The Gospel of Bob

I’ve known some pretty serious Bob Dylan fans. They’ll talk at length about the merits of underappreciated albums like Street Legal and Self Portrait. They’ll travel fair distances to see the man perform live. They’ll defend the integrity of Renaldo and Clara. For an artist like Bob Dylan with such a great and varied body of work, such fandom is understandable.

Then there are fans like Joel Gilbert, who actually “plays” Dylan as part of a tribute act called Highway 61 Revisited, and cranks out unauthorized Dylan documentaries the way some fans make mix tapes of Desire outtakes.

Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born…Again is his latest, and it’s an exhausting two-hour look at Bob Dylan’s brief stint as born again evangelical christian and Jews for Jesus poster boy in the late 1970s.

Gilbert himself appears in the documentary, shaggy-haired, wearing a western-styled shirt, driving around the American south, waving to locals, and engaging producer Jerry Wexler, session singer Regina McCrary, Dylan keyboardist Spooner Oldham, music writer Joel Selvin and others in long, rambling interviews. It’s great hearing the late Jerry Wexler talk at length about the recording of Dylan’s gospel-inflected late ’70s output, but there’s not a single note to be heard of the actual music being discussed. (All the music on the “soundtrack” is provided by Highway 61 Revisited.)

Getting through this was excruciating. 30 minutes of Vineyard Church pastor Bill Dwyer (and others) talking about the born again “experience” is way too long for even the most hardcore Bob Dylan fan to sit through. When Al Kasha (it’s cool, I didn’t know either) talks about kneeling before his television set and placing his hand on the screen to become a reformed, born-again Jew, I actually felt a little uneasy.

The editors must have been restless as well, moving the interviewees around the screen, zooming in and out, fading from black and white to color, cutting away to a smiling, nodding Joel Gilbert and cutting away to literal and inane graphics – for example, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot mentions “salad” and we cut away to a photo of a salad. Someone says “guitar” – stock photo of a guitar. And so on and so on.

I suppose it’s easy enough for a bunch of people to get together and say things like “…after the sixties, a lot of us were looking for answers,” or “Bob was a seeker,” but we never do get his side of the story. We do get a tiny bit of an interview where a ghostly-looking Dylan neither confirms nor denies anything.

If Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love are among your favorite albums, then you might find something of value here, otherwise, don’t bother. Anecdotes, recollections and assumptions are great in the hands of more capable film makers, but if you are really curious about this period of Dylan’s career, the albums themselves should suffice to speak for themselves.