Friday, March 1, 2019

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by Scott M. Marshall

The slow train’s still coming
In contrast to the prevailing critical consensus that Bob Dylan did all of his best work in the ‘60s, my favorite period of Dylan’s career consists of his three gospel albums from 1979 to 1981 (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love) and the two albums that bookended them (Street-Legal and Infidels), which also deal with religious themes. During this era, Dylan was always backed up by a top-notch band, and his lyrics were quite fascinating and compelling. Though I am not a religious man, I appreciate the ever-present biblical references in Dylan’s lyrics in much the same way that a classical philologist appreciates Homer’s references to Greek mythology. Despite our difference in beliefs, the moral message still comes through. Looking to learn more about Dylan’s gospel period and the religious views he’s held throughout his life, I couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Scott M. Marshall’s 2017 book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.

For the most part, Marshall examines Dylan’s career chronologically. The book is broken up into chapters devoted to each calendar decade, rather than by any stages in Dylan’s musical development, which seems a strangely arbitrary choice. Marshall’s rather generic thesis, as stated in the introductory chapter, also doesn’t inspire much confidence. He asserts that Dylan has been and is still a monotheist. Gee, ya think? Since Marshall’s not really going out on a limb with that statement, I was worried that this was just going to be a catalog of spiritual references in Dylan’s songs, but it turned out to be much more than that. Beyond an encyclopedic mining of Dylan lyrics, Dylan interviews, and Dylan criticism, Marshall interviews many of Dylan’s associates and does a great job of insightfully connecting the dots between all the data he’s amassed.

I remember growing up in the ‘80s and hearing about how brave U2 was for singing songs with Christian imagery. That was nothing compared to what Dylan did when he became “born again.” He alienated his fan base to the point where he was getting death threats every night he was on tour. He also lost a lot of friends who couldn’t understand this new direction in his music and his life. Marshall covers this period beautifully, providing stories from Dylan’s friends, religious advisors, bandmates, and crew about what those gospel tours were really like, and it is a crazy and fascinating ride. Looking through the notes for the chapters on the ‘70s and the ‘80s, one sees the phrase “Author interview” repeated over and over again, a testament to the diligent legwork Marshall conducted in investigating this mysterious period in Dylan’s life. The chapters after that, not so much, but I still learned a great deal about Dylan, and the book is really an addictive read.

Many critics have argued over whether Dylan is a Jew or a Christian, or have chastised him for not being enough of either. Marshall illustrates that Dylan is both, and he draws his spiritual strength from both faiths. Dylan is essentially a Jew who believes that Christ was the Messiah promised by the Hebrew prophets. Marshall also finds fault with those who think Dylan’s embracing of Christianity ended in 1981. He demonstrates how Dylan has continued to make statements of belief, both Christian and Judaic, in music and interviews up to the present day.

Just as you don’t need to be a Christian to get the protest message of “Slow Train,” you don’t need to subscribe to any particular faith in order to enjoy this book. In fact, nonbelievers can probably appreciate the book more objectively than those looking to take sides in the argument over Dylan’s beliefs. As an avid fan, this is one of the best books on Dylan that I’ve read.
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