SAVED: Bob Dylan and salvation
The car is a great place for intense music listening. If you are alone in the complete privacy of your vehicle you can indulge in letting thoughts and impressions flout around to the rhythm of the music. It is like being inside a sound system and today I could not avoid thinking about the words of Bob Dylan´s song: “To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.” As a matter of fact I was listening to a CD with Dylan's generally ill-favoured Saved – too much preaching and Hammond organ, too little Dylan – and to my surprise I discovered that I liked the record. Why would Dylan not do gospel? He has taken on and interpreted all kinds of American musical forms – blues, rock, country, jazz and swing – so why not gospel? I agree that Saved does not belong among Dylan's absolute masterpieces, though that hardly means it is bad.
I listened to the introductory tune – Satisfied Mind and it struck me that this is not a Dylan song. I had heard it several times before. It was sung by my favourite vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson. Ella sang it with backing vocals and a big band; swinging and with her unrivalled sense of rhythm, yet without a textual depth. I it became a religious song when Mahalia provided it with her calm and comforting gospel feeling, spreading devout warmth above a discreet men´s choir, it was impressive but not overwhelming enough. Satisfied Mind has been interpreted by Dylan's ex-girlfriend Joan Baez, though her characteristic vibrant and clear voice did not succeed in reaching the depths of the somewhat cracked message. Country Violinist Joe "Red" Hayes, who wrote the song in 1954, performed it as a typical old-timer tune, a calm and sensual hillbilly melody with steel guitar in the background.
In my opinion it was first Johnny Cash who, in Tarantino's Kill Bill 2, managed to interpret the undertones of guilt and salvation, only accompanied by his guitar. Through Cash's deep, somewhat rugged and vibrating baritone, the song obtains the tragic greatness it deserves. It becomes compelling and gospel-like, as if being performed by a recently saved, alcohol-injured jailbird. Through Cash, the simple text is given the strength that it had lacked before. Obviously, it was an old previously unissued recording that became known through Tarantino's film. Johnny Cash had died the year before:
How many times have
you heard someone say:
“If I had his money
I could do things my way.”
But little they know
that it's so hard to find
one rich man in ten
with a satisfied mind
When my life has ended
and my time has run out,
my friends and my loved ones
I'll leave there's no doubt,
but one thing's for certain
when it comes my time,
I'll leave this old world
with a satisfied mind.
More than twenty years before Dylan had performed the tune in a different manner. Satisfied Mind functions quite well as an introduction to Saved. The choice may even be characterised as brilliant. Dylan´s not particularly pleasing voice make it sound like a declaration of faith made by a justified sinner kneeling on the mercy seat within a Salvation Army Church – a repentant formerly well-off sinner, surrendering his grimy soul to Christ.
Dylan sings it as if it were a piano accompanied blues within a prayer house. Satisfied Mind is more spoken than sung. Behind Dylan the singing of a gospel choir is sinking and rising, sporadically interleaved with encouraging, discreet exclamations. We find ourselves a prayer meeting and Dylan provides us with a rhapsody of hymns and carols. Like an old, experienced preacher Dylan knows his psalmody and Bible, inside out. It all ends with the question Are You ready?
Preaching for the already saved. I cannot assume otherwise than that this is genuine and deeply felt piety. The faith comes forth bright and clear through In the Garden, where Dylan sounds almost like an inspired black Southern Baptist pastor. To organ and piano accompaniment, he hammers through his simple message, it rises upward with the support of a triumphantly swinging gospel choir. Had it not been for Dylan's scratchy, somewhat nasal voice, you might have felt yourself transported into the Deep South, listening to someone of Martin Luther King's committed colleagues:
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?
Did they hear when He told Peter, "Peter, put up your sword"?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
He said, "All power is given to me in heaven and on earth."
Did they know right then and there what that power was worth?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
Dylan amazes once again. This boisterous and mysterious chameleon, who at the same time is an unrestrained exhibitionist and entertainer and an unfathomable reclusive. That Dylan was saved by the Lord sometime in the late seventies has been doubted by some of my overly politicized comrades and they agreed with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones when he claimed that the Great Dylan had not been saved at all but sold his soul to win over a Christian audience. That he had simply become a Prophet of Profit.
