Knockin' on Dylan's door

Bob Dylan continues to tantalize, antagonize and mesmerize as he turns 70 and returns to Israel.

Bob Dylan 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Bob Dylan 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Hundreds of Bob Dylan fans, along with a host of the country’s top singer/songwriters such as Mashina’s Yuval Banai, Noam Rotem and Hemi Rodner, gathered on his 70th birthday last month at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club for a “Bobfest” – an evening of poignant, spirited Hebrew and English versions of songs by the man considered the most significant musical and cultural figure of the last century.
The performers, anchored by Tamar Eisenman and her band, sang their hearts out on Dylan’s universal classics of all ages – from Shai Gabso’s remarkable reworking of “Masters of War” to Rotem’s snarling “Not Dark Yet” and Yirmy Kaplan’s rousing show-closer “Like a Rolling Stone.” Clearly they had all internalized Dylan and his music, and in an indirect thread of continuity, it’s likely that without his trailblazing work in the 1960s, some of them might never have picked up a guitar in the first place.
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Like a compass of the heart, Dylan has provided listeners with a navigation device – a framework for looking at life through the prisms of compassion, doubt, self-righteousness and belief, the gamut of human emotions.
It’s unlikely, though, that the Jewish performers and members of the audience were thinking much about a spiritual message that night in the songs of Robert Zimmerman, the grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the US. And if they were, it was certainly not being verbalized. None of the musicians said anything from the stage about what Dylan’s music had meant to them; it was all expressed in the songs.
When George Harrison introduced Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1992 at a gala 30th-anniversary show featuring some of the top generational talent that Dylan had inspired, the former Beatle said, “Some of you may call him Bobby, some of you may call him Zimmy. I call him Lucky” – a reference to his nickname in their brief 1980s superstar band The Traveling Wilburys.
Harrison could just as well have added Dylan’s Hebrew name, Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, or any other number of monikers that have been bestowed upon him since he released his first self-titled album of topical and traditional folk songs in 1962. Because anyone who has heard him or been affected by his music since then – whether as a protest folk singer, mysterious rocker, bornagain Christian or elder statesman – embraces his own perception of Dylan that is unlikely to change, no matter what label is given to it.
As Dylan told an interviewer in 2004, in explaining why he’d changed his name to Dylan from Zimmerman when he was embarking on his career, “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself.
This is the land of the free.”
Maybe that’s why, as Dylan has traversed uncharted musical, philosophical and religious terrain throughout his 50-year career, longtime devotees as diverse as an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem intent on building the Third Temple and an Anglican professor of the New Testament at a Catholic school in Canada can both continue to embrace his lyrics and messages as fitting expressions of their own religious beliefs.
“DYLAN, TO me, is the quintessential idea of the Jewish poet in search of God.”
Chaim Richman is sitting in his office at the Temple Institute, the organization he founded in 1987 “to rekindle the flame of the Holy Temple in the hearts of mankind through education… and to do all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time.” The 52-yearold rabbi, part haredi, part hippie, may deal in an unusual profession, but he says that his passion and zest for what he believes is the true path has been made clear to him through the music of Dylan.
“To me it’s about the words, about the poetry, about his incredible, indefatigable soul that comes out showing the passion of a Jew, with its frustrations, desire and search for redemption.
A Jew is always searching for redemption,” says Richman, who grew up secular and moved to Israel from the US in 1982.
“You don’t need me to talk about the overt things in his songs – the sacrifice of Isaac in ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ or the six million killed in ‘With God on Our Side.’ Those are obvious,” he says. “I feel that deeper in his lyrics, you can find a tremendous pathos, voicing this existential dilemma of the Jew in the world.”
Richman, who follows Dylan’s set lists online and collects bootleg recordings of his performances, says the singer’s Jewish spiritual side is evident from the earliest stages of his career – going back to “Black Crow Blues,” an unassuming tune from his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan.
