A Slow Train Coming (And A Country Off-Track)
Unemployment was up. Gas prices were up, causing double-digit inflation. Another problem was the shortage of gas. Lines at gas stations resembled those of the ’73-’74 oil embargo. A revolution in Iran led by radical Islamic clerics was one reason oil stopped flowing at the usual pace. When the longtime US-supported Shah of Iran was toppled, Americans felt the Iranians’ anger. The world was changing and there seemed little to make it go America’s way. To paraphrase a poignant Jagger-Richards line, faith had been broken.
Looking back at ’79 and considering what’s happened in this new century, the problems of nearly 31 years ago don’t seem as daunting. But in the late seventies, Americans were starting to feel burned again. The ’76 election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency promised the country, as he said in his inaugural address, “a new spirit.” Here, after all, was a president who quoted Bob Dylan in his speeches. Borrowing from Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Carter spoke of an America busy being born, not busy dying. Yet midway through his presidency, America was busy struggling.
This was disappointing — another letdown. After the turmoil of Vietnam and Watergate, Americans wanted to embrace the new spirit. The appointment of Andrew Young, a close associate of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to serve as the country’s U.N. Ambassador, was an example of Carter’s promise. But such examples faded in the next two years. The new spirit was short-lived.
The Carter promise to lead a government as good and as competent and as compassionate as the American people, another uplifting thought, was soon dismissed. It seemed little more than political posturing, and was routinely mocked by those appalled by the way Carter’s administration was running the country.
James Fallows, once a speechwriter for Carter, was among those disillusioned early. In the June ’79 Atlantic, he wrote that Carter and his fellow Georgians began the administration with a “blissful ignorance” about making the government work. He claimed the administration possessed “the spirit of a bureaucracy, drained of zeal, obsessed with form.”
As Americans were reading dismal reports of the tone in Washington, D.C., the sounds coming out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, were more spirited. Bob Dylan, along with legendary producer Jerry Wexler, was recording his next album in the famed Muscle Shoals studios. As it turned out, a new spirit had taken hold of Dylan: the spirit of the Lord. That spirit manifested itself on the album being recorded, Slow Train Coming.
Dylan’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal savior was made known in Spring ’79, soon after his conversion. According to Clinton Heylin’s Behind The Shades, Dylan alluded to his faith in a pre-trial deposition to a defamation-of-character suit filed by Patty Valentine, regarding his song “Hurricane.” When asked about his wealth, Dylan replied, “You mean my treasure on earth?” He responded to a question about the identity of the song’s “fool” by describing that person as being whoever Satan gave power to….whoever was “blind to the truth and was living by his own truth.” Five days later the deposition was reported in The Washington Post. More statements of faith were on the way. “Slow Train Coming” was completed. Bob Dylan would turn Christian witnessing up a notch.
Jerry Wexler felt honored when Dylan asked him to produce the album. He didn’t give thought to the material; it was Bob Dylan. Then he learned “the content would be wall-to-wall Jesus.” Wexler was stunned. He was, after all, a self-described “62-year-old card carrying Jewish athiest.” He let Dylan know he’d rather not discuss matters of faith, but he’d work hard on putting together a solid album.
Wexler, wanting to create an “aesthetic rub,” suggested they bring in Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits to play guitar on the album. Dylan approved, telling Wexler, “Yeah, Mark Knopfler, he does me better than anybody.” With just two Dire Straits albums under his belt, Knopfler already had a distinctive sound, but that wasn’t what Wexler had in mind. He said, “Mark, don’t play Mark Knopfler, play Albert King.”
Knopfler took the command to heart, especially on “Slow Train.” The Albert King sound pervades as Dylan, informed by his new outlook, inveighs against the sin and corruption of this world. As with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the album’s opening track, the song is a plain-spoken sermon with a blues-rock sensibility. There was change at work on Slow Train Coming. While Dylan had long used biblical imagery in his songs and imparted authority in his performances, this was something new. For the better part of two decades, people had been wondering who would be “the new Dylan.” Now it appeared Dylan was handling that role himself.
Jimmy Carter was having trouble with the role he had sought. His administration, beset with problems, not all of its own making, was criticized by the left and the right. Carter would run for reelection the next year and face strong opposition within his own party, likely from Senator Ted Kennedy. Both parties were crying out for “leadership.” That wasn’t Carter’s style. He preferred a softer approach. When one read his speeches, Carter seemed visionary. But most often, upon hearing them, there was little inspiration. Still, somehow, he needed to jump-start his presidency. The country seemed in a panic. He needed to sell the people on an energy plan. Even more, he needed to invoke that new spirit again. How to do so was debated loudly and with much outrage among Carter’s top advisers. Most wanted him to address the country on energy. Chief speechwriter Rick Hertzberg disagreed, according to Kevin Mattson’s revealing book, “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” Hertzberg had already told his colleagues, “The country does not want or need another energy speech. It wants and needs energy actions.”
