Bob Dylan has a lot in common with Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. Don’t take my word on that: Listen to the man himself. He made the comparison in a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore that was published by Rolling Stone, one I discussed last week.
The comparison comes up after Gilmore tries to tie Dylan to the sixties and Dylan, as usual, resists, insisting that “human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history,” and the same goes for his music. Dylan then says that people should not listen to his music in order to try to discover who he is, because “what others think about me, or feel about me, that’s so irrelevant. Any more than it is for me.”
Then he seems to change the subject, bringing up a book from the sixties written by Sonny Barger, which recounts Barger’s days as a member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. Dylan reads from a passage in the book about the death of a rider named Bobby Zimmerman (Dylan’s birth name). “You know what this is called?” he asks Gilmore. “It’s called transfiguration.”
Gilmore, confused, asks Dylan if he meant to say “transmigration.” Dylan says no:
Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966.1 [sic] already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. . . .
So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot. Have you ever heard of a book called No Man Knows My History? It’s about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. The title could refer to me.
Mormonism has been long on Dylan’s mind. In Chronicles Dylan writes that in his early years in New York he read a book about Smith, “the authentic American prophet who identifies himself with Enoch in the Bible and says that Adam was the first man-god.” (This book was probably No Man Knows My History.) In a 1975 concert he dedicated the song “Oh Sister” to Brigham Young, though nobody knows if Dylan was joking or serious about the impromptu dedication (the song seems to be about using religion to get sex).
In the Gilmore interview, however, Dylan is all seriousness. He mentions an album he wants to do of religious songs that would be a lot more like “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” than “Slow Train Coming.” He says he believes in the Book of Revelation and, when asked about his religious struggles, denies that he has any. “I don’t have any of those religious struggles. Transfiguration eliminates all of that stuff. You have to amplify your faith.”
Which brings us back to the story about the other Bobby Zimmerman, the Hell’s Angel who died in a motorcycle crash. Dylan shares that story not because he believes in synchronicity or astrology but because it points to the mystery of human identity. One Bobby died in a motorcycle crash while the other Bobby was saved from his accident because he had been chosen for greatness. The question is not who these Bobbys really are but who is the one doing the calling. Millions of people want to get inside of Bob Dylan’s head, as if his personality is what really matters. Dylan has always doubted if we can really know another human being, and he certainly does not think that it is important to understand an artist’s personality in order to understand their art.
That might sound arrogant, but it isn’t. Dylan is clear that everybody has a calling, and his is to make music. “I just think I’ve taken things to a new level because I’ve had to. Because I’ve been forced to.” He knows his music is for the ages because he answers to a different time altogether.
Artists are like prophets in that they have a special gift that transcends their particular identity. Joseph Smith’s teachings, for example, were too original and inspiring to be reduced to the inner workings of his subjective self. Smith, like Dylan, was a product of transfiguration.
“Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.” Dylan learned that from Catholic theology, he says, but he also learned it from the life of Joseph Smith.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.