Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Visit with Scott M. Marshall, Author of Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

While I was praying, Somebody touched me
While I was praying, Somebody touched me
While I was praying, Somebody touched me
Must've been the Hand of the Lord.
--The Stanley Brothers

Scott Marshall in 2010.
The Bob Dylan story is fascinating in part because it has been so unpredictable. In some ways he's been a real-life Zelig or Forrest Gump, appearing in a whole range of unexpected scenes with famous personages, from Ed Sullivan and Johnny Cash to Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, performing on the world's biggest stages, meeting presidents, Hall of Fame musicians, even the Pope, and most recently addressing the Nobel Prize committee. How he came to record three albums in Nashville, cross the U.S. with the Grateful Dead, or begin a chapter of singing Frank Sinatra covers can also be added to the "unexpected" category. But for some, the most unanticipated of all might have been his apparent embrace of Fundamentalist Christianity and the "Gospel of Jesus."

Did Bob Dylan really become a Christian?  Is Bob Dylan still a believer?

Scott Marshall, author of Restless Pilgrim, has just published a second book about the spiritual themes that run through Bob Dylan's music and career, titled Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life. Marshall, whose book includes endorsements from Alice Cooper and former president Jimmy Carter, graciously accepted an invitation to share here a bit of his story with regard to this second Dylan-themed volume.

EN: How long did you work on this book, from conception to publication?

Scott M. Marshall: It’s been a bit of a haul, about 12-13 years. (Some of the earlier, original interviews date back to 1999-2002.) The book could’ve been out much sooner, but the manuscript encountered more than 15 rejections along the way. Looking back, with some of the things that happened after the rejections, I’m grateful for the timing now. But I was guilty of some pretty consistent grumbling on the road to publication.

EN: It’s obviously a labor of love. What was your motivation?

SMM: It flows back to Dylan’s music. Also, some natural curiosity and intrigue were in play. At a certain season I was more naturally curious about Dylan’s spiritual journey. I was—and still am—often intrigued by the strong reactions against his expressions of faith, especially in the 1979-1981 era. Or even reactions against him having some faith to begin with, or now (hearing a lyrical echo now). Not always, but often it seemed these scornful, dismissive responses communicated more about the person writing the piece than about Dylan. This served as motivation to try and piece together, in the words of a book title by the late Paul Williams, What Happened? (Or, if you will, the subtitle of Clinton Heylin’s forthcoming book—What Really Happened.) With that said, those who’ve tracked the Dylan story will know that his spiritual/religious leanings and expressions have been pretty much present since day one, and it continues to this day. But some aren’t aware of this fact; some maybe have forgotten it, or just were aware of flashes here and there; and, yes, some couldn’t care less. I’ve let Dylan’s voice loose throughout the book when, over the decades, he’s chosen to speak about topics and themes relevant to his spiritual orientation and preferences. Additionally, I was motivated to gather the voices of many others who’ve crossed Dylan’s path, whether that crossing involved a moment or two or lengthier seasons. Just the original interviews conducted and the observations and stories I collected should motivate those interested in this angle of Dylan’s career to check out Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.

EN: You seem to have done exhaustive research in areas not frequently covered in other articles and books. Where did you find/acquire so much new material?

SMM: Thank you for noticing. Because of curiosity and a journalistic orientation, I’ve been checking under every small stone, rolling over every large rock to see what I can find. A lot of the time, there’s barren ground or something promising leads to a dead end. But it’s very rewarding and encouraging when you stumble upon a footnote or endnote in an obscure book (or even a well-known one) which then suddenly slings open a door to seemingly another world. Or when you talk to someone whose voice, strangely, wasn’t a part of the public story before. For example, in 2000, when I tracked down Regina McCrary, one of Dylan’s singers during the 1979-1981 era (via James Hill of the Fairfield Four), she had never spoken on the record about her experiences touring and recording with Dylan. She’s since been on a Dylan tribute album that even Dylan participated in (Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, 2003), and she and her sisters have joined Dylan for an encore “Blowin’ in the Wind” at one of his concerts (2012). She’s spoken about her time and experiences with Dylan through a documentary (2008) and as a guest in a Christian college classroom (2014). I also tracked down Dylan’s old publicist Paul Wasserman not long after he was liberated from jail. He had some great stories. So did Peter Barsotti, one of Bill Graham’s right hand men who was on hand for the Warfield gigs of 1979-1980. One of Dylan’s former wives, Carol Dennis, even spoke to me. In the 25 years since their divorce was finalized, she’s been pretty tight-lipped, to say the least. But her love for Dylan as a person and her spiritual inclinations when looking at their shared history was apparent. I wasn’t digging for dirt, and she wasn’t offering any. Never thought I’d interview her, but the opportunity crossed my path. Some might call it luck; I wouldn’t. Sometimes these clouds of witnesses roll by, sometimes they go by so fast, sometimes slow. But they’re worthy of a hearing. In the words of that Tom Petty song, I’m trying to pick up whatever is mine.

