Hanging In The Balance Of

I read an article in the New York Times just a few days ago about a blogging theme that’s becoming popular: people photograph and document every single bite they eat. The people who do this report that scrutinizing and publishing  their own most ordinary activities can offer unexpected insights. When  Web-readers like us are sated with these insights, we can resume what sociologists centuries from now will likely describe as a defining social bond of our generation: waiting for a person who doesn’t know we exist, and whom we know only through images and broadcasts, to admit to secret crimes and/or sins whose incontrovertible evidence is already universal public property. Also, the institution that sacralized  confidence and trust into a ritual, seems in fact to operate according to necessary principles of corruption and hypocrisy.

Our theme this morning is confession, and really, it was the thing about the food blogs that got me started, not Jesse James or the Catholic Church. Crime and sin and how every new generation of sinners thinks they won’t be found out like the fools of yesteryear–this isn’t a sea change in human life, although perhaps how I may consume and participate in their dramas is. But the fact that potentially everyone can pour their image, their words, their actions into this infinitely widening stream where I type right this minute, and turn all  their banalities and depravities and insights and achievements into formatted, standardized, reproducible media for the free consumption of, well, everyone else that there is–here is where confession ends. Doesn’t a confession mark boundaries between public and private, self and other, Now and Then, secret and witness, license and accountability? No, of course, a confession does not mark these boundaries, the boundaries don’t actually exist.  We use confession to declare a desire for these boundaries, now dissolved in the ocean into which I pour these very words.  I want these boundaries, and the country mapped out by them is the size of a grain of sand.

Here is a photo of an artificial indoor beach in Japan. We’re starting our tour of this grain-of-sand-country in Japan, where Bob Dylan, in the city of Nagoya,  recently offered a performance of Every Grain of Sand that is awfully close to perfect, and so I envy the people of Japan their chance to experience sand in such remarkable ways. Dylan’s most splendid vocals feel to the listener like thought, as though the sound of the words is transmitted directly to my attention, without the cumbersome mechanics of singing and hearing. His  most Dylanish vocals seem unmediated by air. Also true is that in the best performances, I find I forget that I know every word to the song. In this Every Grain of Sand, you must hear the way he creates  space around each word, so that it hangs almost visibly, and almost visibly evaporates. You need to hear how his voice dies with “the dying voice within me.” You need to hear how he makes “despair”  alluring, and “decay” decaying. You need to hear his voice slip occasionally and almost forgetfully into the sound of ordinary beauty, and then you need to hear the strange deliberate growls as though he is counting exactly how many grains of sand he needs to voice this one syllable. And then you need to hear his conversation with the harmonica–it breaks into lines of the song as though it has confessions of its own to make. And the band so loving and intent, it cannot be easy to play patiently and ardently at the same time.

Every Grain of Sand is not like other Dylan songs, and maybe not quite in the way that all his greatest songs are their own worlds. If one of those deaf dullards with sods for ears complains that Bob Dylan can’t sing, I suppose I’d just play them the Wild Mountain Thyme from Isle of Wight and then send them on their way. Similarly, if one of those Philistine dullards demands to know whether Bob Dylan passes the Poet test, I suppose I’d hand them the lyrics to Every Grain of Sand and send them on their way. There is a peculiar  and conventional majesty to these lyrics: there is a strong impression of a regular meter, and a consistent and reassuring rhyme scheme. Even more distinctive, there’s  a gravity, an elegance, a  picturesqueness, a refinement to the lyrics throughout the song: this singer speaks to us in a sustained elevated register.  In the glancing allusions to Blake, to Baudelaire (I always hear flowers of evil behind the indulgence), to Shakespeare’s sparrow, to Augustine, and then to Dylan’s own boy-artist self (from the boy’s free wild dance beneath the diamond sky to the man’s bitter dance of loneliness), it seems as though in this song Dylan is falling back, graciously, into tradition and history that can welcome his confession and creation.

It’s a confession that’s naked and forbids voyeurism. It’s a confession that is fathomlessly personal and not autobiographical. It’s a confession that purifies and does not absolve. The time of his confession is when he hears a dying voice, struggling against the silence it should have learned from despair. A dying voice within me is not yet my own voice is it, and perhaps the confession is the coming-to-know that the voice struggling against despair really is mine, along with the despair.  I love the line “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake”–it’s bitter and arrogant and plays so cleverly with inclination, incline, leaning back into the dead past. There’s a mighty flaunting in the identification with Cain, who sees himself not as the puppet of a destiny already written for him, but a maker of history. Then the Master’s hand appears, apparently to remind the singer that every atom of his world is the work of The Infinite Unseen, and we seem to be back in the world of Saved, where consolation awaits every sinner who submits his will to Jesus. And so the song should end when our despairing and raging singer is recalled to the order and purpose of even a leaf and a grain of sand. But it doesn’t end. The singer isn’t consoled, he has more to tell us about….well, what it’s like to be human. Regret and weakness destroy conscience and happiness, we must go on regardless, the steps of time carry us forward, we’re restless creatures even though “the memory of decay” is the curse of being human and bearing the knowledge of mortality. And the glimpses of this singer’s life, the rags to empty riches–disillusionment, “the violence of a summer’s dream”  that burns itself out, and the awakening to “the chill of a wintry light.” The loneliness and the history of the loneliness. Then the reference to Footprints in the Sand, the greeting card cliche/poem, and here perhaps is our own Bob Dylan winking at us through all the Blake and Shakespeare and wings of poesy. By this time in the song, the singer’s isolation and sorrows should have touched us deeply enough that the cliche is alive and moving.