A long time ago, I read William James´s The Varieties of Religious Experience. It made me realize that religion is something deeply human, linked to how individuals think. How you perceive reality. William James (1842-1910) was a pragmatist, assuming that religion is one of several thought patterns we humans use to relate to the reality which surrounds us. He was also a phenomenologist, believing that all human knowledge is marked by our own specific experiences of reality.
Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.
In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, James describes "sick souls." People who believe they have hit rock bottom. After desperately searching for ways of escaping from a nightmarish desperation, they can no longer find any viable solutions. However, within their Dark Night of the Soul they may experience what they believe to be a second birth, a sudden and complete relief from all the worries that hitherto have burdened them, confining them to utmost despair. All this misery has overloaded their brain, short-circuiting it, though suddenly it become miraculously cleansed and they turn into being convinced believers in Christ´s ability to grant redemption from sin and angst. As if having received a gift from a clear sky a saved believer gains calm and security, becoming delivered from bewilderment and doubts. S/he is saved.
According to William James, salvation creates a powerful feeling of being participant in a context that is infinitely greater than your own futile existence. A sense of familiarity with an all-encompassing, unlimited power far beyond our self-interest. Our previously limited existence becomes linked to an eternal reality, and an utmost conviction of its presence makes us surrender or will to what we perceive as the infinite power of God. We abandon the notion that we are able to control our own lives. We are astounded by a liberating joy smashing all obstacles that previously have been circumscribing our existence. We are no longer ashamed of nurturing and exposing an absurd faith in God and his Heavenly Host. We are no longer hiding our true selves behind play acting and prestige hunting. By turning our "no-no" into a "yes-yes", all inhibitory egocentricity disappears and turns into something we perceive as an all-encompassing and sacred love for all humanity. In the liberating joy of our transformation, we want others to experience that same transformation which has turned us into happy, self-confident and wonderfully free human beings, far away from anxiety and despair.
Did Dylan experience something similar? Was he saved? The conditions were advantageous. He was raised within a solid Jewish tradition. Furthermore, as his autobiography indicates, he has always been a voracious reader, not the least is he familiar with the Bible. A familiarity that often shines through in his lyrics. Take a look at Isaiah chapter 21. A strange vision in which the Prophet in anticipation of a hostile attack appears to be in on guard in a watchtower, from which he pores over the surroundings, at the same time as he is plagued by the state of affairs of his country and his own anxieties. Isaiah is utterly depressed, angst boils inside him. When hostile warriors turn up and announce that Babylon has fallen, Isaiah prophesies about the destruction of his fatherland:
The traitor betrays, the looter takes loot. [...]
At this my body is racked with pain,
pangs seize me, like those of a woman in labor;
I am staggered by what I hear,
I am bewildered by what I see.
My heart falters,
fear makes me tremble;
the twilight I longed for
has become a horror to me. […]
Day after day, my lord, I stand on the watchtower;
every night I stay at my post.
Look, here comes a man in a chariot
with a team of horses.
And he gives back the answer:
“Babylon has fallen, has fallen!
All the images of its gods
lie shattered on the ground!”
My people who are crushed on the threshing floor,
I tell you what I have heard
from the Lord Almighty,
from the God of Israel.
Compare with Dylan´s All Along the Watchtower, preferably in Jimi Hendrix's powerful interpretation. Here, Dylan seems to find strength among the prophets of the Old Testament, Tanach, which is the correct Jewish term. Like other great poets, he uses the Bible as inspiration. He does not imitate, does not interpret – he creates something new.
“There must be some kind of way outta here”,
said the joker to the thief.
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief.
Business men, they drink my wine.
Plowman dig my earth.
None were level on the mind.
Nobody up at his word.
no reason to get excited,”
the thief he kindly spoke.
“There are many here among us
who feel that life is but a joke.
But, uh, but you and I,
we've been through that
and this is not our fate.
So let us stop talkin' falsely now.
The hour's getting late, hey.”
