“Man only becomes independent of this physical world when he learns to consider the objects around him as symbols. He must, for this reason, seek to acquire a moral relationship to them.” – Rudolf Steiner
Andrew McCarron discusses his book, “Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan.”
Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan
by Andrew McCarron, PhD
Oxford University Press, Inner Lives Series, 232 pp., $19.95
Published January 13, 2017
Andrew McCarron is currently the head of the Religion, Philosophy, & Ethics Department at the Trinity School in New York City, a college preparatory school on the Upper West Side that is frequently ranked as one of the best schools in the United States. It also holds the distinction of being the oldest school in New York City. He previously received graduate degrees in both Theology, from Harvard, and Psychology, from the City University of New York.
McCarron turned his attention recently to one of the most fascinating individuals in popular culture, Bob Dylan, who has been charming and confounding his admirers for more than fifty years. He was kind enough to speak with us about his book, the power of change, and the unique role of symbols in navigating our lives.
OR: Would you mind discussing a little about your background and how you came to be interested in Bob Dylan?
AM: Like so many other people, there’s just something about his voice that definitely grabbed my attention. I had always known about Bob Dylan because I was born in America and his songs were everywhere. My older brother had, probably, a greatest hits album of Bob Dylan’s. My parents came of age in the 1960s and were definitely aware of Bob Dylan, although not necessarily Bob Dylan fans. However, they did appreciate his work. I do recall hearing some of Dylan’s classic songs growing up in the house. I grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY in the 80s and 90s. But it wasn’t until later, maybe early millennium, that I was really captivated by Dylan’s voice. In particular, the later voice, with all the pathos in it. That world weariness.
I distinctly recall sitting with a friend in Western Massachusetts at a little watering hole that’s no longer open called The Wildcat Lounge and listening to the first few tracks off Time Out of Mind and in particular the third track, “Standing in the Doorway,” and just really having one of those moments you have when you encounter powerful art, whether it’s the sound of someone’s voice, a painting, a sculpture, or novel and really wanting to investigate further. That was the beginning. I worked my way through the discography. And I went backwards from Time Out of Mind, or I guess at that point really from “Love and Theft.” And then I moved back to the classic period and became pretty obsessed with his voice.
In Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote about hearing the voice of Johnny Cash over the radio and he described it as sounding like Johnny Cash was at the edge of a fire. I forget the exact quotation, but he described Cash’s voice as “being so big it made the world grow small.” I would say that my fascination began when I had a similar response to the quality of Bob Dylan’s voice.
Around that time I was doing a Master’s in Theology at Harvard Divinity School and focusing primarily on medieval hagiographies and I was really fascinated by this genre of biographies that tried to explore an essential virtue or attribute in a life. Around that time I imagined it would be fun to take a hagiographical approach to some modern figures. It probably occurred to me that Dylan would be an interesting choice, but as you alluded to earlier, there’s just so material. I was aware just how many books there were on Dylan. I ended up writing about a few artists later on – a few New York City poets. At that point I had enrolled in a doctoral program in Psychology, but it wasn’t until after that I began writing on Bob Dylan. In fact, I had sent in a proposal to Oxford University Press to write a short psychobiography on Jack Kerouac. I had also suggested John Ashbery, an American poet, but they weren’t so keen on either because they didn’t think there would be as much interest. So, then I suggested Bob Dylan and they said ‘Let’s do it!’
OR: You know, I think if I remember correctly Kerouac recorded a lot of his dreams, he had a book of dreams, so you might have had quite a bit more material with Kerouac because he was maybe more forthcoming about his inner life than Dylan typically is.
AM: Oh, without a doubt. He charted the whole ecology of his psyche in such a captivating manner. He had The Book of Dreams and all the novels that remembered growing up in Lowell, MA like Visions of Gerard. I’d still like to do something on Kerouac in the future.
OR: You mentioned the psychobiography and wanting to do one about Kerouac and settling on Dylan. I hope you don’t take this as criticism, because it’s really just an honest question I have because I don’t come from a background of psychology. You mention in the prologue, I hope I’m quoting accurately: “Psychobiography tries to cut through the biographical paper work with one or more claims about a person’s underlying motivations prompted by a well-crafted psychological question.” It seems to me from what I can gather that there is a split amongst psychologists and writers about psychobiographies, partly because it’s almost impossible to fully substantiate claims of what a person actually is thinking or feeling at any particular time. What’s your view on this? Is there a wrong way to do a psychobiography?