Why is this song not of a piece with When He Returns or Solid Rock? Why is it not a commonplace consolation? When I am at my most pessimistic and self-loathing, I remember that God made me and everything according to his plan for a perfect universe and if he knows how many grains there are on every beach, then he knows my purpose also, even if I don’t. The song may contain this sentiment but not at this simplistic level.  A sparrow, a grain of sand, a leaf cannot confess, cannot know regret and sorrow and history. Yet each one hangs in the balance of its own reality–each thing on the earth hangs in the balance of its own inviolate reality. And onward in his journey, our singer comes to learn that the memory of decay, the loneliness, the felt passage of time, the morals of despair–these are the reality of man. There is no absolution for this knowledge, only endurance. The song is the sound of endurance and not of consolation. I am amongst the ones who wish he still sang of the reality of man and not the perfect finished plan, although the image of “hanging in the balance” still holds on to the essential uncertainty and mystery of the song. There is still a suspension, still  a balance–hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan is not the same as hanging on to a solid rock. I still miss the magnificent syllables of “reality.”

A great performance of this song is a lesson in patience and attention. The song can teach you how a word occupies space like a planet does, and how you may witness a person’s soul without invading their privacy. Nagoya could be an unsurpassable performance. Now we may return to searching the Internet for photos of celebrity cellulite and discussions among total strangers about their spouses and diseases.

Before I go, I want to hand this bouquet of flowers to the wonderful person who assembled the compilation of highlights from the Japan shows, Made in Japan 2010. It’s got 27 tracks culled from the tour,  great sound quality, a gorgeous selection of some really marvelous performances–terrific versions of the new arrangements of Man in the Long Black Coat, Shelter from the Storm,  and Tom Thumb, a beautiful Blind Willie McTell, a Love Sick that makes me want to kill everyone in the audience with jealousy. We like to have everything, of course, but this compilation is a labor of love and a real treat and my warmest thanks to whoever put it together.


“Sometimes I Go On And On, and They Say, ‘Bob, Don’t Preach So Much.'”

A while ago, I came across some photos I’d never seen before, of the Slow Train sessions. Dylan and the other musicians relaxing in the studio. Lots of smiles, easy postures, those awful synthetic knits men wore in the late 70s. The images of Dylan are absolutely shocking. He’s dressed neatly in jeans and a dark shirt, a large and unsubtle silver cross round his neck. Next to Fred Tackett or Jim Keltner or Tim Drummond, all thin and bearded, Dylan looks like the younger brother happy to be allowed to join in. Now, there is no reason why a man whose veins run with evangelical fire can’t be well-groomed and sociable. That’s not why the photos are shocking. But it is impossible to believe that from this affable, elfin man come the sounds of despair, isolation, fervor, prophetic arrogance, seduction, and wit, which are the voices of the album.

The disconnect between a voice and its person is not news, although in Dylan’s case we’re reminded so often of this disconnect that we can take it for granted. At the moment, we talk about his sounding clear or strong in a particular show, and we can also talk about this small and deceptively frail man putting words into the air that feel  like boulders he’s summoning  from beneath his feet. But back to 1979, and the Special Case of Dylan’s voice.

One of my very favorite pieces of Bob Dylan flotsam that have washed up into my possession is a tiny book I can hold in the palm of my hand.   It’s published by Hanuman Books, whose mission statement is summed up nicely on the website Printed Matter, Inc.: “The highly saturated colors and gold printing of the books’ covers and their pocket-size format is inspired by Indian prayer books and by the tradition of Asian miniatures.” My book has a garish pink cover with the title in gold lettering, and a most incongruous color photo of Bob Dylan. Incongruous because the  photo is one of Daniel Kramer’s portraits from early 64, the striped boatneck shirt, the pretty face–the Young Artist–and the book is called Bob Dylan. Saved: The Gospel Speeches. The book collects  Dylan’s spoken addresses from the  Gospel Tours, beginning in November 1978 and ending in May 1980, 62 pieces of text in all.

The photo is incongruous not just because the chronology is wrong, but because the speaker of these speeches cannot be thought of as “younger than that now.” The speaker of these speeches is frighteningly not-young, indeed, frighteningly not-of-numbered-years. He himself seems to know this, as in a speech in Buffalo on 4/30/80, he warns the audience of Satan and says “I didn’t know a lot of these things 40 years ago either,” and I do believe he’s not being careless with the arithmetic of his own life. He knows he’s 38 when he says this, but he feels a memory that exceeds his biography.

I like to read this little book, I find myself engrossed in it often, and I am grateful to Clinton Heylin who is credited with compiling it  for recognizing that having all these speeches together in one package is not just historically significant, but a remarkable reading experience. Although I am not a Christian, I want to know why I find the songs of the gospel tours  persuasive, intimate, seductive, and beautiful, and the speeches between the songs bewitching, distancing—they are somehow false and disheartening and hypnotic, when the songs are close and entrancing and stirring.  The different effects matter very much to me, because the content is not different. In both speeches and songs of this period, Dylan is consistent: I have been changed in the way people are changed when they come to know the message of Jesus’s life and death, and come to accept the realities of Satan, End Times and  Judgement Day, being born again. The divide between redemption and lostness  may be crossed by one narrow bridge. Where he is and where I am is exactly the same in Precious Angel and Solid Rock as it is in every word he speaks to the audience from the stage. But the voices are different.

