Posts Tagged ‘Ian MacDonald’


Towards the end of Wild Mercury – a tale of two Dylans, the late great Ian McDonald‘s brief but insightful survey of Bob Dylan‘s life and career, written for a glossy music mag on the occasion of his 60th birthday in 2001 and reprinted as the lead essay in his The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003), he suggests: “Bob Dylan’s career is one of the great spiritual journeys of our time. Check it out.”


Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life (BP/WND Books, 2017) gives us such a narrow picture of that journey that it feels a lot of the time like it’s a discussion as to what the man is going to enter as his religion on the census form.  Dylan’s ’60s output is very briefly considered for its Biblical references and that’s it.  How did it feel?  But that’s not his concern:

Did Bob Dylan, by 1970, have a personal relationship with God? Whatever the case, there is precious little doubt that he possessed a strong monotheistic bent.


You see, Scott M. Marshall is a ‘God-botherer’.  What this means here is an unbelievable, undermining prissiness in his use of blush-sparing dashes.  He quotes Tim Drummond, bassist in Dylan’s fine Christian period band, reacting to the hostility some brought to the gospel concerts:

“Well they brutalised him; they were all pissed off because he wouldn’t sing the old songs […] I told him that I’d stay with him until the t—- fell off the Statue of Liberty, after seeing what he went through.”

Yup.  Her ‘t—‘.  That’s how it’s straightfacedly printed.  Why is Ned Flanders writing this book?  Even when he’s quoting the man himself –  from what Marshall calls a ‘matchless’ interview in Rolling Stone in 2012 with Mikhail Gilmour – we get “You can tell whether people have faith or no faith by the way they behave, by the s— that comes out of their mouths.”  (This is one of those Dylan interviews, by the way, which, if you have the taste, is worth a read; early on there is discussion about the Christian concept of ‘transfiguration’ as applied to himself – a passage that Marshall chooses not to mention.)  Reporting the same interview, he continues:

For the record, after calling his detractors from yesteryear a name that cannot be repeated here, Dylan let those “Judas!” folks know that he wished them eternal strife.

For the record he calls them ‘motherfuckers’.  To quote him quoting him again: “So f—-ing what?”   Well there is Bob’s response to the infamous 1966 Manchester “Judas!” heckle: “I don’t be-lieve you. You’re a liar”.  And to the band:Play fucking loud”.  Try meaningfully blanking that from the history.


To be fair, Scott Marshall‘s main concerns are not with the actual music, nor most aspects of his subject’s life – booze, drugs etc. – outside of the narrow religious definition he’s working with.  Bob Dylan: a spiritual life is a mix of some productive original interviewing and a big cut-and-paste job of published interviews and other material.  It gets a bit repetitive as the years pass by.  But some of the interviews certainly told me something new.  In particular with:

  • Dave Kelly (Dylan’s PA at the time of the fortnight’s run of gospel shows at the Warfield Theatre in SF in November 1979, whose attempts – at Dylan’s prompting – to engage the wider Christian communities were met with indifference)
  • Regina McCrary (one of the experienced gospel singers who accompanied him on stage in the gospel years)
  • and T-Bone Burnett (pleading not guilty to the charge, as is often presumed, that he was responsible for Dylan’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity) –


The book would probably never have come to be written were it not for Dylan’s apparently sudden adoption of an evangelical brand of Christianity in 1979.  The tale is told; not quite so sudden, but he had a ‘knee-buckling’ personal encounter with Jesus Christ.  He followed it up with a three-month course of Bible study with the Vineyard School of Discipleship in San Francisco, and recorded Slow train coming, his first Christian album.  When he went back on the road it was basically with a gospel review, featuring none of the old songs, and interspersed with some hellfire preaching from the man himself.  This lasted, with two more albums, but some leavening on stage of some old songs towards the end, for nearly three years.

One of Bob Dylan: a spiritual life‘s strengths is its logging of the variety of responses from Dylan fans, Jews and Christians to this episode; it was dismissed as a gimmick by some, treated with suspicion on all sides. The 1970s take up 50 pages of the 254 pages of actual text, the 1980s 43 pages.  There can be no doubt that he meant it, man.  And has not refuted it since, though his understanding of his ‘mission’ has altered a whole lot.  Never mind the labels, he was sold on the Testaments, Old and New; and Revelations.

