Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet
by Seth Rogovoy
Reviewed by Peter Stone Brown
First, a disclaimer in the interest of open journalism. Seth Rogovoy is a friend, and during the course of writing this book, he’d occasionally run ideas, questions or facts by me. As such, I am thanked in this book.
One of the reasons Bob Dylan’s entire body of work has been the subject of discussion for what is fast approaching five decades is that his work is loaded with references, musical, literary, to film, history and religion. To like or appreciate Bob Dylan one doesn’t necessarily have to know about these references -- some may simply view him as another folk or rock singer. However, to understand what Bob Dylan has been saying in his music all along, those references take things to a whole other level, or to quote Joan Baez in the Martin Scorcese documentary, No Direction Home, “He goes way deep.”
Prophet, Mystic, Poet is neither totally biography or song analysis, but rather a little bit of both. Rogovoy makes no claim, in fact disavows any claim to this being the definitive word. Instead, he uses the biographical aspects of Dylan’s life, from his childhood on up, which for the most part (especially to Dylan fans) are fairly well known facts, to set the tone or more accurately the stage for why certain songs may have been written at a specific time.
The book is primarily written chronologically, though occasionally skips forward and back, particularly when Rogovoy wants to point out how a song foretold an incident that would happen later in Dylan’s life, or how a song would forecast a later song. As the book goes on, he also shows how later songs point back to earlier songs. Overall, Rogovoy does this successfully. I say overall because a lot of the time, when you try to tie a specific Dylan song to a specific person (or in some cases a specific incident), you’re on dangerous ground. However, Rogovoy is well aware of this and usually qualifies such connections as speculation.
However, sometimes when something is revealed, it is so clear cut that it becomes evident that no other interpretation makes any sense. Case in point, what I am about to describe is my own experience with one of the references is this book. Three decades ago, (and right about this time of year), I decided to read The Bible cover to cover beginning to end. While reading Leviticus, in The Blessings of Obedience, I came across the following:
I will make your heaven like iron. (Leviticus: 26:19)
Though you eat, you shall not be satisfied. (Leviticus: 26:26)
Bells went off big time because I immediately recognized variants of these as lines from the song, “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” on John Wesley Harding, a song I’d been pondering the meaning of for 12 years. No review, article or book on that album or Dylan I was aware of had an interpretation that made any sense. It was a true revelation, and also in line with comments Dylan had made in various interviews about that album saying, “I’m not in the songs,” (which may or may not be the case with all the songs on that album), as well as the “I” is another. In the case of this song it became startlingly clear that the “I” was not Dylan, but God commanding Moses, and the Immigrant represented the Jews in the desert during Exodus. I have not been able to accept any other interpretation of the song since.
A few years later I had a similar experience. Watching The Hustler one night, Piper Laurie said to Paul Newman, “I’ve got troubles, you’ve got troubles, maybe we better leave each other alone.” I immediately recognized this as a line from “Seeing The Real You At Last” on Empire Burlesque. Ten years later, when I got on the Internet, and joined various Dylan discussion forums, I discovered that almost that entire song was composed of lines from various movies.
Prophet, Mystic, Poet is loaded with such revelations and as such is essential reading for any serious Bob Dylan fan. That said, the book is not without an agenda which is made clear from the start, which is to show not only how Judaic tradition and custom, but how much of what is commonly referred to as “The First,” or “Old Testament” informs a large part of Dylan’s work. In showing this, Rogovoy succeeds beyond admirably and does so in a more coherent fashion than any previous attempt. Many of his discoveries are not only interesting, but surprisingly mind-blowing such as linking “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” to David, the warrior King.
Equally thought provoking is how Rogovoy deals with Dylan’s Christian period. He does not delve into the sermonizing (some would say rants) that went on at Dylan concerts in ’79 and ’80, instead showing how in the lyrics Dylan more than once refers to his Jewish heritage, but also how most of the Biblical quotes in the lyrics are from the “Old Testament.” The one counter to that is when Jesus preached, that’s what he preached. What his disciples wrote later is another story. More intriguing however is a large majority of Dylan fans, when referring to his Christian-based albums, refer to them as a trilogy, namely Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love. Rogovoy, again using lyrical references makes an excellent case that Shot Of Love was the step away from Christianity, and a solid step back towards Judaism.
For me, the last part of the book, from Oh Mercy to the present, was the best part, both in terms of the writing which has a far more natural flow to what is revealed about the songs. I am not going to spoil the fun by revealing the surprises, but what Rogovoy reveals about Oh Mercy in particular is enough to cause a thorough reexamination of the album and what it is saying.
SETH ROGOVOY is a writer, award-winning critic, book author, lecturer, teacher, musician, and radio commentator.
Seth's BOB DYLAN: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, a full-length analysis of Bob Dylan's life and work, is due out from Scribner Books in November 2009.
Seth has taught a variety of college-level and adult-ed courses on klezmer, Jewish music, and Bob Dylan, about whom he has written extensively.
Seth is the author of THE ESSENTIAL KLEZMER: A Music Lover's Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books, 2000), the all-time bestselling guide to klezmer music. Since his book was published, Seth has continued to write, teach, and lecture extensively about klezmer. His live, one-man, multimedia program about klezmer, ROCKIN' THE SHTETL, has been presented at universities, JCCs, museums, cultural centers, and synagogues across the U.S. and in England.
Seth is editor-in-chief of BERKSHIRE LIVING, an award-winning regional lifestyle and culture magazine serving the greater Berkshire region of western Massachusetts, southwestern Vermont, eastern New York, and northwestern Connecticut. He is also editor-in-chief of Berkshire Living's spinoff publications, including BBQ: Berkshire Business Quarterly and Berkshire Living Home+Garden.