The Sleeve Art of Bob Dylan’s Albums: Slow Train Coming

by Patrick Roefflaer

  • Released: August 20, 1979
  • Artwork: Catherine Kanner
  • Back cover photographer: Nick Saxton
  • Photographer inner sleeve: Morgan Renard
  • Art Director: Wm. Stetz (William Stetz)
  • Visual coordinator: Tony Lane

 

 

 

“Rejected drafts”

The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981 is in its entirety devoted to the period that Dylan was born again as a Christian. He shared that new belief with the world through the studio albums Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. To promote that new box set, a page in the form of a stained glass window appeared on bobdylan.com in November 2017. A click on the images grants acces to ‘never-bfore-seen memorabilia from the period.’

In the right part of the stained glass window there are two images of unused artwork for the cover of Slow Train Coming. The fifth image from the top is a watercolour of a prophet, with a staff / flower in his right hand. At the bottom right it is stated that the concept was designed by William Stetz and drawn by “Canner” [sic]. The other design (the eighth from the top) is solely attributed to William Stetz and represents a similar prophet who follows a train track from right to left. His discipels follow him, neatly in line.

Looking for more info on these drawings, I contacted William Stetz. It appears that he has never seen either of the “unused artworks”. “… although I later made similar illustrations myself, as proposals for Dylan’s album “Saved”, none of the drawings on this webpage belong to me and, as far as I know, neither to Catherine Kanner.”

In a next mail he emphasizes once again: “Typography IS mine, but I don’t think the figurative illustrations have any connection with the work of Catherine or myself. ”

Catherine Kanner responds equally astonished: “I can absolutely assure you that I have made only one piece of art for the cover of Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. No sketches were submitted. There is only the finished pen drawing that has been used for the cover.”

She says she will take steps to see her name removed from those “rejected drafts”.

The illustration above is one of the rejected pictures.

Art-director: Wm. Stetz

William Stetz (called Bill) is a graphic designer and photographer from Chicago. As a 25-year-old he moved to Los Angeles where he started designing posters for plays and films. He also makes some cover designs for local bands. Although there are no known names among them, one must have caught the attention of Bob Dylan – or someone from his entourage.

Bill Stetz tells his story in an email from 14 May 2019.

“1.  I was drawn into a design project for Bob Dylan through Jude Elliott, the
girlfriend of my friend David Stafford. Jude was working as an assistant to Bob
Dylan who had opened a studio in Santa Monica – Venice, CA on Main Street
south of the corner of Pico Blvd.

This was a warehouse-type building on Main Street where Jude worked and Bob
used as a base/studio. Jude knew I was a designer and photographer (I had
been working for a motion picture title designer up to that time) and asked if I
would be interested to pitch an idea to Bob for his new album artwork, his first
Christian-themed album. CBS was the publisher for Dylan at the time and
although I dealt with CBS eventually, Dylan personally initiated the creative
process through me, up to the production phase of the work which was overseen
through CBS.

2.  I met Jude at the Main Street space and we went upstairs. It was mid-morning
when I located the studio a couple of blocks from the beach. She led me to the
second floor of the loft, a large room that took up a lot of the second floor, and
then to a smaller unfinished room that faced the street. My first meeting with
Dylan was in that smaller room of the warehouse. Bob entered and appeared
more slight in stature than I had imagined. I was 5’11” and he was much shorter
and slim. Jude introduced us and then left. In a business-like manner I extended
my hand to shake his and immediately sensed that he wasn’t used to shaking
hands with people, but took my hand and we exchanged a timid grasp.

3. Dylan stood with his back to the warehouse window in the bare room, so he
was somewhat in silhouette to me or side-lit as he turned profile to the window.
He was soft spoken and didn’t say too much, but he wanted me to have a listen
to the music of his new album (Slow Train Coming) for me to get a flavor of the
work. He produced a cassette tape (which he wouldn’t allow me to take) of some
of the music on his album. I remember him using a small portable cassette player
to play “Gotta Serve Somebody” and we stood quietly while the music played.
Then he left the room while I listened to more of the music. Dylan never
expressed or described any visuals to me. He was all about the music. He gave
me full reign to come up with something in the way of art and I never felt that I
was in competition with the record company or another artist that might be
coming through the door. I felt some pressure about inventing a design that
would be appropriate for a musical artist that I respected and admired for so
many years. At the same time Dylan’s so completely unpretentious demeanor
allowed me to concentrate on my ideas all to myself. I left that meeting that day
and began my work.

Usually, as is the case, my first ideas come on the strongest. Working from my
original first thoughts often takes precedence to working and re-working an idea.

