Bob Dylan: About Man & God & Law

An Interview with Stephen Daniel Arnoff

If you are like me and need a weekly dose of Bob Dylan, then look no further than Stephen Daniel Arnoff’s podcasts at https://www.mangodlaw.com/. Besides appeasing our addiction each episode crafts a compelling narrative to guide us into an exploration of Dylan’s universe focusing each time on a specific topic.

Thanks to our host Arnoff’s masterful command of the subject we gradually learn how Dylan has brought about a rebirth of old ideas by a reworking of inherited religious content and traditional material. How he uses a set of stock phrases to revisit the blues, for example, in the same way Homer in composing the Odyssey and the Iliad followed predictable narrative patterns to create an original epic. Dylan relies on the art of memory, accumulates what happened before him in the classics and, by reconstructing these elements and putting them together with contemporary notions, generates a new artistic convention to explain the world as we see it today.

We discover that in “Shelter from the Storm” Dylan might be singing about the Shekhinah, the female aspect of the divine in Jewish mysticism, especially in the line “if I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.” Arnoff’s explanations courageously overstep the boundaries of time, and that’s when the fun really begins. He leads us into a parallel universe where, like Dylan, we can meditate on songs and play them in our head until we are able to “rearrange faces and give them all another name” because chronology becomes irrelevant like in the Holy Scriptures and what counts is intertextuality, the ability to make the right connections.

Pop songs contain multitudes. The title of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” says Arnoff, expresses a formula for the infinite. Love, when zero is subtracted, equals no limit, and all categories melt into a boundless whole. We are no longer stuck in time in an endless purgatory, and “a kind of immortality graces the artist who can capture all that.” The Bob Dylan: About Man & God & Law podcasts come across as being ultimately optimistic. Dylan did achieve that particular state of grace and immortality. This is why we keep talking about him, and our great grandchildren will be talking plenty about him, in the centuries to come, once he’s gone and we’re gone too.

Stephen, talking about “Murder Most Foul” you say that America is its music and rightly emphasize the importance of Dylan’s continuous contribution to popular culture. Popular culture shapes the world and, in the case of Dylan, brings people closer to the fundamental aspects of life and death than organized institutions. If we remember the 18th and the 19th centuries respectively as the eras of Enlightenment and Romanticism, could we define the 20th century as the Pop century? Could we say that something’s changed in a fundamental way with the advent of rock and roll?

The Pop Century. I like that. Maybe there really is something to the concept of the 20th century being “pop” — but if we dig a little deeper we might find a number of intersecting trends that make it that way. For one thing, while I’m more of a student of text and culture than a historian, my hunch is that historians would not want us to assume that centuries have clean beginnings and endings — or that the cultural trends that we see as most apparent from our particular points of view ever truly end.

Take Romanticism, for example. One of my favorite books about rock and roll culture is called The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism by a fellow named Robert Pattison. Hopefully Pattison, whom I’ve never been able to track down, will see this and correct me. But one of the things he makes clear about rock and roll is that it drinks from the wells of “vulgar” culture in the classical world via Romanticism — and that in some ways rock is the most intense, high-impact period of vulgar-Romantic culture we have ever known. The emphasis on feelings, on the personal epiphany, on the sensual and immediate, on salvational secular love — these are all core to the rock experience, but the roots of these tendencies as a “movement” go back a hundred or even thousands of years.

The wheel of culture is always turning and, like Leonard Cohen, who I think we’re going to talk about later once wrote, culture and cultural expression are “new skin for the old ceremony.” There’s constant renewal and refreshing and re-translating what came before. I see rock as carrying a lot of ancient or at least traditional elements. Jim Morrison, love him or hate him or both, pulled on the shaman thread. Dylan is the epitome of the contemporary bard, which on the podcast we talk about as part of the troubadour tradition, and even going back to the bards of ancient Greece in other ways. Fans, and especially fans who are musicians following the work of their heroes, are disciples. You know, like Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul.

