Journalists have always been puzzled by Bob Dylan, but the confusion is of their own making. The pattern of treating him as a trickster whose words cannot be taken at face value was established in the sixties, when the rock intelligentsia wanted Dylan to be a political as well as musical revolutionary. He was neither, of course. His radicalness came from a deeply conservative understanding of musical history: He was reading Civil War era newspapers while everyone else was reading Norman O. Brown and listening to Gospel and Blues when music was becoming “pop” in the fifties. But the story of the sixties wasn’t complete without Dylan as its hero. His so-called followers couldn’t take no as an answer: His denials became obfuscations.

Of course, Dylan can be verbally perverse in interviews, but who can blame him when those who should know better seem clueless to what he is saying? Occasionally in these charades of misunderstanding, Dylan gets so frustrated that he spells everything out, revealing probably more than he intended. Such was the case in a Rolling Stone 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore.

The interview begins to go wrong for Gilmore (and right for the rest of us) when he asks about “Rainy Day Women.” Dylan says that those who view it as a drug song “aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts.” This comment goes so far over Gilmore’s head that he can’t even respond to it.

Which shows he has no business interviewing Dylan, who has always been immersed in the Bible, its language and its theology. “Rainy Day Women” is more about persecution than intoxication. It sounds like a Salvation Army band playing a funeral march, but its words are deadly serious. When Dylan says that “they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good” and that “they’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to go home,” he is speaking straight from the Bible. His comment about the Book of Acts makes the reference more explicit: it’s not just any good man being stoned, but Stephen.

Stoning, of course, was an ancient form of execution, and executions often take on a festive atmosphere. The carnival sound is thus quite appropriate to a song that reenacts an act of scapegoating. Hardly any Dylan fan hears the ritualistic and religious aspects of the song, but that says more about his fans than Dylan himself.

Dylan also had himself in mind when he wrote “Rainy Day Women,” as he tries to tell Gilmore in this interview. He insists, as he has repeatedly done throughout his career, that he “really couldn’t identify with what was happening” in the sixties and that he really belongs to the small town life of the fifties, when “the culture was mainly circuses and carnivals, preachers and barnstorming pilots.” “Rainy Day Women,” with its zany fusion of tragedy and absurdity, comes right out of Dylan’s old-fashioned Midwestern soundscape.

Gilmore tries his best to get Dylan to admit his sympathies for liberal politics, but Dylan rebukes his efforts. When the journalist suggests that President Obama’s popularity has declined due to racism, Dylan doesn’t bite. “I have no idea what they [people] are saying for or against him. . . . You should be asking his wife what she thinks of him. She’s the only one that matters.” His comment makes perfect sense when put into the context of his indifference to media-driven politics. “You have to change your heart if you want change,” he says. “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed.”

And then he returns to the topic of stoning, although Gilmore misses the connection. Dylan tells a story about being picked up by the police while walking in New Jersey. Someone pointed him out to the officer, and he felt betrayed. “All of a sudden, somebody will walk in who knows me, and I’ll have to tell everybody in the place, and then . . . it gets uncomfortable.” In other words, he does not like it when people treat him like a savior figure, because Dylan knows what happens when saviors disappoint their followers. “People like to betray people,” he goes on. “They want to deliver you up. Like they delivered Jesus. I’ve experienced that a lot.”

Dylan is musing on the phenomenon of scapegoating in these remarks, the way that fans can turn on someone famous when they do not deliver what the people want. At this point in the interview his thoughts naturally lead him to the time when he was accused of being a “Judas” to the folk movement. “As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified.” He can relate to Jesus, even as he recognizes the uniqueness of Jesus’s sacrifice.

The very last words of the interview are a revelation. Gilmore insists that his fans, even those who think he must secretly be a man of the secular left, love him. Dylan dismisses his ingratiating words with a final statement: “When someone will die for you, that’s love, too.” Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.  

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon ChristianityHis book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.

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Articles by Stephen H. Webb

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