Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bob Dylan in an Age of Disenchantment

The late, lamented Ellen Willis once described Bob Dylan’s prophecy like this:  
[Dylan is] a mediator, using the language of pop to transcend it. If the gap between past and present continues to widen, such mediation may be crucial. In a communications crisis the true prophets are translators.

Pop and transcendence, the gap between present and past, mediation, communication, and translation. These are the raw materials out of which prophets have always gleaned their messages, and they are the same tensions mulled over and exploded by rock and roll prophets, too. 
Bob Dylan was the first of these, and he has launched a loosely connected but hugely important tribe of music-prophet disciples. From early adopters like Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles to the rock culture makers who matter today, each new voice adds its own color to the music within the gaps between past and present and media and myth that Dylan introduced to pop. (Ten of these disciples are conveniently listed here in an otherwise unconvincing piece in Salon.)

Just below the stage where Dylan and his disciples play gather rock prophecies’ most devout fans. When it comes to Dylan, these are fans with a capital F – as in fanatics, followers and believers who experience by and through Dylan a depth of connection in which eccentricity skirts obsession and madness. 

Joan Baez, a former lover and one of Dylan’s first patrons, addresses Dylan’s pull in Martin Scorsese's 2005 Bob-umentary No Direction Home
There are no veils, curtains, doors, walls, anything, between what pours out of Bob's hand onto the page and what is somehow available to the core of people who are believers in him. Some people would say, you know, 'not interested,' but if you're interested, he goes way, way deep.

Pulitzer Prize winner David Kinney’s The Dylanologists (Simon & Schuster, 256 pages) introduces some of Dylan’s fiercest believers, explaining a lot about pop and prophecy along the way.

The Dylanologists
One man who traveled halfway around the world to collect a screw from a piano Dylan had banged upon decades before. Another purchased the old window frames from Dylan’s childhood home. Some pilgrims have seen Dylan perform hundreds of times, spending sleepless nights in cold and rain in order to be the first person through the door for general admission shows, or trekking to Greenwich Village, Malibu, or Hibbing High School to catch a whiff of a man who is not there. These are tapers, scholars, traders, and goads whose identities are defined by their hunger for all things Dylan.

Kinney – who interviewed me for the book and quotes me on the absurdity of trying too hard to pin Dylan down to a single religious trope – is an excellent researcher and storyteller. He shapes a coherent arc of Dylan fandom out of the intense narratives of some Dylan’s most charged and colorful believers.

For the merely curious and uninitiated, The Dylanologists is a fine primer for charting the ups and downs of his Dylan’s career as well as a stellar example of long form, deep dig journalism about the good, the bad, the ugly and the weird within an odd subculture.

It’s also a great read for those of who have fallen in deep with Dylan ourselves, even if most of the material covered is familiar. We know many of these Dylanologists personally, whether they have helped us with research, or we have bumped into them online, in a class or at a show. Even if we have balanced our heavy doses of Dylan with all variety of other people, art, and things, we certainly understand their hunger. After all, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, and Pete Townshend are among the renowned disciples who are on record about how hearing Dylan changed their lives, too. I, for one, do not at all mind being in such company.

But that does not mean that this is always a pleasant book to read. It’s been pointed out that many of the book’s mini-narratives add up to a to a very sad, even grating experience. For one thing, all but a few of the figures in the book have never met Dylan himself, which, according to an exchange used as the book’s epigram, is probably a very good thing: 
FAN: “You don't know who I am, but I know who you are.”
BOB DYLAN: “Let's keep it that way.”

Many of Kinney’s main figures are pathetic with a capital P, as in tangled up in pathos, a dramatic suffering that prompts empathy. Dylan is a constant presence in their lives – animating their day-to-day like the holy spirit or a patron saint, but the pairing is in many ways cruel. It’s not just a crush, but crushing, an unrequited love, flush with fantasy and need that cannot and should not be fulfilled. As much as Dylan gives Dylanologists through his art, it is never enough to feed their hunger completely.

Descriptions of encountering Dylan’s music for the first time read like stories of conversions, not conversations. People are touched by a force beyond their ability to control. This is more than the flutter of the muse in music; it’s more like revelation requiring servitude for life. Once the Dylanologists get that old-time Bob Dylan religion, they cannot shake it. The parallel to conversion is a serious one, because in the spiritual landscape where Dylanology rules, it is nothing less than a contemporary translation of  old-time religion.

Bob Dylan in an Age of Disenchantment
Philosopher Charles Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age surveys the landscape of spirit and belief in West from 1500 until today. He asks: 
Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?

Once, Taylor claims, there was relative equilibrium between human and divine forces in the world: 
Human agents [were] embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporate[d] the divine.

According to Taylor, beginning around 1500, the world defined religiously primarily by Christianity – call it the West – underwent dramatic changes.

As a result of the natural evolution of corporate religion, various movements for religious reform, and the Enlightenment, relations of person, society, and the divine were no longer typical, stable ways of being in the world. Slowly but steadily, "porous" selves open to the influence of divine or supernatural forces prescribed or tolerated by traditional religions became "buffered" selves, protected by rationality, focused internally on their unique experience. Taylor believes that this is the beginning of a secular world, a world of disenchantment.