But for all the Gotta serve somebody he never actually signed up with anybody, and his Jewish roots were still in the ground.  “There’s really no difference between any of it in my mind,” Marshall quotes him, from Neil Spencer’s 1981 interview in the NME.  And, in a section Marshall doesn’t quote in that interview, in response to the question, “You’ve always had a strong religious theme in your songs even before you became a Christian”, Spencer records Dylan angrily saying: I don’t really want to walk around with a sign on me saying ‘Christian’.”  Bit odd, considering the sermonising a couple of years previous, but Dylan has always been suspicious of labels.  At concerts in this period he would introduce the stirring In the garden (“When they came for Him in the garden, did they know? / Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?“) as This is one of my anti-religion songs right here.”  A very personal Jesus, then.


As an atheist and humanist I’ve never had much of a problem with the music religion inspires.  Hymns I sang with relish as a lad, Handel, gospel music, John Coltrane, ‘old time’ bluegrass.  How can I?  I may not feel I have been saved “by the blood of the lamb” but I can happily sing along to Dylan and Co powering along about it.  I may find it hard not to think occasionally of the character in Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy who heckles, “What blood group was he?”, but this is exciting, liberating, musicTrouble no more, the 13th volume of Bob Dylan’s Official Bootleg Series delivers live performances from 1979-1981 – the gospel years.  It is full of powerful vocals – Dylan aided and abetted by a four woman chorus steeped in the stuff – with some great ensemble playing from the band.  Intense, moving, at times solemn, accusatory, testifying, at others playful, or plaintive.  And, yes, the odd moment to these ears of languor – When he returns.  There are some gorgeous melodies to play with here too.  What has surprised me more than anything else is the warmth to be found amidst the uncompromising fundamentalism, not least, of course, in his interplay with the gospel chorus; when not straight preaching – actually oft when he is – he’s enjoying himself.

The 2-CD compilation finishes with one of Dylan’s finest songs, the awesome Every grain of sand, testament to the progression his writing underwent as the preaching nature of Slow train took more of a back seat.  Other highlights for me are the infectious singalong Ain’t gonna go to hell for nobody, The groom’s still waiting at the altar (which rocks as hard as anything he’s done), the passionate In the garden and the vocal dexterity of Dead man, dead man and Shot of love.  There was plenty of creativity going on in what some still insist as lost years; he would, of course, say that he was found.  Naturally I remain unconverted but I’ve had a hell of a good time.


The booklet packaged with the 2-CD edition of Trouble no more (that’s its cover on the right) adds something too.  There are appreciations from a Christian and a non-believer (who’s like me’s singing along), and extensive notes on each track.   Here are a couple of things from it that would have added to A spiritual life:

  • For a bit of context: worryingly, at the time Dylan was reading a book called The late great planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey, first published in 1970 and taken up by no less than Bantam Books in 1973 – the first book of Christian prophecy put out by a mainstream secular press, part of the whole Reaganite rise of the Christian Right phenomenon in the US, seeing the Book of Revelations being played out in Russia and Iran.  “Lindsey turned out to be something of a nut … who, in 2008, suggested that Barack Obama was the AntiChrist,” the writer adds.  (In the Neil Spencer NME interview previously mentioned (reproduced here) Dylan peddles the old the Earth is 6,000 years old riff; I wonder if any subsequent interviewers have asked him if he still believes that.)
  • The late 1978 change of lyrics in performance to the great Tangled up in blue, so when she opens up “the book of poems written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century” (a favourite passage of mine) becomes “The Gospel according to Matthew, Verse 3, Chapter 33” – fortuitously keeping the rhyme – only for the apparently incorrect citation to be revised again to ‘Jeremiah’ the next night.


