Tuesday, November 25, 2014

#70 SLOW TRAIN COMING by Bob Dylan (1979)

SLOW TRAIN COMING by Bob Dylan (1979)
Columbia - FC 36120
It was November of 1978. Bob Dylan was on tour and had a temperature of 105.  

"Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd knew I wasn't feeling too well," recalled Dylan in a 1979 interview. "I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. I looked down at that cross. I said, 'I gotta pick that up.' So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket. And I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona. I was feeling even worse than I'd felt when I was in San Diego. I said, 'Well, I need something tonight.' I didn't know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, 'I need something tonight that I didn't have before.' And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross." Dylan believed he had experienced a vision of Christ in his Tucson hotel room that night. "Jesus did appear to me as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords," he'd later say. "There was a Presence in the room that couldn't have been anybody but Jesus. He put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up." 

David Mansfield, one of Dylan's band members and a born-again Christian, would later say, "The simplest explanation is that he had a very profound experience which answered certain lifelong issues for him." 

Dylan began writing songs that would reflect his new spirituality.  

Meanwhile, Dylan wasn't alone in his religious awakening. Band members Steven Soles and David Mansfield had already joined the Vineyard Fellowship, a Christian organization introduced to them by T-Bone Burnett. Dylan reportedly attended Vineyard home group meetings with Keith Green, Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman. As Mansfield would say, "A big part of the fellowship of that church was music." 

Under the guidance of the Vineyard Fellowship, Dylan was asked to attend a course held at the Vineyard School of Discipleship. Pastor Kenn Gulliksen described it as “an intensive course studying about the life of Jesus and principles of discipleship.” Bob Dylan was an artist for whom the Bible had previously been little more than a literary source. Now he was digesting it in black in white. In a 1985 interview, Dylan would say, "What I learned in Bible school was just an extension of the same thing I believed in all along, but just couldn't verbalize or articulate. People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if He was here. That's my idea of it, anyway. It's all there in black and white. I don't have to defend this. The Scriptures back me up." Bob Dylan was baptized at the home of Vineyard pastor Bill Dwyer. 

Through his Bible classes, Dylan became acquainted with the works of Hal Lindsey, who was also closely associated with the Vineyard Church. Lindsey’s best-selling book, The Late Great Planet Earth, became Dylan's second bible and added an apocalyptic edge to his worldview. 

In later shows, Dylan would reflect these beliefs on stage. At one show in the fall of 1979, Dylan said, "You know we're living in the end times. The Scriptures say, 'In the last days, perilous times shall be at hand. Men shall become lovers of their own selves. Blasphemous, heavy and highminded.' Take a look at the Middle East. We're heading for a war. I told you 'The Times They Are A-Changin' ' and they did. I said the answer was 'Blowin' in the Wind' and it was. I'm telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation ... Jesus is coming back to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years." 

Dylan would later say in an interview taken in 1984, "The songs that I wrote for the Slow Train album [frightened me] ... I didn't plan to write them ... I didn't like writing them. I didn't want to write them." 

In the early months of 1979, Dylan was writing his most message-driven album in sixteen years. 

Before we unpack the album, I’ve got a confession to make. I almost left this record off the list entirely. I was going to put it in the honorable mention category.  

Mainly because, in my humble opinion…Bob Dylan can’t sing. 

There. I said it. The man cannot sing 

He can whine and growl and screech. But he cannot sing. Another problem with this record is that the instrumentation, to my ears, is nothing special. Very competent, but somewhat sterile and robotic. Now, I am fully aware that many people will accuse me of blasphemy. After all, the blog 500 Greatest Albums in CCM History listed Slow Train Coming at #19, with the author calling it a masterpiece” (although conceding that Dylan’s vocals were “an acquired taste”). It was listed even higher -- #16 --in the 2001 book CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music. John J. Thompson wrote in that book that the album featured “amazing production” and that it was “one of the most important releases in pop and Christian music history” (although he also allows that Dylan gave “extra effort at singing on key”). Look, the thing peaked at #2 on the charts in the UK, quickly went platinum in the U.S. where it climbed to #3, and won Dylan his first Grammy! STILL, I’m not sold. I just can’t get past what my own ears tell me when I listen to this record. 

When it came out, I was on the road with my family. We were ministering at a church in Pennsylvania. There were two single females in that church – probably in their late 20s – who were roommates. They were SO excited because Bob Dylan had become a Christian. In fact, they gave my brothers and me a copy of the album. Now, we were raised on southern gospel music, and later crossed over into Jesus Music. We had never listened to a lot of secular music, so we knew basically nothing of Bob Dylan. We put that album on the turntable…and started laughing hysterically. We just could not reconcile in our minds the reverential and exalted reputation of this artist with the comically bad vocals we were hearing. Again, I’m fully aware that most folks don’t agree. In fact, in their review of Slow Train Coming, Rolling Stone magazine gushed,  

Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God's greatest gift to him. 