AM: Oh, definitely. I have some real questions about the whole psychobiographical endeavor. To be perfectly honest, the reason that I wrote a psychobiography was largely because of this “Inner Lives” series. I think if I had my druthers I would have tried to compose a book that was a little bit more creative and less beholden to psychobiography as an approach. That being said, I think there are good ones out there. The bad ones tend to try and find a single eureka moment and risk of becoming dangerously reductionistic. But, when they’re done well, they don’t try to explain everything about who people are and why they do what they do. Good psychobiographies don’t try to reduce the complexity of a life down to theory; they’re after the salient themes of a life and some of the dynamics behind them. They try to capture what the psychologist Jefferson Singer refers to as the psychological fingerprint of a person. I mention in the book the personality psychologist Henry Murray and he wrote that in many respects we are like all other people, like some other people, and like no other people. Really good, thoughtful psychobiographies tackle this last piece: the part of a person that’s unique and that may resist intelligibility. So I would say that a good psychobiography doesn’t try to offer some all-encompassing theory of personality, but is more modest and humble in its approach.
Good psychobiographies are very attentive to language in their attempt to locate the subject, especially the descriptive language present in scenes or a scripts that continues to appear and re-appear in a person’s life story.
OR: It seems like the real danger is to try and reduce the life of an individual into something that just fits a narrative rather than trying to respect the complexity of that life and not just try to fit into a good story for a book, but just allowing the book to illuminate that complexity.
AM: Exactly. They say, “If you’re holding a screwdriver, everything starts looking like a screw.”
OR: Yes. I’ve always heard a similar line – “To the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.”
AM: Precisely. So, I tried to avoid leaning in with any kind of theory in mind. I tried to work through the discography, the lyrics, focus on Chronicles: Volume One, and read through the massive number of interviews that Dylan had given over the years, full of all sorts of joshing and jiving. But, also, I think, full of great candor and honesty, at times. After I did all that, I highlighted everything and took scrupulous notes and then tried to locate some saliencies. I discovered what I refer to as his “destiny script.”
OR: The primary theme of your book is how Dylan has been able to change in ways most us are not able to throughout our lives. You focused on three particular moments and you quoted Erik Erikson who said that creative people are more likely to re-examine and renegotiate their identities. Why do you think that is? Are people with a creative mind-set just more likely to be self-analytical?
AM: That’s a big mystery to me – why that happens with some people and not others. One theorist that I drew on is Robert J. Lifton… Had you heard of him previously?
OR: I had not.
AM: I’m not surprised, actually. He was a very important public intellectual decades ago, from maybe the mid-1950s through the 1970s. In his book The Protean Self, which came out in 1993, he makes a compelling case that there’s something about annihilation anxiety, particular to the Cold War, that intensified levels of what he calls “proteanism.” So many had to reach inside and alter themselves in order to deal with the very real and constant threat of nuclear annihilation as a psychological strategy.
OR: I don’t know if you were able to examine the Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, but I remember Dylan talking in that quite a bit about how growing up in the Cold War affected him and having to do the drills in school where you hid underneath your desk. I thought it was interesting that he would pick something like that out of his memory from so long ago.
AM: There are some chilling quotations from that documentary for sure and also in Chronicles. There are several paragraphs in which he offers remembrances of the air raid drills and how the fear got into his psyche. I think it’s no coincidence, therefore, that he became obsessed with the theology of the apocalypse upon converting to Christianity. You can locate a straight line from his childhood and early-adult fears of nuclear annihilation to his education of the “second coming” that’s articulated in the book of Revelation. I think his historical circumstances probably played a role in his level of proteanism.
I’ve been influenced by theology quite a bit. I remember from my divinity school days reading somewhere in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica about this notion of destiny. He argued that the destiny of a being was either proportionate to its created nature or could go beyond that nature if a mystical vision of God motivated it to move beyond the state it was born into.
