Q & A with Robert Spencer on Bob Dylan

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Robert Spencer’s bio at Jihad Watch states that he “has been studying Islamic theology, law, and history in depth since 1980.” Since September 11th, 2001, he has been one of a priceless few whose knowledge of and clear speaking to issues surrounding Islam, jihadism and terrorism has helped the rest of us catch up (although the catching up has been slow and is very much ongoing). In books like “The Truth About Muhammad,” and his current one, “Religion of Peace?,” Robert Spencer doesn’t indulge in his own wild theorizing but instead quotes and references established and influential Islamic sources, and deals in facts rather than wishes. Rabbi David G. Dalin says of “Religion of Peace?” that it “counters the moral equivalence arguments that excuse Islamic jihadists and attack Judeo-Christian civilization and the West.” I think it does do that, and in a succinct, fair and no-nonsense fashion. The jacket of this book says that Spencer “lives in a secure, undisclosed location,” and would that it were just a joke. He is one of a handful of notables who were named in a threatening al-Qaeda video message last September. For all this and more, I believe he deserves our admiration. And for his knowledge of and affection for the music of Bob Dylan, I think he will earn any fellow fan’s respect. The following Q&A was conducted via email.

Q: Do you remember when you first came to enjoy Dylan’s music, and what song or album hooked you?

SPENCER: When I went to college in 1979, I had only heard the Bob songs that made it to the radio now and again — Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Like A Rolling Stone, etc. But I was aware of Dylan, as he was still a major pop culture figure — everyone in my dorm had a copy of Street Legal, and many had the Budokan live album also. But when Slow Train Coming came out, all his fans were knocked back. I remember riding in a car somewhere with some friends, and Gotta Serve Somebody came on the radio. They started talking in tones of aggrieved puzzlement about this terrible thing that had “happened” to Dylan. Slow Train ComingI was intrigued, not because I had any particular interest in his spiritual journey at that time, but because it seemed so interesting that the very people who loved him for smashing other people’s sacred cows in the 1960s couldn’t stand it when he smashed their own in 1979. Slow Train Coming was the first Dylan album I owned, and it didn’t take long for me to be drawn into the strange, crowded but spacious little universe that is every Dylan album. The lyrics were entrancing — most people didn’t notice because they couldn’t get past the message, but I was captivated by the arresting unexpectedness, the sense of surprise that every great Dylan lyric possesses: “She can do the Georgia Crawl, she can walk in the spirit of the Lord.” I think this is the sort of thing Dylan really loves, and loves doing. I half-remember something I read once where he is talking about the strange, wonderful universe of folk songs, in which, he says, geraniums grow out of people’s skulls and such: an alive sense of possibility, of the fantasmagoria and weirdness within the ordinary — a sense which he himself is likewise masterful at creating.

I was hooked. Still, I hesitated over Saved for months, and finally bought it in a furtive, apologetic manner at the record store just off campus. I remember being far more nervous than I had any reason to be, and asking the guy who worked there, “What do you think of this record?” He said, “The music is great, but as for the lyrics, well, there’s no accounting for lunacy.” Later I came to suspect the lunacy in that case was not Dylan’s.

Q: Is there a particular song or album or “phase” of Dylan’s that now means the most to you, and can you elaborate on it?

SPENCER: I am still partial to the 1979-1983 period, which at least in the common view comprises a phase and a half: the Born-Again period and its aftermath. I think his songwriting was more disciplined than it was in the Sixties (which is of course the period that everyone thinks is superior to all others), more artful in many ways, and certainly more passionate. I think that in a just world Shot of Love and Infidels (especially Infidels) would have been double albums, comprising all the rejected songs later released on Biograph and The Bootleg Series. And if they had been, there would today be no doubt among the cognoscenti that they rank with his very best work. (Also, had they been more successful we might even have been spared the doldrums and ennui of the mid- to late-80s.) There is so much in these records, and so much of it is overlooked. No one, as far as I know, has ever noticed the three-chord figure in Solid Rock that starts in tension on “For me He was chastised, for me He was hated” and then rearranges itself to break into glorious sunlight on “But I’m hangin’ on/to a solid rock…” InfidelsThe odd skipping drumbeat of Jokerman, matching perfectly the disconnectedness and double-mindedness of the lyric. And of course his blistering performance of the same song on the Letterman show in 1984, while having little or nothing to do with the album track, is one of the most exhilarating performances by any modern performer.

Q: I think you’re right-on about the bad reception for Shot of Love and Infidels leading to a certain “ennui” on Bob’s part, and yet I’ve never heard anyone else make that observation. As much as he says he doesn’t read what the critics write, I think he’s quite sensitive to how people respond, like many real artists, and it disappointed him. Empire Burlesque seems on some level an attempt to give the marketplace of the mid-eighties something it could handle, although it sounds so odd and dated now.

SPENCER: Yes, he was clearly delighted with Shot of Love, and worked over Infidels more than most anything he’s ever worked on. I think he was quite disappointed by the tepid response to them, and that Empire Burlesque is a lame attempt to recover his commercial viability by becoming a cliche 80s rocker.

Also, I think he made the disastrous song choices on Infidels to remove all songs that mentioned God — disastrous choices, but probably he rightly figured that if he put it out with Foot of Pride and Blind Willie McTell, it would have been received as if it had been another “Methodist record,” and he was thinking that people weren’t hearing beyond that so he had to try a new tack.

Or, of course, maybe he was thinking something else altogether.

Q: Is there an experience of seeing Dylan in concert that has stuck in your memory and that you could share?

