I’m trying to read Bob Dylan Approximately: A Portrait of the Jewish Poet in Search of God by A Midrash. I say “trying” because so far anyway, it’s not making much sense, no matter how much I want it to at the moment, because I practice Kabbalah and am heavy into the Zohar right now, I’m still not seeing all of this heavy Jewish symbolism in Bob’s work. I see a lot of Biblical references to be sure – some early on, some later when Bob went through Christian re-dux. I keep thinking of the dark-haired woman in Don’t Look Back who whispers, as Pennebaker captures her hissing, “Have you ever read the Bible?” as she leans into him. He doesn’t hear her at first, and then on understanding tells her he’s “glanced” through it. Well, whatever the truth of the matter, Dylan had his Bar mitzvah in a more orthodox Jewish ceremony, or so it says, on the 22nd May, 1954.
Midrash insists that Dylan prays and shares his prayers and has studied with Rav Shlomo Friefeld of Far Rockaway, New York (and this much I can believe is true for Friefeld is quite well-known, and hey, even I’d turn to him). He is said to have sent his children to a Jewish summer camp, contributed money to Israel, and in 1971 he visited the Mount Zion Yeshiva in Israel. Some have even said he once contemplated renting an apartment in Jerusalem, but again, this is talk, and I wonder if Dylan ever reads these things and says, “I did?” because I imagine that would be the take I would have on it were it not true. More, I’m not sure I’d like people reading any sort of singular symbolism into my words. As a poet, the idea already bothers me. I can see it now: various theses on themes of the Zohar in my poetry. I suppose you can take any one’s words and bend them to fit your specific template if you try hard enough. Shit, I’ve read enough people who say that it’s all about drugs (disagree totally), that it’s all about Judaism (wrong also), that even Bob doesn’t know what it’s about (dubious and disingenuous if BD agreed to that, you don’t write a song like 4th Time Around and not know you’re taking a knock at John Lennon and Norwegian Wood and having some fun with it too. A beautiful song about what is, for the most of it, sounding like a one nightstand but ending so beautifully, as if addressed to a third-party, “And you, you took me in, You loved me then, You didn't waste time). Yes, I like that song a lot. I’m not suggesting I know what it means exactly, only a mood that it imparts which to me is this: that Dylan wrote the song with his song halfway up his cheek, but not all the way.
It’s like reading Dylan’s Visions of Sin, another book I just can’t get into because I don’t know who the hell I am or the author is to really sit and try to squeeze Dylan into our template. It’s an interesting exercise and I’m not at all saying that we shouldn’t try to understand a song to the best of our ability, but when you try to fit a whole body of work into a system, that’s where we start running into trouble. I don’t know that it takes a whole lot of insight to understand a song like, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Gotta Stay All Night)”. I mean, even the classic which if you’ve read me, you know, “Lay, Lady, Lay” which granted, took me forever to really grasp, is a pretty straightforward and somewhat predatory song because it’s a seduction and there’s an inherent sexiness in that (I could say that about a lot of Dylan’s songs – “One More Weekend” comes immediately to mind), but then, there are how many that are just “fuck off” songs or dripping with sarcasm like “Positively 4th Street” and “She’s Your Lover Now” and the like (you might even add “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” as pithy and pissy, since it fits the bill).
The point is that regardless of all of these books on the floor about me here, I’m still unable to fit Dylan into a template and I’m actually rather glad of that. I suppose I could – and that might be interesting on some level, but I’m feeling and feel no need to do it because I suppose I do, as Dylan said and I paraphrase, I take each thing in turn without prior definition.
I’m half-Jewish. Believe me, I was looking for a red-thread on Bob’s wrist when I saw him in concert, but I didn’t see one. No Kabbalah red-thread. Who knows, maybe he wears a Star of David. Does it matter? What exactly is the fascination with Bob’s faith? I suppose the fascination with everything Bob, which is to me a bit like not seeing the something for the something. In other words, it’s missing the point. I want to just enjoy each of these songs for what they are because I know that for me anyway, as a poet, I churn something out and it’s how I feel in that moment – and tomorrow may change; it probably will, but shit, that poem on that day is honest. I imagine it’s much the same way for Dylan: that songs are genuine when you write them and like me, like any poetry, some hold up and some do not. Some bear out the test of time in other words – you are left with those feelings (good or bad) or they vanish. I’ve said this before, but it always bears repeating to me – I’d like to believe that the “It’s Not Dark Yet” period is over for Dylan because it was heartbreaking to listen to and a tough time in his life and it’s the music I personally turn to (or one of his songs) when my own life is falling and fading fast. At least I feel I can relate to that.
But I don’t think Dylan or any writer is standing still. I think he’s changeable. Sure, yes, themes show up and again, if we try really hard we can make it an academic study, but then, what do we lose in the process of that? I foolishly believe Dylan is wholly human. I even believe he is fundamentally flawed like the rest of us and that is what I LIKE about him. He is relatable. He is not perfect. He is me. He is you. He is himself and makes no apology and never has. And if this is the case, and I believe it to be, then no system is ever going to make sense for him: he’s too mercurial for that, too changeable – an unstable element in the best possible way. I will say, I do like the Bob who almost fishes for compliments when he tells us that we think perhaps he is “old” or “past [his] prime” because I’m always that one on the end of the line shouting Nooooooo!!!! I say these things because I believe them; that’s not deifying in any sense of the word – it’s looking at someone else and seeing perhaps a piece of you reflected back. This happens.