LIGHT COME SHINING: THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF BOB DYLAN
Oxford University Press
2016, pp. 232, $19.95
A Crash, a Conversion and a Comeback
by Richie Unterberger
When Bob Dylan became the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, the internet erupted with reactions ranging from euphoria to dismay. Salman Rushdie compared Dylan to Orpheus and tweeted, “Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition,” while novelist Irvine Welsh angrily declared that it was “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” It seemed like everyone had something to say about the choice—even Barack Obama congratulated Dylan, calling him “one of my favorite poets”—everyone, that is, except Dylan himself. For more than two weeks, Dylan completely ignored the news, and then announced that the prize had left him “speechless”—only to skip the ceremony and send singer-songwriter Patti Smith in his place. As has often been the case with the mysterious Dylan, there was rampant speculation about what was really going on.
Attempts to discover the “real” Bob Dylan have long preoccupied biographers, movie directors and millions of his fans, but Dylan has remained elusive. As Todd Haynes, director of the 2007 Dylan biopic I’m Not There, once put it, “The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he’s no longer where he was. He’s like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you’ll surely get burned.” Into an already crowded field of books—several dozen biographers have already tried to analyze what makes Dylan tick—comes a new “psychobiography” by social psychologist Andrew McCarron. In this slim but dense volume, Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan, McCarron attempts to analyze Dylan’s character and behavior through the use of psychological theory and experimental research.
McCarron calls Dylan “the prince of self-invention.” Since he emerged as the leading protest folksinger after moving to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, change has been the only constant in Dylan’s life. Even in his twenties, he was building myths around his persona, making outrageous claims of growing up as a wandering hobo when he was actually from a middle-class Jewish family in Hibbing, Minnesota. Whether outraging folk purists by going electric and expanding his audience by millions or reinventing himself as a country-rock family man and then as a fervent Christian, Dylan has been steadfast only in his refusal to remain in one spot.
Transformations are a major theme in McCarron’s book, and he focuses on three major crises or turning points in Dylan’s life and career. The first and most famous of these was when Dylan retreated from rock stardom after his murkily documented mid-1966 motorcycle accident and then reemerged as an almost unrecognizably calmer, more grounded figure. The second, and most notorious, was the singer’s conversion to born-again Christianity in the late 1970s. The third, and perhaps least interesting, occurred when Dylan shook off creative blocks to record his 1989 comeback album, Oh Mercy.
Why have fear of death and destruction played such a profound role in the life of a man who’s lived a relatively healthy life, free of serious brushes with mortality?
These transitions have all been detailed at great length—Dylan himself analyzes the third in his quasi-memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Few, however, have attempted to dissect the threads that unify these apparently wildly disparate shifts. McCarron hopes to show that “each of [Dylan’s] major changes possesses a similar underlying structure,” zeroing in on three songs in particular. For McCarron, “I Shall Be Released” represents the post-accident era, the more obscure “In the Garden” the born-again phase and the yet less celebrated “Where Teardrops Fall” the Oh Mercy period.
The three songs, McCarron argues, are manifestations of what he calls Dylan’s “destiny script,” in which the artist repeatedly confronts his fear of death, experiences metamorphosis and then channels that transformation in his music. McCarron theorizes that Dylan has “returned to the musical figures and traditions of his youth, heard on vinyl records and over the AM radio, at points in his life when death and destruction (whether real or imagined) threaten his purpose or safety.” McCarron observes: “According to him, whenever he has strayed from the melodies and principles of ‘those old songs,’ his music and life have gone off course.”
The book is most persuasive when examining how spiritual themes, quite often of an apocalyptic nature, persist in Dylan’s music. For instance, McCarron finds that Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and a kind of fundamentalist gospel-rock that mystified and angered many of his longtime fans can be understood as “a meta-narrative of death and redemptive change that found relatively easy expression in the Christian stories and symbols that Dylan embraced as he approached the age of forty.” And although Dylan eased off on his hard-line Christianity within a few years, McCarron finds evidence that the faith still matters to him, and that elements of the language associated with his religious fervor linger in his music.
Why have fear of death and destruction played such a profound role in the life of a man who’s lived a relatively healthy life, free of serious brushes with mortality? “Together, the threat of nuclear annihilation, family memories of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the depleted ecology of the Iron Range instilled a persistent anxiety in the young Robert Zimmerman, filling his impressionable mind with images of extinction,” writes McCarron. “The threat of annihilation was such a scary and ubiquitous part of his generation’s world that, for some, it crystallized into a cognitive/affective schema that would be triggered during times of developmental transition, sickness, injury, and vulnerability.”
Yet if such grim fears have sparked some of Dylan’s transformation, so too have influences of a different nature that Light Come Shining doesn’t discuss much or at all. His wild enthusiasm for the decidedly new and untraditional rock ’n’ roll of the Beatles and the British Invasion stoked his most radical reinvention in the switch from folk to rock. Less dramatically, a chance encounter with violinist Scarlet Rivera on a New York street led to much of the musical spice of his finest mid-1970s work. Dylan’s joy and unpredictable experimentation have been a significant part of his musical story, not just death and tradition. McCarron’s book shines a light on aspects of his ever-puzzling evolution, but those are only parts of a whole that takes many angles to appreciate.
Richie Unterberger has written a dozen rock music history books, including a two-part history of 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn!/Eight Miles High.