With Dylan, that concept of destiny is something that he evokes a lot to explain his changes. But, I don’t feel that I could possibly offer a theory for all artists who go through striking changes. People like David Bowie, maybe. Joseph Smith comes to mind. Malcolm X. Mohammad. People have experienced these quantum changes throughout history.
I am personally very fascinated by this phenomenon – the changeability of people, especially adults.
OR: Yea, I think you are right. I had never thought about it before, but in that period of, say, the decades following the Second World War during the Cold War, panic was so high, you do seem to have much more examples of at least public figures undergoing transformation than might be true today.
AM: Yea, isn’t it interesting? And I would really recommend that people take a look at Robert J. Lifton’s The Protean Self. It’s an underexplored text as far as I’m concerned. The other thing that I would mention – and Dylan reflects upon this in multiple interviews as well – are the transmutations present in folk music. The folk music that Dylan listened to growing up and that he learned much more about when he moved to Minneapolis. Those songs are pretty far out when it comes to shape-shifting. I know the 17th century Scottish ballad “Tam Lin” that Clinton Heylin, the great Dylanologist, believes may have been an influence for “Desolation Row,” features all sort of transmutations and metamorphoses. I actually have a few lines here:
“Oh they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake
But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father
And they will turn me in your arms into a lion bold
But hold me tight and fear not and you will love your child
And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight.”
I think the folk tradition is something that played a major role in Dylan’s artistic and personal changes.
OR: You explain a little of this in your book, but you use an approach called interpretative phenomenological approach (IPA) to analyze Dylan. Could you explain what that entails?
AM: IPA is something I encountered in graduate school. It involves trying to capture a person’s experience of the world as he or she sees it. It tries to map it out from the inside as opposed to offering a theoretical set of claims or presuppositions. You capture the internal reality of a person primarily through a descriptive analysis of his or her life narrative. And then comes the interpretive piece of offering a few theories to explain someone’s experience.
OR: The first moment you look at of change is the motorcycle accident, which I think happened in 1966. This is more my curiosity because I was never sure in my own mind settled on what I think about it, but a lot of people have suggested that maybe Dylan planned the accident or hurt himself somewhat intentionally because he needed a way out from all this pressure. Do you think that’s possible? Or do you think it happened, and then he just had the good sense to take advantage of the situation after the fact?
AM: I’ve never met him, not very surprisingly, so I have no idea. The majority of his biographers tend to suggest that it was a put-on. That if anything the accident itself was pretty minor. Daniel Epstein, for instance, claims that he was just walking with the motorcycle and it fell on top of him and he had a very slight injury.
I know that in typical Dylan fashion he suggests that both answers are true. In Chronicles he wrote that he had been in a motorcycle accident and been hurt, but recovered and the truth was that he wanted out of the rat race. So, I don’t know. Maybe both?
The filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker… I actually taught his granddaughter and grandson. He came to the school and was asked questions about Dont Look Back and he talked also about the motorcycle accident. A student had inquired about it. He believed that it was put-on and that he went to visit Bob Dylan a few weeks later and reported that Dylan seemed fine, but was wearing a neck brace that didn’t seem needed.
OR: Were they working together on Eat the Document at that time?
AM: That’s correct. That was going on and I think that was the reason that Pennebaker had to travel to Woodstock.
OR: D.A. Pennebaker made, although it’s unrelated to this, The War Room. It’s a fantastic documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
AM: Yes. I saw that recently, yeah it was made in what? 1992?
OR: Yeah, with Carville and Stephanopoulos. It’s a great documentary.
To go back to the motorcycle accident, something that really strikes me about Dylan and one of the many, many contradictions of his life. He shows so many instances of extreme self-awareness throughout his life. Even the need for change itself is a part of his self-awareness. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the motorcycle accident, he was obviously self-aware enough to know that if he continued on the course he was on he would probably end up dead. The experience of other singers of the period probably confirms that. And yet, when asked about it he seems to be not in touch with himself at all, as if he has no idea why he does any of the things he does. He just does them because he feels like doing them. Do you think that is another put-on? A way to maintain his privacy? Or is he perhaps operating through intuition and just doesn’t quite comprehend all of the motivations that he has?
