December 17, 2009
Exhuming Bob 22:
Prophet, Mystic, Poet?
Back in the early sixties a film appeared under the title: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. It was a Jewish fable clothed in Western Americana not unlike Bob Dylan’s lyrics.
The story line is about how to deconstruct one legend and reconstruct it to suit one’s purposes. The gist is that once a falsehood is enshrined as legendary truth it is impossible to debunk it. This film and notion was obviously for goyish consumption. As we know from experience a whole culture with a long history can be ‘debunked’ with minimal trouble if you control the media. Thus in fifty short years Americans have gone from being the most benevolent and generous people on Earth to the most destructive self-centered Nazi types. Furthermore Americans were conditioned to believe it about themselves. ‘Why do they hate us?’
The secret was contained in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. One of the primary agents of that change was the prophet, mystic ans seer, the very Jewish Bob Dylan. I left off poet because at best Dylan is merely an effective lyricist.
A San Francisco Bay Area fellow, Seth Rogovoy, has written an essay on Dylan with the above title without the question mark. Stephen Hazan Arnoff who is the executive directory of New York’s 14th St. YMHA has written a review of Rogovoy which he subtitles ‘Jerimiah, Nostradamus and Allen Ginsberg all Rolled Up Into One.’ High praise indeed, if unwarranted. Just as Mr. Arnoff inflates Dylan’s significance he grossly inflates that of the pornographic so-called poet, Allen Ginsberg. Perhaps it is time to use techniques learned from ‘Liberty Valence to debunk the reputation of Dylan.
Dylan is no prophet, he is merely topical using enigmatic phrasing to give the appearance of depth. There is little actual difference between the topical material of Dylan and Phil Ochs. Mr. Arnoff improbably writes:
(Dylan’s) prophetic persona is particularly resonant in his first few albums where songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” sets the gold standard for prophecy in popular music.
Prophecy in popular music? What’s that? Actually neither song is prophetic. ‘Blowin” actually refers to the past of Dylan’s youth in Hibbing although topically it has usually been extended to represent the then current civil rights activities in the South. ‘Times’ is merely a cocky know-it-all sneer at politicians who aren’t aware that the kids are alright, on the move, have a voracious apetite to eat them up. Both songs have borrowed tunes (no crime or even sin in my estimation) and, if Rogovoy is correct lyrics cribbed from the Bible.
As Mr. Arnoff notes, Rogovoy chooses a single critical lens- Judaism- for understanding Dylan and his work. No fault in an essay, pointing out the Jewish influence in Dylan’s work. Actually Mr. Rogovoy is no innovator or pathfinder, the same material has been adequately covered by numerous investigators including myself in a series of essays.
But Mr. Arnoff also notes there are other avenues to approach the songs that Mr. Arnoff believes are equally valid: Greil Marcus explains him as a mystic raconteur of the secret history of the United States, coded thorugh traditional music while Christopher Ricks describes a master interpreter of classical Western literature and thought.’ (cough, cough)
While Greil Marcus is another good Jewish boy I hardly think he is a responsible authority on anything. He takes roughly the same approach as Mr. A.J. Weberman while the latter is vastly more entertaining. I have to combine Mr. Marcus and Mr. Ricks. While I certainly respect Dylan’s intelligence and acumen I would have to question both the breadth and depth of his education.
Dylan attended high school in Hibbing, Minnesota which is a far cry from any of the leading cultural centers of either the Western or Eastern worlds. I grew up in a slightly larger town up North than Dylan although probably not much different than Hibbing intellectually. I keenly felt the lack of intellectual opportunites when I went out into the large world.
There is a question as to whether Dylan graduated from high school while he never attended college. Immediately immersing himself in folk music he left Minnesota for NYC. There he found people with libraries of which he availed himself while boarding with them. This was a very brief period during which he could only have picked up names and impressions such as he employed in his song Desolation Row. His girl friend Suze Rotolo introduced him to more culture than he could have imagined from 1961 to 1965. This could not have been much.
