August 4, 2021

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Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet by Seth Rogovoy (Scribner)


First, a disclaimer in the interest of open journalism.  Seth Rogovoy is a friend, and during the course of writing this book, he’d occasionally run ideas, questions or facts by me.  As such, I am thanked in this book.

One of the reasons Bob Dylan’s entire body of work has been the subject of discussion for what is fast approaching five decades is that his work is loaded with references, musical, literary, to film, history and religion.  To like or appreciate Bob Dylan one doesn’t necessarily have to know about these references  — some may simply view him as another folk or rock singer.  However, to understand what Bob Dylan has been saying in his music all along, those references take things to a whole other level, or to quote Joan Baez in the Martin Scorcese documentary, No Direction Home, “He goes way deep.”

Prophet, Mystic, Poet is neither biography or totally song analysis, but rather a little bit of both.  Rogovoy makes no claim, in fact disavows any claim to this being the definitive word.  Instead he uses the biographical aspects of Dylan’s life, from his childhood on up, which for the most part are fairly well known (especially to Dylan fans) facts to set the tone or more accurately the stage for why certain songs may have been written at a specific time.

The book for the most part is written chronologically though occasionally skips forward and back, particularly when Rogovoy wants to point out how a song foretold an incident that would happen later in Dylan’s life, or how a song would forecast a later song.  As the book goes on, he also shows how later songs point back to earlier songs.  For the most part Rogovoy does this successfully.  I say for the most part because a lot of the time, when you try to tie a specific Dylan song particularly to a specific person (or in some cases a specific incident), you’re on dangerous ground.  However, Rogovoy is well aware of this and usually qualifies such connections as speculation.

However, sometimes when something is revealed, and it is so clear cut, it becomes evident that no other interpretation makes any sense.  Case in point and what I am about to describe is gone into in this book.  Three decades ago, (and right about this time of year), I decided to read The Bible cover to cover beginning to end.  While reading Leviticus, in The Blessings of Obedience, I came across the following:

I will make your heaven like iron. (Leviticus: 26:19)

Though you eat, you shall not be satisfied. (Leviticus: 26:26)

Bells went off big time because I immediately recognized variants of these as lines from the song, “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” on John Wesley Harding, a song I’d been pondering the meaning of for 12 years, and no review, article or book on that album or Dylan that went into that song had an interpretation made any sense.  It was a true revelation, and also in line with comments Dylan had made in various interviews about that album saying, “I’m not in the songs,” (which may or may not be the case with all the songs on that album), as well as the “I” is another.  In the case of this song it became startlingly clear that the “I” was not Dylan, but God commanding Moses, and the Immigrant represented the Jews in the desert during Exodus.  I have not been able to accept any other interpretation of the song since.

A few years later I had a similar experience.  Watching The Hustler one night, Piper Laurie said to Paul Newman, “I’ve got troubles, you’ve got troubles, maybe we better leave each other alone.”  I immediately recognized this as a line from “Seeing The Real You At Last” on Empire Burlesque.  Ten years later, when I got in the Internet, and joined various Dylan discussion forums, I discovered that almost that entire song was composed of lines from various movies.

Prophet, Mystic, Poet is loaded with such revelations and as such is essential reading for any serious Bob Dylan fan.  That said, the book is not without an agenda which is made clear from the start, which is to show not only how Judaic tradition and custom, but how much of what is commonly referred to as “The First,” or “Old Testament” informs a large part of Dylan’s work.  In showing this, Rogovoy succeeds beyond admirably and does so in a more coherent fashion than any previous attempt.  Many of his discoveries are not only interesting, but surprisingly mind-blowing such as linking “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” to David, the warrior King.