The thing that changed with the rise of rock was technology, the ability to distribute cultural content almost instantly with highly sophisticated models from radio to satellites to film and TV to advertisements in all media to plain old payola which delivered the goods for the highest bidder or the most ruthless mob boss. All of this adds up to massive mass distribution — and it was global once it got rolling — of culture. Call it pop, which comes from popular, which means masses. But it’s the place where long, long trails of ways of doing culture and practice intersect with the superhighway of modern technology and communications.

Dylan is a, if not the pivotal figure to take in all of this cultural DNA — innovated, transformed, and blown up in rock’s incredibly colorful intuitive and strategic needs to meet the needs of the soul and the marketplace. And that’s something that religion and myth have always been good at by the way.

Are you planning a new podcast on Jewish mysticism? You’ve already explained in previous episodes that Hebrew, a language based on three-letter roots, builds a web of words with similar meanings around these roots. This is one of the assumptions of the Kabbalah where each letter combination has a particular meaning, and a concept known as “the breaking of the vessels” is seen as part of God’s creation. Does Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” from the Oh Mercy album fit into this scheme of things? Is there a specific relationship between Dylan’s work and the Kabbalah?

Hmmm. I’m planning a second season of the podcast to coincide with the writing and publishing of a book about Bob Dylan’s spiritual wisdom which will come out toward the end of 2021, but nothing is in the works for a show about Jewish mysticism per se. I write and lecture and teach in a lot of venues, often for audiences that care about Jewish themes, so those patterns come up. It’s also the tradition — the Jewish tradition and a real affinity for the mystical and mythic — that I am plugged into personally.

When it comes to Dylan, I have absolutely no idea how he metabolizes Jewish patterns or texts like the ones you mentioned. He may be thinking about particular terms or themes. He may not. I’ll probably never know, and to tell you the truth, I don’t really need or want to know. That’s his business.

You might say one of the ways I think about Dylan’s work, which often has so many layers because he’s such a profound artist, is as a kind of hologram. Tilted at a certain angle or held in a particular kind of light, the image of a song can change. It moves. But the essence, the artifact of the song remains unchanged, even if its meaning is dynamic.

“I heard the Sermon on the Mount and I thought it was too complex/it didn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects,” Dylan sang, right? The songs, while whole of course, are like that broken glass. They reflect the layers within them, but also the person seeing that glass in so many different ways and conditions.

Hebrew, which is a very old language and has been used for sacred texts and conversations for many thousands of years, has some very cool ways of doing things. This idea that the root of a word has a modular semantic domain, like a single lego (which I thing means “word” in Greek, no?) that are literally building blocks for all kinds of related ideas. It’s all about layers, associations, overlap, creative uses of the building blocks. That working of the letters and words of Hebrew is not only how the Hebrew Bible described God creating the world — with words — but it’s the essence of Jewish textual, liturgical creativity. You have the set of letters and then texts that are like the periodic table inner elemental world. You can make anything from them.

This is a long way of saying that Dylan, who is immensely playful with words like any great poet, has his own ways of playing the word game. Does Hebrew influence it? I doubt it. But thinking in this way about his work and constantly watching the layers emerge is really rewarding. Like sacred Hebrew texts, the songs demand engagement, interpretation, reflection. This way of thinking about Dylan’s texts and music is a great tool to glean some of that meaning imbedded within.

As for whether any Jewish mystical thinking influences his songwriting or themes like in “Everything Is Broken,” again, it’s possible, I suppose. More likely, Dylan, like Jewish mystics, is attracted to deep, compelling ideas. The concept that everything is broken and needs to be mended as an essential act of being human probably comes up in countless spiritual traditions, certainly not only in various planks of Judaism. In fact, if that theme doesn’t come up somewhere in every religion, someone’s not paying attention to the nature of our world!

There are some hidden gems in your commentaries. When you said that “we all have three things in common: birth, taxes and death,” it just made me smile. I particularly enjoyed your definition of Dylan’s art as transmigrational art, where “everything passes, everything changes” as in the song “To Ramona.” But to me there is something even more powerful to Dylan’s music. British comedian Nish Kumar once said in an interview that the first time he attentively listened to Dylan he had the distinct feeling Dylan was talking directly to him. Would you agree that this is the strength of Dylan’s work: songs “written in my soul / from me to you?”