AM: I can’t answer that question. I would cop-out and say a combination of the two. I agree with you, he definitely comes across as someone who is in control of his choices. I agree that that self-control is part of his strategy and that it has probably helped him survive biologically and emotionally in comparison to some others. But, as you also point out, he acts as if he isn’t always aware of things in a conscious way and that he is responding to intuition. Some force driving him from within.
He’s extraordinarily eccentric. He could be compared in some ways to Fidel Castro, which on first blush is an odd comparison, but they’re both people who were and are accustomed to doing whatever they want.
OR: Very interesting.
AM: Whether that’s conscious or planned out, or an example of Nietzschean freedom, who knows?
OR: I guess if we could get away with that, maybe we would all be more inclined to behave that way.
AM: I would imagine so.
OR: Obviously, his conversion to Christianity took the world by surprise. I think I remember John Lennon being extremely displeased with his conversion.
AM: Leonard Cohen as well. And also Keith Richards.
OR: Leonard Cohen is also someone whom I deeply admire. I was very sad to hear about his death a short time ago.
AM: What did you think of You Want it Darker, the new album?
OR: I haven’t heard it yet. I like a lot of his recent music. I guess for him it’s recent, although it’s probably been awhile, but “Alexandria Leaving” is one of my favorite songs.
AM: Oh, from Ten New Songs?
OR: Yeah. It’s fantastic.
AM: “Slipped through the sentries of the heart…” Isn’t that a line from “Alexandria Leaving?”
AM: I love that song. That’s a great song.
OR: Again, this is a little off-topic, but with Dylan, someone I deeply admire, I don’t really relate to Bob Dylan at all. I don’t see myself in him. But I always identified a lot with Leonard Cohen. I always felt that Leonard Cohen was so honest in interviews about what he felt and I always found myself feeling a lot of the things that he did. And probably felt a little better about me after hearing him echo those feelings. But, he was a very beautiful man.
AM: Without a doubt. Wouldn’t you have loved to have hosted Leonard Cohen? You know, had him over for a cup of coffee or tea?
OR: Definitely. But, anyways, on the conversion to Christianity, you mentioned something in the book that I had never considered before, which was the fact that his conversion took place not very long after Elvis had died. I think Elvis died in 1977 and the conversion was, what, around 1978?
AM: 1978, yeah, that’s right.
OR: And that kind of goes back a little bit to what we were talking about at the beginning about fear and anxiety and its impact on change and growth. Obviously, seeing an idol of his die young and in not glorious circumstances. It does make sense that that would be one of the factors that contributed to his conversion. I guess this is a more general question about religion in general but is it possible to analyze whether Dylan truly believed in the message or did he need something at that point in his life, needed to take hold of something to comfort himself, to find some inner peace in a difficult emotional period.
AM: One thing that I’ll say. Previously I had done some work on religious conversion, primarily converting into Islam in the years after 9/11. That’s something that I haven’t published yet, but it was a project that I was involved in. One thing that I saw was that transformation often took place during times of developmental transition. We know, for Bob Dylan, that he was approaching 40 and in addition to Elvis, death was in the air. For some, conversion occurs in early adulthood. But for others, it’s a middle age thing. So, it makes sense that it happened when it did from my perspective. I don’t feel, though, that psychological explanations are the full truth. I feel that there is a developmental argument for why it happened when it happened. But it was a deeply authentic experience for him. He really did believe and continues to do so. There are lots of Christological references post-conversion that make it seem quite genuine and lasting.
One thing that’s interesting, and this is something that I tried exploring in the book, is the symbolic template that Christianity offered him in terms of songwriting and also for explaining the world. It’s not altogether different from what he had been doing all along. He’s always been in a dogged search for redemption from suffering and death. In 1978 I think he just began using Christian symbols to express that.
OR: I think that’s actually a very good and concise explanation. His religious music is extremely beautiful. If there are any Dylan fans who skip over that part of his career, they might want to go back and listen to these songs. I think “Precious Angel” is one of the most touching songs that he wrote.