“He sings, ‘Sometimes I’m thinkin’ I’m much too high to fall, other times I’m thinkin’ I’m so low I don’t know if I can come up at all.’ Do you know what that is? Not only is that Rebbe Nachman of Breslav talking about how a person has to get up and renew himself all the time, it’s also God telling Abraham, ‘Your seeds shall be like the stars of the sky and the dust of the Earth,’” asserts Richman.
“That goes with the train of thought that the Jew has this unbelievable blowup potential, which explains why Jews are always on the forefront of things. They’re all over the place with this energy, and when they’re good, they’re very good, and when they’re bad, they’re horrid. A person is constantly in this tug of war between the yetzarim [good and bad tendencies],” he explains.
While Dylan’s religious convictions today are unknown, aside from occasional sightings at synagogue services (on Yom Kippur in 2007 at a Chabad shul in Atlanta, and this past March at a Los Angeles synagogue following the death of his one-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo), Richman is confident that Dylan’s identity as a Jew is strong and vital.
“I think he feels it powerfully. We don’t have too many opportunities to see that, but we do know that it’s true. Look at 1978 and the song ‘Senor’ from the Street Legal album. That song is so messianic, so fraught with messianic tension,” says Richman, breaking into a Dylan drawl as he recites the lyrics: “Can you tell me where we’re headed, Lincoln County Road or Armageddon, seems like I’ve been down this way before,” and “How long are we gonna be riding... will there be any comfort there, Senor?” According to Richman, “it’s all looking for this redemption.
There’s a universal desire for redemption, but Dylan beautifully demonstrates it from a uniquely Jewish perspective, even back when he was writing all the banners and ballads of social justice like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’” – a reference to the studies of Prof. Christopher Ricks, a British literary scholar who wrote a book called Dylan’s Vision of Sin and who dissects lyrics of many of Dylan’s songs, including “Hattie Carroll,” a social commentary on racism in the US in the early 1960s.
“There are three appearances of the word ‘table’ in a row. He points out it rhymes with ‘Abel,’ and the protagonist William Zanziger kills Hattie Carroll with a cane. It’s so unbelievable. Is it subliminal? Did Bob know? That’s the age-old question of the artist. The Zohar calls it ‘shechina medaberet b’grono’ – it’s coming through him like a muse,” says Richman.
Despite visits to Israel in the 1960s and ’70s, where he prayed at the Kotel and bar mitzva-ed one of his sons, the Jewish themes and messages of Dylan’s work got blurred in the late 1970s, when the singer seemingly latched onto Christian beliefs in his life and his music. With gospel-inflected albums like Slow Train Coming and Saved, and songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody,” along with his participation in Bible study classes at the Vineyard School of Discipleship in Reseda, California, Dylan seemed to be turning his back on his Jewish upbringing. But Richman is still able to spot the Jewish themes that emerged during those years.
“Did his Christian period upset me? Was I going to fall apart because Bob did that? Of course not,” declares Richman. “Like all his other periods, some of the music is great, some not so great. There are some unbelievably beautiful songs from that period, like ‘Covenant Woman.’ But even if you take a great song which is quite Christian, like ‘The Groom Is Still Waiting at the Altar,’ you find that it’s a Jewish idea of the unification of the shechina [divine presence] and Knesset Yisrael, and the divine purpose.”
According to Richard Rubin, the Temple Institute’s deputy director – and, surprise, another longtime Dylan aficionado – Dylan’s acceptance of Christianity was a blip on the radar screen of his career and hasn’t had a lasting impact on his music.
“There was a kind of dissonance there at first,” says Rubin, who first came to Israel in the early 1980s and began to become religiously observant. “When I was going in my religious direction, he was moving toward his Christian thing. I didn’t relate to it, which was something new regarding my relationship with Dylan. But then I met some Dylan fans here and started to listen to some of the Christian stuff... and it sounded good to me. It didn’t distract me from enjoying his other music, even though it was frustrating to see a fellow Jew embrace Christianity.