As suggested at the outset, I think that Scott Marshall‘s definition of a spiritual life is way too narrow to encompass Bob Dylan‘s art and life.  He rather begrudgingly hints at this in another quote from the 2012 Rolling Stone interview:

“Clearly the language of the Bible still provides imagery for your songs,” Gilmour added. “Of course, what else could there be.” The seventy-one year-old goes on to assert that it’s impossible to go through life without reading books and claims there’s some truth in all books while citing a laundry list of titles and authors: the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhist sutras, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius and Sun Tzu.

There are steps on the way that don’t interest our monotheist author, from the time Dylan immersed himself in folk music and hit New York in 1961, telling Izzy Young he Never saw a God; can’t say till I see one” through to the immersion of us completists in the songs of Frank Sinatra (I’m afraid I had to pass on Triplicate).  There have been so many ideas in the air among his close compadres; though he can dismiss them with ease later, they were still stations on the way.  Marshall himself quotes Dylan twice saying, “But I always felt that if I’m going to do anything in life, I want to go as deep as I can.”  Or as his son Jakob puts it, “He’s never done anything half-assed. If he does anything he goes fully underwater.”  I’ll just leave the back cover of Desire, with Tarot card and Buddha (and Joseph Conrad) hanging there.

The crucial thing is that Bob Dylan seems not to have let his faith compromise friendships with non-believers like Alan Ginsberg or Jerry Wexler, producer of Slow train coming.  This quote about the latter, unfortunately without citation, is from the Official Bootleg booklet.  The “confirmed Jewish atheist”:

“… was never going to fall under the spell of true to life Christianity,” Dylan said.  “But that’s beside the point.  There are a lot people who live the life of a Christian in their behaviour and speech, but would never count themselves among the faithful.  However, there are just as many souls who profess to be Christians whose actions and speech prove that they wouldn’t know Christ from a hole in the wall.”


A few more snippets from Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life that I think bear repeating:

  • astutely he avers: “Terms like ‘religious,’ ‘Christianity,’ ‘conversion,’ and ‘fundamentalist’ were virtually absent from Dylan’s vocabulary, but his personal experience, as described by outsiders was – and is – constantly framed in those terms.”
  • contrary to those who ascribe cult status to the Vineyard Church: “What is interesting here is that, contrary to some speculation, Dylan’s decision to sing only his gospel material from November 1979 through My of 1980 was not the decision of the Vineyard Church. In fact, Larry Myers, the pastor who visited Dylan’s home in early 1979 (and who was invited on tour in 1979-1980) urged Dylan to sing his older material.”  [I looked up Vineyard on Wikipedia: they have spread internationally; there have been schisms] 
  • when he returned to featuring his ‘oldies’ live, Dylan changed the punchline of the coruscating Masters of war. “It’s original line, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do” was dropped and – to this day – has never been uttered in performance of the song. “Dylan knows it is not biblically correct,” asserts author Ronnie Keohone …”  Frustratingly we are not told what it’s replaced by; this atheist fears a diminution of power.
  • a tribute to Ralph Stanley and the old guys, as told to John Pareles in 1979: Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book … All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from Let me rest on a peaceful mountain to Keep on the sunny side. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back towards those old songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing I saw the light. I’ve seen the Light, too.


I’ll finish as I started with Ian MacDonald.  He offers three theories on the art and life of Bob Dylan.  First jokingly is that he’s “currently the world’s greatest performance artist. (That’s ‘performance’, not ‘performing’.)”  Except you couldn’t make it up.  Second is the flawed human being and artist … and genius (a word not to be used lightly).  Third is the embodiment of the Jungian archetype of Trickster.  The current Sinatra stuff could come from anywhere in that spectrum.  Personally I wish he’d get bored with that – though not without some merit (Autumn leaves!), surely 5 CD’s worth is enough.  I look forward to a last full flowering of his writing.

Currently, the last time I looked, none of the specifically religious material from the three album sequence of Slow train, Saved and Shot of love is featured in performance (http://www.boblinks.com/111817s.html).

The title of this piece – Trailing moss and mystic glow – is the result of an act of bibliomancy using Bob Dylan: Lyrics 1962-2001.  From the song Moonlight on the Love and theft album.  Fits as well as anything more obvious, I’d say.  Must go and remind myself how it goes.





