Seth Rogovoy Sees Dylan’s Jewish Spirit Blowin’ in the Wind
It’s not hyperbole to say that Seth Rogovoy considers listening to—and performing—the music of Bob Dylan a spiritual experience. Rogovoy, the editor in chief of Berkshire Living who was the rock critic for the Berkshire Eagle for nearly two decades, has been a die-hard Dylan fan since he was a teenager in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when Rogovoy commenced a decade of studying and practicing Judaism in an intensive manner, that he realized that his musical idol had based more than a few of his poetic and prophetic lyrics on Biblical stories and Jewish liturgy, which helped Rogovoy understand why Dylan had always touched his soul in such a profound way. “The rich surprise that awaited me when turning my attention in midlife toward the rich trove of Jewish texts was that there was significant overlap between the Torah of Dylan and the Torah of Moses,” writes Rogovoy in Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (Scribner, $26), which was officially published last week. “This wasn’t an echo of previous learning of Jewish texts—of that I had next to none. For me, the texts that I had memorized as a schoolboy—the words that I could access almost immediately in much the same manner that a yeshiva graduate can quote nearly any chapter and verse from the Torah—were the lyrics of Bob Dylan, which I began studying at age 14 in 1974 and have continued to study with a regularity bordering on obsession ever since.”
So what did Rogovoy listen to as a child of the 1960s before discovering Dylan? “I was into Cat Stevens, John Denver, and Seals & Crofts,” says Rogovoy (right.) There was one Dylan album in his mother’s house—Bringing It All Back Home—and he didn’t like it. On a whim, he bought Dylan’s Planet Waves when it was released in 1974, and he loved it. “I would sing and play along with it on my guitar,” he recalls. “It was a fantastic time to discover Dylan. The live album with The Band came out and so did The Basement Tapes and the Rolling Thunder Revue. I was living Dylan in real time, while going back to 1962 to discover what I had missed. By the time I was 17, I was fully up to date.”
Rogovoy, who estimates he’s seen Dylan perform 75 times, still plays Dylan on his guitar. For the past five years, he performed an annual Dylan tribute concert to honor his idol’s birthday at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, which recently closed but will rise again soon in Hudson. (He says he may bring his guitar to his book signings, and he’ll play when he presents a free, hour-long multimedia presentation of his book at the Mahaiwe on December 12.)
When he talks about Dylan and the Jewish thread that runs through his music, Rogovoy’s eyes begin to sparkle. He loves sharing tidbits that bolster his case like the fact that “Ram’s Horn Music” was the name Dylan chose for the publisher of the songs on Planet Wave. “It’s a reference to the shofar, of course,” says Rogovoy. “If you think of what the shofar does, it’s a call to repentance. The prophets called on people to repent.” He points out that the song “Forever Young” is a variation on a traditional Friday night prayer that an observant father makes for his children. “May God bless and keep you always,” Dylan sings just as Jewish fathers say, “May God bless you and protect you.” Rogovoy allows that he is not the first writer to make many of these connections. “But I think I am the first person to put them into narrative history of Dylan’s career,” he says.
You don’t have to be Jewish to be fascinated by Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, but you need to believe, as Rogovoy assuredly does, “that Bob Dylan is one of the few rock music artists whose records are worthy of intellectual examination.”
ON THE ROAD WITH ROGOVOY
Signings & Performances in the Berkshires
December 3 @ 6 p.m.
Book signing at Water Street Books, Williamstown
December 4 @ 7 p.m.
Book signing at The Bookloft, Great Barrington
December 8 @ 5 p.m.
Book signing at The Bookstore, Lenox
December 12 @ 3 p.m.
Free multimedia presentation at The Mahaiwe, Great Barrington
December 15 @ 6 p.m.
Book signing at Chapters Bookstore, Pittsfield