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Jean Bethke Elshtain

What Was It You Wanted

Bob Dylan and Jesse James

Bob Dylan and I were born in the same year, and each of us has moved far beyond our points of origin. There the resemblance ends—at least I'm not inclined to push it further. I've been a Dylan devotee—this by contrast to an obsessed Dylan freak—for over forty years. I think I know him passing well. Oddly enough, I think he knows me, too, on some level. His recent songs, with their stirring evocations of life's end and getting to Heaven before they "close the door," bring me to tears. Just like the rest of us, Dylan is still trying to figure the whole thing out—the difference being that his songs reach millions, and that is a substantial difference indeed.

As every Dylan fan and film-buff knows, I'm Not There features multiple Dylans, each portrayed by a different actor. There is the Woody Guthrie wannabe, the romantic poet,  the "voice" of his generation who decides he doesn't wannabe, doesn't want to sing "finger pointing" songs for the rest of his life, the rock/pop star, Dylan in his crazed booze-and-drug-addled sarcastic phase, the born-again Dylan, the outlaw/outcast Dylan. There are many lives, then, of Bob Dylan as imagined by director Todd Haynes and played competently to brilliantly by the actors.

But does the film help us get closer to Dylan? Does it draw us closer to the sources of his inspiration? Not really. The born-again Dylan, for example, is just another color in the palette. Yet what can only be called a religious yearning for transcendence moves throughout Dylan's work, early to late, starting about the time he began to lose his baby fat.

Consider "When the Ship Comes In" from the album The Times They Are A-Changin'. I recall discussions with my compatriots in our 1960s "commune" (it lasted only one year or thereabouts—we were a "repressed" bunch, more philosophical than hedonistic), when I urged that the song was not about political triumph but rather the joy of the eschaton. Nobody knew what I was going on about. But ...

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