EN: Do you find it intriguing how everyone seems to have a spin on his Gospel album and that period of his career? Some of the quotes by “experts” are almost comical.

SMM: I don’t know what particular quotes or experts you’re referring to, but I catch your drift, I think. Some of these quotes make their way into the book. For me, intrigue is a big part. In other words, the voices of those who are resistant to or highly critical or apathetic to Dylan’s gospel era—or its apparent lingering hangover—are also represented in the book. I’d like to think someone who’s a Dylan fan and a staunch atheist or agnostic, or someone who is coming from, say, an Eastern orientation, spiritually speaking, could learn or gain something from the book. I mean, I recall learning that the late Nat Hentoff and the late Christopher Hitchens were opponents of abortion, and they were coming at it from an atheistic perspective. Some Jesus followers have a hard time trying to figure out something like that, but it’s true. Christians don’t have a monopoly on moral convictions. The rain falls on everyone.

EN: What was your biggest personal take-away from writing this book?

SMM: Do not be wise in your own eyes. And the reality of heavy-duty impatience. I was, at times, like that first-century fellow Thomas whose doubts were very natural, normal. His name gave us that “doubting Thomas” label, which usually means an offhand comment with negative connotations. He had to see evidence of the wounds in the hands to believe the stories he’d been hearing. The women were crucial eyewitnesses in this patriarchal context. I’m all for logic and reason, but this journey of a book project humbled me countless times and pretty much proved there’s limits to reason and logic. Right when I thought I had it all figured out, that curve ball came. So the personal take-away was trying to figure out this idea of waiting; it’s somewhat foreign to the modern disposition, obsessed as we are with our screens, speed, efficiency, information glory, etc. Patience. It seems like it’s a rare commodity, but the apostle Paul tells us it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit. What do we do when our apple carts are upset, or thrown into the ditch while cackling thieves make away with the apples? Be encouraged, somebody. Somehow, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life came out of this scattershot.

EN: What was your reaction to Dylan’s receiving of the Nobel Prize?

SMM: Well, he doesn’t seem to have a Twitter account and he didn’t check in with Entertainment Tonight or TMZ, so he was perceived pretty quickly as slow to respond, unappreciative, downright rude, and God knows what else. In the end, he didn’t reject the prize. I sense he was truly surprised and honored. I wish Allen Ginsberg could’ve witnessed it all. I bet he would’ve had something worthwhile to say. Pretty sure he would’ve given an interview for the book; he seemed pretty generous and accessible. But he passed in April of 1997, before my project commenced; Dylan heard the news of his old friend’s passing while on the road and sang “Desolation Row” in his honor. At a concert in Moncton, New Brunswick, a place Reader’s Digest calls the “Most Polite City in Canada.”

EN: Your next project will be…

SMM: I’m not entirely sure, but a book on Woody Allen’s films or Joe Walsh or T-Bone Burnett could be in the works. And maybe something not for the faint of heart, like a book on the roots of Regent University (that would be the school founded in the late 1970s by the son of an Absalom, the lovable Marion Gordon Robertson—at age 87, he can still be found on television. That’s gotta be some kind of record. Most know him as “Pat”).

* * * *

I opened this post with a verse from the Stanley Brothers because one of my live Dylan CDs opens with Bob Dylan enthusiastically singing this song that is pure Gospel. Dylan's inhalation of "the Great American Songbook" included all of its streams, not simply folk, blues and classic, but also that earthy Gospel stream that fed into the others.

Sometime in the next week I hope to produce a review of Scott Marshall's book.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.


Anonymous said...

Nice insight into a very fine book. Acknowledging and examining Dylan's spiritual journey seems to me to be the most important work of all for anyone interested in the man.

OldBobFan said...

Ed, my friend, I really liked this interview and all that was in it. I have read the Kindle edition of Scott's book and found it to be fair and unbiased. I believe in God (or a Higher Power, if you will) and I cannot help thinking that the man himself has always tapped into something on a different plane that others haven't. Whatever people make of the book by Mr. Marshall, I hope it expands their minds and doesn't close them to what Bob has said, or is saying, about the world going on around us or the world to come. People have listened to prophets for thousands of years. In my opinion, we still need them to point the way and to help us decide what is best for us or what isn't.
Thank you for always writing from your soul and not just your fingers.