Bob Dylan: Prophet. Mystic. Poet by Seth Rogovoy. Scribner, New York. November, 2009. 3254 pages including index. $26.00
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
While I was growing up Bob Dylan was moving on. In 1962 when he first made a major splash in the folk music world of Greenwich Village I was a junior in high school in Bayside, Queens, NYC. The first impression he made on me and many of my friends was a creepy one. There was something odd about him; his voice wasn’t like anyone else’s and his songs were strange, almost eerie at times. There was his unusual looks and his wild, tangled hair. If anything he reminded me of cousin’s neighbors in Brooklyn, the Chassidic Jews our family basically avoided at any cost.
It never occurred to any of us that Bob Dylan, with that very Irish last name, could be Jewish. Never occurred to us at all. When, much later, we learned that his real name was Zimmerman it still didn’t occur to us that he was Jewish. After all, and we were from Queens, Ethel Merman - the ultimate Lutheran/Episcopal Broadway star, and also from Queens - had been a Zimmerman.
A few years later, while I was in college in Manhattan and living in Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan was a constant presence. I went often to the Café Id, which was closer on MacDougal Street to me than the Café Wah, and there I heard the young Cher before Sonny Bono snapped her up and George Carlin and a whole host of other soon-to-be celebrities. I met Buffy Ste.Marie and ended up baby-sitting for Odetta’s kid. It was a whole world and Dylan was already, this was 1965, at the center of it all.
There was a young comic, whose name I have forgotten, who had a long routine he was honing at the Café Id that always ended up with the punch line "...and the clouds parted and Bob Dylan looked down at the earth and said...." and there would be a quote from one of his then popular songs. Some people laughed heartily at this guy; I wasn’t one of them. Dylan confused me.
Now, with Seth Rogovoy’s book about Dylan and his Judaism, things seem much less confusing. Rogovoy has placed the man, and his lyrics and his music, for me into the proper perspective. He has given me the elements I needed to comprehend what his mystique was all about. In a way the book has left me relieved that my lack of understanding was due to the personal confusions I couldn’t make work. At the same times I have to wonder why I missed the obvious. Was I trying too hard, or did I just not get him at the time.
Reading Rogovoy’s biographical survey of the work - for it is a unique vision of the man that is presented here strictly through his own personal voice in his work - I have realized a great many things about Bob Dylan. He was almost devotional in his strict adherence to family and culture. He was rather brilliant in his transformation of scripture and bible stories into a contemporary format. He was a man in search of more identity than place. He knew his place, but he needed to clarify his own relationship to the almighty and the world.
Rogovoy examines clearly the results of Dylan’s switch in form from folk to rock music. His analysis of both the music and the reactions to it are fascinating. He delves deeply into the lyrics comparing them carefully to sources of inspiration often finding the direct quote from the Bible that Dylan used. With these in hand he places the songs within the context of Dylan’s life and his search for that place of comfort, that point of belonging that is the constant quest of so many Jews.
Personal relationships and professional ones are digested in Rogovoy’s guts-filled narrative. In the end I found myself admiring Bob Dylan more than I ever have before and finally interested in hearing his work with fresh understanding. I was curious to read the book, knowing the author slightly and never having gotten to know him well. In reading his well thought-out volume on the artist, he has presented much of himself to the reader as well.
Subtitled "Prophet. Mystic. Poet" the book takes on the additional task of putting the artist in that odd position of moving human understanding forward to a new point of view. This was a risk, I thought, at the beginning of the volume. Making a case for Prophet has proven harder than that of Mystic in the case of Bob Dylan. There is much of the mystic here in this book. Whether defined as "Of or relating to religious mysteries," or "Enigmatic, obscure," or "Inspiring a sense of mystery and wonder" Bob Dylan would seem to fit all three descriptions.
As for Prophet, well he has, according to Rogovoy, predicted a new beginning for the world in the Middle East in his song "The Groom’s Still Waitin’ at the Altar" from his 1983 album "Shot of Love." As for Poet, well there was never any doubt about that ability in his work: modern, eclectic, electric and always a poet.
Dylan is one of the great album stars in contemporary music. One of the two failings of this book is a complete, chronological list of albums and songs - there are so many discussed in the book that after a while it is hard to remember what came when or where - that would have helped keep the man’s career history in line. The other is the lack of any illustrations. There isn’t one photograph of Dylan or his band or his family, not even a reproduced album cover. This is a personal gripe of mine; I like a picture now and then in a book of this sort.
I think Seth Rogovoy’s work here is superb. He has certainly given me a new concept of Bob Dylan to work with and think about. I have already recommended this book to other non-fans of the musician. I believe this work will change many people’s images of Bob Dylan and knowing so much more about the source of his beliefs and the sources of his work will alter our appreciation of his sensitive art.