The voice of the speeches runs like a soft river. I’d say he murmurs but murmuring doesn’t capture the clarity and the mild rise and fall of these sentences about the desperate time and the Devil’s plan and Satan getting ready to wield his masterpiece (a favorite line of mine). The voice he finds for this work is not the speaking voice he uses to introduce the band members to the audience. The keys of the world were given to someone called Lucifer. If you have heard recordings of these concerts, then you can *hear* the peculiar confiding and familiar tone. He speaks quickly and comfortably, and to denigrate this work as rambling fire and brimstone nonsense is a miscalculation. A long speech he gave at the Warfield on 11/26/79 is at least a demonstration of the quickness of Dylan’s thought and his skill at composing thought into cadenced language. He talks about himself, even referring to The Times They Are A-Changin’, which could have been seriously unnerving to people in the audience who had every reason to assume they would never hear Bob Dylan sing that song again. He relates an anecdote from the gospels in which he has to recite snatches of dialogue, he offers a simplistic and alarming description of God’s vengefulness, he deals with a heckler–or perhaps a sympathizer?– who plays into his hands by shouting  “everybody must get stoned.”  He doesn’t hesitate or stumble over words, he pairs long and short sentences with an orator’s deftness. His theology is suffocating, exclusive, and visionary, as it is in the songs. All uttered smooth as a rhapsody.

The songs are not smooth as a rhapsody. Here the voice reaches, jumps,growls,  risks all its breath on one “wilderness.”  The voice opens and cracks and lets in the light of doubt and fear and desire.  Just about any I Believe In You, When He Returns, or Saving Grace from 1979 is a mosaic of sounds, meek and hard like an oak, that wake up the listener from one syllable to the next–not the lulling susurration of the speeches. In the voice of the songs is the broken and the holy (I know there are Leonard fans out there…) where any human can share the  human sounds of losing and finding oneself, awe, submission, anguished crisis. In the songs, then, perhaps, is the voice of tzimtzum. There are no cracks, no places for light to get in, in the voice of the speeches.

“You can manufacture faith out of nothing”–Bob Dylan

Worried Blues is often where I go when I want to feel a landsmann connection with Bob Dylan. The very first time I listened to it, I heard a man who truly understood my world and my life: “I’m depressed about being worried.” I don’t much care that the song traces to a sweet-faced woman named Hally Wood, and maybe further back to Leadbelly. “I got the worried blues, lord.”  Fretting out loud about  anxiety piled upon melancholy is the existential verity of a happy Jewish life, and Worried Blues is where I can reach through a song and say, “Hail, friend,” to Bob Dylan.

Luckily, we can do better up at the 92nd St Y than my impertinence, and last night we enjoyed the company of Seth Rogovoy, author of the book, Bob Dylan: Prophet/Mystic/Poet, now available in hardcover from Scribner’s. I had tracked down Seth through his active and engaging blog, and he very generously agreed to make a trip into the city to discuss his work with our class. I did read the book prior to meeting him –and to comply with what I believe is now a law governing bloggers and electronic commerce, I reveal that I bought the book myself at the Barnes and Noble on Lexington Avenue and 86th Street.

I confess that I feared the book would make uncompromising and suffocating claims for Dylan’s essential Jewishness, and I am happy to be proven wrong. The book tells the story of Dylan’s career as a story of the demands of  being called to prophecy. In one person may coexist a certain vision of life’s conditions, a certain gift of articulating the vision, and a goading conscience that fights vagaries of one’s own energy and will and the attention span of one’s audience to persist in yoking the gift to the vision. The work of the yoking, and not just the privilege of the gift, becomes the arc of a life. Prophecy may be described this way. If  Jewish history,  scripture,  and ritual have provided one prevailing vessel for lives that play out these characteristics, then Seth Rogovoy does a fine and sane job of showing how Bob Dylan’s work can pilot this vessel of prophecy, and make room for Dylan to pilot other vessels.

Rogovoy’s talk began engagingly, way down on earth, in high school where he found Bob Dylan only after enjoying the spiritual sustenance of John Denver and Seals and Crofts. And *found* Dylan in that very big way that demonstrates what I had heard Christopher Ricks say a few weeks ago: “You don’t discover Dylan, Dylan discovers you.” It was Planet Waves that did it. And since I am eager to start a crusade that yanks this album into  center stage as a thing of greater beauty and depth than it’s generally granted, I was delighted to hear that Planet Waves was the door for Seth Rogovoy on which was written  Say Friend and Enter. My delight turned to bitter vindictive envy when Rogovoy told us that he saw Renaldo and Clara in the actual movie theater. Twice.

Back to Planet Waves. Rogovoy noticed that Dylan’s publishing company was newly named Ram’s Horn Music. The ram’s horn is the ancient instrument,  called the Shofar, used to call Jews to repentance on different holy days. “The call to repentance,” Rogovoy said, channeling the energy of his original epiphany into our little room on 92nd St. “How much was apparent to me,”  he said, that Dylan’s music is itself a call to repentance. What do prophets do? They call to repentance, as a universal and communal act.   They “wake people up.”  Wake them up to their own accountability for the fallen state of the world. The Ram’s Horn called Rogovoy to a possible field of meaning for his relation to Dylan’s songs.

