Advice from Bob on his Miscellaneous Birthday

Parshat Naso

I saw Bob Dylan in concert, my first time, in 1990.[1]  My dad drove me and my best friend Rich Wallach to the Tilles Center of C.W. Post college on Long Island.  I loved every minute of the show, even though, most of the time, it took me half the song to figure out what I was hearing.  I remember thinking, a few minutes into what I imagined was some brilliant new song, realizing Bob was singing the words, “How does it feel?” and arriving at the epiphany I was enjoying a re-written version of “Like a Rolling Stone”.  I left that concert more devoted to Dylan than when I walked in; Rich thought it was the worst show he’d ever seen, and my dad—a Dylan fan long before me—tried to be nice by saying something nice along the lines of, “Even if I couldn’t understand a word he said, he still plays a nice harmonica.”

Seeing Bob Dylan live and in concert is not just an acquired taste; I’ve learned it’s a major dividing line.  Since that first concert, I’ve seen Dylan live exactly 15 times.  I’ve seen Dylan play in four states. I’ve seen him play with Lenny Kravitz, Jack White, Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, Willien Nelson, and Bruce Springsteen.  I’ve gone to see him with Randy Fleisher, Bob Goldberg, Devin Arkin, Alec Harris, Charlotte Kaiser, Dave Rothkopf, Molly Limmer (once!), and Dave Baum (the most). Devin, who went with me to see Bob at the Chicago Theatre about five years ago, hated the show more than any of my other friends: he wavered back and forth between indignant at what he saw and addled by my appreciation for it.  No doubt David Baum appreciates in a Dylan concert many of the same things that move me: the embodiment of that quicksilver mercury sound.

This week, Bob Dylan will celebrate his 80th birthday.[2]  It should be clear by now that I’m a pretty big fan.  Maybe not as big a fan as Rabbi Jonathan Blake, who has pledged that, in every sermon he delivers this entire year, there will be some connection to Bob Dylan.  For me, however, Dylan as an artist is someone worth celebrating on an average day, let alone the occasion of the conclusion of his eightieth trip around the sun.  And so, a few months ago, I took up proverbial pad and pen and began to reflect on why Bob Dylan means so much to me.  It turns out that the answer I found was one I believed relevant enough to share this shabbat.

In this week when Bob will celebrate his 80th birthday, I’m taken back to three years —to the very day—before I was born: June 3, 1970. That day, Dylan walked into Columbia Recording Studios in New York City and recorded a track that sums up, for me, what is quintessentially Dylan. After warming up with a peculiar take on Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell,” and immediately following his version of the Elvis Presley Classic, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Dylan opened up the Johnny Cash Songbook.  He turned the page to “Long Black Veil,” the post-mortem longing of a man who decided to die rather than to admit his alibi: he had been in the arms of his best friend’s wife.  When Johnny Cash sang this song, the listener became shrouded in misery and sadness, wrapped, as it were, in that same long black veil.  But on June 3, 1970, Dylan turned that morose spirit to outright joy.  Bob’s version of “Long Black Veil” has him hooting and hollering, howling out from beyond the grave with an intensity so sharp its edge cut like humor.  Listening to the record today, you can hear how delighted Bob is in singing—no, inhabiting—this song.  He isn’t singing someone else’s country hit; he is creating his own song out of the traditional songbook he inherited. Dylan makes the Cash classic his own, and, while doing so, is having the time of his life.

What Bob Dylan did to Johnny Cash’s song is what I find so special about him; it is also what many find frustrating.  The friends I’ve taken to see Dylan who haven’t appreciated the experience mainly share the same critique: they can’t tell what song he’s playing.  (Yes, there are some people whose main complaint is that don’t like his voice anymore.  But I’m with what Bob once said on this issue.  “I’m like Enrico Caruso… if you listen closely, I hit all the right notes”.)   I might delight in hearing “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a waltz; I love learning about rewritten lyrics to “If You See Her, Say Hello”.  But if you admire the subtlety of the acoustic “Drifter’s Escape,” odds are you didn’t want to hear the punk rock version Bob played at Madison Square Garden in 2002.  Most people go to the concert to “hear the hits”… and that is the one way in which Bob Dylan never delivers.

What makes Seeing Bob live so frustrating for some is that he never plays the same song twice.  He is continually changing his song structures; despite any Nobel Prize in literature, he never considers any lyrics as a finished product.  But for me what others find so frustrating is the source of my admiration: Bob never plays the same song twice.[3]  Dylan plays with every variable in his songs: tempos, words, arrangements, and rhythms, to find something new.   Dylan knows writing is never finished and songs are always in creation.  But even more than this, Bob seems happy when engaged in this creative process.  In a sarcastic style, I might say Dylan enjoys sidestepping expectations and even delights in disappointing those who want staid performances of songs he recorded six decades ago.  But instead, with serious admiration, I describe Dylan in concert as the opportunity to be with someone as they continue to create new art out of old traditions.  Whether re-writing “Tangled Up In Blue”, crooning Sinatra standards from the 40s, or re-envisioning Charley Patton records from the 20s, Bob is committed to creating something new for the present that is rooted in the traditions and forms of the past.

It was at the moment I arrived at this idea—that Dylan’s genius rests in his commitment to bringing the traditions of the past into an ever-changing future—that I realized it would be more than just personal indulgence for this Dylan fan to give a sermon about his favorite artist.  And the more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that the way Bob Dylan has lived as an artist is precisely the way I believe we all should live as people creating their lives at every moment, how we should live as Reform Jews.