All along the watchtower
princes kept the view
while all the women came and went,
barefoot servants, too. Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching
and the wind began to howl.
There are some indications that before his salvation, Dylan had what William James called a sick soul. By the mid-sixties, Dylan was highly productive, writing and performing at a virtually uninterrupted speed. His relationship with Joan Baez was terminated and while continuing with his notorious womanizing Dylan eventually became increasingly romantically involved with the beautiful Shirley Marlin Nozinsky who, after being married to a twenty-five years older, wealthy fashion photographer, had changed her name to Sara Lownds. In November 1965, Bob and Sara married.
Six months earlier, Bob had bought a large estate, Hi Lo Ha, just outside the small town of Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains north of New York. Woodstock had since the 19th century been the centre and home of several well-known artists and musicians. When the newly established Dylan family moved in, there were still several lively art collectives. The main reason for Dylan deciding to move to Woodstock was probably the fact that his manager David Grossman had a large property there. Grossman was a sturdy and skilled businessman who knew how to make Bob wealthy and popular, something he had worked on since Bob contracted him in 1962. It was through Grossman's wife that Dylan had come into contact with Sara Lownds.
When Dylan after a gruelling world tour, a sequel to the poetically and musically successful Blonde on Blonde, came back to Hi Lo Ha, he was mentally and physically exhausted. After too many night sessions, drugs and cigarettes he was pale and shaky, and his voice was slurred. In front of him there were plans for another exhaustive tour, which was planned to take place after a few months respite. Soon after his homecoming, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident, mysterious and legendary as much else concerning him.
It is unclear how badly injured he was. Dylan himself said he had broken several vertebrae. For a while he carried a neck brace, though he did not seem to have undergone any comprehensive medical treatment. During the six weeks that followed the accident, Dylan isolated himself in a room within his doctor's house. Probably, he tried to make arrangements for his future existence, cut down on alcohol, stress and drugs and it appears as if he came out of his predicament as a calmer man. In his autobiography, Dylan wrote: "Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race.” His goal was to become a good father for his children and some of them have stated that he really was a caring parent:
The gunning down of the Kennedys, king, Macolm X … I didn´t see them as leaders being shot down, but rather as fathers whose families had been wounded.
Dylan tried to live an ordered family life with Sara, with whom, after adopting her four-year-old daughter Maria, in quick succession he begot four children. A neighbour, Bruce Dorfman, made him interested in painting and they often spent several hours together by their easels or during pleasant conversations on the Dorfman´s porch.
Dylan was far from unproductive, he wrote several songs and played music with members of the group The Hawks, who previously had accompanied him during his recent tour. All members of the group (except Mickey Jones) lived nearby and in 1968 they began performing as The Band. Dylan continued to collaborate with The Band over the course of their career, including a joint 1974 tour.
Perhaps Dylan's time in Woodstock was one of the happiest and serenest in his life. Sara and Bob seemed to be a harmonious couple and apparently they managed, despite the pressure from Dylan's celebrity, to create a relatively pleasant family life. However, external circumstances and Dylan's intrinsic rootlessness eventually crushed this tranquillity.
Ruthlessly violating their idol's privacy fans climbed the trees surrounding Hi Lo Ha. Frequently hippies made their way into both the garden and the house. Dylan found them swimming in the pool, at one point he even surprised a loving couple in his and Sara´s bed. The Dylan family moved to a house further into the woods, but even there no relief could be found from intruding nuts. It was a nightmare. When Dylan writes about it in his autobiography, it is as if he described scenes from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The fans seemed to be terrifying zombies, infesting his wellbeing, threatening his entire existence:
Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs of dropouts and druggies. Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night [...] rouge radicals looking for the Prince of Protest began to arrive – unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry. […] These gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues, were all disrupting my home life […] Everything was wrong, the world was absurd. It was backing me into a corner. Even persons near and dear offered no relief.
Society around them also seemed to have gone crazy. Nixon had been elected president and Dylan did not at all appreciate the mass hysteria around the Woodstock Festival and the hippie hordes that appeared ever more frequently, becoming bolder and even more intrusive than before. The Manson murders worried him, as well as the deaths that increasingly affected friends and acquaintances, often triggered by violence or drugs. The Dylan family left Woodstock and in the late 1969 they moved into Greenwich Village in New York, but there the unbearable pressure from crazy fans became even worse than before.