When Rogovoy’s personal life, as an adult, took him into intense and intimate study of the teachings and beliefs of his Jewish heritage, he could not hold back the fecundity of this field of meaning. “The texts I memorized as a schoolboy were the lyrics of Bob Dylan.” And as an adult, he is startled and, in a way, awoken by the sounds of these phrases in the Jewish scripture and teaching. What happens then is the growing desire to tell a story with the harvest he’s reaping of all these connections: Ezekiel and The Wicked Messenger.  Amos and Long Time Gone (which I had the great pleasure of playing for him upon learning he’d never heard Bob’s actual performance). Priestly blessings and Forever Young. Judges and Tombstone Blues. He talked about these connections with a spiritedness that was never proprietary–he relived the pleasure of discovering these echoes. I asked him if he was able to recall the early emotions he had as this field of meaning grew with the new discoveries. Did he feel a new intimacy with the artist who already spoke so powerfully to him? Or did Dylan’s art now have a new authority to it imputed by the seeding of the scriptural matter? Rogovoy answered,”Both.”

In Rogovoy’s book, the inventory is extensive and more often than not, the connections are unforced. I don’t think I’ll ever hear  Yom Kippur  in Not Dark Yet, and the connection between Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window and the life of David is highly provocative and will take a while to sink in. He works hard to place Slow Train Coming, Saved, and other gospel material in the context of Jewish theology, to support the argument that Dylan’s *conversion* had subtle but unmistakable ambiguities in his theological language. That Dylan’s work in 79-80 is  spiritually complex and not simplistic, I agree with. I would like to see more work done on this, to do deeper justice to Dylan’s addresses to Jesus, and  his experience of being revived because of a relation with the figure he conceives in Jesus, and the imagery of crucifixion in the songs and the sermons. This section of Rogovoy’s book invites more listening and thinking.

The chronological structure of the book sometimes locks Rogovoy into a summary and familiar listing of Dylan’s output and activities, and loses the momentum of the story of what contemporary prophecy may look like. The summary, though, is a reasonable overview, which takes into account other influences and sources.  I can see the book being a useful introductory text to less informed but curious and serious  listeners who wish to get an accessible comprehensive overview of Dylan’s career through this lens of Judaism. In this regard, the book makes a nice companion to Scott Marshall’s Restless Pilgrim, and although I fear this pairing may not please Seth Rogovoy, I mean it as praise to two worthwhile books on Dylan and spirituality.

Rogovoy’s talk of course could not cover the range of examples in the book, and Rogovoy also shared biographical information on Dylan and Jewish life, showing video clips. Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons?

Oops! Wrong photo!

Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons? Rogovoy used clips of these to illustrate Bob Dylan’s somewhat public presence in this community. This generally makes me feel uncomfortable because on the one hand, it’s got vestiges of *outing* to it,  which causes me  confused and inarticulable discomfort, and on the other hand, I just love Bob’s modest and awkward presence on these makeshift television sets, and his impeccable timing in responding to the rabbi’s excited spiel.

Most interesting was Rogovoy’s unearthing a source for the notorious Grammy speech, which is another unquenchably and bizarrely captivating performance piece. More Buster Keaton, I think, than Charlie Chaplin? Well, Rogovoy found the Orthodox text (commentary not scripture) in a book of blessings intended for newcomers to Orthodox observance in which appears “Even if I were so depraved my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.” That Dylan was able to unreel this text, make small changes to suit that moment and the rhythm of his speech, and then to own that passage…remarkable. To find the Grammy speech flippant or just more enigmatic kookiness from the supreme enigmatic kook, is not something I can ever do. And I thank Seth Rogovoy for bringing this material to my attention.

Rogovoy used a phrase I intend to steal and use at every possible opportunity: he referred to the “unaccountable heft and profundity of Dylan’s work.” That is simply beautiful and true, and I believe Christopher Ricks himself would give the thumbs up to the felicity of the phrase. What Seth Rogovoy does best is not to prove that Bob Dylan is 83% Jewish in 1987 or 59% Jewish in 2002. What he does best is show us what it looks like for Seth Rogovoy himself to be grateful for the unaccountable heft and profundity.  Read the book as an affecting personal narrative as well as for the useful inventory of allusions, and if Seth Rogovoy is speaking in your area, I strongly recommend making the trip to hear him, he’s very much in-the-moment himself as a speaker, and instantly sympatico for other passionate and committed Dylan listeners.

Is There Any Truth In That, Rinpoche?

images I’m reading Steven Heine’s book, Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, a Zen Master? (Continuum, 2009), and I wanted to start off here with something clever about GPS, the Christmas album, and  delusion and desire. Months ago, someone reports apocryphally that Mr. No Direction Youknowwhere himself  has joked about selling his voice to a GPS system, and this  atomic irony  ends up months later as absurd *news*. .   Then, we learn of Mr Dylan’s holiday album, and the impulses of charity, caprice,  and/or amusement  that could answer for anyone’s Christmas in the Heart, are immediately doubted and analyzed, and a lightweight/lighthearted project becomes absurdly freighted with speculation.  Each of these incidents seems to reflect the irresistibility of conflict, pessimism, and fantasy in all our affairs.

Then it occurred to me that I’m way wrong here: the truer Zen window into this recent business is the  *chattering monkey mind*, the Zen picture of our mental life.   You pay attention to your inner life for just a minute, and what do you find  but a cacophony of grievances, hopeless fantasies, self-recriminations, fearful daydreams, and the occasional glance at the sky to see if it really is going to rain. Our minds are a tireless and exhausting hive of illusion and discord and anxiety and inattention to reality. Like a roomful of Bob Dylan fans. As a collective, we are one hell of a chattering monkey mind, so let’s take a bow, all of us.