During that time Dylan spent a lot of time writing songs, drinking and drugging and touring. Not a lot of opportunity to become a ‘master interpreter of classical Western literature and thought.’ I have no idea what Mr. Arnoff means by ‘classical.’ I doubt seriously if Dylan is any authority on, say, the pre-Socratics. If Mr. Ricks believes as Mr. Arnoff represents him I would have to question Professor Ricks’ qualifications for his post. There’s something wrong there.
Now, as to Mr. Marcus and his mystic raconteur of the secret history of the US. What secret history? Dylan says he studied the ante-bellum South from newspaper accounts in the archives of the NYC library. This would have been over a couple of months only. As near as I can tell he did so with an enquiring and open mind and is fully capable of making cogent observations. This however is scarcely a secret history while being only one brief period and region.
What Dylan has done is immerse himself in the songs of the US. He says that when he visited Carl Sandburg it was with the itent to discuss Sandburg’s ‘American Song Bag.’ One certainly has to respect Dylan’s song knowledge and his excellent taste. This knowledge however is well beyond Mr. Marcus’ ability to understand. He, as far as I have been able to ascertain had nil knowledge of songs and music until he joined Rolling Stone Magazine in the late sixties.
Up in Hicksville Dylan immersed himself in every kind of music, without discrimination. He was fully conversant with Hillbilly as his native music. The Carter Family was a living entity to him and not an academic study. All those now obscure names were living legends to him and not mere footnotes at the bottom of a page. Thus while Dylan’s Jewish influences are prominent, uppermost and dominant he nevertheless has a foot in both cultures. His American culture is musical however, and what sounds like ‘a secret history’ to Mr. Marcus is merely the hillbilly interpretation of ‘revenuers’ ‘white lightning’ and such. I do not see Dylan as a ‘classically’ educated man.
Mr. Arnoff displays his Jewish bigotry when he says: Messianic Judaism (or Jews for Jesus) is the weakest form of interpretation for Dylan. So far as I know no one interprets Dylan’s work through the lens of Messianic Judaism. However it is equally apparent that Dylan was interested enough to study the topic carefully. That says more for Dylan’s open mindedness than Mr. Arnoff’s narrow minded bigotry. One must be ‘open minded’ n’est-ce pas?
As Mr. Arnoff notes, Dylan always said he was ‘a song and dance man’ and I think that says as much as need be said. Anyone who has been able to entertain a significant audience nearly fifty years now has to have a serious talent. One should bear in mind though that Dylan appeals to a relatively small and well-defined audience he himself defines as ‘the abused, misused, confused, strung out ones and worse.’ This is his core constituency to which he ‘kvetches.’ Apparently English isn’t good enough for Mr. Arnoff.
Dylan’s greatest song is Positively Fourth Street which is maximum kvetching. I considered myself abused and misused when I first heard the song. The lyrics had me slavering like one of Pavlov’s dogs when he heard the dinner bell ring. But, like Pavlov’s dog there wasn’t really anything on the plate. Once I passed through that phase of my psychology I lost interest in Dylan.
While Dylan has managed to retain, recruit and entertain his audience he is far from the man who shot Liberty Valence or Jeremiah, Nostrodamus and Allen Ginsberg all rolled up into one. I’m afraid that’s one legend that will be debunked before it’s formed.
Kvetcher or not I still can’t listen to him.
November 20, 2008
Exhuming Bob 15:
Dylan’s Jesus Years Reexamined
Stephen Hazan Arnoff has broached an interesting possiblity in his Jewish Forward article cited above. He implies that Dylan is a ‘messianic’ Jew in conspiracy with Mitch Glaser and Al Kasha of Jews For Jesus to promote Jesusism as a sect within the Jewish faith. I think there is some evidence to support this contention.
First let us review the nature of Jesus and relationship to the Judaic faith at the transition from the Arien to the Piscean Age. So far as I know there are no authentic third party references to the Jesus hubbub in Israel. Whatever happened in Israel regarding Jesus was beneath the notice of the outside world. Thus the only accounts we have of the historical Jesus are the accounts of the various gospels. These while hagiographic appear to be eyewitness accounts.