AM: Yea, and “I Believe in You,” a gorgeous song, “Every Grain of Sand” also. The quality of his voice is so deeply moving. It lacks that gravel of later years or that nasal quality from the earlier work.
OR: Kind of keeping on that theme and his career building up to that, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on his transition to Christianity. If you look at his previous music, it doesn’t seem that it comes out of nowhere. I don’t know how religiously he was raised as a Jew, but I know that his family is Jewish.
AM: Not very. He was bar-mitzvah’d, but I think that was more of a cultural performance, and not so much of an ontological thing.
OR: Certainly by the mid-60s, he seems to be very familiar with the Bible. “All Along the Watchtower” is very apocalyptic, he was at least familiar with that passage in Isaiah. I have always felt, and maybe this is just what I choose to hear because “Visions of Johanna” is probably my favorite Dylan song, but I’ve always taken it as a religious song. “Johanna” means “God’s grace” and is a Jewish name and “Louise” means “to struggle” and I always took this as Dylan essentially talking to himself and saying that he had achieved almost everything he could have ever hoped for. Not just fame and money, but within himself, he could honestly say that he had written masterpieces that people would be listening to centuries from now. And yet, it didn’t really matter. He jokes about it with the paintings in the museum that talk to each other. People say these painters had achieved immortality through art, but what difference does it make to them because they’re all still dead.
AM: “Infinity goes up on trial.”
OR: I think that’s the greatest line ever in a popular song. But, how much of an epiphany do you think it was? Had he been arguing with himself and debating this concept of immortality and death for a long time?
AM: I think he certainly had been for a long period of time. In terms of Christianity specifically, I know that Dylan himself suggests that he had an aesthetic curiosity in Christianity that became more profound by the time he was on tour in 1978. I know that he listened to a lot of gospel growing up over the radio. And there’s Christian gospel music on his first album, like, “In My Time of Dyin’” and “Gospel Plow.” He had also performed the Woody Guthrie song “Jesus Christ,” and part of his repertoire was also “The Woman at the Well.”
Another thing that’s really interesting is that he would seek out messianic figures. Almost like Christ figures. Like Woody Guthrie. I know later in his life he also talks about other artists in a similar way, a way that’s reminiscent of Jesus in the gospels, whose presence induces healing and transformation.
OR: One of the things about Bob Dylan’s psyche that has always fascinated me, and I wish I had more of it, I don’t know if you want to call it courage, but when you look back to when he went electric and specifically some of the footage which is shown in No Direction Home on his European tour where, not only is he taking the criticism of these fans, but he’s embracing it and almost asking for it. He would go to France or the UK and play with this huge American flag behind him. He clearly taunted the crowds. The most famous are in Manchester right before he launches into “Like A Rolling Stone” and someone shouts “Judas!” Rather than showing any offense, he clearly again just taunts the person and then you can hear him shout to the band, “Play it fucking loud!” And he must have known when he became a born-again Christian that he was going to face a lot of criticism or at least bafflement from the fan base. What is it about him that makes him so immune to criticism? Is it merely self-confidence? Or is it also some of his aspects that also allow for such complex change?
AM: It’s an excellent question. I don’t have an original or particularly insightful response to it. I do think, as we discussed before, that he possesses a singular belief that what he’s doing is what he should be doing. He refers to it time and time again as “destiny.”
Have you ever seen the 60 Minutes interview from, I guess, in 2004, right before the time that Chronicles was published.
OR: Yea, with Ed Bradley?
AM: Ed Bradley, yes. I love the definition of “destiny” that he gives in that interview. He said, “an inner picture of who you are that must come true.” He’s someone who has had an unflappable trust in an ever evolving picture of self. Maybe the pressures and confusions of fame at such a young age can really mess with you. Especially in the early-20s and late-teens, that’s when, according to Erik Erikson, we’re doing the work of solidifying our ego identity. And if you have all these people screaming at you and getting angry at you for trying this or that out, you must have to become pretty self-reliant, or suffer the consequence and get blown apart. We see that happening to a lot of young celebrities. They go through these cataclysmic episodes and breakdowns. I think he learned to trust in himself.
OR: I’ve mentioned No Direction Home a few times, it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. There was a really funny moment when, oh I can’t think of his name. The Coen Brothers based the movie about…
AM: Dave Van Ronk?
