Sunday, May 14, 2017

Reading Log: Gonzo Dylanology

I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them. -Bob Dylan

 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. - I John 4:15 (NIV)

Time for another confession. Despite my credentials as a music nerd with a major in the sixties and post-doctoral research in the seventies, I was never a big fan of Bob Dylan. I'm aware of his work, and acknowledge and respect his contribution to the canon of modern music, but his stuff just never did much for me. His collaborations with George Harrison were his only works that really interested me.

Dylan's far from alone in that category. There are many "major artists" whose work hasn't held my interest beyond an overview of their catalogue. The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Queen, U2, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin - I'm familiar with all of them, and have their work in my collection, but rarely listen to them for fun.

In the eighties and early nineties, I knew Dylan primarily as a source of comedy. Unfortunately, he tended to come off as the butt of the joke, not as a conscious participant. "Conscious" has more than one meaning that works in that sentence.

I was watching live, and probably taping it, when Dylan went into a fugue state while receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, that moment has been preserved for global posterity right here. Saturday Night Live did a great Dylan bit shortly thereafter, with Dana Carvey as Dylan and Mike Myers as his interpreter, Tom Petty, but it doesn't  seem to be on Youtube and NBC's site doesn't acknowledge that a world beyond the U.S. border exists, so forget them.

In 1992, Dylan appeared on David Letterman's 10th anniversary special. This was toward the end of my seven-year streak of not missing a night of Letterman, so again I was watching, and probably taping. It was hilarious. Paul Shaffer had assembled an amazing band that included Steve Vai, Doc Severinsen, Carole King, and Mavis Staples among its dignitaries. Dylan came onstage, and this huge rock orchestra started into Like A Rolling Stone (a song I probably didn't know at the time). The band was rocking and grooving as Dylan stepped up to the mike and... proceeded to mumble incoherently for a few minutes. He just made vaguely rhythmic nasal sounds, occasionally punctuated by "DIDEN YEWWWW" or "HAWDZIT FEEL" (my best guesses, based on phonetics). Youtube to the rescue once again - you can watch it here.

I recently read Paul Shaffer's 2009 memoir, We'll Be Here For the Rest of Our Lives (a candidate for a future Reading Log entry). He confirms that Dylan was disengaged and uninterested, sometime not bothering to sing at all during rehearsals. Shaffer was just grateful that Dylan came through for the actual show, although he calls the performance "a more than decent 70 percent."

In recent years I decided to check out Dylan's explicitly Christian albums, from his "born again" phase. Until then I only knew of this work from the mocking of critics, notably "Serve Yourself", John Lennon's childish response to "Gotta Serve Somebody". I listened to the three albums, Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. The only songs that really stuck with me as a whole were Solid Rock and In The Garden, and the latter was significantly improved in the live version found on the bootleg album Rock Solid, which I also added to my collection. I talked about hearing these albums a bit way back in this entry, over eight years ago. Not a bad followup turnaround time by my standards. (I started working on this article in 2014.)

Dylan was far more explicit about his newfound faith than I had expected. These albums weren't the least bit subtle. He was preaching a message of fire and brimstone, warning listeners that only Jesus saves. As is often the case for me and Christian music, although I didn't care for the music, I loved a lot of the lyrics. Saved, the second album, struck me as much more strident than the first. Jody Beth Rosen described Saved well: "It’s as dogmatic as they come, and it’s Jesus-fearing, and unlike other Dylan records its prediction of the apocalypse cannot be interpreted as anything other than what it is."

Dylan's Christian walk seemed to have followed a path similar to my own. Even after surrendering to Christ I was briefly a weak universalist, followed by a season of legalism before settling into a more relaxed attitude that I would have earlier seen as complacency.