The enchanted world is animated and defined by faith, superstition, magic, myth, and chains of tradition both written and oral that connected people to communal meaning within the predictable tensions of person, society, and the divine. What we now might of think of holdovers from the “old world” – songs and incantations, relics of saints, holy sites and visions, fables and folk remedies, curses and totems and prayers and amulets that call upon powers from beyond the human realm to protect or enhance human life – are the raw materials that fuel the enchanted world.

Rock stars are born into a world defined by disenchantment and emerged as prophets embodying ancient tropes as Willis’ translators and mediators without the burden of the moral, political, or social pressures (and oppression) of traditional religion.  

As German sociologist Max Weber wrote nearly a century before Taylor, in a landscape drained of the charisma and energy of religion even with the benefits of liberation for religion the force of its spirit can return in unexpected and necessary ways. No one knows, he wrote, 
whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals.

Bob Dylan leads the entry of pop music into the religious vacuum of the 20th  century. With fundamentalism and secularism each raging in their own way, Dylan shows (whether he likes it or not and whether he means it or not) how to translate the magic of ancient tropes into the uniquely powerful communication of rock and roll.

People most sensitive to this embodiment of the ageless in the secular age go deep with it, as deep as conversion, as deep as changing their lives, as deep as religious believers have always gone. Dylan touches them like the hand of God might touch cloaks of pilgrims. Such power and glory are not about Dylan per say, though he is obviously a rare talent and surely some kind of prophetic vessel. It’s about a movement in which he was a key figure of transformation – a convener and conveyor of energy and connections inherent in religion that secular society had left behind in a large part due the havoc all religion had wrought for so long.

Name your chauvinism or division or corruption of power for any historical period we know anything about and religion will almost certainly be hanging around the concert hall, if not standing at center stage calling out the next tune. But religion has also inspired our greatest music, writing, acts of kindness, and connection with forces greater than our own limited selves. Rock and roll prophecy to mind the gaps when religious consensus has gone the way of the mass culture – away.  But what kind of prophecy is it?

What Kind of Love Is This That Goes from Bad to Worse?
As I wrote in a review of Todd Hayne’s pseudo-Dylan biopic I’m Not There some time ago, Elijah might be the best prophet for thinking about rock and roll prophecy in general and Dylan prophecy particularly. 

Stories of Elijah’s countless masks, rages, and demands animate the Hebrew Bible in an age of Judges just prior to the classical prophetic age of figures like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Elijah, like the early Dylan, wants to speak truth to power. When people fall for trickery and choose faith for the wrong reasons, Elijah runs away, eventually rediscovering the eternal not in the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice – perhaps, we might say, the voice of an individual singing a very personal tale. Then, with the command of the divine at his back, he covers his face, re-proclaims his zeal for justice, and, despite the many enemies before him, takes to the road, an outlaw forever.

In Jewish commentaries and folklore, Elijah can be found everywhere, in disguise, at the gates of a city in the morning and in the houses of royalty by night; he blesses the poor, unsettles the rich, and continually shuffles the deck of fate with his many faces, always in disguise, keeping people on their spiritual toes because of the possibility that he might actually be near. 

Yet Elijah is most famous for the moment he does not arrive at all, his wine glass untouched but for the banging on the Passover table as a child wakes with a start to open the door. The prophet makes no sound, raises no hand, and opens no gates to salvation on the holiday when the Exodus from bondage in Egypt is replayed by all who come to celebrate it. “I’m Not There,” he might say as people seek him with eyes tightly shut, not wanting to know what a lethal dose of salvation might really mean. 

Imagine the titles of the three great films on the life and work of Bob Dylan as they might appear in the famous scene of Dylan flashing and dropping cue cards in the clip for "Subterranean Homesick Blues": “Don’t Look Back” / “No Direction Home” / “I’m Not There.” This litany reads like the framework for all of Dylan’s prophecy – deep and abiding urges without answers.

Hearing a voice like that is enough to make a guy crazy. It’s also enough to make a guy listen to Dylan – and his many rock and roll prophetic disciples from Joni Mitchell to Nirvana – again and again and again. 


Richard Wells said...

Steven, this is a terrific piece. Thoughtful, well conceptualized, and really well written. I'm a Dylan junkie and have waded through reams of hagiography, and super-intellectualized and personalized lyric analysis - the work of the Dylanologists - and the difference with this piece is that it's at play in the field where archetypes, tradition, and reality meet, clash, and renew. And makes more sense than Mr Marcus. (I hope I'm making sense.) Anyway, thanks. Guess I'll have to bookmark your blog.

SHA said...

Thanks Richard...I'm glad you enjoyed this. " at play in the field where archetypes, tradition, and reality meet, clash, and renew..." Couldn't ask for more than that. SHA

Jake said...

Stephen, as someone who is not (yet?) A Dylan junkie, I learn so much from you and so appreciate your writing. You are officially my Dylan rebbe.

SHA said...

Thank you, Mr. Jake... :)

Stephen said...

List stories like the Salon article are lazy subjective journalism. Consider that rock and roll is a religion, a shared collection of beliefs in the music and lifestyle in which Dylan is merely a main but not the only prophet. Devotees come in all styles and strengths like those who pilgrimage to the wailing wall and Lourdes to agnostics who deny their adherence.