Jon Stewart. Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 238pp.
REVIEW BY Barry J. Faulk, Florida State University
Don’t let the eye-catching title mislead you: Jon Stewart’s new book is a dual biography of John Lennon and Bob Dylan that focuses on the evolving views of these two towering figures in pop music on politics and religion. Marx and God frequently appear but largely in supporting roles. That said, the book fully lives up to its ambitious title in its expansive scope, ranging over topics from 1960s protest music to cognitive science. You might expect a book on Dylan and Lennon to dive deeply into the cultural history of the 1960s, in particular the radical counterculture politics that played such an important role in how rock music was received at the time. Stewart’s book is informative on the contemporaneous cultural contexts that shaped Lennon and Dylan, but he also goes to great lengths to provide a 19th century backstory for their ideas about politics, religion, and history itself.
Stewart holds himself to a rigorous standard of criticism, applying three different methodological approaches to Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God. Stewart draws on R. Serge Denisoff’s sociological analysis of the 1960s protest song to frame his study of Dylan and Lennon’s contributions to the genre; he appropriates literary critic Fredric Jameson’s Marxist cultural hermeneutic to interpret how Dylan and Lennon conceived of history, especially national history, and how their music interacted within industrial and post-industrial modes of production; and finally, he applies the recent findings of evolutionary psychologists J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer to definitively explain (or explain away) Dylan’s and Lennon’s ideas about God and religion. While Stewart’s intellectual ambition is to be applauded, the book’s multiple frameworks can overwhelm at times. At its best, which is often, Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God traces the crucial role music plays in nearly every human endeavor of meaning making, whether in rituals of worship, political activism, or nation building. At other moments I wonder if it’s possible to be too methodologically correct.
Stewart’s choice to pair Dylan’s story with John Lennon’s is richly rewarded in Chapter 3 of the book, on the “anti-war protest music” written and performed by both songwriters. The comparative examination of Dylan’s songwriting alongside Lennon provides a more comprehensive view of how activist audiences in the 60s and 70s interacted with pop music than an exclusive focus on a single artist could provide. Stewart draws heavily on the findings of sociologist R. Serge Denisoff to frame his study of transformations in the protest song. Writing in the late 60s, Denisoff observed that the traditional “rhetorical” protest song that described social injustice with the aim of moving listeners first to indignation and then to action was slowly being eclipsed by what he labeled as “songs of symbolic introspective protest,” coming from commercial pop musicians (29). At the beginning of his career, Bob Dylan proudly positioned himself outside the world of commercial pop music: “(w)hat comes out of my music is a call to action,” he defiantly declares in a 1963 interview with the radical newspaper National Guardian. Nevertheless, many of Dylan’s signature songs from this era – “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “With God on Our Side,” and perhaps most notably “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” – fit comfortably within Denisoff’s category of the rhetorical protest song that “describe a problem but offer no solutions” (37). When Dylan’s lyrics become richer in symbolism and imagery, it becomes more difficult to connect his social critique with a call to action; as Stewart succinctly puts it, “(t)he more powerful Dylan’s images, the more they obscured any political significance” (41). Songs like “A Hard Rain” already bear within them the seeds of even more introspective songs of revolt, like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Gates of Eden,” as well as songs from Dylan’s rock era including “Tombstone Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” that seem to be protesting the very idea of order or hierarchy. Like the 19th-century symbolist poets that Dylan had begun to read, the lyrics of these songs are both evocative and largely self-referential, existing in their own hermetically sealed universe of meaning.
As Stewart observes, Lennon’s mid-60s Beatle songs such as “The Word” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” that present love itself as a “gesture of abstract introspective protest” (49) are impossible to imagine without the precedent of Dylan’s own refashioning of the protest song as symbolist introspection. Dylan and Lennon are arguably the chief co-creators of a new genre of protest song that purposely collapsed the boundaries that traditionally separated introspection from social struggle.
Perhaps the central reason why Stewart’s “parallel lives” approach works so well in this instance is because reality seems to have conspired on the historian’s behalf to add a fair share of dramatic irony to the story. Stewart’s chapter begins with Dylan’s reinvention of the protest song and continues with an examination of Lennon’s own contributions to introspective protest songwriting. However, having donned the mantle of pop music activist, Lennon would be roundly criticized by fans and critics alike for Some Time in New York City (1972), a double album full of protest songs explicitly targeting social injustices of the day, including the Troubles in Ireland and the Attica Prison Riot, with a bare minimum of personal “introspection.” Stewart neatly sums up the response: “(t)he visceral reaction to (Lennon’s record) demonstrated the impossibility of presenting a collection of old fashioned magnetic compositions to an audience more familiar with 1960s rhetorical or introspective styles” (59). While Dylan spent most of the late 1960s distancing himself from the role of “spokesman for a generation,” Lennon, relocating with Yoko Ono to Greenwich Village in late 1971 where he became fast friends with counterculture activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, seemed eager to assume the role that Dylan had abandoned. This was not mere presumption on the part of a Beatle: Lennon’s 1969 song “Give Peace a Chance” was both a chart success as a single and enthusiastically adopted by activists at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, the largest mass demonstration ever held in the US at that time. An audience that had gratefully learned their new aesthetic of protest music from Lennon and Dylan now firmly rejected Lennon the political spokesperson. Nearly 50 years later, pop songwriters still struggle to negotiate the conflicting demands that Dylan and Lennon faced when they attempted to address the social problems of their day in song, often relying on the same artistic formula of “introspective protest” that the two songwriters fashioned in the 60s.