IMG_0814The cover of Heine’s book shows one of my favorite shots of Bob Dylan, from the Lynn Goldsmith photo shoot  in NY in the early 80s. He looks like he’s standing on an ice floe, but is actually on a pier covered in snow and ice, behind him is the river very flat and white and bright in the winter light. His hatless head looking away from the camera, he is simply there in his inky cloak, in the cold air, patient and private and still ungrudging with his presence. The simple mystery of thereness is a good touch for Heine’s book, which, with great rigor and ardor, sets out to describe Bob Dylan’s “wide-ranging affinities with Zen Buddhism, which are in small part historical/biographical, and in large part spiritual/intellectual.” It’s the second pair in that sentence that justifies the book.  As for Dylan’s historical/biographical Zen affinities, Heine intrepidly tries to use the liner notes of Live in Budokan as *evidence*, and then shrewdly gives that up and turns to examining the songs as enacting some of the principles of Zen. -“All and all can only fall with a crashing but meaningless blow,”  “I’ll make shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot,”  “The sound of one hand clapping”– If you’ve heard faint traces of Zen breezes blowing through lines like these, you will be immensely grateful to Steven Heine for giving real heft and gravity to your impressions.

images-2 If a person is going to attempt to baptize Bob Dylan into this philosophy, we’re lucky that Steven Heine has taken the plunge. He directs the Center for Asian Studies at Florida International University, has spent years studying the work of Dogen, a 13th century Zen master, and has had at least one epiphany listening to Dylan  after getting high in Amsterdam. We applaud the recognition that the doors of perception have many knobs.

I can’t feign expertise in this topic, but I do appreciate the care that has to be taken to avoid boxing and labeling Zen as a system of religious belief and ritual. Thinking about whether Zen concepts are relevant to Dylan’s music isn’t the same as thinking about his Christian theology or Jewish theology. It’s not the same as asking, which side is he on? It is instead, I think, an intellectual practice which illuminates all questioning.  Buddhism has been transformed from a philosophical orientation and practice into a religion complete with an institutional hierarchy, a pantheon of deities, and a supernatural cosmology. Outside this transformation it seems possible to identify and indeed practice the foundational philosophy. Heine does not take us into Hell Realms and Bodhisattvas, but into the constant work of Zen philosophy: the attention to contradiction, the refusal of consolation, the vitality of tension, that seem to characterize the Zen path to the fullest engagement of the self in the world. Heine writes about “a complicated dialectical process of embracing and renouncing seemingly opposite paths in pursuit of constructive compromise.”  Or here:  “A key parallel between Dylan, Blues, and Zen is that they all seek to navigate and find a balance between seemingly polar opposite possibilities of human experience as it seeks spiritual redemption.”

images-7Heine’s discussion takes what we talk about when we talk about Dylan and then sets it into a framework that hasn’t been drawn this clearly and authoritatively before, as far as I know. There is not news of any kind in the numberless ways Bob Dylan’s songs yearn for and relinquish certainty, or pass through conflicting and vivid states of feeling, or fearlessly act out the delusion of an ongoing solid self. How many emotions can you name in Idiot Wind? In Highlands? In  Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,  the singer asks “the only love I’ve ever known,” to bless him as he leaves her.  All of us who comprise the chattering monkey mind of Dylan listeners are already fluent in the language of desiring, seeking, confronting,  and abandoning meaning. And in the relentless cycle of desiring then abandoning certainty. We already know about being seized, battered, and spent by feelings that we often can’t recall hours after they have done us in. Or wounds whose healing seems worse than the pain they cause.

If I’m not too far off, Zen is a philosophy that exercises awareness of these relentless cycles of yearning and frustration, then exercises awareness that all humankind rides out these cycles, and ultimately exercises a particular presence of mind characterized by endurance and compassion. Heine hears the panorama of Dylan’s work as exemplary of this vision. He writes:

The mutability that characterizes Dylan’s career trajectory reflects his lifelong experimentation with diverse spiritual paths, while navigating between the wings of a deep certainty of finding a resolution or a specific answer to life’s burning questions through prophecy, family life, or the gospel and the profound uncertainty of being disheartened and disillusioned with the quest for truth (89).

This is eloquent and it is also sound. There’s nothing to argue with. And let me tell you, Heine knows his Dylan. Not for him the 3 or 4 phrases most writers use to illustrate a claim central to their argument–he’s got just about every page peppered with the songs, careening through the years: you actually hear Bob Dylan all through this book as so often we don’t. I can’t say I agree with every interpretation here (I don’t hear “anxiety” in “horseplay and disease,” e.g.) but my disagreements were productive and enjoyable, rather than maddening.


I can appreciate that from a certain distance, in a quiet space, the mutability and questing look like “experimentation,” but up close, experiment seems exactly wrong for the completeness of each mutation, and for the surrender to whatever affliction of loss or frustration or fear or confusion or pessimism is true for that mutation. And we keep coming back to share the afflictions and relish the pleasures as momentary as they are. The round-and-round is the corkscrew to my heart, and not the wheel of dharma. I respect that a person practiced in Zen Buddhism may gently and kindly remind me that corkscrewed hearts are the very nature of human life. But I think I want more revolutions of the corkscrew, and not the skills to surpass it.