Jesus opposed himself to the Pharasaic establishment. Because of this the Sanhedrin had the Romans arrest and execute him. Yes, I know the Jewish version imposed on the world denies this fact as reported by the eyewitnesses but as the story becomes meaningless outside the context I’m going to stick to the ‘official’ story.
With Jesus removed from the scene the Jesus sect within Judaism flourished nevertheless. The Pharasaic establishment persecuted the Jesusites onto death. Often referred to as Jewish Christians this is a misnomer. The Jesusites didn’t become Christians until after Paul combined Jesusism with the Greek Kyrios Christos cult and the ‘savior’ became Jesus the Christ combining Greek and Jewish influences. That is, he was the Messiah, the Mahdi, the Awaited One.
Jesus the Christ then expanded out of Judaism and the very last in Judaism became the first in the world. The Jews because of the Jewish heretic, Jesus, then made Christians their enemies both within and without the faith. One might compare Jesus to Judaism as Luther to Catholicism.
The Jesus sect has always existed within Judaism. Then sometime in the seventies of the last century Mitch Glaser and Al Kasha formed the sect Jews For Jesus and began to proselytize. Initially Glaser was in San Francisco and Kasha was in LA where Dylan ran into him.
Now, the question of Dylan’s interest in Jesus arises. Dylan, I believe, has the emotional problem where he must be in rebellion against whatever. Whatya got? As Marlon Brando intoned. Also the movie Rebel Without A Cause was Dylan’s favorite. Thus, while he was indoctrinated by Rebbe Reuben Meier, a Lubavitcher, which is to say Ultra-Orthodox and reared by a father and mother of the same persuasion he was in rebellion against those authorities. There can be no question that Dylan was reared as a Jew of the Jews and accepted the role. When Jews For Jesus came into existence Dylan may have found the vehicle for his rebellion against his Orthodox upbringing. Nothing could be more rebellious to the Orthodox Lubavitchers than turning to the arch Jewish heritic, Jesus of Nazareth. Forget this Christian stuff; Dylan was never a sincere Christian. As a Jew of the Jews there was no way he could have been.
Now, it appears that he took up with Al Kasha in LA before he turned up at the Vineyard Fellowship. Dylan was very close to Kasha not only living in his house, old habits are hard to break, but he was given a key to it. He composed many of his religious songs on Kasha’s piano. There is no flirtation with Christianity here.
There must therefore be an ulterior motive in his exploitation of the Vineyard Fellowship.
Let’s follow the sequence of events.
Having written and recorded Slow Train Coming Dylan the decided to introduce his new persona and songs in the city of San Francisco. Why SF? Los Angeles has the largest concentration of Jews in any one city in the world. Why not there? Perhaps because SF also with a very large Jewish population was the Rock mecca of the world.
Now, an interesting thing happens. Dylan already has a close association with Jews For Jesus. Having been a house guest of Kasha while udoubtedly becoming a convert to Jews For Jesus it seems improbable that Mitch Glaser hadn’t also spent some time with Dylan at Kasha’s place in LA. What could be more natural?
Well, gosh, now we go through a charade where Jews For jesus ask if they could proselytize outside the Warwick burlesque house where Dylan was playing. No answer. Then someone ostensibly from Dylan’s organization calls and says Dylan’s amenable. Well, Glaser’s no fool, he and the other Js for J get their heads together and determine to ask for passes as proof. If those are at the window they’ll know Dylan is sincere.
What’s going on here? Obviously this had been planned for months. Dylan is a Jew For Jesus, he knew Glaser pretty well. So why the mysterioso act? Possibly because Dylan wanted to dupe the real Christians, however many of these might have attended his shows, while allowing the Js for J intruders access to any obvious Jews attending for proselytization purposes. Dylan had a very large following amongst the Jews so a very large proportion of the audience would be Jews. Sort of making it easy for them to crack that hard nut.
As Arnoff says of the Js for J:
(The Jews For Jesus were) almost universally regarded by non-messianic Jews as being beyond the margins of organized Jewish life.
