Dylan, Depression and Faith

And there’s another new book out on Bob Dylan. Story from the Christian Post is titled “Bob Dylan Lyrics Reveal Depression, Time Out of Mind”:

The author of a new book exploring Bob Dylan’s faith, as revealed in many of his lyrics, claims that the famed performer had a previously undisclosed depression period after his divorce with his Gospel singer wife.

Dr. Adam Bradford, who is a family doctor and Biblical historian in the London area, said this revelation came to him after looking at the lyrics from Dylan’s 1997 album “Time Out of Mind.” The book, Out of the Dark Woods – Dylan, Depression and Faith, was released Tuesday.

Although he came just short of giving a clinical diagnosis of depression, Bradford told The Christian Post that his “medical finding” was the result of discovering that the album’s lyrics were “literally loaded with the strong language of depressive illness – symptoms of depression.”

Bradford said it was this depression that caused Dylan’s “creative lapse” between 1990 and 2001, in which the singer released only one album (“Time Out of Mind”) containing his own original material.

Well, it may well be that there’s lots that’s laudable in Dr. Bradford’s book regarding faith-related issues (he identifies himself as a “Jewish-Christian” and says that he sees the same kind of faith in Dylan’s work, which matches what many others perceive, including Yours Truly). However this stuff on Dylan’s alleged depression, with clinical language being employed, needs to be called what it is: completely speculative. Bradford is not Bob Dylan’s psychiatrist, and didn’t talk to Dylan for the book. I think, as a matter of fundamental scientific method, it is—if you’ll pardon the expression—completely bonkers to put clinical labels on someone based on their use of language in a poetic context. The songs on Time Out of Mind are just that: songs, and not bland statements by Dylan about himself meant to be taken at literal face value.

His other supposedly supporting fact for his diagnosis is the long gap between Under The Red Sky and Time Out of Mind, when Dylan didn’t release any albums of original material. Well … how many albums of original material did Dr. Bradford release during that time? Was he depressed too? He would likely say, “That’s not the point; the point is that this was Dylan’s usual form of work and he failed to engage in it for an unusually long time.” However, it amounts to pretty thin gruel, if you ask me, because during that same time period Bob Dylan kept up a rigorous schedule of touring. Each tour featured new arrangements of old songs, and both I and many others who either saw him on those tours or have collected bootlegs can attest that there was an awful lot of creativity taking place. Some shows were surely better than others (and we’ve all heard the stories of Dylan drinking too much at times) but a depressed person keeping up that level of activity, with that level of energy, is the kind of depressed person I’d like to be.

In addition, Dylan released two albums which were not original material, but were his own quite intense solo acoustic performances of a variety of old and/or traditional songs. That would be Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. A quite vast amount of writing has been done, from Michael Gray to Sean Wilentz and beyond, on how interesting and brilliant these performances are. But however you slice it, it’s not the kind of hopelessness and inertia we associate with the clinically depressed. Dylan has certainly admitted that he felt he got creatively somewhat lost in the 1980s, and he seems to see his break from releasing original material in the mid-1990s as a chance to reset himself, and wait until he had a set of songs that he felt were truly solid and worth recording.

I can easily believe that Dylan was going through some hard times during this period, as we all do a lot of the time, but the labels and the speculations about the nature of his divorce from Carolyn Dennis are, as far as I can see, without firm foundation, although they certainly have helped garner a clutch of news stories.

I’m also a little surprised, given the author’s reported focus on Dylan’s faith, that he seems to hear Time Out of Mind largely as being inspired by the divorce. Many who treasure the themes of faith in Dylan’s music have heard it instead similarly to how it is interpreted in Veronica Keohane’s essay, “Time Out of Mind with New Eyes.” That is, as a meditation both on the singer’s feeling of distance from God and on his yearning to be closer. And don’t forget the album also has quite a bit of humor in the epic song “Highlands,” and great comfort in the song “Make You Feel My Love.”

I guess it’s natural for a doctor to seek to diagnose. Maybe a surgeon could listen to Dylan during the 1990’s and detect a tumor that needs removal. Perhaps an orthopedist would notice the creaking bones. But this listener doesn’t really buy it, and I don’t feel that my listening pleasure would be enhanced by reading a detailed interpretation of Time Out of Mind, or any album, along clinical lines.