Yes, Bob Dylan was born Jewish, converted to Christianity—which, as an aside, led to some spectacular music—and then may or may not ever have converted back to Judaism.  Honestly, Bob Dylan’s religious affiliation or personal faith is of little interest to me.  But I know it’s a source of curiosity to many.  In one interview on this subject, which I imagine more than annoys Dylan to discuss, he dismissed any talk of monotheistc faith and simply stated: “I don’t believe in the bible.  The old songs are my bible”.

Bob Dylan is aware of the musical tradition he inherited.  He famously is a resident of that old, weird America embodied in the folk music Henry Smith canonized.  The Coo-Coo Bird warbling as she flies and the Mole in the ground, the Old Plank Road and Penny’s Farm, John Henry and Stackolee: all these musical motifs live not just in Dylan, but through Dylan’s music are vitally passed to the next generation.  It is not just that Dylan has been writing and recording songs for sixty years: his music is of the hundred years before that, and designed to last into the next century as well.  

After Dylan’s first record, he mostly stopped singing those old folk songs while new ones flowed out of him at astonishing rate and quality.  But thrice in his career—in the basement in Woodstock at Big Pink, for a two-record spell in the 90s, and a three-record sting last decade­—Bob delved back into the old American tradition of finding his voice other people’s songs.  These episodes perplexed Dylan fans: where did he go? Did he stop writing? Would he ever return?  In in each of these instances, that hiatus of singing the songbook ultimately led to the songwriter’s return; all three of those retreats intro tradition resulted in some of the greatest songwriting of Dylan’s entire career.  It is as if building  a home inside the tradition, living with it, making it his own, allows Dylan—time and time again—most fully to flourish.

Which brings me back to Dylan on stage. There is a reason they call catching someone’s concert as “seeing them live”.  With Bob Dylan, we see some very much alive, very much committed to living a creative life of meaning, a life of purpose found anew in every moment.  Whether singing his songs, old folk tunes, or his favorites among those of his peers, when you see Dylan in concert, you are seeing him “live”: you are seeing him live.  Each concert is a testament to Bob’s belief in the power of music, in the value of the tradition, of the salvation—even ephemeral—found within the song.

Now is the time in the sermon to turn rabbinic and apply all this to how we, as individuals and a community breathe these lessons into a life we want to make vibrant.  But if I’ve learned anything from Bob, it to trust your audience: suggest enough so they can fill in the rest and make the lessons their own.  That’s the only way those lessons will live and be passed on to others.

Still, like a well-written song, I will return to the chorus, hoping it sticks in your ear long enough to remember it:

Use the past to write the future

Be committed to tradition

Know that every moment calls for something new

Know that the newness of this particular moment could also be something awfully old.

Remember that living in forms that are stale 

                     for the sake of the forms that are stale

is simply no way to live

Remember that artists are always on stage.

Know that you are the artist of your own life.

 

[1] Those concerts (and this was fun to research)

  • October 11, 1990 CW Post; Lenny Kravitz opened.  My Dad drove my friend Rich Wallach and I to the show.
  • July 4, 1991 Tanglewood.  While there, I ran into my old elementary school friend Jon Rochkind, and we had a great time hanging out together.  Coincidentally, Molly was also at that show, but we had yet to meet.
  • January 17, 20, 1998 Theatre @ MSG. Van Morrison opened.  After not seeing Bob through the college years, I went with Randy Fleisher (my friend from rabbinical school whom I met while Dylan’s Desire was playing in a Jerusalem bar).  I think others went with us, but i can’t recall.
  • November 19, 2001 MSG.  This was possibly the best show I ever attended, and one of three-in-a-row I went to with David Baum.  Especially taking place not long after 9/11 in the heart of Manhattan, it was a special night.
  • November 11, 2002 MSG.  The previous year’s show was so good, Baum and I went back for both nights Bob played in 2002.  
  • November 13, 2002 MSG.  I believe this show ended with a special second encore of “Something” by the Beatles (since George had recently died).  I missed it while going to catch the last train back to the suburbs.
  • October 4, 2003 Shea Stadium. Bob came on late in this show as the special guest of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.  It is a famously flawed performance, with second-by-second breakdowns of the disaster available on the internet.
  • August 7, 2004 Yale Field. Willie Nelson opened. The first baseball stadium tour.
  • September 1, 2006 FIshkill Stadium . Jimmy Vaughan and  Junior Brown opened.  Molly and I went with our friend Charlotte Kaiser.
  • November 13, 2006 Nassau Coliseum.  The Raconteurs opened.  I’m pretty sure I met Baum there, but might have gone alone. 
  • November 21, 2008, United Palace Theater (Washington Heights).
  • November 23, 2010 Terminal 5, Brooklyn.  David Rothkopf was in town for thanksgiving and Baum and I went with him.
  • September 4, 2012 Capitol Theatre Port Chester. I went alone to this show, when Bob re-opened this famous music venue.
  • November 10 2014, Cadillac Palace Theatre.  Devin Arkin came with we to see Dylan sing Sinatra.  Dev hated it.
  • October 27, 2017 Wintrust Arena. Mavis Staples opened.  I met Alec Harris at the first-ever concert at this new Arena… it was Friday night so I arrived halfway through Mavis’ set.

[2] May 24th.

[3] As Dylan wrote in 1964, presciently:

do Not create anything. It will be
misinterpreted. It will not change.
It will follow you the
rest of yout life.
— “Advice for Geraldine on Her Miscellaneeaous Birthday”

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