Really? Really? When I think of great singers, I think Matthew Ward…Greg X. Volz…Bob Carlisle. The first time my then-preteen son heard Slow Train Coming he asked, “How did that guy ever get a record deal?” 

So Slow Train Coming almost didn’t make my list. But I reconsidered based on the stats given above (sales figures, airplay and awards) and the historical significance of an artist of Dylan’s stature releasing a definitive statement of faith.  

Slow Train Coming was the nineteenth studio album by Bob Dylan, released on August 20, 1979 by Columbia Records. All of the songs either express his strong personal faith, or stress the importance of Christian teachings and philosophy. The evangelical nature of the record alienated many of Dylan's existing fans; at the same time, many Christians were drawn into his fan base.  

Leading up to the making of the album, Dylan had approached famed producer Jerry Wexler to oversee the sessions. Dylan wanted an experienced producer he could trust.  When Wexler agreed to produce, he was unaware of the nature of the material that awaited him. 

Dylan (2nd from left) talking with producer Jerry Wexler
"Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals—as Bob did—but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived," recalls Wexler. "That's when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral. I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel. But I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, 'Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I'm hopeless. Let's just make an album.'" 

The basic tracks for the songs were recorded in just six three-hour sessions over a period of three days.  

Critic Charles Shaar Murray wrote, "Bob Dylan has never seemed more perfect and more impressive than on this album. He has also never seemed more unpleasant and hate-filled." Greil Marcus wrote, "Dylan's received truths never threaten the unbeliever, they only chill the soul.” Another reviewer put it this way: “This was the first (and best) of Dylan's Christian trilogy, beginning one of the strangest chapters in rock-n-roll's most fascinating book.” 

Reviewing the album in Rolling StoneJann Wenner proclaimed it "one of the finest records Dylan has ever made.” 

Here’s more from that Rolling Stone review: 

Bob  Dylan has, at long last, come back into our lives and times, and it is with the most commercial LP he's ever released. Slow Train Coming has been made with a care and attention to detail that Dylan never gave any of his earlier records. The musicians on this album are the best Dylan has worked with since Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966) and The Basement Tapes (1967). Dylan's new songs are statements of strength and simplicity, and the lyrics again equal his early classics. The words are rich with the ambiguity of great art.  Slow Train Coming's lyrics are timeless, simple, yet rich in potential levels of meaning. There is no letup in the power of the rhythm and arrangements from the opening track through the last, because there's no letup in the message. Over and over again, Dylan tells us that we have a choice of doing good or doing bad. Slow Train Coming is pure, true Dylan, probably the purest and truest Dylan ever. 

On October 18, 1979, Dylan promoted the album with his first—and, to date, only—appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing Gotta Serve Somebody, I Believe in You, and When You Gonna Wake Up. 

Despite the mixed reactions to Dylan's new direction, Gotta Serve Somebody was a hit, and the album outsold both Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde in its first year of release. 

Meanwhile, Dylan refused to play any of his older compositions, as well as any secular material. Dylan would say he would not "sing any song which hasn't been given to me by the Lord to sing." Fans wishing to hear his older songs openly expressed their disappointment. Hecklers continued to appear at his concerts, only to be answered by lectures from the stage. Dylan was firmly entrenched in his evangelical ways, and it would continue through his next album, whether his audience would follow or not. 

Let’s look at a few of the songs. 

Gotta Serve Somebody open the album and very much sets the tone; lyrically strong, a tight rhythm section and a female gospel trio backing up on vocals. The song makes the point very simply; 

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls. 

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Precious Angel is considered by many to be the album’s standout track. It also contains some of the most cringe-worthy, off-key vocals. 

Precious angel, under the sun
How was I to know you’d be the one
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone
How weak was the foundation I was standing upon? 

Now there’s spiritual warfare
And flesh and blood breaking down
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief

And there ain’t neutral ground
The enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived
When the truth’s in our hearts and we still don’t believe?

Shine Your light, shine Your light on me
Shine Your light, shine Your light on me
Shine You light, shine Your light on me
Ya know I just couldn’t make it by myself
I’m a little too blind to see

I Believe in You is both a statement of faith and an answer to the disgruntled fans who didn’t want their prophet speaking actual Truth in his songs. It’s been covered by Dallas Holm and many others.

