Bob Dylan's Spirituality Explored in New Biography

Bob Dylan - 2011 London Feis Festival Performance - Getty - H 2017
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"I'm sure it hasn't been an easy trip," author Scott Marshall says of the legendary singer's faith explored in the upcoming book, 'Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.'

While poetic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan became an icon of the 1960s with songs like "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind," both of which became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements, his music is as relevant today as it always has been.

At least that’s one thesis promoted in the upcoming book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life, written by Scott Marshall and due June 20 from BP Books. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Marshall, who argues that to appreciate Dylan’s influence on pop culture you must first understand his views on Judaism, Christianity and all things spiritual — which is no easy task.

Why a book on Bob Dylan and his religion right now?

As it turns out, it’s tough to ignore the impact of Dylan’s Jewish roots and the impact that Jesus has had on Dylan — they’re both a part of his story. He just turned 76, seemingly past retirement age, but he’s still on the road and in the studio. And last October there was plenty of controversy when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Trust me when I say it’s a similar situation going on when it comes to his spiritual journey over the decades: plenty of intriguing stories, competing voices, humor, conflict. Dylan sings and speaks when he feels like it. When he feels like going silent, he does that.

You have people close to Dylan, like his ex-wife Carolyn Dennis, speaking for the first time. Why did they speak with you and not others?

It’s a good question, and there’s some mystery going on I can’t explain. I worked at this and thought about it for many years. Some doors opened and I went through them. I’m grateful for the voices gathered, from Carolyn Dennis to President Jimmy Carter.

What’s Jimmy Carter’s connection to Dylan?

The two met in 1974 when Dylan was invited to the Georgia governor's mansion. I attended a Dylan concert in 1997 in Atlanta where Carter, his wife and some of his kids, along with Georgia congressman John Lewis, were there — along with the Secret Service. In 2015, Carter presented Dylan's Grammy-connected MusiCares award and later said Dylan wanted him to be there. Carter also said, in 2016, during one of his Sunday school classes that he had e-mailed Dylan to congratulate him after hearing the news that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. They've been friendly for decades now. Dylan did not stump for Carter when he ran for president, but Carter quoted from Dylan's lyrics in the lead-up to Election Day.

Why didn’t he endorse Carter, or any other political candidate or party, ever, for that matter?

I’m not sure anyone has directly asked him this question, but he has, over time, shown a distrust — and sometimes downright disdain — for politics. Yet his art could be considered a hybrid of both liberal and conservative values, just as his spiritual journey’s been a hybrid of Judaism and his Jesus experience. Most people can’t relate to the holding of both. For all of Dylan’s supposed inconsistencies, he’s been consistent in that he’s never been found stumping for a candidate or party.

So, after researching everything Dylan has said in recent years, who do you think he voted for for president, Trump or Clinton?

Probably neither. In a 1997 song he has a line where he said someone reminded him to register to vote. If he did vote, I'd be astonished if he ever went public about it.

There has been speculation for years about Dylan’s faith. Why doesn’t he come out and clearly answer what his beliefs are?

I think at times he gets aggravated by the attention paid to it; other times, he might chuckle or roll his eyes, but sometimes he’s taken the time and energy to share his personal beliefs in a very public way, usually through his songwriting and playing in a band onstage. After once being asked what his religious views were, he asked the interviewer why people didn’t ask Billy Joel similar questions. It’s a hilarious question on its surface, and it might yield some interesting answers. He also once told an interviewer that some people want to know where he’s spiritually at because they don’t know where they’re at. Just this year, when asked which of his songs didn’t get the attention they deserved, he included “In the Garden” from his Saved album of 1980, an album that caused so much commotion because of his embrace of Jesus.

But some say he left Christianity behind in 1981.

Those that say that probably haven’t been reading the story closely. And Christianity can mean different things to different people; for Dylan, it seems it’s more about the figure of Jesus than the following of an organized religion. Dylan’s own Jewish roots cannot be denied, whether it’s the revolutionary figure of Jesus in the first century or Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota in the 1940s and 1950s, or his naturally slipping into synagogues as an adult. Dylan appears to be a child of God, not tethered to any religion for religion’s sake, but trying to pursue the Truth, clay feet and all. I’m sure it hasn’t been an easy trip.

Is Dylan just purposely trying to maintain this aura of mystery around his spirituality as a sort of publicity stunt, to keep people guessing and keep them talking about him?

He's been accused of publicity stunts nearly his entire career. As for his spirituality, I think at times he has no problem going public; other times he's not feeling it so much. But I do think he likes to keep folks guessing; he's been blessed  and cursed with fame that the vast majority of us cannot even conceive of. I know he's a fellow human being, and sometimes that gets lost, somehow, in the mix.

