The news that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature brought a deep joy to my heart. Having been a lover of Dylan’s lyrical genius for a few decades, I wanted to honor the lovely, winding journey many of us have taken with Dylan over the decades. Here is one Muslim boy’s account of a love journey with the great American bard, Bob Dylan.
In the aftermath of September 11, like so many other people of faith, I was searching for a way to acknowledge that, yes, the world has changed in catastrophic ways, but that we were not — and are not — hopeless and helpless.
I wanted a reminder that we refuse to live in a starless night. I sought a conviction that we still had deep reservoirs to tap into. Living in a small village in New York, I surrounded myself, yes, in the Qur’an and Qawwali music of South Asia and Umm Kulthum, but also in Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Louis Armstrong, and the two holy Bobs: Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.
Finding the world’s political discourse dominated by a cacophony of madmen whose Manichean worldviews oddly mirrored each other (the “Islam vs. the West” of both al-Qaeda and neo-conservatives), I was also disappointed by the response of so many in the Muslim community who seemed to do no more than stick to the “we hate and condemn terrorism” trope. It seemed weak and shallow, as if distancing ourselves from the terrorists was all we had to do. All too often the concern of these understandably apologetic Muslims seemed to be to salvage an idealized notion of “Islam” from the actions of evil madmen. I knew there was much more that needed to be done, such as to also confront the militarism and traumas of our own Western societies. Here, Dylan gave me voice for what I had not known how to articulate.
The book that came out of those late night inner excavations and explorations was called Progressive Muslims. It was a collaboration among fifteen Muslim thinkers, dreamers, poets, committed to love and justice, committed to standing up, yes, against the savage brutality of al-Qaeda and Muslim extremism, but also against the sexism, racism, and materialism of the societies in America, Europe, and elsewhere that we called home.
We wanted to insist that the “over here” and “over there” were deeply and intimately connected. Each of us had been nurtured by our own inner streams, but for me it was the nasally poetic apocalyptic voice of Dylan that resonated again and again. The very first page of that book featured a juxtaposition of the Qur’an and Dylan’s timeless anthem, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
It was the apocalyptic quality of this song, not that the world was coming to an end, but that the world as we had known it had. Somewhere we — particularly the young, the alienated and disaffected — knew this world as we had known had to come to an end so that a different world could come to be. Yes, there were Biblical echoes as well. When Dylan said “and the first one now will later be last,” it is hard to miss the echoes of the Gospel according to St. Mark: “But many that are first shall be last, and the last first.”
Those days of September 11 and the era we are in now were also a time for us to tap into deeper and more sustaining spiritual, moral, aesthetic, musical, and political reserves. To stand up for justice, even as one’s own community and so many communities are being decimated, requires perpetual rejuvenation.
I come from a tradition where poetry and music were of paramount importance, but American pop music of the time didn’t sustain my soul. The music of the 1980s and 1990s (with some notable exceptions, such as Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, and U2) had beats that moved my body, but could not touch my soul. In an age where voices were tied to synthesizers and all sounded like one another, I needed voices that were authentic, not echoes of each other. I needed to reach for music that came from the heavens, and from musicians who stood in those plains where the veils between this world and the other worlds are so, so thin…
Somehow the music of the ‘60s did this to me. And none more so than Dylan’s anthem of the freedom movement:
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
I had grown up with Rumi and Hafez and Sa’di and a hundred other love poets, but English poetry had never connected with me until then. I had studied and admired Shakespeare, but couldn’t turn to him for spiritual sustenance at this time. I had love for the Victorian poetry of Lord Byron, Keats, and Shelley, but to an immigrant boy who was not so far removed from having learned English they were too stuffy for these very raw days and nights.
Then came this nasally Jewish boy from Minnesota whose words were as mystical to me as anything Rumi had written, singing in “Mr. Tambourine Man”:
Then take me disappearin’
through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time,
far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees,
out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance
beneath the diamond sky
with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea,
circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Be still my beating heart….
“Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow…
“Dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea circled by the circus sands”
This could have been the reincarnation of Rumi himself, in the guise of a Midwestern Dylan.
I was searching for someone to take poetry beyond rhythm and rhyme, more than meter, and make it be the voice of ecstatic hearts in motion committed to transforming the world. This was Dylan, the prophet of this new age, who at age 22 had written these bold prophetic words summoning us:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
YES! I wanted writers and critics who would prophesy not with a gun but with a pen. I wanted someone, a prophetic voice not in the wilderness but in the midst of society, to summon them, “Come!”