They, they look at me and frown
They’d like to drive me from this town
They don’t want me around
‘Cause I believe in You

They show me to the door
They say don’t come back no more
‘Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to
And I, I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don’t feel alone
‘Cause I believe in You

I believe in You when winter turn to summer
I believe in You when white turn to black
I believe in You even though I be outnumbered
Oh, though the earth may shake me
Oh, though my friends forsake me
Oh, even that couldn’t make me go back

Don’t let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue

The title song was less about faith and more about politics. Gonna Change My Way of Thinking was a funky rock number. Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) was one of the least favorite songs on the record for most people.  

When You Gonna Wake Up finds Dylan in an agry prophetic mood: 

Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools
You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules

When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up strengthen the things that remain?

Do you ever wonder just what God requires?
You think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires

Man Gave Names to All the Animals is one that is complained about – a lot. With its childish charm and reggae beat, it comes off as a nursery rhyme set to music. The song’s ending takes you by surprise the first time you hear it and is a bit eerie. This song doesn’t really hold up well to repeated listenings. 

When He Returns is considered a Gospel classic. The album ends with Dylan looking forward to the second coming of Jesus: 

Don’t you cry and don’t you die
And don’t you burn

Like a thief in the night,
He’ll replace wrong with right
When he returns
Of every earthly plan
That be known to man,
He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own
To set up His throne
When He return 

Robert Zimmerman (born in 1941) is acknowledged by many to be the voice of his generation…music’s greatest poet…and one of the greatest American composers of all time. Volumes have been written about Dylan’s career before the so-called “Christian period” (Slow Train Coming/Saved/Shot of Love) and volumes have been written about his career since. I won’t bother to bore you with all of those details, except to say that Dylan’s faith is really known only to him and God these days. It’s been said that when you examine his musical output since Shot of Love and read his comments from various interviews (despite the frequent profanity), he appears to at least have some sort of a continuing relationship with God, and perhaps with Christ, while remaining aloof from organized Christianity. It’s complicated. 
Bob Dylan today

Let’s wrap this up with another ridiculous quote from Rolling Stone magazine:  

Because he has been so brilliant in the other areas of his craft, Dylan has never been fully recognized as a singer. When he has a song and idea in which he believes, the power, richness and the beauty of his voice are far greater than the words he uses. 

Yeah. Right.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

#71 MYLON - WE BELIEVE by Mylon LeFevre (1970)

MYLON - WE BELIEVE by Mylon LeFevre (1970)
Cotillion - SD 9026

The secular music biz boasts several artists who can be instantly identified by one name only: Elvis. Cher. Madonna. Beyonce.

We've got one of those, too. His name is Mylon.

Whether he was inside the Church, lurking around the periphery of organized religion, or on the ouside looking in, Mylon LeFevre was aways a rock star. He's reinvented himself multiple times, going from Southern Gospel royalty...to rock 'n roll rebel...to sold-out Christian rocker...to international evangelist and motorcycle enthusiast. And at each stop along the way, he was always larger than life, with a personal charisma that caused people to sit up and take notice. Most importantly, Mylon LeFevre became a soul-winning machine in the 1980s and, from that time to now, has seen hundreds of thousands of people surrender their lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 
Mylon with The LeFevres

Mylon was born in Gulfport, Mississippi to Eva Mae and Urias LeFevre, leaders of one of the most storied family groups in Southern Gospel music. He, of course, joined the "family business" as soon as he was old enough to sing and play. But Mylon eventually rebelled. After being kicked out of Bob Jones University, he actually joined the Army. While in the military, Mylon wrote a simple Gospel song called Without Him. Elvis Presley heard it and asked to record it. Mylon's life changed at that moment.

He had been making $84 a month as a soldier; his first royalty check for Without Him was $90,000 (about $700,000 in today's dollars). Without Him was recorded by countless Gospel groups and even ended up in hymnals. LeFevre bought a Corvette and joined another iconic brand in the Southern Gospel world -- the Stamps Quartet

In the late 1960s LeFevre started recording solo albums, but they were still within the traditional, Southern Gospel style that was acceptable to his parents and their peers. He soon began to feel that he was somehow suspended between two worlds, not fully belonging to either. Mark Heard later sang about this phenomena in his 1981 song, Stuck in the Middle:

Well, my brothers criticize me
Say I'm just too strange to believe
And the others just avoid me
Say my faith is so naive
I'm too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave

Mylon, with his long hair and sideburns, was too rock and roll for the Chruch, and too religious for the rockers. As the turbulent Sixties were drawing to a close, LeFevre ditched his polyester stage suits and began toying with the idea of creating an album of rock and roll music that gave praise to God. At the time, Larry Norman had released Upon This Rock and, by some accounts, had become a positive influence on Mylon. This new musical direction was interpreted by the Southern Gospel subculture as a slap in the face. It was not understood; in fact, it was publicly rejected. But Mylon would not be deterred. His first mainstream album, entitled Mylon - We Believe was released on Cotillion Records in 1970. It's considered to be one of the very first true "Jesus Rock" albums and is included on this list due to its historical significance.

