If Bob Dylan can release a great song like Dreaming of You over 11 years after he wrote it, than I guess I can dig up an old book review from about five years back and post it.
Seth Rogovoy’s new book, Bob Dylan Prophet, Mystic, Poet is an admirable piece of work in many ways. By reading its pages even the most devout Dylan fan is bound to learn many new things about Bob Dylan’s amazing life story and endless connections and influences upon Bob Dylan, America‘s preeminent singer songwriter who is estimated to have written 1,500 complete songs. Rogovoy’s love, even self confessed “obsession”[i] with the subject matter (i.e. Bob Dylan) is everywhere apparent and can be seen by the great attention he pays to every possible detail from most obscure liner notes to the most obtuse rumors. All of this are tell-tale signs of the serious and difficult labors that went into this work. However, it is this same obsession with the subject matter that seems to be its undoing -- as the obsession causes this book to be fundamentally flawed, and at times….. almost completely undermined.Because Seth holds Bob Dylan in such high esteem –there are places in the book where he seems to regard him as of equal stature as the Biblical (that would be “canonical” for Seth) prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel -- he simply cannot accept the notion that Dylan might have truly converted to New Testament Christianity. To do so in Seth’s mind would be to completely turn ones back on one’s upbringing, one’s culture, one’s friends, one’s faith and one’s family. In Seth’s world, to become a New Testament Christian is the ultimate sacrilege and if Seth can find some way to interpret the data to hold open the possibility that Dylan has not completely gone over to the dark side (i.e. born again Christianity) then he is going to try to do it.
But Seth, get over it! He’s gone over! And Seth, until you are willing to acknowledge that Bob Dylan has gone over – then we simply can’t trust you to be an honest interpreter. We can’t regard you as an honest broker of the truth, until you are willing to do this simple, so self evident thing, then we just simply can’t believe you. As Dylan cried out in the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 between songs when somebody from the audience yelled "Judas" and Dylan responds.... "I don't believe you!" …..”
I have a friend who is Jewish and he is the one who told me about the promotional book tour that Seth was beginning at a local Jewish cultural center. I had read many good articles by Seth in the past and esteemed him highly as a Dylan interpreter, so of course I wanted to go. It turned out that Seth had obtained some advance copies of his book prior to its official release and he made these autographed copies available on this, his very first stop, of his fall book tour. Both my friend and I purchased copies of the book that night and began reading them together. We would see each other weekly as our children took tennis lessons together with the same coach throughout the winter season. So each week we would be able to debrief and compare notes with each other out on the courts as we compared how the reading was going.
Now my Jewish friend told me that he was a slow reader, but I am a super slow reader. I have always wanted to get that book entitled How to Read a Book Slowly but because I read so slowly, I have never had time to get around to it. I can’t read a book unless I have a pen in my hand, and I use the pen extensively as I read. I never fail to consult a footnote when it is presented before me. So as my Jewish friend and I are working our way though the book my friend is starting to get a head of me. He starts telling me things like “Oh you are not going to like this next chapter.” “Why not,” I ask? “Because of what he says when he is interpreting the Christian era, Oh No! You are not going to like it at all.” As the weeks move on, he moves on through the Christian era, while I am still working through the Rolling Thunder years while he heads on into the album called Infidels.
Now when I see my friend the next time, his countenance has dropped when he sees me. “Oh this is really getting bad, it’s getting embarrassing. You are not going to believe what he does with the song Man of Peace.” Now this is really starting to peak my curiosity, but I am a disciplined reader, so I am simply not going to skip ahead -- even if strongly tempted by these sorts of provocations. As a bit of an aside here, to get some background on the song Man of Peace, and Dylan’s understanding, at this period of the Antichrist figure in the bible, I recommend the linked “between song rap” at Massy Hall in Toronto, in April 20, 1980. Here he says Adolf Hitler is a "preview" of the Antichrist figure and "he is going to bring peace to the world."
But the fact that even my Jewish friend found Seth’s interpretation of the Christian era so difficult to swallow, I think is very telling. I set now before the reader my Jewish friend as exhibit A that I am not exaggerating when I say that Seth has almost completely undermined his good book. And this is a shame, because as I have said, this book is a good work. It just needs about 10 or 20 pages to be cut out because they are so incredibly far-fetched.
