Literary criticism, musical criticism and theological criticism are notoriously difficult. The reason that they are so hard is the question of subjectivity. In the early years of the 20th century, a noted conservative theologian said the following of a liberal scholar:
“The Christ that he sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”
It is a very clever idea but could the equal statement also be said of the more conservative thinker. We want our God to be like our theology says he should be. Otherwise we are wrong and that is hard to bear. We want our heroes to be like us. Otherwise that is burdensome.
I had my first professional article published when I was 17 or 18 so that means that I have been writing in print and on the internet for more than 3 decades. For the majority of that time I have primarily written about music and literature and occasionally theology.
Some articles take me longer to complete than others. Usually this is not because of writers’ block or lack of inspiration but because of this question of subjectivity / objectivity. I want to have something valuable to contribute to a discussion and not just make my subject another version of myself, whether seen through the water’s reflection at the bottom of a deep, dank well or in some other way.
So much so that I have one article that I began in 2015 which is still not finished. It happens to be a reassessment of a particular album by Bob Dylan and I want to say something with it that is worthwhile and I can’t quite get to the heart of that and so it is waiting..
And that brings me to the subject of this piece.
Bob Dylan must be subject to more criticism (I don’t mean in a negative fashion but in the way that the word is used in literary circles) and assessment than any other songwriter/singer of the rock era.
But some of it is just revisiting what has been said before. Some of it is careless. Some of it is callous. And some is downright sloppy.
And perhaps more than any other modern subject he is prone to being the victim of our subjectivity.
A lot is written about Dylan’s faith in something or someone immortal and greater than himself. This has been a particular theme that I have picked at occasionally and this is dangerous ground for me because I am what you might call a believer: a believer in an immortal God.
Now amongst those who look into this area, there are people whose viewpoint on Dylan’s outlook falls into different camps.
(1) There are those who would say that after a lifetime of fairly non-observant Judaism, he became a Christian of an evangelical-stripe around 1978 and then in the early 1980s (usually some time between 1982 and 1983) he reverted to a Judaistic outlook but then in a more observant form. There are even some who have said that Mr Dylan didn’t genuinely convert to Christianity at all and that albums like “Slow Train Coming” were expressions of how a more general belief in God can be expressed. I find this latter view mystifying and the earlier one difficult to balance with Dylan’s own comments post-1982.
(2) There are those who would argue that after his 1978 conversion he retained beliefs that were essentially Christian and deeply-rooted in the Old Testament and the New Testament but now without any link to any particular church denomination. This would be my particular view and I have discussed this, perhaps most fully here:
as well as constructing essays around particular album releases of the last 35 years which can be found on this site and elsewhere on the internet.
(3) There are those who have said that Dylan in rejecting involvement in particular synagogues and church denominations has done so because his views have become more esoteric and specialised than mainstream believers in either the Judaistic or Christian fellowships. Terms like “gnosticism” are bandied around in this viewpoint but those who use the term don’t seem to be describing anything like the gnostic views of the written records of the first and second centuries and so I am not sure where this view is going.
(4) Very few have said that Dylan has now lost belief in “a God of space and time” as he once described that which he believed in. However, the internet is a pernicious place and there are those who have used it to publish sub-titled videos which seem to suggest Mr Zimmerman has said openly that he has sold his soul to the devil! I will return to this in a moment.
Now it seems to me aside from the occasional radical voice, everyone who writes on this subject is agreed on the fact that Dylan converted to Christianity in 1978 and that beyond that various weights can be given to each of the first three viewpoints. However, if we are going to pursue a discussion of this kind, we must do more than simply want our hero to be part of our club or our camp. The follower of Judaism needs to get past only trying to prove that Dylan is also a follower of Judaism. The one who claims to follow Christ should look more closely than saying “Ah! yes, I have seen that Bob follows Jesus now I can rest content”. And the one who believes that Bob is charmed by hidden secrets, mysteries revealed only known to the few, gnosticism or something that in the 1990s we might have called New Age belief should not settle for wanting to own him either.
