A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fullness of Years: Dylan Turns 70

Indulge me in a little bit of Dylan rambling (or ramblin' as he would have once said).

For starters, I wanted to post a video of Dylan playing this song, but the only live versions are not so great. This is the original posted by someone, I know not who. Apologies for the cheesy video.

Also I tried to find the obvious birthday wish Forever Young from the Last Waltz, a truly amazing performance. But it no longer available on Youtube, even though other Dylan performances from that movie are. So, a beautiful song with inevitable overblown rock all star cast singing along appears at the end of this post.

Here's a link to a wonderful written tribute to Dylan, and another, and another. Thank you to Allen Taggart who is always so generous in sharing his passion for music for these links.

I'm a huge Dylan fan. No person has a right to craft so many songs that are brilliant and that just don't age - but he did. I don't imagine that his status as an artistic genius can be debated at this point, but I just want to express marvel at and gratitude for the amazing creative energy that God invests human beings with. Very few people in any generation can open themselves to it as fully as Dylan and other artists of his stature do. The danger of the genius label is that it separates the artist into a different category, as though they are super human. But of course what is so astonishing about the work of a genius is its deep resonance, its ancient familiarity. In fact a genius does not transcend the ordinary human experience but delves deep into it, drawing on a source that is in each of us but which is left unexamined by most.

In any event, I listened to "My Back Pages" (for obvious reasons) today. Not his greatest song, but it is sung with incredible power (so many people ridicule Dylan's nasal tone but I think he is one of the great singers in music. Really. His sense of rhythm as a singer, his ability to bend phrases around the beat, is just phenomenal. Try singing along with a Dylan song you know and you'll see what I mean). What struck me about it was that it feels like it was just written today, like he is singing about an experience, or an awakening, as it is unfolding. At the end of the same album (Another Side of Bob Dylan) is "Ballad in Plain D." A beautiful, cruel, self-flagellating and self-justifying, brutal and terrifyingly honest song. You can hear his fury and his devastation. Actually a frightening song. And it, too, sounds like he is revealing himself today, in the present.

The newness of Dylan's music is its most beautiful quality to me. I mean this in three ways. First, as I said above, so many of his songs just don't age - they are alive whenever you play them. Second, Dylan refused to allow these songs to become self parodies, refused to allow himself to become bored by them and so when he played them live he would reinvent them. This could be maddening if you fell in love with the recorded version and then heard him play a song live that had only the lyrics in common. Often he made you hear a new life in the song that was concealed in the original.

The third aspect of the newness of Dylan's music is the most important to me. That is his constant reinvention as an artist and public figure. No one ever owned Dylan, no one ever had his number. Look at this video - at the 4:40 mark you get a sense of this (Dylan was probably the least friendly and most entertaining interview subject in music). He was interested in becoming ("he not busy being born is busy dying") and not resting on some image that he had conjured or that others perceived. His themes, his style, his concerns, his influences, his forums for expression, all of these were changing constantly and still are.

This is powerful to me because I see it as a kind of spiritual striving (I'm not making claims about Dylan's spiritual life). We are challenged by Torah to reject faith in the idol of self, not to mistake the person we put out there for others to see with the truest being that no one else gets to see. And it is a Jewish struggle to constantly emerge and grow, and not be satisfied with what we have become already. There is always teshuvah to be made, always something new to become. In the yotzer prayer (recited every morning) we acknowledge God as the one who m'chadesh b'chol yom tamid ma'aseh bereishit, who renews the work of creation every day. That includes us. And in the second prayer of the Amidah we pray to God as m'chayei ha-metim, revives the dead, which I see as a prayer for ongoing spiritual life, an expression of fear of dying internally.

The Aish Kodesh taught that such ongoing renewal was an essential part of the Jewish spiritual struggle. If we don't do this, he writes (in Tzav v'Zeruz, #2), it is as if we are living in the body of a person who lived years ago, rather than living today. He interprets the phrase from Genesis 24:1 that Abraham was old, ba b'yamim, which is usually translated as "advanced in years" but very literally means "he came into his days" to mean that even in old age, Avraham was still becoming. This is the great life-affirming feature of Torah, that we are invested with a divine spark that has an eternally renewing power. So, for me, striving towards constant renewal and becoming, and avoiding the slow death of spiritual stagnation is essential to a life of mitzvah.

Pirkei Avot 5:25 says that at age seventy a person should achieve "fullness of years." That sounds a little too staid for Dylan, so my wish is that he keeps becoming Dylan in whatever way he needs to be.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Bob Dylan, and thank you.


  1. My zohar teacher at Hartman loves him (almost as much as you do) and when we did our סיום last night, we had Dylan in the background. Not sure if they did this when you were here, but yesterday a radio station in Jerusalem played Bob Dylan, non-stop, all day. It was awesome.

  2. Josh,
    I am so touched by the tone of your honoring of the great Bob's work.
    I urge you, if you do not have one, to get a turntable and listen to the vinyl.
    I will listen to Another Side today because of your fabulous article. L'chaim. Alan Berg

  3. Alan,

    I have Shot of Love, JWHarding, Bringing it all back home, and Street Legal on vinyl.

    one of the links I provide says that JWH has a picture of the Beatles upside down in the tree. I'm not sure if this is a put-on or not.

    Thanks for reading, l'chaim!