Produced by Allen Toussaint, Mylon - We Believe is said to have actually rocked harder than Norman's Upon This Rock. It was not a commercial success -- none of LeFevre's solo albums in the seventies were -- but it did deliver some gritty, Gospel-influenced southern rock to the music-starved Jesus People. There was plenty of heavy rock organ, female background singers, and tasty guitar work, but the album really was a hybrid of the Gospel music Mylon was trying desperately to leave behind, and the southern rock he was so adept at creating. One reviewer described the album's sound as "an early-'70s country-blues-rock vibe." But try as he might, Mylon could not outrun his history -- not on this record, anyway. There would be plenty of time for a deeper plunge into the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll (as they say), but Mylon - We Believe contained many lyrical clues that the young rocker still had a grudging respect for his spiritual heritage.

Several members of the group that would become the Atlanta Rhythm Section -- including Barry Bailey, Dean Daugherty, and Paul Goddard -- were friends of Mylon and were invited to serve as Mylon's backing band on this record.   

Mylon - We Believe opens with an absolute classic. The Imperials were responsible for bringing this arrangement of Old Gospel Ship to a wider audience, but Mylon LeFevre did it first. Gospel Ship is actually a song found in pentecostal hymnals in churches across the South. LeFevre gave it a rock beat and made it palatable to fans of the Allman Brothers or Bonnie and Delaney. 

Sunday School Blues was a funky, crunchy, bluesy little number. Mylon was in fine voice, and the lead guitar work was very bold for a "religious" album in 1970. The song gives you the impression that LeFevre had grown up with more than his fair share of rules and regulations, spiritually speaking. He was more than ready to just live and let live:

I don't wanna tell you how to live
I don't wanna tell you what to give
I don't wanna tell you what to do
Got to be me
You got to be you
I don't want you to refuse
No, I never want you to refuse
I want you to love, not hate
Understand and appreciate
What He's done for me and you
Please don't get those Sunday school blues

I'm not tryin' to tell you I'm right
I'm not tryin' to tell you you're wrong
I'm not tryin' to tell you anything
I'm just tryin' to sing this song

Next up was Who Knows, a rockin' tune that extols the character and attributes of God. The ever-present female backing trio lends some hey hey heys.

The album's first ballad was Sweet Peace Within. Dean Daughtry's Hammond B-3 really adds to this one. This lyric passage definitely seems happily autobiographical in light of Mylon's efforts to free himself from the burdens of family expectations and the cultural baggage of the Southern Gospel subculture:

Sometimes I feel like I'm all alone
But I'm so happy just to be my own
And I'm so thankful just to be alive today

The song later takes an evangelistic turn:

There's one question I gotta ask you, my friend
What's gonna happen when you reach the end?
Are you going to have that sweet peace within, my friend?
Sweet peace within...

You're Still On His Mind found Mylon preaching with the zeal and fervor of an old-time tent revival evangelist. The passion of his love for God really comes through.

Side One of Mylon - We Believe wraps with Trying To Be Free. Musically, this one was a forerunner to early Atlanta Rhythm Section. The song featured some melodic bass and once again revealed details from Mylon's personal struggles with the family of origin:

When I was young I told myself I didn't need my family
But as I grow I realize I only wanted them to need me

And, perhaps in a nod to his upbringing, Mylon delivers a spoken-word paraphrase of John 3:16 during the song's bridge. 

Side Two finds Mylon waxing philosophical in Searching for Reality. The song touches on drugs and alcohol as ineffective means of coping with the problems of modern life, and, yet again, mentions Mylon's Christian heritage:

Mentally, it's so complex
I fear that I might be the next to lose my soul
And that affects my philosophy
But when I was young my Mama taught
That doing wrong would bring you naught but tears of pain
And then I thought, Rationalize, son...

The lyrics are somewhat clunky and seem to have been written by an armchair psychologist. There's a really nice lead guitar soloing over a bed of strings during the song's instrumental break.

Clocking in at under two minutes is the country-flavored Pleasing Who, Pleasing You? It's followed by an acoustic ballad titled Contemplation. Contemplation came across as more of a straight love song, and was reportedly released by Cotillion as a promotional 45.

