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January 12, 1990 - Image 28

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-01-12

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

CLOSE-UP

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Jewish kid who was loved by
his parents. But he couldn't
have that and have his folk-
rock existence at the same
time.
"Right now Bob is an Or-
thodox Jew, and devoutly so.
That [devotion]doesn't hit
you all of a sudden. That's
been inside of him."
Spitz didn't cover the re-
cent emergence of the Jew in
Dylan. He explains that at
the time of publication, the
singer was just beginning to
rediscover his religious past.
"I couldn't really evaluate it
until he had gone through
it," Spitz says.
Unlike his previous
transformations, Dylan has
kept this one mostly private.
He has recorded 14 albums
for the Chabad Chasidic
sect, and has appeared on
Chabad telethons in New
York, most recently in Oc-
tober.
"Is he no longer a fun-
damentalist Christian?"
Spitz says. "I don't know. Is
he only an Orthodox Jew?
Again, I don't know. I think
what Bob Dylan does with
his religion is what he has
done with his career. He
tries to get as much as he
can out of something. And
then he'll turn a right corner
and try to get something
from something else."
Dylan's Jewish identity
was one topic left virtually
untouched by previous
biographies. In Dylan, Spitz
treads other new ground, at-
tempting to dispel some
long-held "truths" about the
singer:

Dylan's 1966
Motorcycle Accident
Never Happened

The traditional Dylan
canon contains a story of a
near-fatal accident that
broke Dylan's neck and sent
him to a quiet retreat in
Woodstock, N.Y. for a year's
recuperation.
"It never happened," Spitz
says. "I know all the people
who knew Dylan at the time.
He was never taken to a
hospital. There is no record
that he was ever taken to
emergency.
"What we do know about
him was at that point in his
life he was out of control. He
was taking handfuls of
drugs. And I think Bob made
a very courageous decision:
He decided to live."
Rock stars were self-
destructing with stunning
regularity in the late 1960s
and early 1970s. Rolling
Stones guitarist Brian

28

I

FRIDAY, JANUARY 12, 1990

Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis
Joplin and Jim Morrison of
the Doors are the most
famous casualties of rock-
and-roll excess.
Spitz credits Dylan's wife
Sara and manager Albert
Grossman for pulling the
singer out of a spiral toward
oblivion. Dylan had to get
out of the public eye, escape
crushing tour plans and
postpone film and book con-
tracts. Reneging on these
commitments would have
ended his career. And so the
motorcycle accident was
added to the Dylan legend.
"People saw him two days
later wearing a neck brace,"
Spitz says. "But he was
editing a film; he was
writing music; he was driv-
ing a car. Bob was not near
death. He was getting it
together."

Dylan's Voice On
"Lay Lady Lay" Is The Closest
He's Come On Record To
His Natural Voice

With the release of
Nashville Skyline in 1969,
Dylan's scratchy, nasal voice
was replaced mysteriously
by a rich, syrupy twang. Was
this transformation, this
unblushing affectation,
Dylan's ultimate act of
chutzpa? Could a singer
totally change his voice and
be taken seriously?
People got it backwards,
Spitz says. Dylan actually
cultivated that sound once
described as a prairie dog
caught on a barb-wire fence.
Before Dylan left Minnesota,
his voice most closely
resembled his later country
albums.
"I have tapes of it," Spitz
says. "You'd never know it
was Dylan. There's a lot of
resonance. It's mellifluous."
So why that other voice
that turned off half a ge-
neration? "It was image. He
needed something to get
everyone's attention," Spitz
says.
What listeners have come
to know as Dylan's nor-
mative voice was born in
1960. "Bob's in Denver with
the Smothers Brothers. And
he's got nothing. He realizes
that not only is he not going
to take Denver by storm, but
no one is listening to him.
He needed a gimmick.
"And so he became that
little hobo with that Woody
Guthrie kind of voice. And
we're lucky because it's ac-
tually one of the great sing-
ing voices of all time."
• "Try to find the melody,
Bob," one comedian said of

Dylan's eccentric singing.
His guitar and harmonica
playing have long come
under criticism. But Spitz
says in the world of musi-
cians, Dylan is highly
respected.
Music is Dylan's life, Spitz
says. He thrives on the Gyp-
sy existence of tours and all-
night jam sessions. "People
say Dylan has one of the best
ears they've ever en-
countered."
A variety of influences
went into the mix that
transformed Bobby Zim-
merman into Bob Dylan.
Dylan got his love of rock
and roll from Little Richard.
He borrowed his attitude of
anger and confusion from
James Dean. From Woody
Guthrie, Spitz writes, Dylan
discovered "the potential to
combine words, music, per-
sona and emotion."
But Dylan's first influence
was country musician Hank
Williams. Spitz says Dylan
sharpened his ear by
memorizing Williams songs
he heard on the radio as a
teen-ager. In New York,
Dylan added to his mastery
by devouring his friends'
folk music collections until
his knowledge became en-
cyclopedic.
Spitz tells a story of an all-
night walk Dylan took in
Chicago in 1975 with bass
player Rob Stoner. "Rob told
me he would throw songs at
Dylan — obscure songs —
and Dylan not only knew
them and their tunes, but he
knew the words backwards
and forwards.
"If Bob didn't graduate
from college, he certainly
had a Ph.D. in folk music."

Dylan's JDL Connection
Was Guilt By Association

In the early 1970s, Dylan
was shown in photographs at
the Western Wall in
Jerusalem. Rumors abound-
ed that he was planning to
make aliyah and was mak-
ing large contributions to
Rabbi Meir Kahane's Jewish
Defense League.
Dylan's JDL connection
was guilt by association,
Spitz says.
"Dylan had made a con-
tribution to an organization,
not realizing at the time it
was the JDL. So was Dylan
active in the JDL? No. Was
he a Zionist at the time? I
would say devoutly so. The
media really jumped on it."
Years earlier, Kahane had
been singer Arlo Guthrie's
neighborhood rabbi in Far
Rockaway, N.Y., Spitz

writes. That's as close as
[Dylan and Kahane's]
association had come."

S

pitz eagerly sought
the opportunity to
chronicle Dylan's life.
And despite his criticism of
Dylan, he holds the musi-
cian's work in high esteem.
"The book was like my
fundamentalism," he says,
referring to Dylan's time of
troubles that led the singer
to Christianity.
"It was a very low period
in my life. I had just been
divorced. I did a screenplay
and the deal fell apart at the
last -minute. It was a real
time of transition for me.
Somebody said, 'If you had
two or three years just to
work on one subject you
were passionately in love
with, what would it be?' I
said, 'Dylan,' and he said,
`Go ahead.' Lucky me."
"I wanted to do something
significant," he continues.
"This was the mid-'80s and I
felt my generation, the '60s
generation, had gone to
sleep. We had lost a lot of our
ideals. For me, Dylan was
the wellspring of those
ideals. The book was a way
to go back."
After 4 1/2 years' work on
the book, Spitz still was able
to discover new things in
Dylan's songs and singing.

"He was the most important
cultural figure of my genera-
tion," Spitz says.
The most important and
the most inscrutable.
On his 1970 Self Portrait
album, Dylan performs a
live version of "Like A Roll-
ing Stone." It was during his
Nashville Skyline period,
and he began the song in the
mellifluous and syrupy voice
he was using at the time. By
the song's end, however, his
voice unselfconsciously had
returned to its harsh urgen-
cy. Similarly, Dylan has
seemed to bare all many
times, without illuminating
the man behind the show-
business character.
"One thing about Bob is he
doesn't feel he has to hide
very much," Spitz says.
"And yet he hides every-
thing." ❑


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