Postcard from Highway 61: Subconscious Homesick Blues?
Bob Dylan has always been hard to classify—protest poet, folk singer, born-again Christian. A close reading of his lyrics adds another dimension.
For Bob Dylan fans, reading the Bible—the original, not the sequel—can be an experience filled with moments of deja vu. “No human can see my face and live,” God warns Moses at one point. “The soles of [the angels’] feet…their appearance was like fiery coals, burning like torches,” reports the prophet Ezekiel at another. These verses strike a familiar chord for those who have already absorbed a different kind of Torah passed down from a different kind of Jewish prophet: the received words and wisdom of Bob Dylan. “The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning,” he sings in “The Wicked Messenger.” And on the chorus of “I and I,” his voice sneers, “No man sees my face and lives.”
Dylan has been receiving a lot of scrutiny of late, sparked in part by a slew of new recordings (including Live at the Gaslight 1962, being sold exclusivly at Starbucks, and Sony Music reissues ofBob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’), books (including The Bob Dylan Scrapbook, 1956-1966, Simon & Schuster) and a Martin Scorsese two-DVD documentary No Direction Home, as well as the accompanying 2-CD soundtrack of the same name (Columbia/Legacy).
And with renewed attention to Dylan—also provoked by the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster), which was published last year—come the perennial questions over his spiritual disposition.
Dylan’s religious outlook has been a hot topic of debate among aficionados ever since he released two gospel albums—Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980)—the lyrics of which suggested that Dylan, born in 1941 and raised as a Jew, had undergone a conversion to Christianity. “I’m saved by the blood of the lamb,” he sang, causing howls of anguish among some fans, especially Jewish ones. They were disillusioned by this seeming betrayal and, equally important, its impact on his lyrics, which at this point apparently lost the subtlety and grace that had gained him renown as an authentic rock ’n’ roll poet.
Another new work, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Ecco/HarperCollins, by Christopher Ricks analyzes Dylan’s greatest hits by reading them against a Christian context.
A close reading of Dylan’s lyrics from before and after his so-called born-again period, however, reveals the ongoing work of a poetic mind steeped in Jewish texts—Torah, Talmud, liturgy and works of mysticism—and engaged in the age-old process of midrash, riffing on the texts to elucidate or elaborate on their hidden meanings.
A prime example of Dylan’s midrash is his whimsical retelling of the Akeda, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, which Dylan posits as a conversation between two jaded hipsters in “Highway 61 Revisited”:
Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’
Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’
God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’
God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run’
Well, Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’
God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’
The Abraham and Isaac story, of course, is one of the core myths of Western civilization. But as far back as 1965, lyrics by the son of Beatty and Abe Zimmerman reveal a familiarity with Torah far beyond the basics of the average Sunday school education. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” one of his most beautiful and enduring love songs, gains added heft and resonance when one realizes how much of its symbolism is drawn from Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel. And any Dylan fan stumbling on these verses in Chapter 26 of Leviticus—”Your strength shall be spent in vain… I will make your heaven like iron… You shall eat and not be satisfied…” —will recognize them as the raw material from which he shaped the 1967 song, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.”
“All Along the Watchtower,” another staple from the late 1960’s, draws its imagery explicitly from the Book of Isaiah; as if to make the connection clear, in concerts in recent years Dylan’s guitarists have prefaced the song with Ernest Gold’s opening theme music from the Zionist film epic, Exodus.
Although Dylan grew up in the cold, iron-mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, his family retained enough connection with Jewish tradition to observe the dietary laws, to mark the weekly Sabbath and to bring a rabbi to town when it came time for Dylan to become a bar mitzva in 1954. Teenage Bobby Zimmerman spent the next three or four summers at Herzl Camp, a popular Zionist camp in Wisconsin, and as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1959 he lived in a Jewish fraternity house.
After his father died in 1968, Dylan began re-exploring his Jewish roots at the urging of famed folk-music presenter Harold Leventhal. (Leventhal, who arranged for the 21-year-old Dylan’s first concert in Town Hall, died in October at 86.) The next two summers he traveled to Israel, trips he would repeat numerous times over the next several decades.
He was photographed at the Western Wall on his 30th birthday in 1971, and on a visit to a kibbutz, he and his wife, Sara, reportedly flirted with the idea of settling there with their young family. After attending the wedding of friends in New York’s Hasidic community, Dylan faced accusations of being a Zionist who supported Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League—charges that he says in Chronicles came as a welcome diversion from the burden of being labeled “the voice of a generation.”
