Bob Dylan's Lifetime of Knockin' on Heaven's Door

Bob Dylan onstage April 18, 1980, at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, during the "Jesus Years" in which his all-gospel shows infuriated many fans.
Bob Dylan onstage April 18, 1980, at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, during the "Jesus Years" in which his all-gospel shows infuriated many fans. Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin/Wiki Commons

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life
By Scott M. Marshall
BP Books, 304 pp., $26.95

“I have a God-given sense of destiny. This is what I was put on earth to do.”
— Bob Dylan, 2001

Bob Dylan’s musical journey has – even to the most casual fan – taken many forks, side trips, and alternate paths to the main road. So it’s not surprising that his spiritual and religious faith, beliefs, and actions – and their levels of commitment – have taken similar turns.

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Book cover by BP Books
In this well-researched yet approachable tome, Marshall (co-author of the similar Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan), traces, decade by decade, how Dylan’s personal faith both influenced and drove his music.

Though born, raised, and bar mitzvahed in the Jewish faith – to which he would alternately eschew and embrace through his life – Dylan also has long been entranced by Christianity and religious themes, from songs like “With God On Our Side” and “Sign on the Cross” to the John Wesley Harding album. One survey of 246 original songs he wrote between 1961-78 showed more than a third has some reference to either the Old or New Testaments.

But where Marshall’s book digs deep is in perhaps Dylan’s most controversial period – the 1979-81 “Jesus years,” in which he released three straight gospel-rock albums in a row – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love.

Within those albums there was an actual hit that won him a Grammy (“Gotta Serve Somebody”) as well as one which regularly makes Top 10 lists of his all-time great compositions (“Every Grain of Sand”). Some of this was influenced by his short-but-intense association with the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which he was introduced to by his girlfriend at the time.

And in concerts during that period, he alternately angered and confused most fans and journalists by playing only gospel with his backing band and singers songs while preaching (sometimes angrily) for lengthy raps in between songs. One famous diatribe has him confronting a boisterous audience, telling them, “If you wanna rock and roll, go and see KISS and you can rock and roll all the way down to the pit!”

Fifteen years in the writing, Marshall has done quite a number of original interviews with Dylan bandmates, religious scholars, and Dylan experts. But he also makes great use of previous interviews – a surprisingly large amount from Dylan himself, who has been loquacious on the subject of religion on the record for more than 50 years.

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The original cover of Dylan's 1980 "Saved" record was deemed too religious, and was replaced by a shot of him performing live to appeal to a more secular audience.
Record cover by Columbia Records
Marshall also does a stellar job tracing religious themes in Dylan’s catalogue outside that most overtly Christian period (Bob hated the term “Born Again”), as well as incidents in which his life and religion crossed.

Like his 1997 visit to the Vatican where he unironically performed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in front of Pope John Paul II, reportedly at the pontiff’s request. And, of course, let’s not forget that in recent years he’s put out his own Christmas album! Not bad for a kid born with the last name Zimmerman.

Houston appears somewhat when Marshall quotes a 1995 Houston Chronicle concert review by Rick Mitchell in which he questions the inclusion of the Jesus-themed “In the Garden” in the set list.

In the end, Marshall has written a book more than accessible to a secular audience of Dylan fans in addition to those of a more religious persuasion. And despite which faith or offshoot of faith he happened to follow at the time, there’s one belief that Marshall says has never wavered: “Bob Dylan’s spiritual journey remains on an unshakeable monotheism.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero