Join Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center CEO, Author, and Podcast Host Stephen Daniel Arnoff for a special conversation with Seth Rogovoy, contributing editor to the Forward, and the award-winning author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet, The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music,” and the forthcoming book “Within You Without You: Listening to George Harrison,” in a world-wide event celebrating the release of Arnoff’s new book, “About Man & God & Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.”
Below is an excerpt from “About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan” by Stephen Daniel Arnoff, e-book available now and paperback released May 3:
Bob Dylan was in the right place at the right time when he arrived in snowbound Manhattan in January 1961, acoustic guitar in hand, a twenty-year old college dropout. The world was ready for someone to combine the traditional entanglements of man and God and law with the energy of popular music.
A proto-punk with confidence and ambition, a sublime ear for a tune, a poetic heart, and a whole lot of attitude, soon Dylan was offering contrarian takes on just about everything that a rebel without a cause might have risen up against: family, politics, sex, labor, race, and the constraints of identity itself. By the time he was twenty-five, fronting a variety of musicians including those who would later be known as the Band, and already a folk music exile just a few years after he had caught the bug of the so-called folk revival himself, Dylan had made his name by unfolding new “road maps for the soul” as sung in his 1965 composition “Tombstone Blues.”
Merely a decade after James Dean’s cinematic portrayal of an archetypal causeless rebel in the film by the same name and only nine years after Elvis’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Dylan joined with a path of spiritual wisdom, tracing three millennia from the shaman’s lair, the priest’s sanctuary, or the scholar’s study in Alexandria, Athens, or Rome to the Cavern Club, the Cafe Wha?, and the Apollo Theater at the dawn of a spiritual and cultural renaissance called rock and roll. That Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota nurtured the hidden gifts of popular music as a new way to express and explain spiritual wisdom that had been forming for a very long time.
Rock followed the beat of Dylan’s intuitions and restlessness, stepping in time with the start-again stop-again march of liberation movements invoking calls for civil rights for people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. It witnessed assassinations and wars, and wrestled with the dilemmas that societal realignment demanded. While it would eventually inform all variety of musical, cultural, and commercial expression, the best of rock questioned and repurposed authority, urged disruption, and documented and celebrated itself in real time with long-playing liturgies for turntables performed by a pantheon of prophets, priests, shamans, and seers.
The names of the rock pantheon were simple at first, just like the names of their fans and followers—Bob and John and Mick and Paul, and soon Jimi and Janis and Sly and Joni too. But the descriptions of the bands animating rock’s life and times revealed an insistence on spiritual struggle and salvation at the heart of a musical movement: the Doors; the Miracles; the Temptations; the Grateful Dead; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Black Sabbath; the Clash; Genesis; Journey; the Runaways; the Cure; Nirvana; Destiny’s Child.
As it evolved, musical salvation in the rock era could be a kitschy soundtrack for teenagers caught between domesticity and a hard place, like Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” or so sweet it could make you sick, as in Mike Reno of Loverboy and Ann Wilson of Heart’s “Almost Paradise.” But it also brought forth a mystical ramble at the edge of the world in a certain song by Led Zeppelin about a lady, a stairway, and the mythic mysteries of glitter and gold. It was Joni Mitchell (and then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) enshrining the faces of the pilgrims of Woodstock in holy light, or Pete Townshend of the Who hoping to die before he got old and then claiming that every song he ever wrote was actually about Jesus. It was U2’s Bono on his knees, at times insufferably so, asking eighty thousand others to join him in prayer, or Aretha Franklin any time she opened her mouth to sing—“using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave [her] to use”—while mixing images of romantic and divine redemption in a single verse.
Even when it overreaches, and perhaps especially when it overreaches, popular music—just like religion—seeks personal and communal transcendence. It mixes this-world grit and world-to-come glitter and gold to expose spiritual needs that have become harder and harder to understand or fulfill. Bob Dylan catalyzed much of a metamorphosis in which culture makers and spiritual seekers could discover through popular music the wonders of their own depths while also embracing something greater than themselves.
Ever since he was a twenty-year-old new arrival to New York City singing “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” Dylan’s musical personae have contained multitudes, an eclectic cast of seekers that have accompanied him until today. As Greil Marcus writes in Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, “in a signal way, he was the Folk, and also a prophet. As he sang and wrote he was the slave on the auction block, the whore chained to her bed, a questioning youth, an old man looking back in sorrow and regret.”
What most of the figures from Dylan’s body of work of more than six hundred songs have in common—whether they find it or not—is the search for salvation.
Engineering his songs for salvation, Dylan has affirmed the possibilities of a spiritual voice in popular culture, not just popular music. Not only is Dylan a musician with interests and skills that carry him and his work beyond music; he is also an entertainer influencing and influenced by show business in all of its forms. Dylan wryly called himself “just a song-and-dance man” during those mid-1960s press conferences. During his early days in Greenwich Village, comics like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor were honing their acts and setting new cultural agendas on the same stages as Dylan and his fellow folk singers.
Theater, fine arts, dance, poetry, and all varieties of creative expression thrived in the Village too—another reason Dylan was in the right place at the right time as an artist. In the same manner that Dylan describes crossing paths with many of the “traditional” folk and blues artists of the 1920’s and 30’s “rediscovered” on the folk circuit as his reputation grew, he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with all variety of artists, entertainers, and “song-and-dance men” immersed in both creative and commercial hustles.
Part of Dylan’s act always was (and still is) simply putting on a show. And yet in a pattern of Dylan obfuscating who he was or what his work was about, right around the same time that he joked that his act was mostly showbiz shtick or even a kind of minstrelsy, he also affirmed in interviews, on records, and from the stage that his creative goals entwined with the same aspirations that had defined religion across the ages. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, feet on the ground, and head in the stars, Dylan made it acceptable—and even expected—for popular musicians from Sam Cooke to Taylor Swift to ask their own versions of the questions of meaning that Dylan highlighted for the vocabulary of pop.
About Man and God and Law listens to Bob Dylan’s work as a journey through the life-and-death riddle of salvation, his songs like a collection of recipes for redemption, notes and markings in and out of time on the purpose of things, meditations on the possibility of meaning in a world in which traditional myth and ritual have often come to do more to distance people from spiritual emancipation than move them toward it.
One the occasion of Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen affirmed the majesty of Dylan’s spiritual vision and the power of his spiritual wisdom: “He [Dylan] had the vision and the talent to expand a pop song until it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound. He broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and he changed the face of rock and roll forever and ever.”