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Slow Train Coming and Saved Back

"Oh Bob Dylan, he's no prophet"

The making of 'Slow Train Coming' and 'Saved'. An article by Matt Waks (summary).
"Bear, we're screwed. Dylan's gone Christian," Jerry Wexler said. Beckett replied: " I think it will work out Jerry if he doesn't get too schmaltzy on the lyrics." Wexler and Beckett being co-producers at the recording sessions.

Scott M. Marshal, the author of a new book "Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life" sees ...

... parallels between "Dylan goes electric" and "Dylan goes Christian," the latter feels heavier even if the former is the more iconic pop-culture moment.

In the 60s the fuss was more about musical instruments and style, Marshall points out, whereas here in the late 70s

... this idol basically who had this body of work for almost two decades and here he was coming out and saying, 'Jesus was the answer.'

While many people at the time didn't really buy the message from the reborn Christian, Bob Dylan, musically the album was a success. Wexler and Beckett were part of that success, and so was Dire Straits guitarist and singer, Mark Knopfler. As a matter of fact the drummer of the band, Pick Withers, who first made contact to Bob Dylan:

Drummer Pick Withers first met Dylan after playing a gig with British band Dire Straits at West Hollywood, Calif. venue The Roxy. They were introduced at an upstairs private bar there. Dire Strait's 1978 self-titled debut LP featured the sprawling Dylan-esque hit "Sultans of Swing." Both Withers, a player with a crisp, nimble and jazzy touch, and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose eloquent solos quickly became a hallmark of that band's sound, were brought in to play on Dylan's "Slow Train Coming."

As always Dylan wanted to record live:

The singer cut his vocals live with the band, recording his guitars (possibly including a black and white Strat) at the same time. "He wanted things to be more in the moment type situations," Hamm says, "which was just the way he did things and I totally agree with that. You get what's real and real-time and it just made a lot of sense." Hamm recalls Dylan having a notebook with him during the "Slow Train Coming" sessions but doesn't know for sure if its contents were lyrics, session notes, grocery list or whatever.

The Slow Train Coming sessions started out slowly, Pick Withers explains:

"Basically, there was an initial introduction to the song as we all gathered around the piano," Withers says, "but I don't recall playing any drums until we had some kind of road map in our heads."

The musicians didn't pay much attention to the lyrics. They were ...

... fully concentrated on the musical backing.

Some of the lyrics did ring through, though:

Besides "Gotta Serve Somebody," other Slow Train Coming" standouts include the emotional "I Believe in You," featuring lovely Knopfler guitar lines, and the sparse "When He Returns," with just Dylan's voice and Beckett's piano. Regarding the latter track, Beckett told Marshall in 2000, "It was the first time I really realized what his singing was about, how much soul he had. So, it was quite a revelation for me."

To play together with Bob Dylan was an honour, but also some of a challenge. Pick Withers admits he was ...

... somewhat ambivalent. Yes, I wanted to do it but the prospect of failure was lurking in the shadows of my mind. So, in a way, I felt it was more to do with a crossing of the Rubicon and more significant than anything I achieved with Dire Straits.

The album's back cover photograph was an issue depicting ...

... a boat on a body of water, the mast in a cross like position and a silhouetted figure many logically assumed to be Dylan.

Why it's so important to determine whethter it's Dylan or not, I don't understand. I can't see what difference it makes; the mood of the picture remains the same whoever the person is.

However, Nick Saxton, the photographer, reveals that ...

... the boat depicted is on or near the Amazon River and the mysterious figure isn't Dylan but Gary Wright of groovy 1975 single "Dream Weaver" fame. Saxton had previously taken photos of Wright, some of which Wright didn't want including the boat photo and somehow Dylan came across that image and wanted it for "Slow Train Coming."

The promotion tour for Slow Train Coming, The Bob Dylan Gospel Tour opened November 1979 at San Francisco's Warfield Theater, but before that Dylan performed for the first time on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" show:

He and his band debuted three songs from "Slow Train Coming" on the show: "Gotta Serve Somebody," "I Believe in You" and "When You Gonna Wake Up." Oldham recalls playing "SNL" with Dylan "felt comfortable" and enjoyed meeting "SNL" actors like Billy Murray and Jane Curtain. "Those people, I'd been watching them at home and liked them," Oldham says. There was also an afterparty. After filming "SNL" leaving the TV studio proved interesting though. Oldham recalls Dylan "basically trying to crawl under" Oldham's wife Karen's "big coat" to thwart photographers waiting outside. "He got the limo driver to drive backwards up an alley to avoid people trying to follow," Dylan says. "He didn't seem to want that kind of attention."

Marshall, however, found it ...

... "kind of crazy" Dylan debuted "these intense Christian songs on a comedy TV show."

Nine months after the Slow Train Coming sessions were finished ...

... Dylan and his road band returned to Muscle Shoals Sound in their tour bus to record his next LP, "Saved." Beckett and Wexler were back as co-producers. "They were a great pair," Hamm says. "Barry had such a great knack for arranging the musical side of things, and Jerry had an ear for how to make everybody work together."

The keyboard player, Spoony Oldham recalls that the recordings followed the usual concept:

Like "Slow Train Coming," the "Saved" material was recorded mostly live with very few takes. Oldham doesn't recall Dylan ever telling him or the other musicians what, when or how to play. "I think he being a songwriter, guitar player and a singer, he pretty much had his hands full learning his own songs. I'm sure his thinking was to get some guys and girls together that do well doing their own thing also, and let's put it together and make a picture, you know?"

After playing together for two years on the road Oldham was impressed with Bob Dylan's abilities as a musician:

"He was more fluid and fluent than I realized. He's a good player."

Dylan would normally not spend too much time with his musicians during the time on the road or even in the studio, but sometimes he could be nice. Oldham has this anecdotal story to tell:

A stop at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center was the closest the tour came to Oldham's family and friends. "I think I had 35 guests that I was going to pay for and have it taken out of my salary," Oldham says. "So that night after the gig, maybe the second time ever, Bob called my room after the show and dinner and everything, around midnight and said, 'Spooner you know those tickets? I took care of them.' He paid for them." 

Slow Train Coming did better commercially than Saved, going platinum, cracking the top five, while the single Gotta Serve Somebody pierced the top 30 and the song won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance in 1979.

According to the author, Scott M. Marshal, Dylan commented ironically on the audience's reactions to his music:

Usually Dylan doesn't say much between songs onstage, but leading up to the recording of "Saved" in Muscle Shoals the singer "was a bit chatty" at a 1980 Omaha, Neb. show, Marshall says. "And between songs (Dylan) said, 'You know, in the '60s people used to say I was a prophet and I'd say, 'No I'm not.' And they'd say, 'Yes you are.' Now I come out and say 'Jesus is the answer' and they say, 'Oh Bob Dylan, he's no prophet.'"

Read the full article here.

What happened to Bob Dylan in the 80s?


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