Review: About Man & God & Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan

NB: I received a review copy of this book from the author, Stephen Daniel Arnoff, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the review copy!

Not long ago, I wrote a new intro to my blog explaining what classic rock means to me and throughout the seven years of this blog’s existence I’ve shown many sides of classic rock. Some pretentious people may look down upon art that has a lot of working class fans, and rock and roll is one of those art forms. Teachers, especially more old school ones, might groan at the idea of you doing a school project or writing an essay on classic rock. It’s much more accessible than poetry and can be enjoyed in bite size amounts, unlike long novels. It was everywhere when it was the dominant genre in popular music so it wasn’t hard to find and not intimidating to get into. The truth is that there’s a lot you can learn from classic rock and it truly is intellectual and philosophical. Philosophy is something that kinda goes over my head, above my pay grade, but I do know that you can find philosophy books all about popular culture and so this brings me to the book I’m reviewing.

The title of the book comes from a line in Bob Dylan’s anti-capitalist song “Maggie’s Farm”. It goes:

“I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law”

Jerusalem based podcaster Stephen Arnoff writes all about the philosophy of Bob Dylan. Now in the title, you might worry oh no this is all about religion. Yeah, that’s what I worried about too, admittedly. I’m a proud atheist, and have been one since the age of 10 so the last thing I want to think about is religion, because frankly it doesn’t make sense to me. But I always make sure to keep an open mind and listen to what the author has to say and in this book, Stephen analyses Bob Dylan’s lyrics like they’re a religious text and share what there is to learn from them and what they mean and he takes a universal approach in talking about spirituality in Dylan’s music. The first two chapters of the book serve as an introduction and talk about the alternatives to salvation people go on with a bit of history of rock and roll and connection Bob Dylan to influential figures of the past and explaining the parallels between rock and roll and religion – the cliche is right, “history repeats itself”. While religion isn’t my bag, at the end of the day, people aren’t that different after all and what gives me and many other people meaning in life, community, and identity is rock and roll. Similarly, people get meaning from life, community, and identity from religion. Religion has services, holidays, and pilgrimages, and so does classic rock. Every classic rock fan looks forward to concerts, album releases, and the dream is following in your favourites’ footsteps: whether it’s walking across the Abbey Road Zebra Crossing, walking down Carnaby street, having a drink at the Clissold Arms, going to Liverpool, going to Brighton to feel like a Mod in Quadrophenia, wandering around Greenwich Village, going to Haight-Ashbury, you name it! These are religious experiences in a way. When I got into classic rock as a teenager, it was like a whole new self-discovery and I found true friends and my purpose: preserving and telling the stories of classic rock and talking all about the history of it in a fun and approachable way that younger generations and older generations alike will enjoy. The rule of three is always a smart way of organising a book and there are sections dedicated to exploring the three things mentioned in “Maggie’s Farm”: Man, God, and Law; but there are sections exploring different aspects of Man, God, and Law and what those all mean. What do those things mean? What came before Bob Dylan and shaped his sound? Finally, the last chapter talks about a post-Dylan, After Dylan, world – where does pop music go from there? What will future generations glean from his music? What’s his legacy? Buckle up because popular music history goes back further than you think. In this book, you’ll be reading about how Ancient Greece, the Bible, troubadours of the middle ages, Shakespeare, The Enlightenment, Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, and even The Beatles influenced Dylan and in turn how Dylan influenced popular music as a whole. Themes in Bob Dylan’s music like love, emotions, the self, tradition, art, literature, history, finding your roots and learning from the past, death, transfiguration, are explored and the conclusion is that his thinking is progressive and no matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter what you look like, or where you come from, there’s something relatable about his music – it’s for all to enjoy. Makes me think of what the father in Blinded By The Light said, Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics, ideas, and values aren’t that different from our [Pakistani] culture after all.

I particularly found it interesting seeing the author talk about how a song has a whole different meaning when it’s sung by someone of a different gender. Don’t dismiss covers because there’s an art in interpreting the song and rearranging it and giving it your own flavour. And sometimes when you cover a song, it becomes your song, like Aretha Franklin when she sang “Respect”, originally written and performed by Otis Redding.

The 60s were a time of change and I’d say one of the most dynamic decades, and a time of individuality and uniqueness, throwing away the conformity and collectiveness of the past. The early 60s were a different world than the late 60s: whether it was fashion, music, culture, politics, or technology. The youth, especially the rock and roll fans, were eschewing religion and at least finding it didn’t play as a big a role in their lives, but they were finding new “religious experiences” and a lot of them were mass media. For music loving boomers it was a rite of passage and a distinct memory seeing The Beatles on TV for the first time, buying your first rock and roll record, who was the first rock star you idolised. While rock and roll doesn’t look religious on the surface, when you read into the history of rock and roll, you’ll see a common pattern in the pioneers, especially the black southern pioneers of rock and roll. Most of them had a church background and started singing there and they took some elements of church music, such as the call and response or the shouting and shaking. These rock songs became the soundtracks for people’s lives and they touched people’s lives to the extent that we mourn the losses of people that we never met and don’t even know our existence. Similar to religious texts, there’s myth making and carefully curated and crafted personas and backstories behind the musicians, and that’s part of the marketing of rock and roll.

Bob Dylan was at the centre of the 60s music scene, one of the biggest names and arguably one of the most covered. Even if you haven’t heard his songs as sung by him, you’ve certainly heard Jimi Hendrix, Cher, The Byrds, Manfred Mann, among other musicians cover him. Bob Dylan is a true artist and keeps making new music, touring, and innovating, and he’s stayed relevant. His lyrics make you think and there’s a lot of mystery and that’s what makes people come back to his music. His achievements are really mind-blowing. You mean he released Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in 15 months? He has won multiple Grammys, an Oscar, Golden Globe, Pulitzer, and the Nobel Prize for Literature? Say what? Let that sink in! So it’s clear that Bob Dylan has gone from groundbreaking revolutionary in the 60s to well loved by the cultural establishment. The Times They Are A-Changin’ indeed!

Overall, it’s a more academic book for the thinking classic rock fan. While it’s not a long book, it’s definitely chock full of information and it’s a heavier read. If you’re a millennial or zoomer, there might be some things and names you aren’t familiar with so keep Google, or your preferred search engine, handy! For those who haven’t taken a philosophy class or any advanced literature classes (I’m one of them), you’ll also want to brush up on some terms. You’ll definitely learn something and there’s a lot of wisdom in this book about all sorts of topics and so I think there’s a bit of something for everyone: secular, spiritual, religious, young, old, doesn’t matter. Art is for all to enjoy. I would definitely say it’s a good companion to Jim Curtis’s Decoding Dylan. And if you’re reading this, consider yourself lucky that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and you were on the planet at the same time as Bob Dylan, a once in a lifetime talent.

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