Equally thought provoking is how Rogovoy deals with Dylan’s Christian period.  He does not delve into the sermonizing (some would say rants) that went on at Dylan concerts in ’79 and ’80, instead showing how in the lyrics Dylan more than once refers to his Jewish heritage, but also how most of the Biblical quotes in the lyrics are from the “Old Testament.”  The one counter to that is when Jesus preached, that’s what he preached.  What his disciples wrote later is another story.  More intriguing however is a large majority of Dylan fans, when referring to his Christian-based albums, refer to them as a trilogy, namely Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love.  Rogovoy, again using lyrical references makes an excellent case that Shot Of Love was the step away from Christianity, and a solid step back towards Judaism.

For me, the last part of the book, from Oh Mercy to the present was the best part, both in terms of the writing which has a far more natural flow to what is revealed about the songs.  I am not going to spoil the fun by revealing the surprises, but what Rogovoy reveals about Oh Mercy in particular is enough to cause a thorough reexamination of the album and what it is saying.

That said the book is by no means perfect.  In the beginning of the book, too much time is spent on “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” actually a very minor song in Dylan’s catalog.  Rogovoy’s major point, that if Dylan was trying to hide the fact the he was Jewish, he wouldn’t have written and performed it, could have been dealt with in one sentence.

There is a tendency among many who’ve written about Dylan to latch onto a word (or sometimes phrase) and give it more significance than is actually there.  Rogovoy does this with the word stone, which was Dylan’s mother’s maiden name, and obviously the surname of his maternal grandparents.  He brings this up more than once going into at length in discussing “Like A Rolling Stone” and again discussing “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”  Interestingly enough, he does not mention that the chorus of “Property of Jesus” also has the word stone in it numerous times, in the phrase “heart of stone,” which is also the title of a Rolling Stones song.  Well, the last part of that I’m joking.  Well in this case, it just so happens that if there’s one thing I share with Bob Dylan, it’s that my maternal grandparents’ name was also Stone, and was changed to Stone from something more ethnic ending in Stein as was the case with Dylan’s grandparents and probably changed for the same reason.  It also just so happens that I’m also a songwriter and if I used the word stone in a song, (which I honestly can’t recall whether I have or not), it would mean the word Stone.  It’s also important to remember that while Dylan is something of a genius at times when it comes to rhyme, he also never been to forsake the easy rhyme.  That said there are many other words that recur in Dylan songs such as the word thief for example that are worthy of further examination.

While the book does not purport to be a complete examination of Dylan’s work, quite often the songs that don’t fit Rogovoy’s agenda are curiously left out, such as the majority of songs on Blonde Or Blonde.

While Rogovoy for many years was and sometimes still is a music critic (and in my view a pretty good one) there are times when discussing Dylan’s music in this book, I’m left shaking my head in wonder, especially when comparing the sounds of albums he says Street-Legal was closer in sound to Desire than At Budokan.  Writing about Dylan’s late 1965 recording sessions, he has to mean “Visions of Johanna,” instead of “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).

While the book has poet in the title, Rogovoy rarely discussed Dylan’s lyrics in poetical terms, and in dismissing Empire Burlesque as “mostly forgettable,” I don’t understand how he can include “Dark Eyes,” easily one of Dylan’s most poetic songs of the ’80s in that category.  At the same time, I agree with him that “Trust Yourself” deserved more attention.  In fact, I was somewhat astounded that Columbia Records didn’t have the wisdom to release it as a single.

In mentioning “A Satisfied Mind,” a hit for Porter Wagoner, he calls it a spiritual.  No.  It was a straight country-western song, one with some spiritual inclinations, but a straight country song nonetheless.

In discussing Dylan’s songwriter collaborators, he neglects to mention Dylan’s first two collaborators (with the exception of Richard Farina and Eric Von Schmidt, on the two-line “London Waltz) namely Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band on “Tears of Rage” and “This Wheel’s On Fire,” respectively though the latter song is discussed in detail in the book.

However, in terms of what Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet has to offer, these are minor quibbles because what this book does is open up a generous host of Bob Dylan songs and at time entire albums to a whole new realm of interpretation.

(Originally published at the now gone Muddy Water site.)