It was the prophetic tradition of protest against war that grabbed my heart. They were protesting against the Vietnam War, as I was protesting against both the warfare waged on the United States by al-Qaeda as well as the warfare waged by the United States against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. The legacy of Dylan, Martin King, Malcolm, Vincent Harding, Rabbi Heschel, and a thousand and one other nameless dignified voices of protest was echoing the aspiration of my own heart. And like Dylan, I was realizing that in this age we had gone from being against this war and that war to being against war itself.
It was Dylan’s prophetic voice of protest that shattered for me two big errors. The first was thinking that our wars were justified, that we were on the side of morality and the right, and that ultimately even God himself was on our side. Here Dylan was masterful at weaving together the political and theological: we had become a people critical of assuming that God was somehow on our side.
Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side
Dylan moved on to the Cold War conflict with the Russians, and how it shapes the way we see millions of our few human beings:
I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side
Starting with the political, Dylan moves back to the theological:
Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side
If Dylan had disdain for the error of thinking that God was on our side, so much more was his disdain for those cowardly government administrators who hide behind desks and send other people’s babies to die for their wars. This was his blast in his nastiest anti-war anthem, addressed to the “masters of war”:
Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly
This song ends with a line dripping with a painful sneer that arose out of the suffering of 58,000 dead Americans in Vietnam and millions of Vietnamese.
And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead
What made Dylan Dylan was that he was no one-note artist. He moved with ease and grace from iconic political songs to the most tender reflections on love, betrayal, and heartache. And the two often blended together. Like any great poet, Dylan’s protest was also gentle and poetic. He wrote a beautiful ambiguous song called “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The a-gonna of “Hard Rain” is the same as the a-changin’, an homage back to Woody Guthrie and to great English and Irish anthems, that emphatic form of the English language.
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Of course Dylan’s blue-eyed son, that beautiful boy Jakob, who went on to have his own musical career, is addressed here. Having my own blue-eyed son, Jacob, these lines haunted me. Dylan’s poetry could have come from the Book of Revelation:
Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Like any great poet, Dylan thrives on ambiguity. Yes, this could have been a reference to a post-nuclear holocaust. (“A young woman whose body was burning.”) But Dylan’s too good of a poet to collapse all meaning into one event. It’s a hard, it’s a hard…. It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall. Could be any catastrophe, any challenge, and heartache. And Dylan himself insisted on this in his interviews:
“No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen… In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
But not all of Dylan’s songs were so outwardly political. Like any great poet, he also wanders through the valleys of love and heartache. In an almost 60-year career, dovetailing with numerous personal loves and disasters, Dylan takes us along. Yes, there is the bitterest of devastation:
“Yes, I wish that for just one time,
You could stand inside my shoes,
You’d know what a drag it is,
To see you.”
As is the case with Rumi and Leonard Cohen, Dylan also knows that a heart sometimes has had to break open before it can open up: “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.”
And every now and then, he revels in the majesty of love. Dylan, whose infatuation with love and religion took him to evangelical Christianity and back to a modified form of his birth-religion of Judaism, speaks with the wisdom of one who has tried in vain to live without love, says in Nashville Skyline:
“Love is all there is,
it makes the world go ’round,
Love and only love,
it can’t be denied,
No matter what you think about it,
You just won’t be able to do without it,
Take a tip from one who’s tried.”
“Love is all there is.”
Is it Attar? Rumi? The Beatles? Or Dylan?
It matters not here. All great poets surrender to love willingly at some point.
And as we see this American bard in the twilight of his life, still masterful, still poetic, still with a care-not-what-you–think sneer, let us pause to honor The Bob. He famously enchanted a nation, and refused to be crushed under the mantle of being an “icon.” He infuriated his followers by plugging in his guitar. When he says “It ain’t me, babe,” is he gently turning down a would-be lover, or is he yet again turning down the icon status that was cast upon him?
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re looking for someone
who promises never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
someone to close his heart
someone who will die for you and more
But it ain’t me, babe.
No, no, no it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me, babe, you’re looking for, babe.
You may not have been what we were looking for, but, oh, how you have given us so, so much more than we could ever have wished for.
It has been a long and lovely journey with Dylan.
How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
This mountain of a poetic man still stands tall.