Slow Train Coming. It conjures the obvious of a train, a progression of forward
movement, forward ideas, people, moving forces. A train is a train — and all that
other stuff, too. But this train is a movement of spirit, conviction and forces of
man and god. This album was Dylan’s vision of religion, Christianity and so
building upon that idea I introduced the cross through the axe and made this
“slow train,” the movement of mankind down a track that was being laid, all
honed by a cross-wielding laborer that would pound a spike to the rails.

Not having the expertise to translate my idea into the illustration myself, I hired an
illustrator, Catherine Kanner, that I had met through another work project to do
the drawing.”

Here we let Catherine have her say. She told her story in March 2008 to Cover Story:

“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– [that would be Bill Stetz]). 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, […] 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 [sic] – 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-axe.  The axe was meant to be a symbol of the Cross. In my original sketch, I rendered the axe as it would naturally be, but I recall my friend insisting that I extend the top of the axe 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 axe 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.”

Bill Stetz confirms that he has stayed besides Catherine Kanner to give her instructions, while she was working: “I related all my ideas to Catherine and while I stood over her shoulder we worked out the image together. She did no work on the art outside of my presence and we made revisions to the art at her apartment studio.”

“The drawing was a patchwork of separate drawings that were reworked, cut from paper and fit together like a puzzle to create a forming the final work. I still own the original pieces of that work. From the composite, I had a film positive made of the line drawing and overlaid it on brown construction paper in the dimensions of the album cover for presentation. This gave it an old printing effect of having been produced on paper which had discolored or was of less than high quality paper stock. And, it looked like an album.”

“[Stetz] delivered the illustration to Columbia Records,’ Catherine continues. “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 (!!)”

In one of the emails Catherine sent me, she suggests that the “rejected drafts” on Dylan’s site are these proposals from the CBS staff, made in the style of Catherine and Bill’s work: “I cannot confirm this, but this could be an explanation. Again, I did not make any drafts, only the final approved and used artwork.”

Stetz adds: “I never heard directly from Bob Dylan what he thought of the work, but it must have made an impression as I did hear from the CBS art director for contractual arrangements to purchase the work. Jude seemed to think that Dylan liked the work a lot, so that pleased me.”

That art director is Tony Lane, former chef layout at Rolling Stone, but recently head of CBS. “When asked by Tony Lane if I wanted a credit as Art Director”, Bill Stetz writes, “I naively asked for the credit “cover design and concept” which is exactly what I did and what Columbia printed.”

“I had no input to Columbia about the photos or the liner. I presented only the cover artwork and typography as a completed layout overlay over a paper background. What I handed in “looked” exactly like the album cover that was published. Later I saw the finished album with back cover photo and liner art/copy when the album went public. I could have designed the whole thing and was not offered to do that.

I sensed some tension in my meeting with Art Director Tony Lane that I was allowed to do the cover art, through the insistence of Bob Dylan, as an outsider to the Columbia organization. That was my sense but I have no information to qualify those feelings.”

In an interview, reprinted in Howard Sounes “Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan”, Tony Lane confirmed that there was lengthy consultation within the staff of the record company about how clearly the message should be presented.

“There were great worries that they were going to lose their Bob Dylan core audience.” He added that Bob spoke about himslef in the third person, while discussing the artwork. Perhaps because he was referring to Stetz’s ideas?

“I am happy that the artwork was produced”, Bill Stetz concludes. “I am very proud that the idea took flight. I revere Bob Dylan as one of the greatest artists of our time and having played some role is his work makes me very happy.

Catherine Kanner was inducted in the Album Cover Hall of Fame in 2013 for her illustration on Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming.

“Since that time, there have been a number of Dylan scholars who have analyzed my illustration,” Kanner tells, “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.”

The back cover photo

The cross is also prominent on the back, in a photo of a man with a sailboat. The photo is the work of Nick Saxton (who later directed video for Michael Jackson). Saxton, like Tony Lane, was “closely involved in a secret Bible study.”

For the book Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (2002), Scott M. Marshall interviewed the photographer Nick Saxton. Saxton told him that the depicted boat was on or near the Amazon and that the mysterious figure is not Dylan, but Gary Wright. Saxton had made that photo for the cover of his LP Headin’ Home (1979), which shows another photo of Gary on a boat. Somehow Dylan had seen that unused photo and insisted on using it for the Slow Train Coming cover.

The inner sleeve photo

The portrait of Dylan dressed in a leather vest and microphone in hand was made by Morgan Renard, the official photographer during the European and American part of Tour ’78.

A nice anecdote: Rolling Stone had an interview with Bob Dylan and wanted to put it on the cover of edition 278 – Dylan’s tenth cover! But when the photographer presented himself at Dylan’s dressing room before his performance at Madison Square Garden, Dylan refused to pose for him. He retired to the restrooms with Morgan Renard and got photographed there. Hence the urinal on the left of the frame.

And yet another anecdote, by Catherine Kanner: 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”.


This is the first in what we hope will be a series of articles covering the art work on Dylan’s albums.

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