Dylan’s Never Ending Tour Pauses for Days of Awe

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour,” which has been barnstorming its way through the Midwest, will go on hiatus for the next few weeks, the time period when observant Jews traditionally dial back if not completely cease working and turn their thoughts to the sorts of spiritual concerns Dylan sings about in numbers like “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet,” two songs from his Grammy Award-winning comeback album, Time Out of Mind (1997), that resonate with imagery drawn from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

As per the Jewish calendar, this year Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year, the day that officially begins the Days of Awe — commences on the evening of September 8. Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast day that begins at sundown on September 17.

Dylan’s tour closes down tonight, Sept. 4, and doesn’t resume until October 6, after the time in which Jews traditionally complete the spiritual process of teshuvah, for which there is no good single-word English translation, but which includes a stock-taking of one’s life, an accounting with G-d of one’s deeds, repentance and forgiveness, and a rededication to living one’s life according to Halacha, the spiritual path or way provided by the legal and ethical teachings of Judaism.

As I point out in my book, BOB DYLAN: Prophet Mystic Poet, in recent years, Dylan has been spotted annually at Yom Kippur services – typically at whatever Chabad (an Orthodox Hasidic sect) synagogue he finds himself nearest to as he constantly tours the country. A few years ago, at Congregation Adath Israel, in St. Paul, Minnesota, he is said to have received the third aliyah to the Torah – an honor providing an individual blessing – and to have returned in the evening for the concluding Neilah service, whose central imagery is of a penitent standing at a gate or doorway entreating G-d’s mercy to be written into the Book of Life before the doors are shut and barred, an experience Dylan put into song on Time Out of Mind’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:

Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.

In “Not Dark Yet,” the narrator stands before the Lord beseeching his forgiveness one last time before the sun goes down. He sets the scene of the Yom Kippur prayer service in the song’s first line, “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day” – since everything is basically forbidden (eating, study, idle chatter), all that’s really left to do on Yom Kippur is to pray, to achieve that state of mystical union with G-d by putting oneself through the spiritual ringer. Or as Dylan has it:

It’s too hot to sleep time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel…

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

After describing a life that has led to his “sense of humanity … gone down the drain,” where “behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” in the first line of the final verse, the narrator reconciles himself to a life that is, after all, fundamentally not one of our own choosing: “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” he sings. The phrase recalls Judah HaNasi’s redaction of Biblical wisdom gathered in the Mishnah around the year 200 CE, where it is written, “Against your will you were born, against your will you die” [Mishnah 4:29].
The connection to the Yom Kippur liturgy is in the line that follows, “And the living are destined to be judged.” The adage has come down to us part of the Pirkei Avot, the “Sayings [or Ethics] of the Fathers,” which are contained in every traditional prayerbook as part of the Sabbath ritual, to be studied on Saturday afternoons for the period between Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

The singer concludes with a vivid description of the final moments of the Neilah service:

I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Thanks to Bob Dylan Examiner‘s Harold Lepidus for inspiring this blogpost. Read Harold’s posting about the timing of ticket sales for the NeverEnding Tour.

Bob Dylan’s Passover history – from Bob Dylan Examiner

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Today’s post on Bob Dylan Examiner recounts Dylan’s long relationship with the holiday being celebrated around the world tonight. The Examiner also asked for my own comments on Dylan’s reliance on the Passover story in song, which begins with “When the Ship Comes In” and extends throughout his career, including so-called Christian songs like “When He Returns” and “Saved” and, more recently, “Thunder on the Mountain,” the kickoff track of Modern Times.

When Bob Dylan Accepted a Lifetime Grammy Award by Reciting a Jewish Prayer

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Bob Dylan book jacket.for twitterThe Bob Dylan Examiner explores a bit of Bob Dylan history, recounting the head-scratching moment when Dylan accepted his Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1991 with an obscure recitation of a commentary on the Hebrew psalm 27. The Examiner kindly reprints my explication of this great moment in rock history from BOB DYLAN: Prophet Mystic Poet, and includes rare video footage of Dylan’s amazing speech, in which he quotes from memory commentary from an Orthodox Jewish prayerbook.

Author Interview on Examiner.com Part 2

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

On the day of publication of BOB DYLAN: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, Examiner.com Bob Dylan columnist Harold Lepidus files the second of his two-part interview with Seth Rogovoy.

Author Interview on Examiner.com

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The first installment of a two-part, in-depth interview with me about BOB DYLAN: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, conducted by Examiner’s Bob Dylan columnist, Harold Lepidus, has been posted here.