Nevertheless, an energy speech was scheduled for July 5. But on July 4, Carter canceled the speech. The chaos at The White House mirrored that of the nation, roiling from the long gas lines, exorbitant prices and a violent independent truckers strike, brought on by the energy crisis.
Carter and his wife Rosalynn were at Camp David when he canceled the speech. His aides were ordered to join him in deciding what to do next. More anguished debate ensued. Mattson writes that late in the evening of July 5, Carter aide Pat Caddell “proposed an idea hatched with Rosalynn earlier that day-to hold a domestic summit at Camp David with ordinary citizens and leaders who could discuss the state of America.”
Religious leaders, academics, economists, elected officials and others such as Jesse Jackson and Bill Moyers gathered to discuss America’s — and Carter’s — plight. The president encountered some harsh criticism from his guests. From the meetings came the decision that Carter would give a speech on July 15. The subject of the speech would be America’s “crisis of confidence.” Clark Clifford, an advisor to presidents dating back to Harry Truman, told reporters the president was concerned about “malaise” in the country. While addressing the nation, Carter never used that word, but more than 30 years later, it’s still called “the malaise speech.”
Carter’s speech took the nation by surprise. ABC’s Frank Reynolds called it “remarkable….almost a sermon.” The president pointed out truths to the American people that went beyond the usual Oval Office declarations. Carter addressed the erosion of confidence in the country’s future that “strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” He went on to say this mood threatened to destroy “the social and the political fabric of America.”
He went deeper in his analysis, saying that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
After noting conservation measures, he drew to a close, saying a “solution of our energy crisis can also help us conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country.” He did not call for “a new spirit,” but a rebirth of the American spirit.
Carter’s presidency was briefly transformed. Thousands of Americans telephoned The White House; 84%, supporting Carter. A record amount of letters were received as well, with 85% behind the president. But the administration couldn’t stand success. Two days after the speech, Carter, in Mattson’s words, “took a good situation and messed it up.”
Following the advice of White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, Carter asked for the resignation of his entire cabinet. This was high drama simply to replace four cabinet members he planned to fire anyway and one (Attorney General Griffin Bell) who had already decided to resign. Carter’s standing went down as quickly as it went up just two days earlier.
Thirty-six days after the “malaise” speech, Slow Train Coming was released. Although many fans were disappointed, mystified or just plain angry about Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, millions were delighted with his musical sermons. The album went platinum in the U.S. and peaked at Number 3.
Not surprisingly, critical reception was mixed. To make sure no reviewer disparaged the album in his pages, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner decided to write the magazine’s critique of the album himself. Wenner was effusive in his praise, especially for the song, “Slow Train.”
In his review, Wenner wrote that “Slow Train” was “unequivocally in the tradition of the state -of -the- union songs that Bob Dylan has put on every record he’s ever done.” Wenner added that the song is “his boldest statement on the American condition” since “Highway 61 Revisited.” He went on to judge Dylan’s patriotism as “absolutely clear: it is a statement filled with his belief in the American dream, as being infused with outrage, and with anger. I think it’s his best state-of-the-union song ever, because it’s tempered and deepened by a wiser understanding.”
Wenner claimed the image of a slow train coming was “thoroughly American.” He wrote the train is “not just a suggestion, but it’s an affirmation of America’s greatness.” He called “Slow Train” a new kind of “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Desolation Row.”
Wenner’s enthusiasm for the album, given his claims in the review that he doesn’t attend church, synagogue or kneel at his bedside at night, is remarkable. He doesn’t share the faith but Slow Train Coming” moved him and kept his attention, even after listening to it 50 times in less than a month.
Many Christians believed the “slow train comin’ up around the bend” was Jesus, or a symbol of the end times. That’s hardly shocking. According to the Bible, Christians believed Christ’s return was imminent not long after His ascension.
Mark Knopfler’s fluid and crisp guitar lines on “Slow Train” portend something eventful ahead. His playing and Dylan’s passionate singing make for an incredible recording, one of Dylan’s best ever.
Like Dylan, Jimmy Carter had a “born again” experience, roughly a decade before he was elected president. While it is debated if Dylan still embraces the faith (the Internet is filled with claims regarding Dylan’s spirituality), Carter surely does, teaching Sunday School at his Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.
For Dylan, Slow Train Coming was a huge success, reinvigorating his career and introducing him to a new audience. Two more Christian albums by Dylan would follow over the next two years. During that time, Carter would fail in his bid for reelection and return to private life but serve his country in a self-styled “Post-Presidency.” Carter and Dylan, longtime friends, played key roles in the late ’70s. And in the same summer, they each delivered what were called “state of the union” addresses, pertaining to things general and personal.
More than a generation later, in their own ways, to paraphrase Dylan, they’re still “pressing on.”