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Intuition pumpsWell, I made it to the end.  Did I make any sense of it?  I guess, some of the time at least.  Impossible to resist qualifying my response with one of philosopher of science Daniel C. Dennett‘s own rather splendid explanatory concepts: sorta.  Close enough for rock and roll.

Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking (Allen Lane, 2013) is not dealing in trivialities; it’s not a guitar he’s tuning.  Intuition pumps can be: “prosthetic imagination extenders and focus holders“; “carefully designed persuasion tools and thought experiments“; ” abstract cognitive tool[s].”  So the sorta operator is actually “the key to breaking the back of the mind-bogglingly complex question of how a mind could ever be composed of material mechanisms,” for humanist Dennett is no dualist – for him “mind” and “brain” cannot be separated in any meaningful way, but – rest assured – determinism is not his bag either:

People really care about whether they have free will or not, about how their minds can reside in their bodies, and about how – and even whether – there can be meaning in a world composed of nothing but atoms and molecules, photons and Higgs bosons. People should care. … What in the world are we, and what should we do about it? So watch your step. There is treacherous footing ahead, and the maps are unreliable.

Heavy intellectual yomping, then, and he’s trying to help.  I could go into some detail (and probably get it wrong) but it’s too darned hot.  Let’s be honest, the book is hard work – it has to be when you think about it – but it’s entertainingly leavened with anecdotage, imaginative examples (philosophers’ zombies, anyone?) and some righteous academic feuding.

Dennett starts by giving us A dozen general thinking tools, taking in Occam’s razor (and its corollary – beware Occam’s broom),  Theodore Sturgeon’s law (extrapolating from his famous defence of the science fiction genre: “90% of everything is crud“), the “Surely” operator (ding!: the more it’s used the dodgier an argument is likely to be) and 8 other useful tools.  So far so good.  Then we’re off trying to see what it means when we talk of “meaning” (he calls those “scary quotes“) and then there’s an interlude about computers to further clarify what we mean by that.  (I’ll willingly admit I struggled with what philosophers mean by “intentionaliy”, which has little to do with intentions, rather “aboutness.”)  Then we move on to evolution; he demolishes the ‘intelligent design’ hypothesis; he demonstrates how a string of mechanical competences can lead to comprehension and the development of consciousness, and then considers the notion of free will (do we/don’t we have it?).  All delivered in logical steps which I’m sure will make much more sense if I ever find the time to read it again; (it’s tempting).  And finishing with a general chat from Uncle Dan about philosophy as a career.  His conclusion, and it’s been quite a ride, is:

We haven’t yet succeeded in fully conceiving how meaning could exist in the material world, or how life arose and evolved, or how consciousness works, or whether free will can be one of our endowments, but we’ve made progress: the questions we’re posing now are better than the questions of yesteryear. We’re hot on the trail of the answers.

Daniel Dennett is an unrepentent materialist but he is also – he hastens to add, in opposition to what he calls “bonkers” notions of free will – a compatabilist, maintaining that free will and determinism are not incompatible:

In our eagerness to make “free” choices, uncaused – we like to think – by “external forces”, we tend to forget that we shouldn’t want to be cut off from all such forces; free will does not abhor our embedding in a rich causal context; it actually requires it.

As opposed to the idea that we are robotic artefacts (“to confront the question of why it seems that each of us has some such mind thingy, or better“) he posits The self as the center of narrative gravity (it’s a chapter head) and a neat metaphor:

The idea that there is, in addition, a special indissoluble nugget of you […] the same kind of thing as a center of gravity [… ] a mathematical point, not an atom or molecule […] an abstraction […] tightly coupled to the physical world.

And what happens when the centre of gravity of an object shifts too far?

Just a couple of asides that I relished, the sorts of things that lift Intuition pumps out of potential ultra-dryness.  Dennett spends some time in Borges’s The library of Babel detailing the virtual infinity of all possible books as an illustration of how most genetic mutations can happen and fail (Spakesheare writing Spamlet) but delights in how Peter De Vries opened his novel of 1953,  The vale of laughter – by adding a comma – with the line, “Call me, Ishmael.”  And there’s a picture – it’s blogged about and reproduced here – of a termite ‘castle’ printed to great effect next to Antoni Gaudi’s extraordinary La Segrada Famiglia in Barcelona; there’s ‘design’ and design.

