Bargainin’ For Salvation Bob Dylan, A Zen Master?


Bargainin’ For Salvation –

Bob Dylan, A Zen Master?

By Steven Heine

Continuum – £9.99

A reviewer in 1965 says of his change, ‘’Dylan used to sing like a lung cancer victim singing Woody Guthrie. Now he sounds like a Rolling Stone singing Immanuel Kant.’’ Allen Ginsberg speaks of Dylan putting philosophy in a jukebox, and another commentator refers to him acting like ‘’Rimbaud with a Rickenbacker.’’

So states Steven Heine in Chapter Six ‘From Protesting to Detesting’ of Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, a Zen Master?

Colourful, cryptic and perhaps a more than controversial consideration of an artist at the peak of his career; said words are a mere tiny tip of an enormous literary analysis. More academic and dense than an evening with Samuel Beckett discussing the subliminal components of Ulysses (cheers up kids, only another one hundred and thirty seven and a half bad moods to go…), this book is a concentrated dissertation of the highest order.

Writing of an artist whose acute ‘’authenticity […] is equivalent to individuality,’’ Heine investigates the majestic mystery and mastery of Bob Dylan’s incredible corpus – in a manner that is simply commendable and in parts, compellingly original.

By thoroughly examining the degree to which Bob Dylan’s consistently complex array of works have fundamentally veered between two distinct worldviews – that of Christianity and Zen Buddhism – the author sheds much new and important light upon the perception and understanding of the Dylan songbook.

As such, one can delve into any section of this book at random, and not only read something new and enlightening, but come away with an altogether glowing and inspired perspective.

For instance, the title Bargainin’ For Salvation is a line taken from the song ‘Shelter From The Storm’ – a song upon which Heine clearly places an abundance of veritable value: ‘’The song deals with Dylan’s relation to his lady, who once ‘’took [his] crown of thorns,’’ thus relieving great struggles and hardships while offering joyful consolation. But, eventually, he tragically alienated her. Now that she is lost to him and he is walking on ‘’a razor’s edge,’’ and is unable to retrieve the time ‘’when God and her were born,’’ he longs for, yet experiences insurmountable difficulty, in becoming free from anguish and sorrow in order to gain redemption;

In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes

I bargained for salvation an’ she gave me a lethal dose

I offered up my innocence, got repaid with scorn

‘’Come in,’’ she said, ‘’I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.’’

Such idiosyncratic investigation promotes the song unto another level of thought; for upon philosophical interjection, Heine nigh manages to turn ‘Shelter From The Storm’ into that of a stage play. But, not before having woven a deep deconstruction into the final analysis: Dylan’s ongoing process of spiritual seeking has been pursued either through introspective self-discovery and self-reliance or via reverence and respect for a salvific power accompanied by eschatological anticipation. Despite his profound desire for salvation, both of these paths have generally resulted in doubt and confusion, or mistrust and disappointment. According to ‘Shelter from The Storm,’ Dylan received a Christ-like self-sacrificing treatment in that he was given a ‘’lethal dose’’ of salvation while suffering scorn in exchange for his innocence.’’

And herein the author writes of just one song!

For Dylan fans everywhere, I’d consider placing this book up there with the likes of Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan and Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads – even if it is a little dense.

David Marx

10 responses to “Bargainin’ For Salvation Bob Dylan, A Zen Master?

  1. jackie hayden

    It’s not true to say that Dylan “veered between two distinct worldviews – that of Christianity and Zen Buddhism –”. As recent writings have emphasised, Dyaln’s work has been hugely influenced by Judaism.

    • Hi Jackie, thank you for your (very valid) comment. As Dylan is himself a Jew, and clearly already influenced by Judaism; THIS book essentially considers two other religious worldviews that have had a profound influence on his work: that of Christianity and that of Zen Buddhism. But yes I agree, Dylan has been hugely influenced by Judaism, particularly since the mid-eighties.

  2. I appreciate Heine’s book so much. So often I hear or read someone say “What’s so great about Dylan? Why the hero worship?”

    Well, I don’t worship Dylan, but the depth of his lyrics and the “veering” of his spiritual journey are what I like most. Too bad Heine didn’t write this AFTER Dylan’s Christmas album!!! That would be an entire chapter unto itself!!

    • Thanks for your comment Rick.
      Yeah, I’m kinda curious to know how it might have been had Heine’s book came out after the infamous Christmas album – quite who would have veered where, is anyone’s guess!
      Very groovy book though…

  3. Ha, ha, I agree with what you said Rick, especialy about the christmas album ! I am sure it blew a lot of minds, and really if people actually read Bob’s lyrics they might eventually ” get it “

  4. Fing is (of late especially), getting people past yer man’s voice…

  5. Old School Patriot

    Good review. I’ll point out that the book does refer to the Jewish aspect, as well as the Beat/ Blues element of Dylan’s spirituality. I would add that Heine defines the 2 worldviews not so much as Christian vs. Zen, but more in terms of the dialectic between moral certainty and introspective questioning. [The former more as Christian, the latter more Zen.]
    Finally, while one can never be certain with Mr. D., I do have some reason to suspect that the Christmas album may at least in part have been a response to this book. Never one to be pigeon-holed, what better way for Dylan to blow up Heine’s claimed synthesis of questioning and moralism than to put out a Christmas album! [Especially with the sinister “Here comes Santa Claus”!]

  6. Hi Old School Patriot; thanks for your thoughts and I’m pleased you like the review.
    I think you’ve nailed Heine’s book perfectly; it is indeed a dissertation of sorts, which on the one hand, is a dialectic in relation to Dylan’s work (especially that which questions), and on the other, a reasoning/struggle betwixt the ideology of third party Christianity, internal Judaism, and of course, his somewhat considered, embracing of Zen.
    That said, I’m sure yer man is enjoying all this ‘serious’ debate! Who, in relation to their work, wouldn’t?
    As for the Christmas album, I couldn’t agree more. Definitely throws a tempestuous pigeon into the meliorisitc moralism of Heine’s hotly contested debate…

  7. Old School Patriot

    Thanks for your response. And yes I did enjoy your review, e.g. “the subliminal aspects of Ulysses.”
    But now I hear Dylan is touring Japan for a couple of weeks, with stops in Seoul and possibly Taipei – the first concert is actually tomorrow night – so maybe now Dylan’s “going Zen” to balance out the Christmas album?? The dude is certainly hard to pin down.

  8. Hello again,
    Yep, tis indeed hard to pin Dylan down, and I suspect that’s just one of the many reasons we like him so much (for want of a groovier term). Going Zen eh? Is there no stopping the man… Clearly not. Or should I say, let’s hope not!
    Hey, I’m pleased you liked ‘the subliminal aspects of Ulysses,’ even my partner didn’t get that one!
    Out of interest, how did you come across my review (was it through a Dylan site?).
    By the way, I’ve two other Dylan book reviews on here: The Cambridge Companion to BD and Revolution In The Air – both in the music category.
    So you going to see him soon?

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