Copyright ©1979 and 2008 by Catherine Kanner – All rights reserved.
Subject: Slow Train Coming, a 1979 release (on Columbia Records) by Bob Dylan, with cover artwork & design by Catherine Kanner
So, depending on whether you’re convinced that his born-again Christianity was just another example of Bob Dylan’s constant need for change to provide him with new-found (and, according to critics, badly-needed) inspiration, or whether his late-70’s conversion and eschewing of all things (and songs) secular was for real, his record titled Slow Train Coming certainly both brought him new fans in the Christian Music genre and served to confound and perturb his fans and the many music critics who, quite vocally, “loved the music, hated the words”.
Recorded with the help of veteran producer Jerry Wexler (who Dylan hoped would bring the soul of “the Muscle Shoals Sound” found in Wexler-produced recordings for Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett), the Muscle Shoals horns (and MS keyboardist Berry Beckett), and both Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers (guitars and drums) from Dire Straits (who were all unaware of the nature of the material they were about to record), the album went on to sell more copies than both Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks did during the first year of their respective releases, driven by the success of the single “Gotta Serve Somebody”, which the TV-shy performer even played as part of his set on “Saturday Night Live”. The record’s cross-genre acceptance was further evidenced by its listings as #16 in the 2001 book “CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music”, #38 in the Village Voice’s “Jazz & Pop Poll” for that year, and a Grammy Award in 1980 for “Best Rock Vocal Performance – Male”.
Also trying to serve somebody was the team at Columbia Records who were responsible for the record’s packaging and album cover. For the record he intended to release as a very public statement regarding his commitment to his new found faith, he was not going to accept any image that did not illustrate this appropriately. In a last-ditch effort to deliver something that Dylan would accept, the art director turned to his friend, illustrator Catherine Kanner, who he hoped would use her vast experience as an editorial illustrator to save the day (and it was the last day). I asked Catherine to describe those most-interesting 24 hours for Cover Stories readers, and being the Precious Angel that she is, she was kind enough to comply….
In the words of the artist, Catherine Kanner (interviewed in late March, 2008) –
My first job out of college was one working at a film titles company in Los Angeles (around 1980), after which I moved on to a permanent freelance illustration and design career which included regular work with the Los Angeles Times “Opinion” section. There, my editorial pen and ink illustrations appeared weekly. One morning, I received a phone call from out of the blue from one of my former co-workers at the film titles company (sorry, I don’t recall his name) who had also moved on and who had seen my editorial work in the Times. “Drop everything,” he said. “I’m coming over with an incredible job!” As it turns out, he was now working as a freelance designer and had a good connection at Columbia Records. He rushed over and let me know that this was a potential cover for a Bob Dylan album.
Apparently, Columbia Records had tried several times to come up with an image that would be acceptable to Dylan…but he had rejected them all. They were down to the wire, and my friend told me that we had this window of opportunity to get something in which he might accept…and that it had to be done and turned in that night!
The concept was very concrete as he expressed it to me. As he explained it, this album was to be Dylan’s exploration of Christian ideas through his words and music. I recall being amazed to hear this. The graphic style was meant to have an engraved look – which pen and ink (my specialty) certainly mimics. Dylan’s concepts for the illustration were clear – he requested locomotive train coming down tracks that were being laid by a crew, and there was to be a man in the foreground holding a pick-ax. The axe was meant to be a symbol of the Cross. In my original sketch, I rendered the ax as it would naturally be, but I recall my friend insisting that I extend the top of the ax so that it more resembled a cross. I thought that was too obvious and argued for a more subtle approach, but in the end the ax was extended. I did, in fact, finish the rendering that afternoon and after my friend took the piece, I never saw it again. I never met with anyone face to face at the record company, nor did I meet with Dylan.
My friend delivered the illustration to Columbia Records, and I believe it was about a week later that I heard back from him that Dylan had seen it – and he liked it! He wanted to use it as it was, however the record company wanted to give it another go, and I heard they used their own team and presented Dylan with new pieces in a style quite similar to mine (!!). He rejected them, and so, in the end, my piece was the one went to press, with no changes from my original.
Years later, my parents were sitting on the deck of their house in Malibu, and a man was walking up the beach alone. My father recognized him as Bob Dylan. My mother (who is a character) waved him down. He actually came up to their house and she announced herself as “the mom of the artist who illustrated Slow Train Coming”. She had a copy of the art on the wall, and he came in to see. She said he was “modest and interesting”.
Also, since that time, there have been a number of Dylan scholars who have analyzed my illustration – reading all sorts of mystical meanings and messages in the layout and concept. I have had a dialogue with one of these scholars (in Italy) explaining that my composition was simply designed to “tell the story”, and so it was not suffered over, or filled with deeper meaning. So many artists never get this chance… and I relished the debunking!
About the artist, Catherine Kanner –
Catherine Kanner is an illustrator, author and publisher. She has written, illustrated or designed more than 20 books including her own texts; The Book of the Bath, and Beauty From a Country Garden, and has designed or illustrated books for other authors including Michael Crichton’s Timeline, Fun With Ballet, San Francisco Access, Town & County Cookbook, and Angelina’s Ballet Class.Catherine has created a line of 75 greeting cards with Michel & Company, and has designed products for The Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York. Other clients include; Bank of America, Microsoft, Edison, Texas Instruments, Fidelity Investments, Sun Microsystems, Amtrak, Citizen, Sprint and Kraft Foods among others. She has been a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Opinion section with her work syndicated to 2000 newspapers in the U.S. and 1,000 worldwide. She has won numerous illustration and design awards including the Society of Newspaper Design Award, Print’s Regional Design Award, The Louie Award and the Rounce & Coffin Award for excellence in book design. She has also toured throughout the U.S. as a spokesperson for Proctor & Gamble.
In 1995 she became publisher of The Melville Press, producing limited edition, fine press books, and was creative director for Calamus Gift & Trade Editions. In addition, Kanner currently is Design Director for Los Angeles Ballet.
To see more of Catherine Kanner’s work, please visit her web site at –
Copyright ©1979 and 2008 by Catherine Kanner – All rights reserved.
More recently, Catherine has involved herself with another Dylan – this time, author Dylan Thomas – with her works used to illustrate a limited-edition book by The Melville Press titled In the Direction of the Beginning. It is a remarkable short story, originally published in A Prospect of the Sea in 1939. This powerful prose poem is a story of love and the sea.
To see all of the Bob Dylan-related items in the RockPoP Gallery collection please click on this link – http://rockpopgallery.com/items/bob-dylan/list.htm?1=1
About Cover Stories – Our series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each Cover Story, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.
All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 1979 and 2008, Catherine Kanner – All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2008 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) – All rights reserved.