Dylan quarrelled and broke up with his long-time manager David Grossman, his marriage to Sara began to skid. Dylan sought out the company of other women, even though he constantly testified his love to Sara. In 1973, they had rented out their houses in Woodstock and moved to California, where they settled on the peninsula Point Dume, a few miles north of Malibu. There they lived more isolated than in Woodstock and New York, while Dylan initiated intense construction activities. For millions of dollars, he built a palace similar to a Baroque Mexican hacienda, perhaps to satisfy Sara, who had become increasingly concerned about her husband's alcohol abuse and womanizing. It did not get any better, rather all the worse. Sara complained about Dylan's bizarre way of life, his mood swings and constant arguing:
I was in such a fear of him that I locked doors to protect myself from his violent outbursts and temper tantrums.
Dylan sought escape routes through his writings, resumed painting and enrolled in an art course in New York. Strangely enough, Dylan later pointed to his artistic interest as the decisive cause for his crashed marriage. He stated that after returning home after his first New York art session, he encountered a sour and incriminating Sara:
I went home after that first day and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That's when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn't possibly explain it.
Perhaps Dylan was annoyed that his wife could not realize that painting constituted a safety valve for him. That he, like many others, was able to forget himself and his troubles while entering worlds of his own creation. Several artists have found refuge in painting, artists like Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis were skilled painters. Enclosed in his madness, the Swedish artist Karl Fredrik Hill used to explain that he "painted for my defence", to protect himself from attacking demons.
By painting, Winston Churchill was able to control his recurring depressions, he called them his Black Dog. Something that makes me think of Dylan's idol, the peerless blues singer Robert Johnson who, throughout his short life fought against the despair that constantly was tracking him:
And the days keeps on worryin' me.
There's a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail.
Hellhound on my trail.
But, it was certainly much more complicated than that and the strangely reticent, but at the same time bluntly self-disclosing Dylan presented in his confusing "film" Renaldo and Clara a portrayal of a fragmented soul. It was recorded in 1975, during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour that involved a host of outstanding musicians. With him on the road were Sara Dylan, Dylan's former fiancée Joan Baez and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, while other greats came and went.
I find the four-hour movie to be an artistic disaster. Dylan did pretty soon withdraw it from screening, but it is now available on Youtube. Renaldo and Clara makes me think of what moderately talented youngsters, with an exorbitant illusion of eventually becoming some kind of geniuses, could accomplish with a Super 8 camera, after spending some night by airing messy ideas about film sequences and then arbitrarily realize them, combined with ad-hoc improvisations and coincidences. In any case, that was what I occasionally did together with my friend Claes while I was studying Drama, Theatre and Film at Lund University. In Lund and Malmö we recorded a fairly large number of talentless film snippets. Mostly on our own, but occasionally introducing some of Claes´s at that time numerous girlfriends as movie stars. He was like Dylan notoriously unfaithful. Those films have fortunately been lost somewhere, I do not know where. There is so much rubble a person leaves behind during a lifetime.
Probably some Dylan fanatics might consider Renaldo and Clara to be a masterpiece, assuming they have found deep meanings and remarkably calculated actions in the this pandemonium, a medley of scenes with preaching pastors on Wall Street, Ginsberg reading his poems to elderly women in a retirement home, David Blue, one of several of Dylan's folk singing pals, pops up on a regular basis, reminiscing by a pinball machine, visits to Jack Kerouac's tomb, restaurant scenes, bordello scenes, concert performances, Hurricane Carter, Dylan's mother, train journeys, some bewildering ceremonies organized by Ginsberg, seemingly endless shots through windshields of moving busses and cars and I do not know what. “Documentary” filming is mixed with “directed” scenes, where Dylan acts as himself or Renaldo, or makes others personate him. Sometimes Dylan wears a translucent plastic mask and occasionally he appears with white-painted face. Obviously, all this confusing mayhem evolves around the legend – the myth – Dylan. In her review published in The New York Times, the sharp film critic Janet Maslin caught what became my impression of the film:
As an actor, Mr. Dylan specializes In giving the simultaneous impressions that he isn't really interested in acting, and that he is always acting anyway. Renaldo is thus virtually useless as character, but his alleged presence in the film does help call attention to Mr. Dylan's obsessive camouflaging of his feelings, a tendency that produces the film's only intelligible conceit.