I credit our friend and colleague Richard Thomas for anything I picked up about “transmigration” — i.e. transfiguration — in Dylan’s work. He has such great writing on this. But both of us and everyone else are just tracking the breadcrumbs Dylan laid out for us in the Rolling Stone interview in which he went off on the transfiguration/transmigration, etc., etc.

The Kumar quote sounds familiar. Yes, that’s Dylan. That’s rock and roll. That’s like a great book too, a wonderful film. Somehow, you’re suddenly not alone, even in your darkest moments of fear or most peculiar joys. Hey, you’re thinking, that’s me he’s talking about. Hey, he’s talking to me! What do great artists do if not find something wildly universal in their most intimate experiences. That’s a mystery of art, how an artist can serve both the particular and universal notions with equally convincing power in the same word or story or image or sound. Maybe the short answer is yes, it is “written in my soul from me to you.” But guess what, kids? It’s written in that one’s and that one’s and maybe everyone’s soul from me to you too. The universal intimacy. That’s what we might call it.

I love your interview with Dylan’s scholar Richard Thomas, author of the book Why Bob Dylan Matters. At a certain point you ask him if he sees Rough & Rowdy Ways as being an end of an era or the beginning of an era. Now I’d like to ask you exactly the same question you asked Richard.

Yes, Richard is such a pleasure to speak with, and his Why Bob Dylan Matters is one of my favorite Dylan books. I guess this is kind of like asking if the Book of Deuteronomy marks the end of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. You start at Genesis, get through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers and then after that fifth book, you’re done. Maybe for that reading at least. But then you know you’re going back to check something out again, or cross-reference, or just enjoy that favorite text from any of those books. It’s in your head, maybe forever. Maybe not from The Book of Numbers. OK, but you get the idea. Dylan is a canonical artist, a classic as perhaps Richard might say, which means people are going to be stewing over his work beginning, middle and end for a very long time. It won’t go away because it’s that rich with meaning, that well done.

I don’t follow the Dylan rumor mill too closely, so I don’t know if there’s chatter about another album or ten more. I hope there’s more — more original music — because I love Rough and Rowdy Ways. I spoke to a very much beloved scholar recently who is in his dotage. He’s not writing anything new about Dylan. He said that, unlike Dylan, he doesn’t have the ability at his seasoned age to come up with anything new. So why bother? Somehow, so far, Dylan does still have something new to say and then some. Let’s just hope he’s happy and healthy and keeps doing his thing. I wouldn’t bet against him, but then again, I’m not a betting man.

All your podcasts open with a homage from Bruce Springsteen to Dylan’s art. In recent albums Springsteen seems to be addressing Dylan directly in some of his songs. In “Devils and Dust” he sings “We’re a long, long way from home, Bob / Home’s a long, long way from us / I feel a dirty wind blowing / Devils and dust / I got God on my side / I’m just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love.” Is that possible? After all Dylan might have been playing the same game in “4th Time Around,” a tune that probably alludes to John Lennon.

Well, Bruce Springsteen has talked about Dylan a lot since the beginning. The brother you never had, the one who showed us that a pop song could contain the whole world, that “Like a Rolling Stone” is the song of songs. He’s a huge fan, and a disciple by every measure and proudly so. It seems more than reasonable to think Springsteen would have Dylan on the mind. Who doesn’t? Same thing for Hendrix and the Stones and the Beatles and Elvis Costello. Everybody must get Bobbed, right? Except Joni Mitchell, of course. She’s gotten a bit rough on old Bob over the years.

I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, but I do think his most recent Super Bowl commercial for Jeep is a world and a half worse than Dylan’s pretty lame Super Bowl commercial for whatever car company he pitched after Cadillac. Bruce got lost in Bruce, whereas Dylan has this incredible, relentless ability to keep pushing himself toward new things.

