By Mark Ellis
To a legion of faithful fans – especially those rhapsodized by his Christian period — there was shock and chagrin during the Super Bowl to see Bob Dylan hawking Chryslers like any other celebrity pitchman.
In a truly lopsided, lackluster Super Bowl, the commercials and the half-time show became ‘the thing.’ So Dylan’s appearance stood out amid the rabble, but for the wrong reasons to many diehard fans. Many cried foul as his musical legacy was also tainted by a commercial on the same night for Chobani yogurt.
It was not his first appearance in a televised ad. In 2004 he sold out to a Victoria’s Secret ad – heralding a wayward diversion in his rocky road to Christian sanctification. That ad – with Dylan and his pencil-moustache looking too old for the pairing with a scantily clad model — utilized his 1997 song “Love Sick.”
Alas, his Super Bowl auto ad wasn’t even Dylan’s first appearance in a car commercial. He shot an ad for the Cadillac Escalade in ‘07, which paraded him at the wheel of the sport utility vehicle. That one got a few people miffed, signaling his apparent disregard for artistic purity.
During the late 1970s, Dylan famously converted to Christianity. According to Pastor Kenn Gulliksen, “Larry Myers and Paul Emond went over to Bob’s house and ministered to him. He responded by saying, ‘Yes, he did in fact want Christ in his life.’ And he prayed that day and received the Lord.”
His nascent Christian period was reportedly influenced by Al Kasha, a Brooklyn-born composer, songwriter and arranger. Kasha started a weekly Bible study in his home attended by Hollywood actors.
Dylan began to attend Kasha’s Bible study, coming every week for six months. “Bob was, at that time, going through a spiritual search and if you look at his track record as a writer, he was always seeking after Jesus and he finally realized that Jesus was his Savior,” Kasha noted.
One night Dylan prayed the “sinners prayer” (a second time?) with Kasha and Clark and Ceil Mathias. Ceil has a vivid memory of that evening. “After Al Kasha asked him if he wanted to receive Jesus into his life, he said, ‘Yes I do, yes I do, yes I do,’ and that was that.”
Kasha says Dylan wrote his whole entire ‘Slow Train Coming’ album in front of his fireplace.
In the early 80s, Dylan backed away from the “born again” label. He told Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone magazine: “I’ve never said I’m born again. That’s just a media term. I don’t think I’ve been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come.”
While some say they commune with God in the natural world, Dylan told Newsweek in 1997 he found religiosity in music. “Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
In a 2009 interview with Bill Flanagan promoting Dylan’s Christmas album, Flanagan said Dylan gave a “heroic performance” and that he “delivered the songs like a true believer.” Dylan replied: “Well, I am a true believer.”
Comforting, perhaps, to those who think he’s lost his way or tarnished his image. Perhaps the iconoclast is merely keeping every observant follower guessing, as always.