An opinion that appeared to be mirrored by Dylan himself, when he in a Playboy interview was asked:
– Would you tell us basically what the movie's about?
– It's about the essence of man being alienated from himself and how, in order to free himself, to be reborn, he has to go outside himself. You can almost say that he dies in order to look at time and by strength of will can return to the same body.
Ron Rosenbaum, who made the interview, tells us how he with Dylan ended up in an editing studio at Burbank Studios in California, where Dylan was busy with the sound synchronizing of his film. Ron Rosenbaum was surprised by Dylan's pedantry, how he watched the same sequence over and over again, confirming that the editors followed his detailed instructions. Dylan looked unusually pale, his hair was on end, occasionally he appeared to be confused, unfocused and fidgety.
The scene appearing on the clipboard displayed how Renaldo, enacted by Dylan and Clara, represented by Sara Dylan, while being engaged with connubial foolery are surprised by a knocking on the door and Joan Baez makes an entrance. From head to toe she is dressed in white and has a red rose in her hand (Clara had at a much earlier stage picked a red rose). Baez states she has come to see Renaldo, who in astonishment drops his jaw.
One of the sound editors stopped the movie and wondered: “You want to get rid of that footstep noise in the background, maybe from outside the door?” “There are no footsteps” Dylan declared. “It's the sound of Renaldo's clapping heart.” “How can you be so sure?” wondered the sound engineer jokingly. “I feel him pretty well,” replied Dylan. “I feel him through the heart.” “Do you want to keep it then?” “Make it stronger!”
The scene provides a good summary of how Dylan treated Sara in his movie. I do not understand how she could be able to participate in so many humiliating scenes. Especially as Dylan had assigned her the role of a Marie Magdalene, the saintly prostitute, while Baez appeared to be some kind of music muse, a goddess, who Renaldo/Dylan openly dallies with, as well as with several other women. The unfortunate experience must have been both overwhelming and degrading for Sara Dylan.
It has been speculated that Renaldo and Clara might have been inspired by Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné's masterpiece from 1945, something which is not entirely inconceivable given Dylan's general knowledge and wide-ranging interests. Compared to the French film, Renaldo and Clara is so flimsy it would be embarrassing to compare the two movies. Nevertheless, Children of Paradise, which takes place within artistic circles in Paris of the 1830s, deals with conceit, acting and love, both as a diversion and a deadly drama. If Children of Paradise is compered to Renaldo and Clara, Joan Baez could be interpreted as a modern time version of Garance, a dream woman desired by men from all walks of life and Sara Dylan could then be equalled to the pitiable Nathalie, hopelessly in love with the admired mime Baptiste, who when his adored Garance slips away from him, marries the affectionate Nathalie. Baptiste is a dreamer, a fantasist, at the same time as he is an extraordinary artist. When Garance once again appears in his life, Baptiste abandons the self-denying Nathalie, whom he admires, but does not love. Nathalie, however, remains painfully in love with the fantasising, immature Baptiste.
If Children of Paradise was a paragon for Dylan, and he imagined himself in the role of Baptiste, the dreamer, he was quite off the target with his Renaldo and Clara. Like Baptiste, Dylan appeared in different roles, sometimes masked, sometimes unmasked, though unremittingly exasperating and mysterious. However, Dylan fails to convince in his dual role as actor and director.
Dylan's miserable treatment of Sara, his shaky self-esteem, womanizing, artistry and rising confusion and imbalance shines forth through the film and the crisis that seemed to be lingering within Dylan was certainly not playacted. Strangely enough, during the marital crisis, his musical/lyrical creativity continued unabated.