On their specific shared themes, or at least one of them, there’s a fine line between wonder and nostalgia for an elusive America of the past, the uniqueness and singularity of America — and a load of hyper patriotic, network TV BS that invites all kind of narrow-minded bad behavior. Bruce needs to be a lot more careful than Bob on that front. Dylan’s got a darkness and cynicism or maybe a stoicism about the nature of all things that protects his songwriting from patriotic or jingoistic kitsch. Springsteen, and I still just love his work top to bottom, has gone off the deep end of American nostalgia more than once. When that happens, it’s almost like a parody.

In your writings you dedicate special attention to Leonard Cohen’s repertoire, in particular his song “The Future” about a world rotting with corruption where nonetheless we find the unexpectedly hopeful line “love’s the only engine of survival.” How would you compare Dylan’s and Cohen’s mythologies?

Nice one, Marco. Let Us Compare Mythologies indeed! Just like the title of one of Cohen’s collections of poetry.

Well, there’s endless competition and bustling about at the top of the rock and roll pack for me. I’ve mentioned a bunch of my favorites here. There’s also Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Ray Davies, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Petty, and again I’ll say Joni Mitchell who is unparalleled — so many brilliant songwriters. But Cohen does hold a special place for me. Somehow, by poetic practice and intent I suppose, his mythic sweep is much more limited than Dylan’s. There’s no “Brownsville Girl” or “Isis” or “Murder Most Foul” in Cohen. His epics are mostly in the mirror, in his room, this penetrating, economical, essential voice whereas Dylan, who can pull off that style if he wants to, is typically more grand.

It might be pushing it to say this, but I think of Erich Auerbach’s famous essay “Odysseus’ Scar” in the book Mimesis as a way of thinking about Cohen and Dylan, who, I think, had a lot of mutual admiration amidst whatever ego trips they may have been on.

Auerbach makes a claim that I believe also is found in Matthew Arnold in some ways that there are two main lines of poets in the West — the Hebrew and the Hellenist. Homer is, of course, the classic Hellenist, with epic, detail-saturated, colorful, impassioned, literarily stunning descriptions of battles or other action with limited access to deep, resonant feeling. This idea that the world happens on the outside of a person, in action and sound and sight, not inside. And descriptively with the Hellenists, you never get down time. There are no gaps. It’s a constant overload of senses and detail and beauty and gore.

The Hebrew poet, he says, citing the Bible as the prime example, uses words sparsely. There are so many gaps. He imagines the one hundred or so words used to describe Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac — all of this drama requiring the reader or listener to fill in gaps of emotion and resonance on his or her own, to stew in the immense gravitas of the biblical moment, while a Greek telling would take many thousands of words, while externalizing the conflict and angst with incredible literary skill.

In broad terms, if you wanted to make a claim using Auerbach, you could say Dylan is the Hellenist and Cohen is the Hebrew. It’s a pretty tight rope to walk because these are artificial constructs, but it is an interesting way to think about these two gentlemen as culture makers. Cohen is laconic. Dylan is epic. And their mythologies roll out accordingly.

Sometimes I have the unwanted feeling that towards the end of their careers Dylan loved Cohen more than Cohen loved Dylan. Just an example: Cohen said that giving the Nobel Prize to Dylan was like “pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” However, there’s a poem in his posthumous book The Flame that goes like this: “They took me to Mount Everest / and they pointed to the summit / I said I am impressed / but it’s just another limit.”

Well Cohen, he was a monk and his thing, amongst his things I suppose, was focusing on being humble. This made him relatable in a way Dylan really never has been. Dylan’s been a legend from day one, “already a legend,” as Joan Baez sings about a very young Dylan in “Diamonds and Rust.” For Cohen, who was washing dishes in the unheated kitchen on Mount Baldy at five o’clock in the morning — and it is cold as all hell up on Mouth Baldy in the mornings — an inflated ego, or maybe any ego, was just not a high value in any way. Your job is to deflate that ego cushion against your real self, the divine, other humans, nature.

I have no idea what Dylan’s like as a person, but he’s clearly aloof and removed and knows he is in his own category of artist as a public figure. Not approachable. Not your friend.