But he got over it, and I got over it.”
Dylan began distancing himself from overt Christian references by the time he recorded Infidels in 1983, which included “Neighborhood Bully,” a scorching diatribe against detractors of Israel, and featured a photo of Dylan on the Mount of Olives.
But according to Richman, another song on the album provided even more of an indication that the singer was returning to his Jewish roots.
“Let’s take something far more subtle, a song I can barely mention without crying: ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.’ When I heard him sing that, I realized that this was tshuva, that he had come back,” says Richman, reciting the lyrics: “‘I wished I had been a doctor, maybe I’d have saved some lives that had been lost, maybe I’d have done some good in the world instead of burying every bridge I crossed.’ “I said to myself, ‘How many times did Bob hear a line like that from his mother when he was a kid – why can’t you be a doctor?’ And then on the next album, Empire Burlesque, he puts it right out there in the song ‘Tight Connection to my Heart’ when he sang, ‘Never could drink that blood and call it wine, never could learn to hold you, love, and call you mine.’ I found it unbelievably profound.”
PROFOUND is a term that someone else also uses to describe Dylan and his music – but instead of the Zohar and the Tanach as his guides, Michael Gilmoure finds Dylan’s messages in line with the New Testament.
An associate professor of New Testament and English literature at Providence College in Manitoba, Canada, and author of the book The Gospel According to Bob Dylan, Gilmoure concedes that Dylan may be more of a “secular prophet” than a religious one, writing in his book that the term permits “a semblance of religiosity that does not actually connect the singer to a faith tradition in any way.”
“There’s been so much reflection on Dylan and religion, I thought there was room to add to the conversation and try to diffuse some of the dogmatic statements that tend to be made about him – that he’s still a practicing Jew, he’s done with his Christian experience from the 1980s. People really want to categorize him, and I’m resistant to that,” says the 44-year-old Gilmoure in a weekend phone conversation from Manitoba.
“My book really stresses the audience’s reaction to Dylan – that it matters who I am as much as it matters who he is, and in fact, I have no idea who he is. All I have access to is the persona he puts out in his music, which is not necessarily indicative of the man himself. My thesis is that you can take whatever you need to from his music, regardless of your religious affiliation,” he asserts.
“I would definitely say that my religious pilgrimage has in different ways been informed by him, and I articulate my spirituality through his music,” he adds. “There are things I can’t write that I find a voice for via his music to this day.”
Gilmoure first heard a Dylan song – “Slow Train Coming” – at a summer church camp when he was 13, a time when both the singer and the listener were experiencing rumblings of the Christian faith.
“I got sucked in immediately, it wasn’t what my friends were listening to,” recalls Gilmoure. “In those teen years, it was the attitude that grabbed me most, that almost defiant tone. Dylan is great at being angry and opinionated, and when you’re a teen, there’s something attractive about that, when you want to give the finger to every institution and authority in your life.”
Dylan, he says, “has this delightful elasticity and ambiguity about him which he created, the mystery, I think he fosters it. Not every artist can do that – he can somehow speak to people that have different opinions about different issues and somehow he’s just flexible enough that everybody can take what they want from him.”
Gilmoure viewed the singer’s foray into Christianity as a serious attempt to explore his spirituality, an exploration that’s still bearing fruit.
“I think he still embraces parts of Christianity, I never got the sense that it was a fad,” he says. “He’s too smart to delve into something and then discard it totally.”
Gilmoure believes that “his exploration of Christianity was genuine, and I don’t see the break with it between [the 1982 and 1983 albums] Shot of Love and Infidels that others do. He still performs those songs in his shows – ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ was on the set list at the last show I saw recently. Dylan never said, ‘Oh, that was a dumb idea.’ I interviewed the pastor at the church he studied at, and his feeling was that Dylan was sincerely curious and that he never detected that it was any kind of ironic action on his part. There was something important that happened to him – we don’t know what that was. Some people call it conversion; I don’t think you have to be that specific, but it was a meaningful step in the process he continues to go through.”