Sure it is a little bit more than annoying to always be seeing the italicized phrase in Seth’s book about Dylan’s “so called Christian period,” but I willing to cut him some slack on that. But when Seth comes out and says things like the following, I just have to draw the line:
When I told people I was writing a Jewish biography of Bob Dylan, the question I was asked was: “Isn’t he still a born-again Christian?” To which I always replied “Who knows?” Indeed who knows? And in any case, it’s beside the point. This book sets out to make no claims about Bob Dylan’s past or present religious beliefs or self-identification.
Now I am sorry Seth -- but who are you kidding! Your whole purpose is obviously to point out Bob Dylan’s large indebtedness to his association with, and by extension, his personal beliefs in Judaism. And you do a good job of it. You accomplished your goal of digging deeply into the unique socio-cultural context in Duluth and Hibbing, where he was raised in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But an honest reader will recognize that it is also very clear that part of your agenda in this book is to cast some serious doubt upon the idea that Dylan still is a “born again Christian” ……… as everyone keeps on reminding you.
And almost as if designed to blow up the thesis, just as Seth’s book is coming out in the fall of 2009, Dylan releases a Christmas album! That really had to hurt. And then when several reviewers of the Christmas album notice that Dylan is singing the Christian Hymns in complete seriousness like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” they are prompted to ask Dylan if he is signing these Hymns as a true believer in the Christian gospel (the Christian gospel is the good news described in the hymn as “the hopes and fears of all the years”). To which Dylan replies in a promotional piece for public consumption, “I am a true believer.” Then add to this that Dylan is at this same time beginning to open his fall tours with the song Change my way of Thinkin’ where he is proclaiming in very clear, not to be misunderstood language: “Jesus is Coming, Coming back to gather his Jewels.” This is certainly not anything your typical Jewish believer would ever be willing to confess. To proclaim this message one has to have gone over… to have done the unspeakable…..to have become….a Christian.I applaud the way the early life of the Zimmerman family in Hibbing are described in much more elaborate detail in Seth’s book than in any of the other many biographies, and this is great. Seth has done a fine service here in unearthing unique information about the Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, his mother’s family’s connections to the movie theaters in Hibbing, the Yiddish family connections, all of the this is great stuff. He has done the work of a true historian here and given us a lot of texture to help us understand and begin to imagine the Bob Dylan boyhood. Too bad we have to revoke Seth’s credentials as a true historian a little later in the book.
But let’s get right to that section in the book where Seth goes so seriously off the rails. The section that becomes really too much to take is the chapter eight entitled, “Burnt Offerings” and we going to be suggesting that this part of the book should be excised and actually become … a literal burnt offering. Seth gives us a little taste of what it was like for him when “word first started leaking out in early 1979 that Bob Dylan had become a ‘born-again Christian.” He says “this seemed the worst kind of betrayal” …it “came as a huge letdown” and for Jewish fans it was to “turn his back on the faith of his forefathers” and it was simply “intolerable.” When things become intolerable in a tough family situation (say in the case of alcoholism or child or sexual abuse) the way that many attempt to deal with the intolerable is resort to denial. Sadly, this is the road Seth has chosen to walk down. How many roads can a man walk down? .....and pretend that he still doesn't see?So early in this chapter Seth indicates how he is going to try to explain all of this away. He informs us that we are about to see that this really “wasn’t as stark and religious – certainly not as Christian – as it’s often been made out to be.” So he is telling us that a work like as Slow Train Coming is not really “as Christian” as it appears to be. Really? Now this is going to be interesting! He is warning us …to get strapped in… and buckle our seatbelts, for he is about to take us on a ride of some serious intellectual gymnastics. If he can pull this one off it will be akin to a miracle (like turning wine into water) because even the producer of the album, Jerry Wexler, a fervent atheist, famously said of this album: "His material [in Slow Train Coming] turned out to be wall-to-wall Jesus," said Wexler, "but I didn't care: it could have been the telephone directory.” Wexler didn’t give thought to the material because he felt so honored when Dylan asked him to produce the album. As Jeff Cocran says in the online journal Like the Dew, “It turned out to be a huge success, reinvigorating Dylan’s career and introducing him to a whole new audience. Although many fans were disappointed, mystified or just plain angry about Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, millions were delighted with his musical sermons. The album went platinum in the U.S. and peaked at Number 3“[ii]and earned Bob Dylan his first Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
I am wondering where Seth’s reference to a book that I found to be so helpful during this period of time was, and that was Paul William’s 1979 Book: Bob Dylan: What Happened? If you are going to cover this period of the Dylan story, you really need to read William’s amazing descriptions of what those very first born again concerts were like in San Francisco. Paul went to all of them, described them in exquisite detail, and was absolutely blown away.