The question for all of us is what is Dylan’s songwriting, his voice and his mode of expression saying to us in a particular group of songs, whether they be in an album or concert and what do his choices and expressions say to us of that which is beautiful, lovely, grounded in a certain kind of belief and say that is valuable to the individual listener and the way we live our lives. The same questions need to be asked of “Bringing it All Back Home”, “Together Through Life” or “Saved” or any other item in Dylan’s long and torrid touring and recording career. In short, the questions we should ask of any artist.
Concerning ourselves only with claiming him as one of our own simply just won’t do.
And so to round on whoever posted on YouTube the video of portions of Mr Dylan’s interview on 60 minutes some years ago which is from time-to-time reposted and commented on and has subtitles added to it, all of which suggest that he went on the show and admitted that he had sold his soul to the devil. Now occasionally a link to this still comes my way even though the original video is about 14 years old (he did the show to coincide with the release of his book “Chronicles – Volume One”). Now in this interview, Dylan makes a comment in his discussion with Ed Bradley which is no more and no less mysterious than many others that he has made in his career. I’ll quote this section of the interview in full:
Ed Bradley: Well, it’s lasted a long time for you. I mean you’re still out here doing these songs, you know. You’re still on tour.
BD: I do, but I don’t take it for granted.
EB: Why do you still do it? Why are you still out here?
BD: Well, it goes back to that destiny thing. I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end…
EB: What was your bargain?
BD: …to get where I am now.
EB: Should I ask who you made that bargain with?
BD: [laughs] With the chief commander.
EB: On this earth?
BD: [laughs] In this earth and in the world we can’t see.
Now if I do an internet search for this interview, the top links are for the aforementioned comments that Dylan has sold his soul and not for something good. Now this is ludicrous and while there is every indication that Dylan does not trust the media, there has to be a mark where those viewpoints which have absolutely no substance on which to rest their load should be ruled out of court. In the world of the internet, more is written but less of quality is written.
I tried to take upon myself a very brief analysis of the interview whilst attempting to approach it from the outlook of someone who knew little or nothing about our subject’s songwriting. My first search engine entry led me to a website called bobdylan.com which seemed to be likely to be authoritative. Fortunately, it seems to have a searchable index of all his songs (yes, I know it is the official site – just join me in my game for a moment). And so I took the description of the one that the interviewee claimed to have made a bargain with and found that the word “commander” is only mentioned once in the whole of his songwriting catalogue and that in a song (Tombstone Blues) that significantly pre-dates 1978 and therefore if it should have any relevance at all would not be subject to bias. A closer look at the full lyric sees that it concerns a character (a hero) that John the Baptist is addressing. A humorous lyric, not in any form a formal religious reference but grist to this particular mill perhaps.
The only reference to “bargain” in Dylan’s catalogue is in a song he didn’t write (Arthur McBride) so I don’t discount it but it seems less likely to be relevant. I look for words that have a similar meeting to bargain and hit upon “Deal” and a very poignant couple of stanzas in a song called “When the Deal Goes Down”:
“The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down”
“In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You’ll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that’s sayin’ it true
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down”
And now if I was using Dylan’s songwriting like I might a concordance I would have several rich veins to follow. I could explore his use of the images drawn from train travel. I wonder where that might lead.
If I look for an idea of who the chief commander who Dylan has struck a deal with in “this world and in the world to come” then the closest I come is this:
“He said, “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth”
Did they know right then and there what the power was worth?”
Maybe or maybe not. But it surely doesn’t lead towards the devil.
If we care enough about a subject to explore it and critique then please let it breathe and give the author dignity. And really listen – at least, long enough to place the comments in the context of exactly the same interview on exactly the same day:
BD: I realized at the time that the press, the media, they’re not the judge – God’s the judge.The only person you have to think about lying twice to is either yourself or to God. The press isn’t either of them. And I just figured they’re irrelevant.