Is your book a challenge to the narrative that Dylan is a personification of the ‘60s?

He sure made his mark and then some in the 1960s, and the 1960s left their mark on him, too. But over the years he’s gone against the culture that was rebelling against the traditional Judeo-Christian framework. He hasn’t been bashful about saying he believes in the Old and New Testament. In a statement his former wife Carolyn Dennis gave to me, that’s what stood out. He believes in both. He’s a man of the Good Book, no doubt. Bob Dylan came to be absolutely idolized by some in the 1960s, but he once said that a supernatural artist is one who digs deep, and the deeper he or she goes, the more idols will be found. He’s thumbed his nose at this idol notion that tried to attach itself to him. … He’s a literalist. When he’s sung, with incredible pathos, the old song “Little Moses” or his song “In the Garden,” you know he’s not playing around.

Critics think Dylan investigated Christianity in 1978 after a personal crisis, but you have him seeking out evangelists earlier than that.

Dylan claimed that he attended two or three Billy Graham rallies back in the 1950s or 1960s. He said Graham was the greatest preacher and evangelist of his time. Dylan alluded to how Graham was in the soul-saving business, and said it like he meant it, like he had firsthand knowledge. And when he was in his early 20s, he was in serious reflection mode when writing a song like “With God on Our Side” that had a startling question for the listener regarding Jesus and Judas Iscariot, and also contained a halting reference to the Holocaust. Dylan doesn’t shy away from the big issues.

What does he consider his most important song?

After he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he referenced a handful of songs that he thought were of value, including “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in 1963 and “Blind Willie McTell” in 1983. A couple of years earlier he cited “In the Garden” from 1980 and “Brownsville Girl” in 1986 when asked about songs of his that didn’t get the attention they deserved. In a 60 Minutes interview in 2004, he pretty much acknowledged his 1965 song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was a mysterious gift.

What do you tell people, like me, who find Dylan’s music a little boring?

I'd ask the question: What are you listening to specifically? He has tons of albums from when he was a young man in his 20s, all the way up to his latest original album in 2012, when he was a 71-year-old man. If you sample a goodly amount from each decade and find it all boring, then I truly cannot help.

What’s his best song, musically?

I love both "I Want You" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie.”

And his best song, lyrically?

"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" or "Every Grain of Sand" — it's too tough to pick merely one.

His lyrics are interesting, but are they as brilliant and deep as his fans think they are?

Some are brilliant and deep, others are more pedestrian, and some are below par, but who can be brilliant and deep 24-7? Some fans simply worship every move, but that's problematic because it's not real. I'm grateful to live in the same times as him. The world will lose a significant voice when he passes on. May he be singing his songs into his 90s. I can't see him retiring.

What do you think are some of the best lines Dylan has ever written?

“I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from / Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer / It's not dark yet, but it's getting there" ... “In the fury of the moment / I can see the Master's hand / In every leaf that trembles / In every grain of sand"

Is Bob Dylan important to our music scene now?

As the Traveling Wilburys line goes, he still has something to say. His fans are not limited to one continent or language. He’s still singing his mind-bending songs he wrote as a kid in his 20s, and he’s recently been offering up songs from the Great American Songbook that Frank Sinatra helped popularize. He has thousands of people from three different generations at his concerts all over the world every year.

What got you interested in him?

A buddy of mine, Alec, let me listen to his mom’s vinyl copy of Dylan’s Greatest Hits (Volume 1; 1967); that was 1986. I’ve pretty much listened closely ever since. Initially, I had zero interest in the so-called religious trilogy, Dylan’s three albums of Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. Later, I greatly appreciated those albums for what they are.

What book might you write next?

The films of Woody Allen. Maybe Joe Walsh, too; in many ways, Walsh is a worthy figure to consider.

What makes Joe Walsh worthy of a book?

The guy is so much more than a "classic rock guitarist." He's a musician on many levels, he has a wonderful sense of humor, both in interviews and in many of his lyrics. As for album titles, his solo albums are some of the greatest on the planet. His brother-in-law [Ringo Starr] is a Beatle. He's been sober since the mid-1990s and he was drunk for more than a few hours of, say, the administrations of LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Senior,and into some of the Clinton years. He stopped going on Howard Stern's radio show for years when he was getting sober. He's run for president, I think, on the campaign pledge of free gasoline and toilet paper. Now that's something we can all get behind. As far as I'm concerned, Joe Walsh is some kind of national treasure.