By the end of 1978, Dylan reached rock bottom. As in William James´s descriptions of the experience of salvation, his anxieties steered him towards an overwhelming experience. According to Dylan, he was unexpectedly seized by a vision, a life-changing “feeling”. His, at the moment, deeply religious, “born-again” girlfriend assumed he had experienced a “visit from Jesus himself" and Dylan later explained:
Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.
This was the solution to Dylan's anxieties, his liberation and it opened the floodgates for an intense outflow of religious songs. Initially, Dylan hesitated if he should go public with his overwhelming sensation of having been saved by Jesus Christ:
I wanted the songs out but I didn't want to do it [myself], because I knew that it wouldn't be perceived in that way. It would just mean more pressure. I just did not want that at that time.
However, under the influence of his current girlfriend and new, convinced Christian acquaintances, Dylan did practically every morning attend Bible studies and prayer meetings, was baptized and soon initiated a Bob Dylan Gospel Tour, exclusively dedicated to Christian hymns and songs, most of them written and performed by him. Before each performance the band members shared prayers and read the Bible. As a convinced Christian, Dylan tried to persuade his friends to become true Christians. To many of his friends, acquaintances and fans Dylan's Christian conversion came as a shock, not least among those of his friends who were Jews. They could not fathom that Bob Dylan, who never had been a stranger to the Jewish faith in which he had grown up, could abandon the beliefs and convictions if his ancestors.
Dylan was saved by the Lord, though he remained as unpredictable as ever and sometimes almost incomprehensible. On Youtube I watched a clip from a concert in Toronto in 1980 where Dylan testifies and preaches. He began by quietly speaking about how hard it is for unsaved people to understand that they need to love their enemies, but then began to wander around and seemingly lost the red thread of his preaching. He stated that for “a supernatural mind"” it is not difficult to love your enemies. Dylan told a story about how he had performed at a college. He did not really remember where, "maybe in Arizona or somewhere" where "higher knowledge" was taught and they studied philosophies, “Nietzsche and Plato and such.” Dylan declared that he also reads a lot, though now he mainly studied the Bible. He told how he had read about Antichrist in the Book of Revelations. He who eventually will deceive humanity, such people as Jim Jones and Hitler were merely portents about the powerful maniac who soon would arrive among us and ultimately become “supernaturally defeated” by God Almighty. He told his audience about the great army being assembled in the East, which soon would invade an eastern country. However, by now the students at the college in Arkansas, or somewhere, were no longer agreeing with him. They had booed and yelled “as they usually do.” However, a month later Russia had attacked Afghanistan. Those forlorn students had nothing to believe in, nothing to hold on to, though Bob Dylan confided in a solid rock, a mighty mountain of truth and salvation – Jesus Christ. By now his band members had burst out in prayer and supportive, discrete shouts.
This might appears as an odd behaviour, though during my time in the US, more than twenty years ago, one of my favourite pastimes was to watch TV programmes with inspired evangelical pastors whose often confusing preaching was very similar to Dylan's improvised outpourings.
Over time, Dylan's overwhelming Christian salvation conviction began to fade away and in the last of his three "Christian" albums, Shot of Love, a more balanced and reflective Dylan begins to appear, as often is the case, in an impressive lyrical form:
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night.
In the violence of a summer's dream, in the chill of a wintry light.
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space.
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man.
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.
Once I was approached by a black-bearded young man, with payots, those side looks that Chassidic Jews wear. It was on Park Avenue in New York and I was on my way to Grand Central Station to catch a train up to Stamford, Connecticut, where I was teaching Swedish to some kids. It was a long time ago and I have forgotten the children, but not the young man. By discreetly raising a hand he made me stop and listen to him:
–Sir, please excuse me if I bother you, but do you mind if I asked you about your name?
Why would he like to know my name? Perhaps he would like those Scientologists, who used to appear here and there, ask me if I would like to sign a protest “against drugs”, probably so they later could use my name and address to lure me into their yarns? I smiled and wondered:
– Why would you want to know my name?
He looked at me with a strangely scrutinizing gaze, declaring that if he knew my name he might help me to find my roots.
-–My roots? Why? I'm Swedish. I know where I can find my roots.
– So you have a Swedish name?
