Just Like William Blake’s Blues: Gnosticism in Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways

The last time I saw Bob Dylan perform was the last time anyone did—at the Beacon Theatre in December of 2019. The apocalyptically-themed setlist’s highlight was Can’t Wait, Dylan selling the lyric of “It’s a-mighty funny…[very long pause]…the end of time has a-just begun” with all the showmanship of the wrestler Gorgeous George, the dandy heel who in the mid-1950s looked straight at Bob in the Hibbing Veterans Memorial Building with a wink that said, “You’re making it come alive.”

Gorgeous George with his wife and valet Betty.

Philip K. Dick believed the Roman Empire never ended; I feel similarly about Dylan’s gospel period. He never stopped preaching the word of God. He decided to couch it in rougher and rowdier language: extreme violence and sexual innuendo as the sugar that makes the soteriological-eschatological medicine go down. Since 1989’s Oh Mercy, those with ears to hear knew the End Times preacher hadn’t vacated the pulpit, while secular audiences appreciated a carnival barker conjuring religious claptrap as but one facet of the The Old, Weird America.

Exemplary of these smutty homilies, the literal profane alternating lyric by lyric with the literal sacred, play Narrow Way from 2012’s Tempest.

I got a heavy-stacked woman
With a smile on her face
And she has crowned my soul with grace.

While wry double entendres such as “Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye, good luck/I can’t play the record ’cause my needle got stuck” abound on Rough and Rowdy Ways, something more is happening here. Front and centre is the depth of Dylan’s intimate connection to “the immortal spirit,” conveyed through both the direct language of religious experience and a Bloomean gnosis that perceives the divine in the works of Shakespeare, William Blake, and Walt Whitman, or in Bob Dylan’s case: in Freddy Krueger and Stevie Knicks.

Play Harold Bloom’s Omens of Millenium as analogy to the contemporary American gnosis Bob Dylan evokes on his new album:

How are we to understand the continuities, frequently apparent and sometimes real, between Gnosis and the everyday? Do people, in the shadow of the Millennium, confront archetypal images that somehow have an independent existence, or do they re-enact (and literalize) sacred patterns now reduced to fashions? Do they copy one another or turn within to copy something that is already themselves, the best and oldest elements in their selves?

My Own Version of You has been predominantly reviewed as black-humoured Frankenstein schtick. On first blush it does have a murder ballad-y tenor such as Man in the Long Black Coat or Ain’t Talkin’, but then come the lyrics:

You got the right spirit/you can feel it you can hear it/ you got what they call the immortal spirit/you can feel it all night/you can feel it in the morn/it creeps in your body the day you are born

Play Cross the Rubicon:

I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives/I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives

Play the 150 – 210 CE Arab gnostic Monoimus:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and say, ‘My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.’ Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate…If you carefully investigate these matters, you will find him in yourself.

Asked to define his spiritual position Bob Dylan once remarked, “I believe in Hank Williams singing I Saw the Light. I’ve seen the light too.” In this 70-minute double album he presents a Homeric playlist of that light incarnated as motion picture, musician, and military general. Play Mother of Muses.

Sing of Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott
And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved the path for Martin Luther King
Who did what they did and they went on their way
Man, I could tell their stories all day

The gravity of this particular Odyssey is unnerving, as though Bob Dylan isn’t wholly-certain posterity will remember The Rolling Stones and Indiana Jones and Anne Frank if he doesn’t write down their names. It’s equally inspiring, as St. James Infirmary and John Lee Hooker and It Happened One Night are established as everyday “sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate,” as everyday sources of knowing. This back catalog wades the waters of the sociological sacred and profane. Play Émile Durkheim:

A society whose members are united by the fact that they think in the same way in regard to the sacred world and its relations with the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas into common practices, is what is called a Church. In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church.

Bob Dylan preached of that Old Rugged Cross “all through the summers and into January,” and continues to. He’s not saying you can’t hear and feel the immortal spirit in religious tradition. He still believes “old time religion” can be just what we need. Nothing bothers him about “a straightforward puritanical tone” and “thump[ing] on the bible and proclaim[ing] the creed.” Yet with Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan follows Emerson away from the pews, “I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air.” The listener is invited to emerge from the profane time of a Covid epidemic and looming societal collapse to know Nat King Cole, know the Nature Boy. Know That Old Devil Moon and Memphis in June. Know Twilight Time as the spark of the divine: something we whistle, something someone wrote, something from within.

Nearly 70 years after encountering Gorgeous George, Dylan continues to make it come alive as he proselytizes that “Love Me or Leave Me by the great Bud Powell” can be our church. Jelly Roll Morton can be our church. Perhaps a bit of a stretch, even Don Henley can be our church. Houdini and all the heights of human ingenuity can be our church. Brando and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd make evident that movies are no secular religion; movies are the light that creaturely freedom gives. The blues “crept in [our body] the day we [were] born.” Beethoven’s sonatas are within the reach of every man who lives.

Amidst these “nymphs of the forest,” amidst all this “honor and faith” Dylan concludes his masterpiece with a 17-minute reminder that “the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun,” meaning throughout the “long strange trip of the naked ape” man will “pile on the pain” from which “only dead men are free.” Yet the predominant message remains optimistic of salvation. He reminds us that, “It’s darkest before the dawn.” He reminds us to walk the Narrow Way, to “be gentle brother, be gentle and pray.”

7 thoughts on “Just Like William Blake’s Blues: Gnosticism in Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways

  1. I appreciate you touching on this. It’s the first thing I heard but I’m a bit of a practicing gnostic myself. For most of the album beginning to end minus the love song it seems to me that, on the first two songs it’s like an introduction. Both songs describe a totem who in an intelligence of freedom and who is here to right accounts. My Own Version of You is about him weaving songs to evoke an intelligence that will go to battle with that which entrapts the spirit. There are a few identifications with Julius Caeser on it, but the enemy he seems to be declaring battle on, is more articulated in the last song on the album where he uses songs as spells indicating they were the expression of the spirit once the young king full of potential was killed. Crossing the Rubicon is a Caeser reference. The Trojan slaves. The album is like a curse in a way. A sigil. An evocation. Quite literally. Thanks for writing!

    • Wow, I like that interpretation. Bob…man. “What do you feel like listening to, some Gucci Mane?” Me: “Nah, what about a curse, a sigil, an evocation to battle that which entraps the spirit?”

      • Oddly enough I believe Gucci Mane is doing alchemy as well. Listen to “5 million intro” and consider the body of light. Or the true life redemption and creation of a practical morality as Gucci’s story points. Check out “Work in Progress” and his autobiography. But then again, it’d be just like a gnostic to make such a claim. Lol

      • One of my favorite gnostic examples in rap these days is “Father of Four” by Offset. Check out the cover and the lyrics of the first few songs. But… Especially Kendrick Lamar. His “Damn” album talks about YHVH. That album and “Blackstar” woke me up in that way

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