Dylan doesn’t talk to his audience, doesn’t even look at it much of the time. Cohen would get on a knee and say thank you, friends, thank you so very much every single night. And you felt like he meant it as much if not more as you felt it that Dylan couldn’t give a hoot about you. Sure, both of them are doing a schtick, but I can see why Cohen, with all of his love for Dylan, who, as Warren Zevon said, “invented his job,” would not see him as a model for how to live a “holy” life, at least in the public realm. Though I would hasten to add that Cohen probably could care less about Dylan’s good or bad habits. He loved his art. I’m sure he love him.

But there’s another point as well. These people, these massively, famously famous and talented pop stars, we have no idea what it’s like to be them — not the recognition, not the pandering of everyone around them, not the pressure, not the luxury, not any of it. I’m sure the rivalries and competitions and tensions are real, but I don’t think we really know what they talked about if they talked, or how they related to each other as well. Just like Joey in “Joey,” “no one really knew for sure where they were really at.”

You wrote a very interesting review of Philip Roth’s novel Everyman. “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me,” Roth told an interviewer once. “If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” He even used to put a big American flag in his balcony. This kind of reminds me of Dylan draping a U.S. flag on the stage during his Paris concert in 1966. Apart from references in Roth’s novel American Pastoral to The Weather Underground, a terrorist group that took its name from a Dylan lyric, I can’t find other evident points in common between Roth and Dylan. And yet, in their contradictions, I believe there is something that brings them together but I don’t know what it is. Do you find any similarities between these two great personalities?

I’m actually hoping to talk with Greil Marcus about this on the podcast in the coming months. Greil, who is another huge influence on my thinking about rock and culture generally — my biggest influence of all, in fact — has obviously written a great deal about Dylan. But he’s also written very powerfully about Phillip Roth. I don’t know if Dylan reads Roth or if Roth, who I don’t think was much for rock and roll, listened to Dylan. But even though Roth was a bit older than Dylan, not a Baby Boomer, they’re dealing with a lot of the same raw materials, especially in the 1990’s and early 2000’s when Roth banged out maybe his best work and Dylan, with Time Out of Mind, Modern Times, etc. was also at the top of his game.

I like to think that even hugely influential American artists like Dylan and Roth are still suckers for American nostalgia just like Bruce Springsteen. They’re great myth makers because they love myth. They want to write an epic story because they’re already in one. For me, that’s one clear parallel, the deep need to rework cultural content — American cultural content — in real time, in order to make sense of it. And out of real love for this stuff. They’re tough on America because they care.

Roth held to being a strict secularist, an atheist, I think, and was starkly opposed to religion, which he called stupid or a waste of time. And yet the religious pathos and sensibility is all over his later work, this “oceanic feeling,” a phrase used by Romain Rolland in his letters to Freud that I mentioned in that essay on Roth, and, I think, in our episode about love.

So different than Roth, Dylan is always godstruck like the Psalmist. He’s been around the block religiously as everybody knows, and I don’t know if, these days, he would want to be claimed by or make a claim for any particular religious tradition. He’s an iconoclastic sentimentalist. A stoic myth-maker. The American nostalgist who kicks the living you-know-what out of every preconceived notion while longing for it all the same. That’s something Dylan shares with Roth — that paradoxical relationship with nostalgia that could become shlock in the wrong creative hands — that they make into timeless work.

I’m really interested in that dynamic of loving and hating the nostalgia of the America story, which is so the story of “Murder Most Foul,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Senor,” “Highlands.” These are completely different ways of relating to America and American nostalgia than Roth, but it is the same raw material — especially as it’s tempered in their later years by thinking about mortality in that context. Dylan and Roth. I bet there’s something to talk about there. Maybe you just gave me an idea for an episode next season.

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Marco Zoppas

Marco Zoppas

27 Followers

Insegnante e traduttore. Autore dei libri “Ballando con Mr D.” su Bob Dylan, “Da Omero al rock” e “Twinology. Letteratura e rock nei misteri di Twin Peaks”