Hitch Hike also had somewhat of an Atlanta Rhythm Section vibe (even though it predated the group). Easy, mid-tempo rocker with a nice vocal by Mylon and a tasty lead guitar solo from Barry Bailey

Peace Begins Within was an almost 7-minute in-studio jam written by LeFevre, Bailey, Venable, Burrell, and Daughtry. While the back-up vocal trio wailed, the band turned in some funky solos. The song's central theme: We believe peace begins within.

Mylon-We Believe wraps up with The Only Thing That's Free. One reviewer called it "a country tune for folks who didn't really like country."  

And, just like that, an important audio artifact from the earliest days of Jesus Rock drew to a close.

Was is a truly great album from a sonic standpoint? Production? Songwriting? Musicianship? No, no, no and no. But it was a big, fat chunk of history that would become even more important about a decade later.

Mylon (L) with Alvin Lee

From all accounts, Mylon basically slipped into a typical rock and roll lifestyle in the early seventies and drifted far away from his faith. He signed with Columbia Records, and toured with some of the biggest names in secular rock music -- Eric Clapton, Elton John, Billy Joel, Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, Little Richard, & the Who, among others. But his excesses kept him from ever achieving true stardom in the music business. His drug use escalated to a near-fatal heroin overdose. Interestingly, some in the burgeoning field of Jesus Music reached out to Mylon. Producer Buck Herring invited him to sing on Phil Keaggy's Love Broke Thru album in 1976 (you can literally distinguish his voice in the background vocals on the song Abraham), even though Mylon was not walking with the Lord at the time. Four years later, at a 2nd Chapter of Acts concert, a prodigal came Home. Mylon prayed with Buck at the end of the concert and once again made Jesus the Lord of his life. 

The rest is history. After submitting himself to work as a janitor at his home church -- Mt. Paran Church of God in Atlanta, GA -- he eventually began a band called Broken Heart. Mylon was back...but this time he was more than just a rock star. Over the next 10 years, Mylon & Broken Heart released 10 albums and traveled over a million miles, won Dove Awards and a Grammy, and saw tens of thousands of people born into the Kingdom of God as a result of their efforts. Personally, I identify strongly with that era. I went to hear Mylon & Broken Heart with our church youth group in the early 80s. The concert was basically in a glorified gymnasium on the campus of a small church in Greenville, SC. I vividly remember Scott Allen and Kenny Bentley joining Mylon at his mic, near the end of the concert, to sing...

More of Jesus, less of me...

Broken Heart was a force of nature throughout the 1980s. The music videos...Ben Hewitt's Simmons drums...Kenny Bentley's headless bass...Paul Joseph's "keytar"...David Payton's blistering lead guitar solos...Mylon's red leather jacket and white boots...the bandanas and parachute pants...flash pots and fog machines...and the live concert videotaped at the PTL "Barn Auditorium" (I was there, by the way). 

There was also plenty of controversy. Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart railed against Mylon's music, often calling LeFevre out by name. Mylon frequently forgot the lyrics to his own songs during live performances (and blamed it on his drug use in the 70s). Some people were shocked to learn that the band used sequencers in their live shows (now you can hardly find an artist that doesn't). And some complained that Mylon preached too much and sang too little. [That one never made sense to me, because I absolutely LOVED to hear Mylon preach the Word of God in a live setting. I'd gladly buy a ticket, even back then, just to hear the man talk.] All in all, the Broken Heart years were truly a decade to remember...and to treasure. 

After suffering a heart attack, Mylon retooled and focused on life as a preaching evangelist. "We've seen the goodness of God at every turn, and this new season of ministry has become even more glorious than anything we've experienced in the past," LeFevre says. "More than ever before we need to proclaim the Word of God and to emphasize to every nation His promise to perform it for whoever believes it."

Mylon LeFevre today

Mylon is still writing music, but it plays a secondary role in his ministry these days. "I will always write songs to and about my Lord," he says. "I believe the music that God gives me is anointed and has an important place in my ministry. But I am compelled to share His Word. It is the best news on this planet!"

In the sixties, he was a good looking, son-of-a-Gospel-singer and successful songwriter in his own right. In the 80s, this giant of a man with the smooth, southern drawl and rock star persona made a huge impact on the Body of Christ and helped define the term Christian Rock. But he will also be remembered for contributing an important album of "Jesus Rock" in 1970, well before we had even heard of that term. 

Thanks, Mylon.

Fun Facts

- Mylon has spoken at motorcycle rallies, NASCAR chapel services, NFL and NBA chapel services, and in Russia, Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the Cayman Islands, and Mexico. 

- His daughter is married to Peter Furler, former longtime member of the band Newsboys.