Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Gospel According to Bob Dylan, A Book Review

"Glory, glory, glory, Somebody touched me." ~Bob Dylan

One of the things I enjoy about KUMD's Highway 61 Revisited is that host John Bushey doesn't bypass or shy away from sharing the Gospel period songs in Dylan's catalog. Nor have the writers of Dylan biographies.

I've just completed the last chapter of Michael J. Gilmour's The Gospel According to Bob Dylan: The Old, Old Story for Modern Times. It's been an interesting read and one thing for certain, Gilmour has does his homework as a researcher. Published in 2011, its a fairly comprehensive overview of Bob Dylan's work by means of a spiritual filter.

Bob Dylan has to be one of the most remarkable singer songwriters ever. His music crosses all generational boundaries and has been enjoyed by people from every political stripe, economic bracket and theological extreme in all walks of life from bankers to beggars. His international audience is immeasurable. Books have been written about him by ordinary fans to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists to university professors. In this case, Gilmour is an associate professor of New Testament and English Literature.

It's worth noting that Bob Dylan wasn't the first pop musician of our generation to get religion. George Harrison became quite public about his Hindu faith and Cat Stevens likewise adopted Islam. But neither of these men received the hostile treatment Bob Dylan endured as his embraced Christianity. My brother saw a Dylan concert in Philadelphia at this time in which the drunks in the third row (he and his wife were in the fourth) heckled Dylan mercilessly throughout the evening.

Of course heckling was nothing new for Bob. Levon Helm writes in his autobiographical This Wheel's On Fire that it was emotionally hard for The Band and for Helm personally when they did their first concert tour with Dylan after he went electric. But Helm noted the Dylan himself wasn't rattled, and even seemed to get off on it.

This is not Gilmour's first book on Dylan. His Bob Dylan: Tangled Up in the Bible came out in 2004.

At all four reviewers give this second Gilmour book on Dylan five stars. Though the reviews themselves are short on detail, the book itself is rich.

Gilmour's first premise, which he seeks to establish in the first chapter and explains again later (p. 131) while discussing Edgar Allen Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," seems to be that Bob Dylan is a flâneur, a French word that conveys the sense of being a lounger, an urban explorer or Boulevardier. What Gilmour suggests is that Dylan, by traveling through life in this seemingly aimless manner, is enabled to see what others do not see and in ways others may never see. The various paths his life has taken may appear haphazrd, but his eye is keenly honed and his observations purposeful. This manner of seeing reverberates through his songs, setting him apart from others much like the prophets of old.

His second premise is that Dylan has always been a spiritual seeker of sorts, had a real encounter with Christ of the Bible and has never departed from maintaining a spiritual element in his personal life which seeps through to varying degrees in his post-Gospel music period. In chapter two he sets down his argument for being taken seriously in writing this book.

David Kinney, in his book The Dylanologists, identifies a variety of archetypes for Dylanology. Some follow his concerts, others collect and share bootlegs and memorabilia. Another category is comprised of those who dig deep into the lyrics, striving to unearth greater insights and understanding from his written scribblings, whether songs, interviews or books. Another group is the religious camp who have taken pains to determine Dylan's current status with regard to the faith. Gilmour seems to be a hybrid from this latter camp and the lyrics dissecters.

Personally, I enjoy the lyrics dissecters because so many of these have such a vast literary background that they bring new insights to the geography I'm familiar with but have not yet understood. For example, many of us don't know the names of all the plants, birds and trees in our own neighborhoods, even though they are all familiar to us. It becomes interesting to learn the origins of foods we eat, the birds that congregate at our birdfeeders or the peoples in our community. The contributions of lyrics dissecters can be enlightening, though occasionally it's been pointed out that they/we go too far.

The author has done more than mine the lyrics though. Gilmour is familiar with Dylan's films as well and returns several times to the christological and Biblical references in Masked and Anonymous.

What I appreciate about the book is the author's carefulness. He goes out of his way to be non-dogmatic and he follows the threads that lead from Dylan's early work through to his most recent albums as of the time of this writing. He respects the mystery that is Dylan while offering his own personal perspectives on the literally countless places where Biblical references occur in Dylan's songs.

Whereas for the most I agreed with his interpretations, I found myself out of step in his section on "Lily, Rosemarie and the Jack of Hearts." What seems obvious to me Gilmour has cloaked in ambiguity. As a writer of fiction myself, a measure of ambiguity is designed purposefully while leaving no mistake in the story's meanings. The net result here (as Gilmour dealt with this particular song) was to make me want to go back and re-evaluate some of his other assertions.

There's much to like here though. And the book finishes nicely, too. The Appendix offers up a brief overview of Dylan's career and afterwards includes 25 pages of notes, a bibliography and a detailed index.

All in all The Gospel According to Bob Dylan was a fun read. It will remain on my bookshelf alongside Scott Marshall's Restless Pilgrim... when it's not out on loan.

* * * *
FWIW, the schedule for Duluth Dylan Fest has been announced. Here are the details. Join us.

What's your favorite period in Dylan's career? Folk? Sixties folk/rock? Mid-Seventies? Gospel? Late Dylan albums produced by Jack Frost?  

1 comment:

EDLIS Café said...

Lots of interesting discussion of this book at the Caf!