In the early 1970’s, Dylan’s lyrics became infused with imagery drawn not only from the Bible but also from works of Jewish mysticism as well as liturgy typically familiar only to practitioners of traditional Judaism. Several of the songs on the 1970 album, New Morning, including “Father of Night” and “If Not for You,” for example, are freely restated versions of the morning prayers and blessings.
Dylan’s 1974 album, Planet Waves, included self-penned liner notes referring to “Hebrew letters on the wall/ Found Jacob’s ladder/ Where Joshua brought the house down.” The album’s most enduring song, “Forever Young,” was a loosely poetic rewrite of the traditional blessing Jewish fathers give their children every Friday night before the Sabbath Kiddush, which Dylan personalized for his son Jakob with a reference to building “a ladder to the stars.”
This album also marked the debut of Dylan’s new publishing company, Ram’s Horn Music, the horn presumably alluding to the shofar blown on the High Holidays. On his album Blood on the Tracks, Dylan referred to the obscure talmudic notion of the ruah shtus, the wind of idiocy, in one of his best songs of the period, “Idiot Wind.”
If it seemed like Dylan had forsaken Judaism for Christianity with albums like Slow Train Coming and Saved, by the early 1980’s the pendulum seemed to swing back. In 1982, Dylan’s son Samuel became a bar mitzva, and by 1983, when Dylan was reportedly hanging out with Lubavitch rabbis in Brooklyn, overtly Jewish themes colored the songs on the album Infidels, the sleeve of which featured a photograph of Dylan overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, taken on a visit earlier that year for his son Jesse’s bar mitzva. The song “Neighborhood Bully”—a drippingly sarcastic overview of Jewish history and persecution through the lens of contemporary Zionism—evinced a strongly nationalistic identification with Jewish peoplehood.
Over the next decade, Dylan made several appearances on telethons for Chabad, in one calling the Jewish outreach movement his “favorite organization.” During this time, he made several more visits to Israel. Dylan opened a shopping complex in Santa Monica, California, replete with an office, a coffeehouse, a gymnasium and a synagogue; and he saw his daughter, Maria, marry and begin raising a family with Orthodox singer-songwriter and fellow Minnesotan Peter Himmelman.
Dylan’s songs continued to reflect the mind of one who is steeped in a Jewish worldview. On the album Oh Mercy (1989), “Everything Is Broken’ portrayed the kabbalistic view of a world in need of repair, and “Political World” includes a vivid description of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) in the religiously inspired martyrdom of those who were dying in Auschwitz around the time the songwriter was born.
Dylan fans continue to mine his life and lyrics for evidence of his Jewish leanings. Entire Web sites are devoted to the topic. Larry Yudelson’s Tangled Up in Jews (www.radiohazak.com/dylan.html) is probably the best known, providing links to a panoply of Jewish interpretations of Dylan lyrics and statements.
One of Yudelson’s correspondents, Ronnie Schreiber, makes a convincing case that Dylan’s acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 1991 proves that Dylan was a genuine ba’al teshuva, or returnee to Judaism. Dylan’s speech included this inscrutable passage told to him by his father: “…he said, ‘you know, it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.'”
Those familiar with the practice of reciting Psalm 27 every day for the month leading up to and the weeks following the High Holidays recognized these lines as a loose approximation of the psalm. Dylan apparently read them in the Metsudah Siddur, a modern prayerbook with English translation favored by many ba’alei teshuva. It includes a rabbinic commentary that elaborates, “Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.”
Dylan has apparently continued to find inspiration in Scripture. In “Not Dark Yet” on his much hailed comeback album of 1997, Time Out of Mind, he sings: “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” paraphrasing Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), from Mishna 4:29: “Against your will you were born, against your will you die.” And that album’s single, “Love Sick,” borrows its unusual central complaint from King Solomon’s love poetry as expressed in the Song of Songs 2:7: “[Bereft of your presence], I am sick with love” or, to put it more succinctly, as does Dylan, “I’m love-sick.”
In 2004, Dylan was spotted at Yom Kippur services at Congregation Adath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is said to have received the third aliya to the Torah, and to have returned in the evening for the concluding Ne’ila service, whose central imagery is of a penitent standing at a gate or doorway entreating God’s mercy to be written into the Book of Life—much as Dylan sang in his 1997 song, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.