According to Gilmoure, Dylan’s attraction to the New Testament is evident in newer material like “Red River Shore” from the Tell Tale Signs collection of outtakes from the late 1980s that was released two years ago.
“That’s such a beautifully mystical song, it’s got a religious core and there’s certainly a clear allusion to the Christian message in it,” he says. “The religious content is still there, and I’m not sure if it was ever gone. Biblical material is part of him, before and since his Christian phase. I think we would do well if we did an exercise and pulled the Christian albums out of the canon, because they kind of distort his body of work. Then you can see that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were part of his vocabulary long before and long after those few albums.”
He posits that “religion is more of a constant with Dylan – some people like to think of it as peaks and valleys – ‘Oh, he’s religious now, and now he isn’t.’ I don’t agree, I think that he’s always been exploring religion and spirituality.”
For Gilmoure, part of the attraction to Dylan stems not only from the lyrical depth, but from the musical side trips he takes, of which the gospel era is just one.
“In his music, he moves from folk to rock to country, exploring different worlds and returning to them. His Christian phase had a lot to do with him wanting to explore American gospel forms, just as he explored the world of folk and rock and is now exploring pre-rock roots and blues music,” he notes.
“You can think of the recent Christmas album [in which Dylan performed yuletide standards] the same way: another uniquely American musical form that Dylan had to put his fingerprints on, like he did with country with Nashville Skyline and rock with Highway 61. I think it’s the world of music that he’s presenting us – he’s taking us to school with every new album.”
Taking Dylan’s career as a whole, Gilmoure says it signifies an ongoing journey for the singer, and living proof that the pursuit is as meaningful as crossing the finish line.
“He reminds me of that U2 line – ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,’ that sense of restlessness. I think of Dylan like the image that German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin described of a pedestrian walking the streets of Paris with no particular destination, observing everything that crosses his path and finding meaning, value and beauty in the most unexpected places. For him, the spirituality involved forward movement – we never know everything, and there’s still more to learn. That’s what seems to come across in his work” The Temple Institute’s Richman agrees with that assessment, using a Talmudic saying to describe it.
“He’s ‘lovesh tzura v’poshet tzura’ – he’s always changing,” says Richman. “He has an old soul, what Rav [Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen] Kook refers to as ‘nishmat tohu’ – the sound of chaos. He’s always looking for, and transcending, the personal idiom to take on a universal theme.”
While over the last 15 years or so, Dylan has honed his musical and lyrical focus toward a rustic mix of Americana encompassing blues, R&B, ’40s crooning, and raucous roots music with cryptic parables of American history, Richman remains just as enthralled with the output.
“He’s talking now from a place of the wisdom of age. There’s something about his music now, like ‘Thunder on the Mountain,’ which seems like reworkings of folk themes that are ageless – it’s like the wisdom of ancient times, a very basic, almost a primal feeling of expression, and to me, that’s the most Jewish thing there is,” he says.
“That’s why Dylan’s the quintessential Jewish artist. He appeals to my Jewish soul, because he feels himself to be caught in many worlds at once, looking for his own community all the time, constantly beset by the mockers, scoffers and doubters. I find that he relates to all the things I’ve come to realize through my struggles, studies and life experiences – the disappointment, pain and joy and all the things we experience and go through in this world. We need to be able to take that and grow from it, which is what he’s done.
“Many years ago I read an interview from the late 1960s with Dylan, in which the interviewer quoted some maxim of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav to Bob, thus apparently introducing him to the rebbe’s teachings,” recounts Richman. “I’ll never forget reading how Bob responded: ‘Wow... a guy like that, I’d follow anywhere...’” From the hallways of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, to the towers of Providence College in Manitoba, to the sweaty, loud stage of the Barby Club in Tel Aviv, the followers of Dylan are continuing to knock on his door.