Why was he so interested in my name?
– Sure, my name is Jan.
– But you do not want to reveal your last name?
– Lundius. How come?
– Just what I expected. You´re Jewish. Right, Mister?
I laughed, but did not want to take him out of his error by explaining that Lundius is not a Jewish name at all. That I was born a Lutheran and had no particular desire to change that.
– Let´s say I´m a Jew, what would it matter to you and me?
– Everything, Sir! Everything! You must learn who you really are. Find out what your mission in life is. Your responsibilities. If you might spare some time you are welcome to join us over there and we can inform you about how we can help you to become a happier person.
He indicated a white-painted camper that was parked by the sidewalk, attached to it was a big banner with the text: “Mitzva Tank. Your resource for everything that has to do with Judaism.” I was worried about getting involved in something I could not wriggle myself out of. Accordingly, I explained that I was in a hurry to catch a train, but I would love to return when I had more time. He gave me a brochure and I hurried on. In the future, I avoided going near any Mitzva Tank. On the train I read in the brochure in which Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was quoted:
Even if you are not fully committed to a Torah life, do something. Begin with a mitzvah – any mitzvah – its value will not be diminished by the fact that there are others that you are not prepared to do.
A mitzvah is one of the 613 mitzvot (regulations and commandments) found in the Torah, the Pentateuch of Christianity. Schneerson was the last Rebbe, Master, of the Chassidic Lubavitcher dynasty, and he founded a worldwide movement which purpose is to reach out with his message to as many Jews as possible, thereby preparing Mashiach's arrival among us. Several Lubavitcher even believe that Schneerson truly was the Messiah. The movement's followers call their faith Chabad, a word consisting of the three Hebrew words Chochma, Bina and Daat - Wisdom, Insight and Knowledge.
Although Bob Dylan in recent years has declared that he has no “time for organized religion" he has occasionally been spotted in Chabad-shuls (synagogues) where he wears the tefillin, head phylacteries and a tallit, prayer shawl. Perhaps Dylan has found a way back to his roots and the innermost truth about himself? Nevertheless, I suspect he continues to be amazed by himself. His uncanny ability to write songs:
A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They´re like strange countries that you have to enter. […] I´d written plenty and that was fine. I did whatever it took to get there. […] They came from out of the blue. Maybe I wouldn´t have written them if I wasn´t laid up like I was. Maybe, maybe not. They were easy to write, seemed to float downstream with the current. It´s not like they´d been faint or far away – they were right there in my face, but if you look too steady at them they´d gone.
Is Dylan a prophet? A vehicle for something beyond himself? Is it because of that why he sometimes seems to be so confused and incomprehensible, while at the same time he can break through to you with an almost scary clarity and undisturbed depth? He can also be easy-to-understand and comrade-like, like in his memoirs, or radio programmes, Theme Time Radio Hour, where he quietly and confidently is speaking directly to you. The radio shows were always introduced by impressions from the nightlife of a big city, read by Ellen Barkin, with the veiled voice of a femme fatale from some Cinema Noir movie:
It's night in the big city. Rain falls, the fog rolls in from the waterfront. A night nurse lights up the last cigarette in the package. Wondering what the weather is like? Look out the window, take a walk. Here is your host for the night – Bob Dylan.
[Dylan's swinging, nasal, all-knowing and quietly enthusiastic voice greets us welcome] – One again ... welcome to Theme Time Radio Hour, filled with themes, schemes and dreams.
An hour's enjoyment followed, with seldom heard melodies, wrapped within a soothing mood, like in the soft light under a night lamp over an armchair in a warm, cosy and darkened room. Dylan, saved or not – how much has not this strange man given me during a long life?
Dylan, Bob (2004) Chronicles: Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster. James, William (1982) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York/London: Penguin Classics. Maslin, Janet (1978) “Renaldo and Clara.” Film by Bob Dylan: Rolling Thunder” in The New York Times, September 25. Rosenbaum, Ron (1978) “Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan, a candid conversation with the visionary whose songs changed the times” in Playboy, March. Sounes, Howard (2002) Down the Highway. The Life of Bob Dylan. London: Black Swan.