OR: Yeah, Van Ronk. He said that Dylan never had much interest in politics and at the time people would have conversations about the true nature of the Soviet Union, or the Stalinists would argue with the Trotskyites. And Dylan just really had no interest and von Ronk said that they thought he was hopelessly naïve, but looking back now ‘I think he was more sophisticated than any of us.’ Avery honest and illuminating quote about his adaptations.
AM: I know Sean Wilentz, the historian at Princeton, wrote this book Bob Dylan in America. I think it’s a pretty good book, especially the chapter on Bob Dylan and the Beats. He suggests that Dylan was more influenced by the Beat poets in many ways than the folk protest singers in that his primary focus was self-illumination.
I remember that Van Ronk interview. I think it happened just before he died.
OR: You answered one of my questions already, which is ‘Do you think he still considers himself a Christian?’. And you have said that he does. Why do you think it was that after several years as a very vocal and putting the choice in front of people in songs and concerts, particularly on something like “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he has decided to not be so open publicly anymore about religion?
AM: That’s a great question. I don’t know, I may have to think about this further, but it may have something to do with the rise of the moral majority and the Christian right. He probably didn’t want to be associated with the beginning stages of that socio-political movement. He might have become a little suspect of what “born-again” meant or implied about who you were and what your theology was. My guess would be that he was trying to circumvent this web of associations. The rise of the Christian right was in the early 1980s which was precisely the time he stopped being so overt about Christianity. His expressions of faith didn’t go away, but they did become more subterranean.
OR: You started off talking about Dylan’s later music, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. That period, even going back to Oh, Mercy has incredible songs such as “Most of the Time.”
AM: Great song. That’s a great one! Also, “Shooting Star.”
OR: I guess Oh, Mercy was 1989. From then on he definitely changed. If you listen to, was it called Tell Tale Signs? The one that’s part of the Bootleg Series?
AM: Yea, it’s volume 8.
OR: Great collection of outtakes. In general, maybe 1997 was a bigger shift with Time Out of Mind. What do you think was the impetus for Dylan rediscovering roots music and consciously writing a song to echo blues greats from decades and decades past?
AM: This is something that’s no mystery. Dylan has spoken about it. I think it was an attempt to rediscover something he felt he lost, namely his relationship to the great American songbook and its traditions. If we trust his biographers, and I think that we can, he was coming out of a shoddy period both professionally and personally. He wrote in Chronicles that he was lost. This was a comeback to creative life. Those cover albums, World Gone Wrong and Good as I Been to You might have been a return to tradition.
OR: World Gone Wrong is a great one. Was “Blood in My Eyes,” on that?
AM: Yes. Correct. Yea, that’s another great song.
OR: I have to admit that I haven’t quite warmed up to the Sinatra covers yet, but I’m trying my best. I did think he gave a great performance on, I think, the second to last Late Night with David Letterman of “The Night We Called It A Day.”
AM: I was there for a performance of that song this summer in Queens, NY. It was really quite moving.
OR: I’ve seen Dylan twice in concert, but not since he’s recorded that song.
Another topic we’ve talked a lot about is his fear of death. Clearly, leading up to Time Out of Mind, Dylan was scared for his life. I think he had some lung problems and there was a period of time when I think he did believe he was going to die. Do you explain this later shift again with that fear and anxiety that he must have been experiencing?
AM: I do. We’re all afraid of death, and we ought to be. But for some people the fear is more pronounced. I think he would fall into this camp. And I think music for him has always been a means of transfiguring. Transfiguration is a thing that has allowed him to fly above the fray of his mortal fears. But, if my memory serves correct, he had the heart problem after Time Out of Mind had been recorded. But the album is still full of death.
OR: I know a lot of people that think “Mississippi” which was on Love and Theft, is the best song that Dylan’s ever written and I’m inclined to disagree because of his 1960s work. But’s it’s still pretty hard to disagree with that. I think “Mississippi” and “Not Dark Yet” are two of his finest compositions.
AM: I love both those songs. I would say that I listen to “Not Dark Yet” probably once every two weeks or so.