And where are the references to the documentary film of Joel Gilbert’s Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years, Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born… Again!, which feature extensive and insightful interviews with Bob Dylan’s Pastors at the Vineyard Fellowship in Southern California as well as Jerry Wexler the producer of the Slow Train Coming album and Mitch Glaser founding member of Jews for Jesus. As Joel Gilbert describes putting this documentary DVD together:
Everyone I approached was willing to speak with me, except the major figures at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, which included founding Pastors Kenn Gulliksen, Bill Dwyer, and Larry Myers. For four months, I worked on these potential interview subjects, but encountered resistance because of a policy in the late seventies to protect Dylan’s privacy so he could grow in his faith without press intrusion. I found these pastors were still playing the same role in protecting Dylan’s privacy – there had been no reason for them to change that approach despite the passage of years. It was only by assuring them that my project sought to explain the history and context of Dylan’s religious music vis a vis the times, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, the evangelical movement in the late 70’s, the born again experiences, Jews for Jesus, and so on that Pastor Bill Dwyer agreed to open up on the subject for the first time. Pastor Dwyer explained that Dylan (who was a student in his Bible class), to his amazement, learned the Bible very quickly, and that his lyrics in “Slow Train Coming” displayed a fantastic grasp of the messages of the Bible.[iii]
This documentary by Joel Gilbert should have been consulted by Seth, because it provides the very helpful background details that are needed as one is piecing together the way the born again experience went down. After viewing these materials it is easy to understand and appreciate the Christian albums as a sincere outgrowth of Dylan's own spiritual seeking.
Dylan’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal savior was made known in Spring ‘79, soon after his conversion. According to Clinton Heylin’s Behind The Shades, Dylan alluded to his faith in a pre-trial deposition to a defamation-of-character suit filed by Patty Valentine, regarding his song “Hurricane.” When asked about his wealth, Dylan replied, “You mean my treasure on earth?” He responded to a question about the identity of the song’s “fool” by describing that person as being whoever Satan gave power to….whoever was “blind to the truth and was living by his own truth.” Five days later the deposition was reported in The Washington Post. More statements of faith were on the way.
I was in the audience when Dylan returned to my home town, the always left leaning, Madison, WI, as a born again Christian and the Dane County Coliseum that Dylan which had always sold out for a Dylan concert in just a few days, was now only half filled. I heard the boos and cat calls as Dylan persisted in his wall to wall Jesus proclamations, preaching and beautifully singing these exciting new songs. I was an eye witness to the “Jews for Jesus” evangelists handing out religious information describing how one can be saved like Bob had been inside the Coliseum; it was obvious they were invited there by the artist himself. I saw some older Dylan fans almost coming to blows with the evangelists when they presented them with the religious tracts. I know what happened…because I was there and it was electrifying, both in the performance and the whole ambiance of the place, and I know what price Dylan paid for his new found faith in the face of the shameless scoffers. It is all well explained and described in the Bob Dylan song from a couple years later: Dead Man, Dead Man.
But I digress. I don’t think I need to go over the mountain of evidence that Dylan has plainly confessed to being a Christian in 1979 and that he continues to follow this road today, albeit a little less overtly. If I went on, Seth won’t believe it anyway, even if I filled a thousand encyclopedias with the evidence. As Dylan sings “for all those who have eyes, and all those who ears, It is only Him that can reduce me to tears.” The Apostle Paul, himself a converted Jew, explains what it is like when you are given the eyes to see and the ears to hear the gospel, He says:2 Corinthians 3:16 "But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed."
At the time of this book, Seth’s mind was completely closed off to this possibility. Can he cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride? It’s a shame because the rest of the book is a pretty good read.
[i] In the Acknowledgments on the final page of the book (p.298) before the Permission and index, Seth thanks his children for “sharing their father with an obsession and the need to work it out through the writing of a book.”
[ii] Post by Jeff Cochran: http://likethedew.com/2010/02/24/slow-train-rockin-the-white-house-part-5/