Ian MacDonald - The people's musicThe people’s music

Right at the start of Intuition pumps, Daniel C. Dennett sets the scene by saying:

… this is a book celebrating the power of non-mathematical tools, informal tools, the tools of prose and poetry, if you like, a power that scientists often underestimate.

He’s using a pretty broad inclusive definition of poetry here (though he does address awe, wonder and spirituality in other books without resorting to reductionist dismissal).  Purely coincidentally I’ve also been re-acquainting myself with Ian MacDonald‘s brilliant collection of popular music commentary, The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003).  My local humanist group was having a discussion on the subject of ‘happiness’ and I was going to speak against it – as a right to be expected of life, as a valid goal in itself; moments of happiness, that sometimes can just happen, are what I cherish.  There was something in IMac’s long and masterful piece on Nick Drake that I falsely remembered as a defense of miserabilism I thought might be useful to that end.  Beyond the Buddhist notion of “Happiness is just an illusion” (name that song!*) it wasn’t, but what a joy it was to be in the company of both men, despite the reminder of their untimely early deaths.  And Nick’s physically cool music is ever a refreshing breeze in this abominable heat-wave we labour under in the UK at the moment.

The people’s music is as good as it gets.  Ian MacDonald got the ’60s in the UK down in print – here and in his introduction to Revolution in the head, his Beatles book that is unlikely to be bettered – like no other writer.  There are three long essays in The people’s music, and 26 wide-ranging shorter pieces and reviews.  Of the long pieces, the Dylan essay, written on the occasion his 60th birthday, is insightful; his notion, that Bob Dylan’s whole career has been a brilliant piece of Performance Art he himself quickly dismisses, but its validity lingers.  The title essay is a potted history of popular music and its audience’s relationship with the music industry in the twentieth century.  I’ll use the masterful word again.  It’s some sort of a blessing that his suicide in the year this book was published saved him from having to witness the full gaudy horror of the success of Simon Cowell and pals’ reality television ‘music’ shows; he probably saw it coming.  The third long piece is Exiled from heaven: the unheard message of Nick Drake, and it is a stunner.

Nick Drake died in 1974, nearly 40 years ago, yet his music is timeless, out of time.  IMac’s analysis of his music tells you why.  He invokes William Blake and buddhism, innocence, karma and return, compassion, contemplative solitude, ‘magic’, being “here now.”  Thematically the seasons, rain, trees and the river are symbols running through his brief three albums’ worth of songs.

Drake’s message is an uncommon one  – not because it is wilfully obscure, but because it emanates  from a place our society is fast forgetting: the seer domain of poetic apprehension of reality.  The realm of ‘magic’. […] This sort of magic is spiritual and timeless – the opposite of the busy, materialistic world of ‘the river’ […] In his songs, we find in action the Romantic ideal that beauty can elevate consciousness.

Aye, there’s the rub, because MacDonald has to add, “Of course, the followers of Richard Dawkins and company” (of which Daniel Dennett is, naturally, a fully paid-up member) “will find only delusion in Drake’s work – yet materialism is bound to reject any claim that the world of the spirit is real.”  This is unfair, for here we are back with “meaning” and its construction; it may not be physically real … but.  I’m not so sure they do dismiss as mere delusion what MacDonald describes as Drake’s “sense of the holy in nature”, nor would they deny the practical value of such an orientation.  I can happily live with both; I can be excited reading Dennett and turn the stereo on and transcend the heat as Nick Drake’s music flows over and through me.  Dennett quotes from Lee Siegel’s book Nets of magic.  It doesn’t exactly square the circle, but I’ll end with it for the hell of it:

“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?”  By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers.  “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”  Real magic, in other words, refers to magic that is not real, while magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

* “Happiness is just an illusion” is a line from Jimmy Ruffin’s What becomes of the broken hearted.  Tamla Motown magic from 1966.


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