And something else. Heine writes “Dylan’s temporary sojourn in the realm of born-again faith makes a great deal of sense for the way it contributes to the dialectical movement of his overall approach to spirituality” (172).

images-9 Now I have a problem: I feel certain that Zen’s  rational description of humankind’s persistent struggle to master delusion, manage passion, and endure mortality is valid. And I feel equally certain that I personally will never be available to the answers to what is real, what is good, and what is enduring, that are offered by  Christianity, nor by the Judaism of my forefathers in their bone-filled graves. But I know that Heine’s sentence above is deeply wrong: it’s not inaccurate, and it’s not superficial, it’s just wrong. When I hear the recording of I Believe In You from my own favorite gospel show (Santa Monica, ’79), I’m listening to something I can never agree with, never remain unmoved by, never be bored by–and something that in no way contributes to a “dialectical movement of [an] overall approach to spirituality.”  It is spirituality: awe-ful and painful and impossible and magnificent and sufficient unto itself. It’s not that Heine’s statement intellectualizes feeling and belief, it’s that in order to occupy the space from which I Believe In You or Trouble in Mind make a great deal of sense, I have to take them as parts contributing to a whole, rather than take them as impossible and magnificent wholes. Steven Heine might say I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, and I can and should take them as both? But I don’t want to, and finding out why is worth the effort for me. I’m at least honest enough to admit that I don’t want to look at this from the more spacious awareness that I know all people can locate and inhabit. I just don’t want to ascend to that spaciousness. I want to stay here in the bloody rocky shallows and relish the pain of loving I Believe In You while being certain that it is false. Relish the pain of loving that illusion. And I offer many thanks to Mr.  Heine for offering such valuable GPS on the journey. He is absolutely a person I would want to sit down and talk Bob with, although I’d have to warn him, my dope smoking days are over.

[Postscript: I very much hope that the paper towel dispenser, or jumbo box of coffee filters, that Continuum International Publishing Group apparently traded their entire proofreading staff for, is working out well for them.  On p. 28 we’ve got the Halloween concert taking place in Carnegie Hall; on p. 71 there’s a reference to the album “Red Sky At Morning;” on p. 68 we’ve got a reference to “Don’t Look Back;” p. 38 includes a reference to “When The Ship Comes In” and dates the song “(1965);” pp. 62 and 63 transcribe Eliot’s poem as “The Wasteland.” OK that’s enough. Mr. Heine deserves better care.]

Slow Train sessions, photos. Very Nice.



Below is a link to a very nice assortment of photos from the Slow Train recording sessions. It is not easy to find the grandeur, anger, yearning of that album in the soft-faced, amiable, smallish man in these photos.


Thoughts on When He Returns


Let’s just start with When He Returns, and listen to it as a…song. A song that tells you what it’s about within its own words and sounds, a song that is not a coded text belonging to an exclusive culture, either you’re in or you’re out. Either I already am committed to the story that Jesus Christ will come to earth from heaven and all of human history will come to an end, and something new will begin and last for all eternity–the song only truly belongs to people who already tell the story of their lives within the frame of this larger story. For everyone else, the song is at best a chance for great vocal performances by Dylan, with some strong images and declarations of emotion. I think we can hear the song otherwise, outside of its frame. The vocals on the album version
are so arresting, such an exercise in restrained articulation and then released emotion, that it is nearly operatic–you would be interested and moved without understanding the lyrics. And certainly throughout the gospel shows, the song was an aria. Clips of Bob sitting at a piano, howling the word wilderness–this is bloodcurdling drama, and to say it’s just abstract feeling is totally inadequate. I’m not just thrilled to tears to hear When He Returns because Bob Dylan rips his throat out when he sings it. What is it then, that I believe that lies outside the custom behind the song?

What will happen when this He returns, and what’s it mean to the singer? What’s it like to wait for this He to return? The sound of the song communicates two states of feeling to me: first, it is always performed at a stately and patient tempo. For a relatively short song, there is a sense of great patience underlying it that makes it seem longer than it is. It is not slowness to the pacing of the music and the phrasing, it is the control and precision that creates this effect. I must make this clear, and I will take my time to do so, the singer seems to say. From all the recordings I have heard, he does not rush this song in concert, it always occurs as a gathering-up of energy. The voice declares each word, and then breaks into pitches of released feeling: the WAR won’t cease; weakness you conceal or it lowers to emphasize the phrase–listen to the word unconcerned, or passes through. So we have this quality of patience, and also the qualities of controlled and released emotion. And it is a song about waiting, and about waiting for something that will change everything-the strongest wall will crumble and fall– what’s going to happen is inexorable–never *if* he returns–and its very power lies in our not having any way of predicting or controlling its coming–he’ll return like a thief in the night.

The singer is a lonely man in terrible pain and he is certain, he is certain of something that he must tell us. I always have an odd little pang when I hear “Of all those who have eyes….It is only he who can reduce me to tears,” and I know of course I’m supposed to have that pang. He’s rejected me, the eyes and ears I’ve brought to the very performance of this song. I can’t move him, nothing can move his heart but Christ, a figure that does not move me except in his ability to shut me off from the singer. For all the outrage and betrayal Dylan fans have expressed with righteousness over the years regarding this period and this music, simple jealousy deserves its due here. It is a peculiar jealousy, however.