OR: I don’t know if you, I’m blanking now on the title and author, but it was an analysis of Dylan’s songs through the seven deadly sins.
AM: Christopher Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin.
OR: Right. He wrote very interestingly that “Not Dark Yet” paralleled Keats’ “Ode to Melancholy.” Which, I would have never picked up on that.
AM: Christopher Ricks’ work is very thoughtful.
OR: And without question the line “I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will,” is evidence of what you’ve suggested, which is a continuing fascination with religion. I think that is, it’s not from the Old Testament, but it is from a Jewish source.
AM: Is it from one of the Psalms?
OR: I thought it was in one of the Jewish oral traditions.
I think you’ve already explained this statement, but I thought your quote from Lifton, who we talked about earlier, “the self is defined by its capacity for symbolization.” That’s one of those quotes that you just really blows you away. From your perspective that really fits into the things, we’ve discussed such as the move to Christianity and finding a world where there is comfort with the symbols. In order to understand our lives we often have to rely on metaphors and symbols.
AM: The reason I chose Robert Lifton was because he’s a little bit older than Bob Dylan, but he shares a lot of similarities in his background and a deep engagement with the Cold War. I wanted to choose a psychological theorist who was culturally on the same page as Dylan. Lifton sees the self as an entity that internalizes deaths, or what he refers to as “death awareness.” We know that we’re going to die, so we’re forced to confront death on a symbolic level. Lifton argues that we draw other symbols, for Dylan it might have been folk music or Christian symbols that help people recreate themselves and be born-again psychologically. These symbols help protect us from what T.S. Eliot called “the primitive terror.”
I really have found Robert J. Lifton’s work pretty useful.
What was your training, or background? How did you become interested in Dylan?
OR: Actually, my undergrad was in Engineering and then I have a Master’s in Economics. I think I just love to read. And I love these questions. People say they don’t like to talk about religion or politics, but they often seem to be the only things that matter. I was raised religiously, and I think people who are approach these questions from a slightly different angle. It’s special to have civil conversations with others about the big issues like “who we are,” “why we’re here,” “Is there a God?” So, religion, philosophy, art – all those – are fascinating because they seem to, at least, they don’t really answer your questions, but they provide a framework and context within yourself where you can ask and answer these questions for yourself. I read as much as possible because of that. Dylan is one of the characters who I think we share an endless fascination with because he illuminates so many of these questions in such striking ways.
AM: Well put.
OR: You’ve been extremely generous with your time and I’m very grateful that you agreed to do this. I personally very thoroughly enjoyed both the book and our conversation.
AM: I did as well.
OR: I’m glad to hear that. A softball just before I let you go is, would you mind sharing your favorite Dylan song or album?
AM: That’s a hard question, but I would have to say that probably “Every Grain of Sand,” especially the version on one of the early bootlegs. I love it because of its emotional range; it encompasses everything from abject sorrow and mortal terror to spiritual recreation. There’s a real humanity in that song. You can almost find all of Dylan in a condensed form in “Every Grain of Sand.”
I’m currently reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, which I highly recommend; I think when Bruce Springsteen inducted Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame he referred to “Every Grain of Sand” as perhaps the best pop song ever composed.
OR: It’s definitely amazing and I think the version that you recommended, isn’t that the one with the dogs barking at the end?
AM: Exactly. It was recorded at Santa Monica, a small studio with just simple capabilities.
OR: One of the most fascinating things about Dylan to me is how often he doesn’t include his best work on his albums. “Every Grain of Sand” is a good example of that, I think he did end up releasing it, but the version he released is really inferior to the bootleg version. There are other songs like that. I know “Abandoned Love,” you can hear a version from “The Other End” that was recorded and the version he released is just a joke how inferior it is to that early acoustic performance. And “The Red River Shore” is another example, left off Time Out of Mind. Never quite understood it.
AM: “Blind Willie McTell” as well. It’s a curious pattern.
OR: We don’t want to take up any more of your time. I do thank you again and I hope if you write another book in the future, we can do this again.
AM: Great. I do have a book of creative nonfiction coming out in September. It’s a murder ballad called The Ballad of Sara and Thor.
OR: That’s terrific. I’ll look forward to that.
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