This music made me want to know more about Dylan's personal story. I wanted to learn how God lit this fire inside him. I wanted to hear his testimony. Unfortunately, it was at this point that I learned that Dylan is a notoriously closed book to interviewers and would-be biographers. A detailed account of his spiritual journey would not be easily forthcoming. He granted only a few interviews that touched on the subject, many of which are linked on Dylan Devotional.

I was discussing this with a co-worker who's a far bigger Dylan fan than me. He loaned me a couple of Dylan books from his extensive library, hoping they'd help satiate my interest, as well as a copy of Infidels, which my friend considers something of a coda or postscript to Dylan's overt born-again period.

Thus, we come at last to the reason why this entry is a Reading Log. However, it's an unusual one in that I usually actually finish a book before writing about it.

The borrowed books - which, as is my wont, I've kept for way too long - are Sam Shepard's 1977 Rolling Thunder Logbook and Robert Shelton's 1986 No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan.  The former was intended to give me insight into Dylan's mid-seventies life, and the later is a straightforward biography.

I think I read most of the Rolling Thunder Logbook, maybe even all of it, but I didn't care for most of it. It's written in the "gonzo journalism" style that Hunter S. Thompson popularized and his colleagues at Rolling Stone ran with. The style is marked by being disjointed and full of pretentious literary allusions, many of which consist solely of mentioning the names of better writers. Here's an arbitrarily chosen sample passage - this is a complete section / chapter / piece entitled "Hotel Crypt":

It's not long before the nucleus of us takes its shape. Who's who in the
galaxy of things. A small band with all the implications of the Big One. The world we slide through like it's never there. But now it seems reversed. Like we're not there and all around us life is going on about
its business. Waitress serves and goes back home. Back to REAL LIFE.
Back to MOM and DAD or KIDS and HUSBAND or both or all. And us sitting. Us sit eating crab legs in a hotel crypt.
This is typical of the book. Lots of simple declarative sentences, often lacking subject, predicate, or both. If 184 pages of this appeals to you, then I can unreservedly recommend this book. I might also recommend any of several twelve-step programs. This is not to say that the book is entirely without charm.  I particularly enjoyed the account of Dylan deciding partway through a play that he found the content offensive and shouting all the way out of the theatre, thoroughly disrupting the proceedings.

Shelton's book is a traditionally structured biography. I've read hundreds of similar books about dozens of different artists (I probably have 50 biographies of various Beatles alone), but had never invested the time in Dylan to have read one of his. And I still haven't, really. At some point it occurred to me that just because I enjoy someone's work doesn't imply that I should care where they went to elementary school, how many siblings they had, or when they lost their virginity. That's when I stopped reading most biographies. Not all, by any means, but these days I generally need to have some particular interest in the subject or some time to kill to bother reading any sections that could be headed "The Early Years."

I checked the index for Beatles mentions and skimmed a few passages, but in Dylan's case I'm really only interested in the story of his faith. I want to know how it grew to the point where he felt the need to express it so boldly, and more importantly why he stopped. Maybe it's as simple as Larry Norman's account: the audience didn't like it and told him to stop.

Unfortunately, Shelton's book stops short of the period in Dylan's life that interests me. Despite being published in 1986, Shelton's narrative disappointingly ends in 1977. An epilogue mentions only that Dylan had converted to Christianity, offering no further insight.

Perhaps tired of being constantly on the defensive, Dylan was reluctant to discuss his faith. He spent much of a 1984 Rolling Stone interview declining to explain his beliefs.

Dylan upset some moral conservatives in that interview by refusing to condemn abortion, dismissing it as "not an issue". As both an Evangelical Christian and an ardent pro-lifer (two separate matters, despite popular perception; my opposition to abortion is not primarily a matter of religious belief, and predates my conversion to Christianity), I think I get what (I hope) he meant. In a very real sense, abortion is not a root problem, just as theft or lying are not root problems. Sin is the root problem. In that light, theft, lying, and abortion are only symptoms.

