He was Judas in a black leather jacket and a Jewfro.
It was 1979 and Bob Dylan, who grew up going to the Zionist Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis., and who had sung bracingly of the Binding of Isaac “out on Highway 61,” had come to Jesus. Over the course of three gospel-tinged and preachy albums from 1979-81 — “Slow Train Coming,” “Saved” and “Shot of Love” — he seemed to turn his back on Judaism in what came to be called his Christian period.
The critics weren’t kind, and neither were Dylan’s Jewish watchers. “When the news came down that Dylan had been ‘born again’ and that his next album would be fully devoted to songs about Jesus, it was shocking and painful and felt like a betrayal,” Seth Rogovoy, author of 2009’s “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner), recalled in an email interview with The Jewish Week. Writing last year in the journal Foreign Policy, Eric Alterman, a Brooklyn College professor, put it this way: “It would be hard to overstate the horror that many Jewish Dylan fans and followers felt during this period. Not only did Dylan appear to be lost musically, but perhaps he had been lost entirely. And more to the point, was our Jewish prophet even Jewish anymore?”
These sentiments are newly relevant with the release last week of the eight-CD box set “Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-81.” It covers the three Jesus albums plus rehearsals and studio outtakes, and there is a DVD that features live performances. There’s also the new biography by Scott M. Marshall, “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life” (BP Books), which argues that the singer-songwriter’s spiritual journey is probably too complicated to classify, that he walks both sides of the Judeo-Christian line and that he perhaps never fully put away the Christian period. It was enough for Christianity Today to headline a recent short review of Marshall’s book, “Bob Dylan: Is He or Isn’t He?” The reader is left to fill in: “still born-again?”
Perhaps the most memorable lyric from Dylan’s Jesus phase is from “Gotta Serve Somebody,” from “Slow Train Coming.” A bit of fire and brimstone set to a modern gospel beat, a tambourine keeping time, it warns: “You may be rich or poor / You may be blind or lame / You may be living in another country under another name / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Rogovoy put Dylan’s three-year Christian phase into perspective. “It makes (almost) perfect sense when you put it in the context of an entire body of work and career that is obsessed with prophecy itself, the role of actual prophets, and, as Dylan himself said many times in the 1980s, with Messianism. His personal journey, for whatever reasons, artistic or otherwise, took him through Jesus in order to get to the other side, which in his case was (and maybe still is) the Lubavitcher rebbe and Chabad messianism.”
Rogovoy was referencing another station on Dylan’s spiritual journey, his seeming return to his Jewish roots. It led to a song like “Neighborhood Bully,” a rousing defense of Israel, from 1983: “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone / Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon / He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand / In bed with nobody, under no one’s command / He’s the neighborhood bully.”
The religious imagery has continued to animate Dylan’s songs. From 1997’s “Not Dark Yet” comes this lyric: “Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer / It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” Jesus on the cross as darkness fell at midday? Maybe, Rogovoy said. “But also definitely Jewish. The emotion that Dylan captures in that line in his phrasing delivery — that’s as great a description of the Yom Kippur Ne’ilah service as any I’ve ever read.”
Dylan threw it all in the songwriting mix, as he suggested in the lecture he gave last year after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature; his inspiration was Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”: “When Melville put all his Old Testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about … what it all means.”
In the end, many miles (and years) down the line, the “Slow Train Coming” became the “Duquesne Whistle,” from Dylan’s 2012 CD, “Tempest.”
Gazing out the window of the speeding train, Dylan, who was 71 at the time, wistfully sings: “The lights of my native land are glowing/ I wonder if they’ll know me next time ’round / I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing / That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.”
Last Friday, just as the “Trouble No More” box set was being released, had you looked up Herzl Camp on the Internet, you would have seen a photograph that accompanied the Google map of the area around Webster, Wis. In the photo, a band is playing (there’s a picture around, from 1957, of a teenage Bobby Zimmerman at Herzl with a guitar strapped across his chest). And just to the left of the stage you can see a tree that looks for all the world like an oak, bending toward the bandstand, almost caressing the musicians. The “Duquesne Whistle” had carried Bob Dylan home again.