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Mystery Man

by Robert Dean Lurie

The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin, by Jeff Taylor and Chad Israelson (Palgrave Macmillan, 320 pp., $105)

Writing about Bob Dylan’s politics would seem to be a thankless task. The famously curmudgeonly songwriter claims to know and care little about the subject, and what he has said comes across as confused and contradictory. He distrusts authority and empathizes with the underdog; score two for the Left. He is a Barry Goldwater fan and feels alienated from the counterculture he helped create; score two for the Right. He has kind words for George W. Bush . . . but he likes Obama, too. “[Obama] loves music. He’s personable. He dresses good,” Dylan told Rolling Stone when prodded to share some thoughts on the president; but then he added, “What the f*** do you want me to say?”

And that would seem to be the point. Bob Dylan is not a political theorist or historian. He’s not a TV commentator or an opinion columnist. He is a musician. So why are we asking him?

Well, there is that “Voice of a Generation” label that was foisted upon Dylan by the press and his fans in the early 1960s. The songs he wrote during that period — particularly “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game” — were taken to heart by the civil-rights movement. On the more militant end of the activist spectrum, the domestic terrorist organization The Weather Underground took its name from an offhand line in the Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In the ensuing years, numerous political candidates, and even a couple of sitting presidents, have quoted from Dylan’s lyrics in efforts to bolster their positions. For these reasons and many others, Bob Dylan’s politics, or at least the political views he has put forward in his songs, merit close attention.

Enter The Political World of Bob Dylan, by Chad Israelson and Jeff Taylor. In this first full-length treatment of the subject, the authors have performed a small miracle in teasing a consistent political philosophy out of a seemingly chaotic life. The popular narrative goes like this: Robert Zimmerman, a young man of Jewish background from northern Minnesota, appeared on the public stage as “Bob Dylan,” a folksinger who quickly came to be associated with the New Left. However, owing to his contrarian nature, he rebelled against those who sought to pigeonhole him and proceeded to cycle through a series of sharply delineated personas: drug-addled trickster, family-oriented traditionalist, outlaw troubadour, and, most controversially, born-again Christian. The only through-line seems to have been Dylan’s restless nature reasserting itself every few years.

Taylor and Israelson maintain that this is merely a surface caricature. Through close listening, careful examination of Dylan’s published statements, and new interviews with a number of Dylan’s colleagues, they persuasively demonstrate how, even during the tumult of radical stylistic changes, Bob Dylan’s music has retained its core preoccupations with justice, the plight of the underdog, the limitations of human power, and, later, the urgent need “to reconcile with divine law.”

The book is divided into two sections. The first, written primarily by Israelson, analyzes the political aspects of Dylan’s life and work prior to his Christian conversion in 1978. Displaying both a far-ranging grasp of history and a deep immersion in Dylan’s music, Israelson goes a long way in reconciling Dylan’s seemingly contradictory personas. Through Israelson’s lens, we see that these transitions were rejections more of form than of content. Case in point: Dylan may have largely abandoned the genre of protest songs and become disenchanted with the accompanying activist culture of the 1960s, but that does not mean he abandoned the concerns underlying these songs. Indeed, civil rights (the only “political movement of the 1960s . . . Dylan unequivocally supported,” according to Israelson) remained a preoccupation, one that would resurface multiple times in later work. Hand in hand with his concern for the underrepresented elements of society, critical views of the U.S. justice system and of U.S. foreign policy have remained consistent and pronounced throughout all phases of his songwriting career.

What may have changed is any kind of faith in human means of correcting these failings. And here we come to one of the most intriguing, and seemingly random, phases in Dylan’s career: his dramatic and highly public conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Even at the height of his prior affiliation with the New Left, he never proclaimed a cause quite as loudly as he did during his gospel tours of 1979–80, when the usually tight-lipped Dylan loudly testified to audiences on behalf of his new lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

In subsequent years, this brief ministry came to be regarded as yet another phase and something of an aberration — an odd side trip before Dylan returned to his Jewish roots. And this view would seem to be backed by solid evidence: Shortly after the Christian proselytizing period, Dylan became involved with the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Orthodox Judaism, a group not known for its openness toward Christian–Jewish syncretism. He also recorded a pro-Israel song for his 1983 Infidels album titled “Neighborhood Bully” that seemed to reveal a not-so-subtle Zionist streak.