Hence they are outside the Law of the Talmud. Thus we have the meaning of Arnoff’s title: Jesus, Bob: To Live Outside The Law You Must Be Honest. Dylan was now both outside the Law and dishonest in Arnoff’s mind at least. A marked man.
However, confusion here, not long after:
Dylan submitted fully to the Law that provides a singular answer to plow through the doubt, paradox, hurt and unbelief…
What more do you need? By that Arnoff means that Dylan submitted to a course in re-indoctrination from Orthodix Lubavitcher Rebbes. If you believe that there’s a bridge that isn’t too far called Brooklyn with your name on it: Fool. Arnoff should think this through twice. It’s not alright.
The Beatles were bigger than Jesus and Bob Dylan undoubtedly thinks he’s bigger than Judaism. At least as a Messiah in the Jesus mold.
So, Joel Gilbert went to a lot of trouble and expense to produce his four hour movie: Rolling Thunder And The Gospel Years. Note: Gospel Years rather than Christian years. In the hopes of spreading his message and failing that, getting his money back Gilbert has separated The Gospel Years from Rolling Thunder and renamed it Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus years: Busy Being Born…Again! Still no mention of Christianity.
Arnoff is nearly beside himself that anyone would promote such a film. Of course as Dylan said in his song Motorcycle Nightmare: If it hadn’t been for freedom of speech I would have wound up in the swamp. Thank G-d for small favors hey? I don’t know why it isn’t proper to spell God out since he doesn’t exist but that’s the way these people do it, so me too. But hang on tight. Arnoff:
Gilbert’s mere desire may have been to find an audience for his work, but placement of the event by Glaser’s group, as well as messianic Congregation (Jews For jesus) Sha’ar Adonai at The Society For Ethical Culture- founded as a nonsectarian movement by the humanist Jew Felix Adler- added an element of irony to the insult of a messianic soft sell throughout.
Imagine a nonsectarian humanist Jews of you will. A contradiction in terms if I’ve ever seen one. Mr. Arnoff somehow sees himself as nonsectarian while being aghast at the idea of outlaw messianic Jews being allowed to use this ‘nonsectarian’ facility. As he says the insult of a messianic soft sell. Freedom of speech. Right.
So, what about it? Was Dylan brought back within the Law as Mr. Arnoff says or is he still a messianic Jewish outlaw?
Well…he may look like Robert Ford
But he feels just like Jesse James.
Addendum: As a sort of addendum Dylan’s words at the election night bash at U. Minnesota should be looked at more closely.
Now, I was born in 1941. That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve been living in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are going to change now.
What can that mean? The first two sentences set the scene for the last two.
‘I’ve been living in darkness ever since (I was born in 1941.) Does that mean that Dylan thinks Pearl Harbor made the world dark for everyone or does it just mean that Dylan has been denied the light personally ever since the day he was born?
Such a state of things would seem impossible. Born on 5/24/41, Pearl Harbor was bombed on 12/7/41. So Dylan wouldn’t have been aware of that until say 1946 or 1947-48. So, the bombing of Pearl Harbor is related to the bombing or darkening of Dylan’s psyche. He believes himself mentally affected since birth.
‘But it looks like things are going to change now.’ Alright. The change or lifting of his personal darkness is related to Barry Obama. Dylan’s too realistic to believe any politician is going to change anything, so what does he have to look forward to to brighten his outlook?
In his vanity he considers himself a ‘great’ poet. Indeed Christopher Ricks compares him to Shakespeare and Milton. Dylan introduces himself at his concerts as ‘The Poet-Laureate of Rock And Roll. (Snicker, snicker.)
In Chronicles Vol. I in his discussion of the Poet Laureate of the United States he seems to show some interest in succeeding Archibald McLeish in that role.
The idea had already occurred to me that it might happen but I read on the web recently a suggestion that Barry make Dylan the Poet Laureate of the United States. It would cheapen the title but perhaps the deal was a Poet Laureateship for an Endorsement. Cheap enough for Barry while the appointment would apparently lift Dylan’s inspissated gloom.
Ain’t life too strange for words?
