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In a 9th-century joke, a man appears before the Caliph and claims to be a prophet. The Caliph says, “By Allah, you are a stupid prophet!” The man replies, “That is why I was sent to people like you.”
Happy birthday, Bob Dylan.
“I hope Peter, Paul and Mary win it next year,” groused the late Philip Roth when Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016. In this matter (and only this) I sympathize with Roth.
Dylan walked a fine line between parody and popularity, deftly positioning himself within every musical fad, sometimes holding up a mirror to Americans and sometimes preening before the mirror himself. He is best in his self-deprecating moments, when he presents himself as a stupid prophet sent to the sort of people who deserve him. Otherwise I find him insufferable.
The best light verse ever written by an American surely is the first strophe of his 1965 song, “Highway 61 revisited,” referring to the north-south artery that parallels the Mississippi River and bisects the American heartland:
God said to Abraham: “Kill me a son.”
Abe said, “Man, you must be putting’ me on.”
God said, “No.”
Abe say, “What?”
God said, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me coming, you better run.”
Abe said, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61.”
The Americanized version of the Aqedah, the Biblical story of the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah, is set to a Boogie-Woogie accompaniment with obbligato slide whistle.
The contrast between the numinous content of the original – God has given the patriarch Abraham a son in his old age and now instructs Abraham to sacrifice him – and the honky-tonk irreverence of Dylan’s version has a message: Americans may be an “almost-chosen people,” as Abraham Lincoln put it, but “almost chosen” is as good as “almost pregnant.”
Americans may try to understand themselves as a new chosen people with new mission in the wilderness toward a new covenant, but they will never quite get it right.
His next album after “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde,” sounds like it suffered from excess cannabis consumption; in place of the sharp edge of “Highway 61,” we have bleary surrealism. But it abounds with amusing lines. (“The Ragman draws circles/Up and down the block/I’d ask him what the matter was/But I know that he don’t talk.”) By this time Dylan had grown formulaic: the parade song in which one character crosses the proscenium after another had become tired.
Dylan had a fine ear for the rhetoric of American Protestantism. His 1962 song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” offers a sequence of images that sound important but say nothing at all: “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it/I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it/I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’/I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’/I saw a white ladder all covered with water/I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.”
This is pseudo-prophecy from a stupid prophet. Only later did Dylan tip his hand: He was putting us on all along.
Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, to use Robert Allen Zimmerman’s Hebrew name, nailed it in the first verse of “Highway 61 Revisited.” But one verse doesn’t make a song, and the remaining material is a commonplace critique of American commercialism and militarism.
There is something to this juxtaposition. From inception America has been a land of religious enthusiasm, but also a home for hucksters who understand the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” to mean, “Something for nothing.”
But there is a great gulf fixed between spiritual satire, which is very hard to do, and social criticism, which is cheap and easy.
Sadly, he lost his sense of humor along the way. Biographers attribute his turn to a 1966 motorcycle accident.
Dylan’s 1967 album “John Wesley Harding” burrowed into obscure Biblical imagery. Two years later he hitched a ride on the country music revival with “Nashville Skyline.” By the late 1970s he had become a born-again Christian and recorded songs like “Slow Train” (1979). In contrast to the acidic satire of “Highway 61 Revisited,” here Dylan preaches with a somnolent seriousness:
Man’s ego is inflated, his laws are outdated, they don’t apply no more
You can’t rely no more to be standin’ around waitin’
In the home of the brave, Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave
Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.
No matter what your religious persuasion might be, this is awful stuff. Dylan had become just another character in the parade that he had mocked so effectively a decade earlier. By the 1980s Dylan appeared to have returned to Judaism, praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with prayer shawl and phylacteries. In the 1990s he visited the spiritual leader of the Chabad Hassidic movement, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
During his Minnesota teen years, Dylan was an aspiring rocker. When he turned up in New York in the late 1950s he joined the folk movement, and made his reputation with the saccharine antiwar complaint “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
As the folk movement waned he donned a jumpsuit and electrified his guitar. His songs became self-consciously profound, parading (in “Desolation Row”) Einstein, Romeo, Cinderella, and assorted other characters.
His blowout hits of the 1960s, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” appealed to the self-absorption of the counterculture. Just what is so deep about a down-and-out-girl or a wee-hours drug haze? From there he went on to country and gospel, with occasional returns to rock-and-roll.
It’s cold outside the spiritual mainstream (“You banish me into this chill!,” Goethe complained to his readers), and Dylan’s satirical stance of the mid-1960s was too demanding for him to maintain for long.
His thin but sharp talent showed best when he exposed the vacuity of America’s spiritual life. Ultimately he wanted to be part of it. I wish him good health on his birthday, and happiness in his spiritual quest. But we haven’t heard verse of the quality of “Highway 61” from him for a very long time.