Yet Jeff Taylor provides a forceful, rarely heard counterargument. And he too has solid support for his position, assiduously documenting Dylan’s many unambiguously Christian statements from post-1980 interviews and, more important, the strong Christian imagery — often skewed heavily toward the Book of Revelation — that has continued to saturate Dylan’s lyrics to the present day. Furthermore, Taylor has managed to track down and interview David Kelly, Dylan’s former personal assistant, who provides crucial insight into the singer’s conversion. Taylor’s purpose in focusing so heavily on the religion question is to demonstrate how Dylan’s Christian belief system complements his preexisting distrust of consolidated political and financial power. In such early songs as “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “Masters of War,” Dylan articulated the popular view that moneyed interests and the political elite pull the strings. His later belief in the Book of Revelation prompted him to conclude that “politics is an instrument of the devil. . . . Politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive.”

Taylor calls this view “Christian anarchism” and devotes much of his half of the book to a thorough analysis of this philosophy. It is perhaps too complex and nuanced a subject to be unpacked here, but the gist is that a “Christian anarchist” agitates for a decentralized state because fallen man cannot be trusted with power; only Jesus Christ can rule with justice. Longtime followers of Bob Dylan’s work will recognize that only the second half of that formulation represents any kind of new development for the songwriter. His antipathy toward those in power was already well established; what changed was his post-1978 conviction that “you gotta serve somebody.” As he sang in the song of that title, “it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you still gotta serve somebody.” Regarding Dylan’s long-running involvement with Chabad, Taylor opines that Dylan’s “occasional participation in events for Hasidic/Orthodox Judaism does not indicate a rejection of Christianity. It seems to be tied to family and to a shared moral outlook.” While it is tempting to dismiss this as an oversimplification, Taylor’s explanation is perhaps the only plausible one in light of the evidence. The fact that Dylan cheekily elected to perform a gospel song on a Chabad telethon further supports Taylor’s assertion.

The “Christian anarchist” thesis will no doubt prove controversial with many Dylan fans. Yet the impressive volume of Taylor’s supporting evidence, along with the work he has put into connecting the dots, ensures that it cannot be easily refuted. He overplays his hand somewhat, though, in his insistence on deploying the “Christian” label at every turn. His repetition of the phrase “Bob Dylan remains a Christian” (or variations thereof) betrays a defensiveness that is perhaps understandable, given common perceptions of Dylan, but it ultimately isn’t necessary. Furthermore, Chad Israelson’s documentation, in his earlier section, of Dylan’s antipathy toward virtually all organized movements might lead one to conclude that Taylor, a devout Christian, has fallen prey to the behavior that characterized Dylan’s fans on the New Left: a desire to nail his hero down to a specific movement and position, when the songwriter prefers to dance around these subjects in ways that are far more subtle and idiosyncratic.

Despite this flaw in tone, Taylor and Israelson’s achievement with this book is considerable: They have pored through Dylan’s life and work like medieval kabbalists and have mapped out the underlying pattern. We could be forgiven for thinking that Bob Dylan, like so many of us, is simply a man who finds himself pulled in many directions and changes his mind a lot. After reading this deeply considered book, I have come to believe that there is at least some method to the madness. It is a shame that this provocative tome has been targeted and priced to the academic market, for it is probably the most interesting and challenging work on Dylan to arrive in quite some time. It deserves a wide audience.

– Mr. Lurie, a musician, is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church, and a co-author (with Ray Fisher) of The Edge: Life Lessons from a Martial Arts Master.

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