November 17, 2008
Exhuming Bob 14:
The LAW And Bob Dylan
Stephen Hazan Arnoff wrote the aove referenced Forward article titled: Jesus, Bob: To Live Outside The LAW You Must Be Honest: Dylan’s Born Again Years Documented.
Mr. Arnoff is very difficult to follow. Kern writing in the comments to Mr. Arnoff’s article puts it succinctly: Mr. Arnoff you have written a lot of words, but after reading them all, I have no idea what you are saying.
I think part of the problem is cross cultural references. By living outside the LAW Mr. Arnoff means Talmudic Law and not the legal code of the United States of America. Mr. Arnoff is what I suppose he would call a ‘secular’ Jew reviewing ‘messianic’ Jews in the Jewish Forward, a ‘secular’ Jewish web magazine.
I have no idea what Kern is but as a goy I have to read standard English words and try to put them into trans-cultural contexts. If I make a mistake or two I hope I may be forgiven.
I perceive the title To Live Outside The Law You Must Be Honest to mean that Dylan is living his life outside the Jewish Law rather than an outlaw to the US legal code. This is a construction of Dylan’s line I hadn’t made but it may very well be accurate. Depending on whether the line from ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, read, possibly, Mary, is addressed to his fellow Jews explaining a seeming dalliance with goyish ways or in some sort of general ‘poetic’ license referring to the US legal code or societal mores, Arnoff’s understanding of the line may be correct. As we are coming to realize Dylan’s religious conflicts appear to dominate his work. After all anyone who believes the Bible is the actual word of God is living a religious delusion. After he had established himself by 1966 his mother proudly informed us that Dylan had an open bible on a stand in his living room, of all places to which he hopped up regularly to check for references. There is a C&W connection here in the song, If Jesus Came To Your House. The rhetorical question was would he find a Bible open on the table or a Playboy Magazine. Dylan could answer affirmitively: The Bible. That’s what his mother proudly announced.
While Mr. Arnoff proudly says that Dylan was busy trashing goy, what he calls Christian, culture he fails to note that Dylan was no less disrepectful of traditional Jewish ways. But that brings us to what Mr. Arnoff’s ostensible intent is, that is, to review Joel Gilbert’s film: The Gospel Years.
As I understand it, Mr. Gilbert, who is Jewish trying to be a Dylan clone, made a four hour film entitled Rolling Thunder And The Gospel Years from which he abstracted the final two hours and has reissued it in the two hour version. Acting on that information I obtained the four hour DVD while I haven’t seen the two hour film, if it is different. I’m assuming that it is identical to the four hour version.
As I am not a Jew my sensibilities are different than Mr. Arnoff’s who is ensconced within the Jewish faith, culture, nation or by whatever name it is going by this week. Mr. Arnoff, ignoring Dylan’s early upbringing, see my above referenced essay Fit 4, Bob As Messiah, and psychology assumes that Dylan abandoned Judaism and turned to Christianity because:
…deep pain drives deep “witnessing” in the realm of born again Christian acolytes; that the tumult of drugs, social and political burnout and the failures of the sexual revolution left many people broken in ways that the Jesus movement- rooted in heady Southern California, where Dylan and many other counterculture heroes lived at the time- exploited to attract vulnerable souls.
One assumes that Mr. Arnoff is characterizing Dylan as a ‘vulnerable soul’ rather than a conscious human being. The question in my mind is who was exploiting whom. My notions of Christianity and Judaism and their relationship to each other is obviously culturally opposed to that of Mr. Arnoff. I believe Dylan was much more calculating, or to put it another way, had an agenda, then might appear at first glance. His vision of Christianity and Judaism was also much different than that of the ‘secular’ Mr. Arnoff.
Life is more complex, as are psychologies, than any of us can possibly express but we must try. Gilbert’s full video, Rolling Thunder And The Gospel Years, seems to be such a serious attempt.
Dylan’s life may be characterized as a downward spiral from, say, 1959 when he left home to his encounter with Jesus in 1979 when as Mr. Arnoff suggests, he hit bottom but for different reasons than Mr. Arnoff suggests. Mr. Arnoff seem oblivious to the fact that Dylan was indoctrinated by a Lubavitcher Rebbe for his Bar Mitzvah.
