A Reluctant Prophet

Music

By Seth Rogovoy

Published May 25, 2011, issue of June 03, 2011.
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Bob Dylan turned 70 on May 24. So what?

Well, for one, let’s see you continue to perform two-hour concerts, 100 nights a year, as you’ve been doing practically nonstop for the past quarter century or so, all over the world, keeping things new and fresh while the music industry around you falls apart. Your body is battered by so many aches and pains you can barely hold a guitar, and your singing voice — never the greatest to begin with — is nothing but a hollow shell of what it once was. You’re lucky if you can even spit out the lyrics of songs from throughout your 50-year career in a talking voice, much less even remember them.

So that’s what. And it’s incredibly impressive and unprecedented. Sure, B.B. King and Willie Nelson are older and have been at it longer, but those two have been phoning it in for at least two or three decades at this point. Only Dylan continues to take the stage, night after night, for no apparent reason — it can’t be for the money, and he sure doesn’t seem to be having a good time — and delves deep into 30- and 40-year-old songs and discovers new nuances, previously overlooked twists and turns of phrase, seemingly channeling something far beyond the conventional rock concert experience in which an artist delivers renditions of greatest hits and some new songs so that you might buy one of his more recent recordings.

No, something else is happening here, and I think I know what it is. Dylan is driven, like the Prophets of old, out of some kind of love/hate relationship with his destiny. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah before him bemoaned theirs, crying out to God to release them from the burden of prophesying to those with eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear. Yet it was their fate to continue to do so until the end. Prophecy was ultimately a failure, but at least they died trying.

There’s no other explanation. Dylan is driven by a similar mission, not necessarily divinely inspired, but no less profound and futile. He hinted at this early on, way back in 1963, when he wrote, in “Long Time Gone,” “I know I ain’t no prophet/And I ain’t no prophet’s son,” practically quoting the Prophet Amos verbatim. Invoking the words of a prophet to say that he’s not one declares his mission from the get-go: that of the reluctant prophet.

In Psalm 90, Moses says to God, “We are consumed by Your anger, and we are confounded by Your wrath. You have set our iniquities before Yourself, our immaturity before the light of Your countenance.” He could well be a rock critic reviewing a Dylan concert. Moses goes on to say, “The days of our years among them are seventy years, and if with might, eighty years; their proudest success is but toil and pain, for it is cut off swiftly and we fly away.”

Dylan may not stay forever young, but may he continue to 80 — or even 120 — bearing his message of toil and pain as he prophesies his message of rock ‘n’ roll doom.

Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).


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