So we have left the singer isolated from all contact but with Christ, and so his patience is only logical. But the lyrics address us. From the hallowed isolation of the saved one who knows how narrow truth’s gate is, who knows that the return will usher eternal peace, who knows that Christ will replace wrong with right, who seems to speak to us from certainty–from this hallowed isolation comes cries of doubt and self-laceration, and confessions that the singer can’t extricate himself from the world of ignorance he shares with the un-saved. With me. He appeals to me–with a touch of kindness that is all too rare in this album and Saved–not to cry and not to fear death or destroy myself, and not to burn by continuing to sin. So he knows I’m here, listening, even though his concern is misplaced and unnecessary, since I’m not waiting for what he’s waiting for. And in the second verse he loses his confidence, he confesses to us that he hears the lies of the ignorant, and he himself becomes narcotized by fear, finds himself stranded without the light of certainty. After asserting a conviction in the might and the truth that’s coming, he confesses terrible weakness, inability to escape the falseness that surrounds him in this fallen world. He cries out “can I cast it aside?” –a line of beautiful assonance and consonance–and my heart is moved in pity for this awful self-imposed suffering and the honesty of his weakness. Myself, I’m not strong enough to tell the world I am proud and my loyalties are to the wrong things. And at the end of this verse, he admits that he has not learned the lesson he is trying to teach us–it’ll all be better, peace will be here. He knows it is true, and he has not learned it yet well enough to bring him outside fear and sin.

Given that he will tell us in the next verse that God and Christ know our needs and our deeds, then he must feel that these powers can hear his confession of doubt, even as he has taken it upon himself to use his own gifts and his own ability to summon an audience–and so the inner stakes for this singer, to confess doubts and fears so publicly with the certain knowledge that the powers who can save him are hearing these doubts–this is an existential state of courage and abjection and loneliness that does not require my sharing the myth that provoked it as part of my own personal story. The strength of Dylan’s art has brought me into contact with this state.

How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal? Now he is inclusive, deeply inclusive–he has already let us hear him expose his own weakness, he’s shown us what he sees in the mirror and condemns–can we do the same? Religion articulates self-knowledge and conscience, it does not create them. His appeal to me here is human and it works–through the language he needs to express this appeal. And the song ends on a note of transcendent, sacred ignorance, the opposite of the lies of prejudice. Lovely internal rhyming here: plan/man/plans; known/own/throne. And then the glorious inimitable “unconcerned” for my money one of the most beautiful words he’s ever sung, in every version. The three unaccented syllables, sustained just long enough for the word to be the dying note of the song: the peace we can attain here, before the return, is the peace of knowing all we do and all the suffering we endure through desire, is nothing at all to Christ and God. The maker and the savior are, always and already, unconcerned. Shantih shantih, I suppose. Although I don’t mean to be flippant–Bob Dylan has taught me more about the human condition of religion than anything TS Eliot ever did.

Good Essay on new Gospel Years “documentary” by Joel Gilbert


Below find a fine review, by Jay Michaelson for nextbook.org, of Joel Gilbert’s latest objectionable contribution to Dylan culture, which is a so-called documentary of Dylan’s gospel years. In this brief piece, Michaelson deftly handles a summary of some of the central issues of this episode in Dylan’s life and work: the peculiar visceral betrayal felt by Jews; the inescapably important questions about what a religious life means that Bob Dylan raises to a higher bar than any other modern artist; the political, cultural, and personal contexts that framed Dylan’s turn to evangelical religion; a sympathetic appraisal of the Vineyard pastor who was Dylan’s confidante; and Michaelson’s savvy description of his–and every serious fan’s–fantasy that we intuit Dylan’s intentions. And any serious Dylan fan should join Michaelson in exposing and dismissing Joel Gilbert. Gilbert’s Dylan projects tend to be puerile, shoddy, and trivial in and of themselves, and his Jews for Jesus agenda exploits Dylan’s authentically complex religious life and religious art. Michaelson ultimately argues that the film is effective in spite of itself: Gilbert perhaps offers an interesting conversation between his own weakness and poor scruples, and Dylan’s provocative and enigmatic religion. I haven’t seen this film and although I ought to in the interests of just the kind of commitment to Dylan’s significance that Michaelson is working with here, I don’t look forward to any more of Joel Gilbert than I’ve already run up against.

I’m grateful to share this, and eager for any comments.


Blinded by the Light

A documentary on Bob Dylan’s Christian phase has ulterior motives


There’s a telling moment in Joel Gilbert’s new documentary Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: an interviewee says that when Dylan became a born-again Christian, he went, in two short years, from being an American Jewish hero to the “greatest apostate of the twentieth century.” Surely this is right; I know my mother has never forgiven him, and I suspect many other Jewish mothers haven’t either. What a betrayal—it’s as if Sandy Koufax pitched on Yom Kippur, or Adam Sandler recorded Christmas songs. But worse, because Dylan embodied a specific kind of liberal, American Jewish hope: that someone would speak truth to power, and that the world would listen. These were very Jewish dreams, and Dylan fulfilled them for awhile. But then, over and over again, he dashed them.

To be fair, it was Dylan himself who said “don’t follow leaders.” Dylan never wanted to be the voice of a generation, and he certainly never asked to be King of the Jews or a vessel for our hopes and dreams. His struggle with faith was part of his being a flawed person. If during the Jesus years, Dylan fell off the pedestal, it’s our own fault for putting him on it. But the question remains: Why did Dylan temporarily convert to Christianity in 1979, and record two religious albums proclaiming the word of God? It remains an enduring mystery, and for many Jews, the ultimate shande far di goyim: one of “our” greatest heroes becoming one of them.

Unfortunately, Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years doesn’t answer these questions; it is essentially a promotional video funded by Jews for Jesus and evangelical Christians cynically masquerading as “Highway 61 Entertainment.” After two hours of seemingly unedited interviews, ludicrously amateurish clip art, and cliched religious imagery, viewers emerge as unenlightened as we were at the outset. Widely advertised (for a documentary), Jesus Years is an unauthorized biographical film; Dylan did not participate, did not grant an interview, and did not even authorize the use of his music. It is, paradoxically, the consummate Bob Dylan film: To reference two recent efforts, the artist is so masked and anonymous, he’s not there.