The interesting question for me is where Dylan's faith journey wound up. That same Rolling Stone interview mentions that he was by then affiliated with an "ultra-orthodox Jewish sect", implying that he no longer held the New Testament in such lofty regard, and that his son had a bar mitzvah. Paul Shaffer's book seems to support this, noting that he's had to schedule some collaborations with Dylan around the Sabbath. Dylan may have reverted to straightforward Judaism, or adopted a Messianic Jewish faith.

The Infidels album offers few clues. It contains several songs touching on Biblical themes, but no Saved-style overt declarations. Neighbourhood Bully and Man of Peace seem to be about Israel and the Anti-Christ, respectively, but beyond being in favour of the former and opposed to the latter contain no particular insights into the specifics of Dylan's beliefs. I and I, personal favourite track on the album, has been seen as an allegory for Israel. Union Sundown is a surprisingly right-wing statement for someone in show business, but despite their frequent conflation, conservative politics and evangelical beliefs don't necessarily move in lockstep.

Muddying the waters, if Dylan had indeed renounced Christianity, it would be reasonable to expect him to have abandoned the explicitly evangelical songs he wrote and recorded on the "born again trilogy". However, the index of tracks performed live on Dylan's own site show that he continued to feature his gospel material in concert for many years afterward.

For a few years Dylan hosted a radio show called Theme Time Radio Hour. In 2006 he did an episode on the theme of the Bible. Lots of great old gospel blues. Interestingly, when he was naming books of the Bible early in the episode during the explanation of the theme, he included apocryphal / deuterocanonical books (e.g., Maccabees) in the list.

That program, the only episode of Theme Time Radio Hour I've ever heard, showed me a side of Dylan I'd never really considered. I'd long thought of Dylan as somewhat foggy and addled, possibly due to the cumulative effects of marijuana use. However, in that show I heard something new in him: a sense of humour. Now I think Dylan is well aware of his image as a doddering space cadet and is probably quite amused by it. He's willing to play up that image to maintain both a mystique (how can someone that burned out write such insightful songs?) and a distance from his audience, which has probably been necessary for him to maintain anything resembling a private life. Similarly, since getting past the stage of zeal of the recently converted, Dylan is probably content to let people speculate about his religious beliefs. It may even entertain him.

One interesting note - believers generally want to pass our faith on to our children. Although I've never head any explicit declarations of belief from Jakob Dylan, at least two Wallflowers songs touch on religious subjects: "Hospital for Sinners" and "First One in the Car", both from the 2012 album Glad All Over.

"Hospital for Sinners" is about the oft-forgotten truth that a church is "a hospital for sinners - ain't no museum of saints." It offers a vague but positive assessment of churches, concluding that "you ought to be in one." Referring to "statues and apostles, and other Godly things" implies that the churches described aren't all necessarily Protestant, but it certainly doesn't sound like a synagogue either.

The theology of "First One in the Car" is even less definite, but it's clear that the speaker is concerned with spirituality, even if that concern is only a nagging sense that prayer is sometimes appropriate ("I ain't superstitious, but it's making me nervous - now shouldn't we at least say something first?"). The song's refrain, however, actually contains a perfectly good prayer: "May God be the first one in the car, may He be the last one out of ours." The speaker is embarking on a new chapter in life, the nature of which is hinted at but not spelled out. Asking for God's presence and guidance in that sort of situation is to be expected from people of most faiths. I've heard a lot of prayers over the years that included variations of "Lord, please be with us as we..."

The bottom line regarding Bob Dylan's current religious beliefs is that we don't really know, presumably because he doesn't want us to. And that's fine. It's not my job or any other mortal's to judge the state of his soul. I certainly hope that he's got a saving faith in Jesus Christ, in keeping with Paul's statement about Christian conversion during his trial before King Agrippa: "I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am" (Acts 26:29, NIV). Whether he does or not, some of the music he created from 1979 to 1981 has no doubt blessed and encouraged many believers all over the world.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of something that happened in my kitchen.