Stewart’s dual biographical approach is less rewarding, however, when it comes to establishing “just how deeply nineteenth century traditions influenced their worldviews” (1987). Stewart presents compelling evidence to suggest this is the case with Lennon, whose imaginative investment in Victorian words and images dominates his songwriting contributions to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), especially in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Alternately, Lennon’s 1967 song “I Am the Walrus” repurposes the linguistic mischief of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll in order to launch a full-bore attack on English institutions in post-imperial decline. In Stewart’s chapter on “Bob Dylan and History,” he mounts a similar case for Dylan, providing a genealogy for the singer’s moral intransigence as evidenced by his early 60s protest music that dates back to the 19th-century Transcendentalist writers. Stewart also traces Dylan’s highly developed rural imaginary and acute sensitivity to the natural world back to Transcendentalist sources. Stewart is a fine writer and the chapter more than establishes his skills both as a researcher and an adept summarizer of his findings: still, the account of Dylan’s 19th-century backstory feels a bit like a data dump. With the obvious exception of Walt Whitman, the chain of correspondences that Stewart constructs in the chapter are finally more exhausting than enlightening.
Stewart saves his most provocative and challenging argument for his final chapter, a detailed account of Dylan and Lennon’s evolving ideas on God and religion. The bedrock of the chapter is Stewart’s firm conviction that evolutionary psychology has decisively solved the riddle of consciousness. Emotional human experiences including religious belief are now “fully accountable by the basic constituents of brain matter”; as Thomson and Aukofer confidently assert, “We are risen apes, not fallen angels – and we now have the evidence to prove it” (148). Given Stewart’s beliefs, it’s no surprise that his account of Dylan and Lennon’s religious idealism has a slightly clinical air. At times the chapter reads like an inventory of latent mental pathologies: Stewart seems duty-bound to catalog the many and various cognitive errors Dylan and Lennon committed over the course of a lifetime. The sad history of their category mistakes begins when they are still young men. Like many of their 1960s contemporaries, Stewart notes, both artists “attributed extraordinary properties to the altered mental states generated by meditation, flights of the imagination, chemical stimulation or various forms of cognitive impairment” (149). As readers of the Dylan Review doubtless know, and as Stewart duly chronicles, Dylan’s shaky grasp of the materialist world-view never really improves; and as Stewart also demonstrates, the same can be said about Lennon, despite the popular image of the secularist projected by the lyrics to his legacy-anthem, “Imagine.”
Even before Dylan’s evangelical awakening, the songwriter looked for purposes and patterns in the sublunar world: or as Stewart puts it, demonstrated a marked propensity to “(ascribe) meaning to random events” (171). As many passages in Dylan’s Chronicles attest, the songwriter remains a strong believer in intuition, what Stewart terms in one sub-section of the chapter, “Hyperactive Agency Attribution” (157). As Stewart details in an analysis of the “mind-body dualism” so prominent in Dylan’s songwriting, Dylan never really stood a chance: he was born in error. A suspect mind-body dualism permeates all his cultural influences as a young man, from his family’s Judaism to the Christian schools he attended in Hibbing, Minnesota, to the Mississippi Delta Blues music that stirred and shaped his musical sensibilities, and that is also prominent in the work of his chief literary heroes, William Blake and the Beats.
That said, despite Stewart’s convictions about consciousness, he provides a remarkably generous and sensitive account of Dylan’s religious journey. He offers evidence that substantiates Michael Gray’s contention that what appeared to the singer’s mass audience to be a sudden religious conversion was, in a phrase Stewart borrows from William James, a “volitional” spiritual experience: one more step in a series of incremental acts of assent to religious belief that date back to Dylan’s first divorce (175). Unlike the static account of Dylan’s historical consciousness presented in the “Dylan and History” chapter, Stewart’s insights on the singer’s faith journey are original enough to set future research agendas for scholars.
To give just one example: Stewart is one of the few scholars to have noticed that Dylan’s Christian faith resulted in a radically different attitude to studio recording and record producers. Along with the “Old Adam,” the songwriter deliberately cast off the rough and ready approach to studio recording he had maintained throughout his career, regardless of the backing musicians he used. As Stewart observes, for most of his career Dylan worked “as quickly as possible to capture the feel of a song even at the expense of audio or technical fidelity” (177). However, the singer sought the help of celebrated producer and recording engineers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett to record his Gospel music albums, Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), and worked alongside a stellar group of musicians to craft “unexpectedly meticulous recordings.” Not only is Dylan’s new-found commitment to high fidelity recording “unexpected,” it is arguably unprecedented, fully as “shocking” as his sudden conversion; John Wesley Harding (1968), recorded as Stewart notes, “in just twelve hours with an out of tune acoustic guitar and no overdubs” is atypical but far closer to Dylan’s “norm” for studio performance (141). The recording process for Shot of Love (1981), the final album in the so-called “Gospel Trilogy,” was much more contentious than was the case with the previous two records, with Dylan assuming his old assertive role in the studio process, hiring and discarding different record producers, and rejecting co-producer Chuck Plotkin’s final mixes of the album’s songs. Still, the singer’s paramount concern with getting the sound of the record right substantiates Stewart’s claim that Dylan’s new religious convictions also transformed his studio aesthetic. Dylan’s search for spiritual authenticity apparently led him to embrace the artifice of studio recording, or at the very least, take the studio process more seriously than he had before. Much more can be said about this fascinating paradox.
Although Stewart’s concerns for methodological correctness sometimes result in missteps, Dylan, Lennon, Marx, and God will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of Dylan’s political and religious ideas. As a compendium, the study provides an especially useful introduction for those who want to know more about Dylan’s art and career, but it also contains insights to inspire seasoned scholars and Dylanologists to take a fresh look at their subject. The dual focus on Dylan and Lennon makes it especially valuable for anyone interested in learning more about the production and reception of 1960s popular music and its relation to the politics, back in the day when rock music was pop music.