It’s also just not a very good movie. The film can’t resist illustrating any point in the cheesiest way possible; when someone says “Jews,” we get a picture of Hasidim at the Western wall; when someone says “cops,” a clip-art picture of a police car; and the less said about the pictures of Biblical scenes, the better. The film’s director/interviewer, Joel Gilbert—mysteriously trying to look just like the Bob Dylan of the 1970s—inserts himself needlessly into frame after frame while giving us no reason to care about his own narcissistic journey through music studios and Hollywood homes. Art this bad can make religious people look dumb, or crazy, or both.

And yet, Jesus Years nearly succeeds in spite of itself, leaving the viewer with a certain appreciation of religious sentiment—coupled with a puzzlement at how the religious and secular seem to speak two different languages. The film’s spiritual center is Pastor Bill Dwyer of Los Angeles’s Vineyard Christian Fellowship, who Dylan called in late 1978, seeking counseling (at least according to Dwyer). Dwyer is a down-to-earth, no-bullshit kind of guy; at least as represented in the film, he’s more interested in matters of the heart than those of the hereafter, and it’s no surprise that Dylan, like many other Hollywood celebrities, reached out to him. (Then again, Dwyer’s answers to those in need relied heavily on the Book of Revelation, not exactly a handbook for trauma counseling.)

But Dwyer is cagey; like a good pastor, he doesn’t violate confidence, and we’re left clueless as to the exact nature of his relationship with Dylan. It’s not until the very end of the film—long after I would have stopped watching had I not been reviewing it—that we get any inkling of why Dylan reached out at all. Only Dylanologist A.J. Weberman mentions, in passing, that Dylan was addicted to heroin in the late 1970s, still reeling from his recent divorce and dislocation. He was, indeed, a lost soul—and Jesus found him.

In one of the few snippets of actual Bob Dylan footage in the film—included presumably because it aired on network television and is not owned by Dylan—he says that he “never cared too much for preachers who were just looking for a contribution,” but that he found something real in Dwyer’s teaching of Jesus. This is an illuminating moment. Throughout his career, Dylan has embraced both sincerity and dissimulation; his latest incarnation, as a moustachioed journeyman musician, is made of equal parts authenticity and con. What his earnest early fans never realized is that this was true from the beginning. Here was Robert Zimmerman playing at Woody Guthrie—or, as Todd Haynes’s brilliant I’m Not There suggested, a minstrel version of an African-American folksinger. Subsequent roles as an acerbic hipster and airy country music crooner similarly blended directness and diversion, truth and show.

In Jesus, Dylan seems to have found something authentic—and here is where, for me, Jesus Years became interesting. The film consists largely of a series of interviews with true believers—many of whom are Jews. It’s disconcerting and just plain weird to hear New York Yiddish accents testify about being born again. But underneath all the weirdness, I got the sense that all the people being interviewed really do believe. They’ve had some kind of genuine experience, which they’ve interpreted according to Christian mythology and symbolism. As Dwyer eloquently describes, these are people who were in great pain, and came to know great love through powerful religious experiences. These are not vulnerable sheep taken advantage of by profiteers; they are people who were hurt, and who found healing in Christianity.

Many Jews will probably find it impossible to look beyond this transparent attempt at outreach. We’re scarred and traumatized by two thousand years of Christian hegemony, anti-Semitism, and proselytizing. We’re too accustomed to the endless efforts to convert us—and Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years often seems to be one—to actually listen to the message. And indeed, when Dylan himself preached from the stage in 1979 and 1980, many fans felt the same way. The guy seemed to have fallen off his rocker.

Of course, all fans like to imagine that they share some secret bond with their idols. With Dylan, who always seems to be in on the con when he’s not perpetrating one himself, I find myself thinking “I get it” even when no one else does: like him, I see the hypocrisy; like him, I think I can understand the appeal of authentic religious experience in the context of superficiality and doublespeak. This was 1978, after all; the high water mark of disco, post-Watergate malaise, and post-1960s hangover. Everyone seemed to be on the make, or drowning in drugs and decadence. Some of the doughy-eyed interviewees in Jesus Years don’t seem to get it—but, I imagine, I do. Here was something real.

Not surprisingly, the film spends very little time discussing why Dylan left Jesus—and turned to Chabad-Lubavitch, no less—after just two years and two and a half albums. Again, Weberman sheds the only light on the subject: Dylan came to believe that his Christian advisors were exploiting him. Dwyer, too, says that he “became concerned” that some preachers were over-publicizing Dylan’s initially private conversion. What a disappointment that must have been: the old time religion turned out to be yet another con. No wonder Dylan spent most of the 1980s wandering in the pop wilderness, only regaining his footing at the end of the decade, when he got back to musical basics and rediscovered the authenticity of folk music and the blues.

Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years is more a symptom of this pattern than a study of it, exploiting Dylan’s fame to get Jews like me to sit through testimonies of salvation in Christ. Its warped perspective gives the sense that Jews for Jesus is a nationwide force rather than a peculiar outlier, and that the secular world is coextensive with aimlessness and lies. Yet in objectifying and exploiting Dylan, it also subtly manages to humanize him.

Jay Michaelson is a columnist for the Forward, a founding editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, and the author of God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice.

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