Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet
Not only do I enjoy Bob Dylan's music and songwriting but the development of Jewish and Christian traditions is something that I enjoy reading about and studying as a spiritual person. Needless to say, I was quite pleased when I discovered that someone had embarked upon the task of documenting references, either direct or indirect, of Dylan's Jewish heritage and how that heritage has affected his songwriting and life. Unfortunately, Dylan's Jewishness has often been neglected in writings about him. It's generally passed over as a piece of trivia, not as a contributive identity. He is recognized as the singer, the songwriter, the poet, even the prophet - but what about Dylan the Jew? Of course, the book doesn't treat Dylan's religious beliefs directly, but it surely surmises.
Overall, the book was a quick read yet highly informed and thus highly informative. It easily ranks among the best books on Dylan currently available. The author, a longtime follower and researcher of Dylan, tries hard not to repeat too much information available elsewhere while also acknowledging that there are some very basic facts which newcomers - whether to the musician or the literature about him - need to know. Such is inevitable. Where this book excels is in connecting the imagery found in the biblical prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, et. al.) and Dylan's lyrics. Even the staunchest biblicist might not readily be able to see such otherwise apparent parallels, but Rogovoy has done his research. There are moments when the connection cannot be explained any other way than to suggest that Dylan was as intimately familiar with the texts of Jewish tradition as he was with the works or Rimbaud, Brecht, and William Blake.
That being said, however, at times the connections between the biblical prophets and Dylan's lyrics seem forced, sometimes based on little more than a few matching words even when context seems to demand exclusive interpretations. Outside of John Wesley Harding and New Morning and other explicit moments of Dylan's affluence for biblical imagery, there are definitely moments when the thesis of the book is stretched to its outermost limits applying biblical or talmudic references when in fact there is very little or no connection at all. The author displays a tendency to connect words or three-word phrases to themes which have very little business being connected. For this reason, the album-by-album, song-by-song exegesis which serves as the layout of practically the entire book soon grows long in the tooth and sometimes proves to be redundant. By the mid-'80s, Dylan's songs seems to have settled upon a few ideological bases which inform his work from that point forward with only slight modifications whether that be in terms of degree or perception. Thus, when Rogovoy's explication of "Shot of Love" and "Infidels" highlights that Dylan's songs increasingly focus on a "world gone wrong," the final pages of the book could easily be skipped without missing much new revelation on the subject.
Even though the author and Harold Lepidus (of the Bob Dylan Examiner, who assisted Rogovoy with the book) both state that Dylan's religious beliefs are not directly dealt with in the book, it's difficult not to read the chapters titled "Burnt Offerings" and the following "Psalms" somewhat apologetically. Despite what the author states in interviews, there is definitely a certain emphasis placed upon attempting to extract Dylan from his "born-again Christian" identification. For example, in the chapter titled "Psalms," when discussing the song "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky," specifically the lines "I don't want to be a fool starving for affection/I don't want to drown in someone else's wine," Rogovoy interprets these lines as suggesting that Dylan is recanting his earlier acceptance of wine as Jesus' blood (as is believed by many evangelical and Catholic Christians) and that the born-again Christian period was merely a phase promulgated by a love relationship. In short, Dylan was and is not a true Christian believer. Taking this concept further, Rogovoy interprets the final verse of the song "Man of Peace" as referring to Dylan's return to his distinctive Jewish identity by suggesting that Dylan was beginning to view Jesus as Satan. A proper analysis of these lines within the context of the song, though, do not warrant even a hint of this type of surreptitious, nuanced interpretation. Despite what the author says about his not getting directly involved in Dylan's religious affairs, it nonetheless seems apparent that Rogovoy isn't going to allow Dylan to stray far from the Jewish fold. In this vein, Rogovoy attempts to suggest that the concept of Jesus as Messiah and as Dylan's personal savior is not quite as implicit in the songs of this born-again time period as some people might otherwise claim, thus attempting to resurrect the albums Slow Train Coming and Saved for pundits of whatever creed; however, he fails to read between the lines, not recognizing allusions to Jesus even when the name "Jesus" isn't referenced. The very cover art of the album Slow Train Coming symbolically alludes to faith in Jesus as Messiah. Where Rogovoy excels in his understanding of traditional Judaism, he alternatively displays a certain ignorance when it comes to Christianity and the Christian tradition, including everything from classical exegesis to the high arts - the very things which help to inform the imagery of Slow Train Coming, Saved, and even Shot of Love (which the author excludes from this period despite thereference to the Gospel of Matthew in the liner notes). For this reason, he fails to properly acknowledge the Jewish roots of Christianity, thus accounting for why the images found in the lyrics of Dylan's born-again "phase" may seem like an extension of his Jewish heritage.
Aside from these criticisms, the book ought to be applauded as pioneering a whole new brand of Dylan research. I look forward to further books and articles which expand upon the thesis of this book while exercising some constraint for the sake of precision.