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.