Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet
by Seth Rogovoy
Reviewed by Peter Stone Brown
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. 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 one 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 On 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 seems to confuse “Visions of Johanna,” with “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).
While the book has the word “poet” in the title, Rogovoy rarely discusses Dylan’s lyrics in poetical terms. In dismissing Empire Burlesque as “mostly forgettable,” I don’t understand how he can include “Dark Eyes” in that assessment, easily one of Dylan’s most poetic songs of the ’80s. 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, Rogovoy calls it a spiritual. I would say no, that 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.
These are minor quibbles, however, in terms of what Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet has to offer, 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.
SETH ROGOVOY is a writer, award-winning critic, book author, lecturer, teacher, musician, and radio commentator.
Seth's BOB DYLAN: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, a full-length analysis of Bob Dylan's life and work, is due out from Scribner Books in November 2009.
Seth has taught a variety of college-level and adult-ed courses on klezmer, Jewish music, and Bob Dylan, about whom he has written extensively.
Seth is the author of THE ESSENTIAL KLEZMER: A Music Lover's Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books, 2000), the all-time bestselling guide to klezmer music. Since his book was published, Seth has continued to write, teach, and lecture extensively about klezmer. His live, one-man, multimedia program about klezmer, ROCKIN' THE SHTETL, has been presented at universities, JCCs, museums, cultural centers, and synagogues across the U.S. and in England.
Seth is editor-in-chief of BERKSHIRE LIVING, an award-winning regional lifestyle and culture magazine serving the greater Berkshire region of western Massachusetts, southwestern Vermont, eastern New York, and northwestern Connecticut. He is also editor-in-chief of Berkshire Living's spinoff publications, including BBQ: Berkshire Business Quarterly and Berkshire Living Home+Garden.
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