. Kenn exuded love, kindness and truth and he never put himself on any kind of a pedestal. When the service was over I thought about approaching Dylan, but then held back thinking, “I am not going to bother this man at church. He needs to feel that he can come here without that kind of burden.” And I didn’t go up to him. He came up to me.

I was in the church bookstore looking around and I happened to pick up a new edition of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, a best selling Christian book of the time that attempted to apply bible prophesy to modern times. It was one of my favorite books back then and part of the reason I moved to L.A. was because I had this idea about making it into a film. What made this even more interesting was that the man who sat next to me in the pew that first Vineyard visit had given me his card which said that he worked for Hal Lindsey’s company. So I was thinking about that and looking at the book when Dylan approach me and said in his classic drawl, “Hey, that’s a pretty good book, ain’t it?” I said yeah, that I liked it a lot. I thought about telling him of my desire to meet Lindsey and develop a film but then decided to keep silent lest he think I was trying to use him in some way. I mean, here he was, one of the most recognizable people on the planet, venturing out to seek Spiritual growth. I couldn’t bring myself to use that as an opportunity to further my career. But it wasn’t over yet.

Later, I was standing in the parking lot waiting for some cars to go by so I could get to the Datsun and this woody station wagon stopped next to me. It was a new car, but really dusty. The window rolled down and it was Bob Dylan behind the wheel. He said, “Hey, see you next week, huh?” Now, at this point, I was thinking I would no longer be bothering him since he had approached me twice. So I said, “You know that Late, Great Planet Earth book? Well, I just met a guy who works with Hal Lindsey and I’m thinking about going to see him to talk about making a movie out of the book.”

Bob looked at me for a moment and then said, “Can I go with you?”

The surprise and elation I felt was beyond describing. A flood of visions passed through my mind. Me calling up Hal Lindsey’s office and going, “Yes, Bob Dylan and I would like to see you sometime.” I was pretty sure he’d see me. Then the thought of me and Bob working together. Hanging out! And there was Bob, driving a station wagon with the window rolled down, waiting for my response.

“Sure, you can go with me.”

I told him I lived in Malibu and he said that he did as well which I already knew since his house was like a Malibu landmark. He wrote down his phone number on a torn off piece of paper and told me to give him a call. Then he said goodbye and drove away.

The album that followed Dylan’s conversion was the compelling Slow Train Coming. It won Dylan a Grammy for “Best Male Vocalist” for the song Gotta Serve Somebody. While the album sold well, Dylan took a lot of heat in the press for his conversion. When he toured from the fall of 1979 to the spring of 1980 Dylan talked about his faith saying things like: “Years ago they…said I was a prophet. I used to say, ‘No I’m not a prophet.’ They said, ‘Yes you are, you’re a prophet.’ I said, ‘No it’s not me.’…Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, ‘Bob Dylan’s no prophet.’ They just can’t handle it.”

And so it was. People didn’t mind other people embracing a particular faith, but they got angry when Bob Dylan did it. Why? Because Dylan had long been established as the voice of truth. And when the voice of truth says you need Jesus you have to reckon with it. Many responded in anger. By the next album, Saved, in 1980, a lot of people seemed to be hopping mad about it. Dylan has never been afraid to go up against criticism and his records still sold, but after awhile, all but his truest fans weren’t listening to the songs or anything he had to say about his faith. They just couldn’t let it go.

In fact, though Dylan later told interviewers he had re-embraced his Jewish faith, every album contains lyrics and themes that are virtually right out of the New Testament. I don’t believe Bob gave up on Christianity. He just realized that he could be far more effective if he stopped challenging people head on with it.   In a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes, he told Ed Bradley that “the only person you have to think twice about lying to is either yourself or to God.” He also explained his constant touring schedule as part of a bargain he made a long time ago with the “chief commander—in this earth and in the world we can’t see.” In a 2009 interview with Bill Flanagan promoting his Christmas in the Heart album, Flanagan commented on the “heroic performance” Dylan gave of O Little Town of Bethlehem and that Dylan “delivered the song like a true believer”. Dylan replied: “Well, I am a true believer.”

When Time Magazine did their end of the century list of the Most Important People of the Century, Bob Dylan was on it, described as a “master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation”.   In March of 2001, Dylan won his first Oscar for his song Things Have Changed which he wrote for the film Wonder Boys. Since then he has often carried the award (or a facsimile of it) on the road with him, sitting it on top of an amplifier which he performs. On August 29, 2006, Dylan released Modern Times which entered the U.S. charts at number one, making it Dylan’s first album to reach that position since 1976’s Desire. Nominated for three Grammy Awards, Modern Times won Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and Dylan also won Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance for Someday Baby. In 2006, Modern Times was named Album of the Year, for 2006, by Rolling Stone magazine   In 2008, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded Bob Dylan a special citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

Bob Dylan has released thirty-four studio albums, thirteen live albums, nine bootleg albums (The Bootleg Series) and fourteen compilation albums. That’s seventy albums. One for each year of his life. And fifty-eight singles.

So what happened with Bob and I going to see Hal Lindsey and maybe developing a movie together? Nothing. I called several times, but Bob never returned my call. But there was a larger, spiritual truth that I learned from the experience. Seek the kingdom first and all else will be added unto you. That’s a bible verse that means if we seek God first, He will take care of everything else. I had moved from Kankakee to Malibu and thought I was a hot-shot writer. I kept feeling God was leading me to find a church so I could continue to grow spiritually in the direction He wanted me to grow in, but I was too busy trying to get my career happing and dealing with the fact that my rent had gone from $145 a month in Kankakee to $1050 a month in Malibu. Then, finally I decided I’d better put God as my top priority and I went to church. He then showed me in the most dynamic way possible that if would seek Him first, he could make the rest happen. Including suddenly connecting with one of my idols and having the opportunity to work with him. Even though it didn’t work out I never forgot that lesson and keeping those priorities straight has served me well in dealing with some of the biggest names in Hollywood throughout my career. And, as for Bob, I never resented him for not getting back to me. I think I understand about that. I mean he’s Bob Dylan. It’s not easy being Bob.

  • July 2011
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