SPENCER: Well, I’ve seen him about 20 times going back to 1986, including a couple of weeks ago, and every time there is something. A friend got us front-row seats once in 1989, and up close his expressions were worth the whole price of admission, although all I remember now was the particularly venomous way he spat out “…to keep her from…the How-Ling WIND!” in Girl of the North Country. A couple of weeks ago the joyous, playful jam on The Levee’s Gonna Break made me think that even now, the old hand as stylist has not lost its cunning.

Q: Are there ways in which you think Dylan’s work meshes very well with your values and point-of-view, whether political or spiritual?

SPENCER: All kinds of ways. World Gone WrongHe is, I think, particularly adept at illustrating the vanity of human wishes, the insufficiency of human pleasures, and the brokenness of the world. These things are always useful to keep in mind. He assumes the transcendent and has no political illusions, although many if not most of those who follow him don’t seem to have noticed that. In my work I have found that both Democrats and Republicans are generally clueless about the actual nature and magnitude of the global jihad threat, and I don’t think that bipartisan cluelessness is anything Dylan would have trouble understanding. It is also worth noting, perhaps, that I was interrupted on September 11, 2001 by the news of the Twin Tower attacks just as I had started playing a Dylan album. The album? World Gone Wrong.

Q: I can see that being something you would never forget. I think that a lot of Dylan fans, when they got around to listening to “Love and Theft”, which of-course was released on 9/11/2001, heard things on it that seemed uncannily relevant to what had happened. Was there any of that for you?

SPENCER: Yes. “Well, I’m stranded in the city that never sleeps…I’m avoidin’ the Southside the best I can” — even mondegreens like “Osama wind is blowin’…” It was tempting to think that the man had some sort of premonition. But in those horrible days and weeks after 9/11, I was very depressed, because I had been studying Islam and jihad for a long time, and I knew that this was something that was in the offing, but for it to happen brought home vividly all sorts of thoughts about mortality, vulnerability, and willful self-delusion. “Love and Theft” during that time seemed to me to be a gorgeous evocation of what was good about America, what was worth preserving — with its evocations of earlier times, of family ties (even broken ones), its exploration of genres of American song. I think it’s unfortunate when Americans (and other Westerners) begin to speak about the value of their culture solely in terms of entertainers and entertainment, since there is so much more about America and the West that is valuable, but art (the value of which is denied by jihadists) is nourishing to the human spirit, and I don’t think any apology is necessary for seeing it as a vital part of the culture and civilization that is now so threatened and challenged — in many ways that are not even today clearly recognized. “Love and Theft” is a massive effort at preservation, at shoring fragments against the ruins, at gathering from the air a live tradition, an unconquered flame. I will always love it for that.

Q: Are you, or have you ever been, put off by the politics of some of Dylan’s work?

SPENCER: Well, songs that glorify thugs — George Jackson and Hurricane — are rather ghastly, but I think he has made it abundantly clear that he was so much older then, and is younger than that now. I am far more often put off by the forced liberal interpretations of some of his fans than I am by anything he says or sings. I remember when “Love and Theft” came out, some reviewer was claiming to have found in it some stirring rebuke of the (pre-9/11, pre-Iraq) Bush Administration. This arrant Webermanism is as fanciful as it is annoying.

Q: Dylan has had a thing for outlaws, I think, continuing in a tradition of that kind of balladry. Joey too, which is one he’s still willing to sing in concert. But, when you mention liberal interpretations of Dylan’s work, it brings another question to my mind: what critics and writers on Dylan have you most enjoyed reading, or garnered insights from?

SPENCER: I recently read Christopher Hitchens’ review of Christopher Ricks’ book, and thought it was marvelous, and more immediately rewarding than Ricks’ book itself, which is itself wonderful fun. In terms of real illumination of artistic debts and webs of cross-conversation, no one beats Michael Gray. But mostly I find reading about Dylan to be unsatisfying. Had I world enough and time, I would write about him myself, because that is the only sort of book that should ever be written: the one that one sees is missing, and needed, and can supply. Not that my insights are better than anyone else’s, and certainly not that they’re more “correct,” if there can be a “correct” in this area. They’re just mine.

Q: Did you read “Chronicles” and what did you think of it?

SPENCER: Yes. It was as wild and weird and wonderful as any of his albums. I share Ben Stein’s view that it is more fancy than straight memoir, but “lies” is, I think, a bit too strong. It is as accurate an account of certain episodes and periods in his life as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is of an actual court case in Maryland: the historical accuracy is not the point.

Q: Have you heard Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” show?

SPENCER: Yes, I love “Theme Time Radio Hour.” I think this show is what he was trying to do with Self Portrait and Down In the Groove, and in a different way with “Love and Theft” and Modern Times. Modern TimesIt manifests a deep love of tradition, and an interest in passing it on — deeply conservative impulses. I love American music and American culture, and in “Theme Time Radio Hour” Bob is keeping these things alive, and giving credit where credit is due. It is a wonderful thing.

Q: What would you say is the essence of Bob Dylan’s genius?

SPENCER: I don’t know. Why do you love your wife? What is the essence of your love? Here is a man with a terrible voice, yet he is a great singer. Here is a man who publishes rhymes as clunky as “I rode with him in a taxi once/Only for a mile and a half, seems like it took a couple of months” and yet he is a great poet. Here is a man whose inept guitar playing is legendary, and yet at the last concert I attended I was craning my neck during one song, I forget which, to see who was playing a blistering electric guitar solo — was it the guy with the fedora on the far left (Denny or Donny or whatever) or the guy with the fedora on the far right (Stu)? Of course, it was Bob himself. I should have known.