Wednesday, January 25th, 2017...12:13 pm
Bob Dylan: ‘I remember ev’ry face’
Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan, by Andrew McCarron, Oxford, 232 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Bob Dylan devotees may gain new understanding of their Nobel laureate’s life changes from an analysis and interpretation by Andrew McCarron.
In Light Come Shining, McCarron has produced a “psychobiography,” a work that “attempts to demythologize lives that are challenging to interpret, especially ones that are knotty with contradictions, shifting centers of meaning, moral ambiguities and apocryphal narratives.”
McCarron, with a doctorate in social/personality psychology, attributes behaviors of composer-writer-performer Bob Dylan to a recurring narrative — a script — he traces to Dylan’s childhood as Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn.
“The script undergirds three major turning points, all of which he has couched in terms of personal destiny: the aftermath of his1996 motorcycle ‘accident,’ his Born Again conversion experience in 1978, and his recommitment to songwriting and performing in 1987. Across all three episodes, destiny manifested itself, and Dylan felt he had no choice but to follow its drums,” McCarron says.
A recurring theme is “annihilation anxiety,” leading to Dylan’s heavy work ethic and urgency “to fulfill his purpose before it was too late,” McCarron says.
“To say that Bob Dylan has always been obsessed with death and disintegration (both personal and global) would be an understatement,” McCarron says. He notes apocalyptic themes in much of Dylan’s work and attributes them to growing up during the height of the Cold War, with air-raid sirens and drills and threat of nuclear destruction, to his knowledge of the fate of European Jews in the Shoah, and to the decline of Hibbing when the rich ore and its jobs ran out.
Radio was Dylan’s solace, with music skipped to him at night from Louisiana — a wide variety that would remain influential.
In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that “when something was wrong, the radio could lay hands on you and you’d be all right.” His musical heroes included Woody Guthrie for folk/ballad, Blind Willie McTell for Delta blues and Buddy Holly for early rock and roll.
McCarron says: “Arguably, Dylan’s greatest artistic contribution has been his ability to appropriate and synthesize American traditions — folk, bluegrass, rock, gospel, etc. — and assume the real and imagined personae that accompany them.” He long has been “captivated by the figure of the American minstrel.”
The “kaleidoscopic” image created by attempts to interpret Dylan “has burdened and frustrated the living and breathing man beyond any conceivable measure (in addition to making him a great deal of money),” McCarron says. His portrait is “of a private, eccentric and work-obsessed celebrity musician whose artistic changes have been impelled by a deeply personal relationship to American musical traditions during an age of apocalyptic threat and dislocation.”
McCarron, who runs the religion, philosophy and ethics department at Trinity School in New York City, has analyzed Dylan without ever talking with him, drawing widely from mental-health professions, literary figures, interviews, Dylan’s music — which he seems to know well — and Dylan’s interviews and writing.
McCarron deals at length with Dylan’s “transfiguration” and conversion to Christianity, which began during a career low, when Dylan claimed to feel “the overwhelming presence of Jesus” in his hotel room. The conversion led to a period when he tried, unpopularly, to evangelize during performances. Eventually, McCarron says, Dylan’s Christian fervor and evangelism diminished, and his not-infrequent involvement with Lubavitch includes time in St. Paul.
Admittedly, I’m seldom fascinated by celebrities, although Dylan truly is a half-century phenomenon whose songs are meaningful and often beautiful (especially when sung by people more vocally gifted).
The book’s title comes from the 1967 prison ballad “I Shall Be Released.”
A reviewer must try to discern what the author was trying to do and to say how well he did it. McCarron makes his purpose perfectly clear, and he appears to do it thoroughly and well, despite a few high falutin’ words and overly complex sentences.
Most readers, however, have two other questions. First: Do I now know more about Bob Dylan, his career and what influenced him? Yes — if McCarron’s analysis is correct, I know lots more. Second: Does this book make me care? Not so much.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor
(American Jewish World, 1.27.17)