Gilbert picks up Dylan’s life from 1975 to 1981 the last few years before the singer bumped against the lower depths, and examines it closely. Viewed from one perspective Dylan led a disgusting life from 1955 to 1979 as he groped to ind his way out of his self-confessed confusion. A large part of his confusion was the conflict between his Jewish and Christian milieux.
The few years between the abandonment of the first phase of his career when ‘He Threw It All Away’ and the resumption of his profligate ways with 1975′s Rolling Thunder Review after he had given birth to his brood in fulfillment of the Jewish Law to be fruitful and multiply was his only attempt to quiet his confusion. Those few years were also years in which he studied the Bible evidently trying to reconcile his Orthodox Jewish upbringing with his surrounding Christian milieu.
After this relatively quiet period, having fulfilled the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, Dylan savaged his marriage so brutally that his wife had no choice but to leave him. Incredibly in view of his behavior this astonished him so much that it caused him to reevaluate his conduct somewhat and thus ‘deep pain’ drove him into the realm of born again Christian acolytes.’
On one level this may be true. However it must be borne in mind that at one time, or perhaps many times, his father told him that a son could become so defiled that his parents would reject him but that God could lead him back to virtue again. This notion seems to have dominated his life from that point on so that when he hit the bottom of the divorce fulfilling his father’s prophecy he began to seek God to bring him ‘home.’ A little analysis might have been more fruitful but Dylan is a ‘true believer.’ Thus on another level it is not improbable that Dylan attempted to resolve his confusion by an attempted amalgamation of Christianity and Judaism into one faith. One faith=no more confusion. Not by converting the one to the other but gently leading them to one confession. Of course, since this would obliterate the distinction between Jews and Christians the idea is as much anathema to the Jews as actual conversion to Christianity. At that point then Dylan contravened Judaic LAW and become an outlaw to Judaism.
Thus it appears that Mr. Arnoff accuses Dylan of both living outside the LAW and being dishonest. This seems to be his complaint. That combined with the review of the film being conducted by the ‘messianic’ Jews For Jesus. The mere mention of the word Jesus throws the ‘secular’ Mr. Arnoff into a frenzy. He excuses Gilbert on the grounds that he is merely trying for exposure for his film but can’t conceal his distaste for Mitch Glaser and Al Kashi of Jews For Jesus.
Mr. Arnoff doesn’t seem to understand what Dylan is doing so that he is conflicted between Dylan’s ‘jewish’ work and his Jesus period. Note I do not use the term ‘Christian.’ That is because I don’t think Dylan ever embraced Christianity but approached Jesus as a Jewish persona from a standpoint similar to Jews For Jesus; Dylan was essentially blowing smoke into the eyes of Christians. Mr. Anrnoff complains:
Most of the time, Dylan embodies a multi-layered approach to his subject- with wordplay, rich cultural allusions, insinuations, irony and clusters of unexplained questions. In his writing and perforning, Dylan grasps at defining themes with ferocity and dynamism that allow renowned critics like Milton scholar Christopher Ricks (who dedicated some 500 pages to Dylan in his 2004 book “Dylan’s Vision Of Sin”) to compare his canon without reservation to that of Shakespeare and Milton. With few exceptions including the aforementioned songs, the Christian (Jesus) period of Dylan’s work remains unconvincingly simplistic, overly literal, humorless and blunt.
Well maybe so. I’ve never listened to it having no interest in what I consider an unlistenable singer after Blonde On Blonde. Whatever happened the muse walked away from Dylan after 1966 and never spoke his again. While as Mr. Arnoff approvingly notes of the Jewish Dylan, Christopher Ricks compares Dylan favorably to Shakespeare and Milton, I can only say that Mr. Ricks is bereft of his senses.
Dylan wrote some nice songs, most of them on Another Side, but that’s just about as far as you can take it. Always highly derivative, after 1966 borrowing became so explicit as to narrowly skirt plagiarism. Indeed not a few of his contemporary folk singers openly accuse him of plagiarism. I’m a little more lenient; hell, they’re only popular songs, not even good Country and Western.