A Facebook friend posed a question online asking people to identify two men he described without naming. I answered that he was referring to “Houdini and that other escape artist Bobby Dylan.”
I had been thinking about escape artists, though not in the usual sense. I’m writing a book about the origins of Zionism and how the persecuted Jews especially in Eastern Europe felt a deep and sometimes painful yearning to escape so that they might lead a new life. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, was one man who needed an escape from the failures of the European attempt to assimilate Jews and from much else.
I realized as I explored this theme that while we often think of an escape as getting away from a place, escaping also means escaping from the travails of the world, from the traumas and terrors of our own body, and from our own minds--the stifling emotions, the ideological rigidity that prevents liberating thoughts, the pattern of emotional reactions that can undermine our treatment of ourselves and others.
In thinking about my flip answer to my friend, I realized that Bob Dylan had indeed been a master escape artist. He had to escape Hibbing, his parents, the intellectual choke hold of a politically needy folk community, Albert Grossman, and Joan Baez—the woman who had a principal role in making him famous but whom he had to escape from to be with his first wife, Sara. Dylan had to escape from the annoyingly aggressive press and the earnest, sometimes helpful and well-meaning but often self-aggrandizing and misleading critics who wrote about him. (I include myself in this ever-growing group). He had to escape his own fans. Dylan had to escape each succeeding identity he acquired so that his identity of the moment wouldn’t become a straightjacket preventing his soul from moving about freely.
And just like Dylan needed to escape others and sometimes himself, others sometimes had to escape him. Women made up most of those escapees. Women, from the young, decent, loving, kind, confused Suze Rotolo who started out dating a singer and ended up with a celebrity and going through the “pretty maids all in a row” that he encountered in his life. They ended up needing to escape Dylan’s tornadic life. And other singers found they needed to escape Dylan’s musical orbit. At the beginning, in Greenwich Village, many of the musicians were jealous of the shocking expanse of Dylan’s talent and the velocity of its growth. Many, like Tom Paxton, reconciled themselves to the realities of their competitor and just accepted Dylan. But some, like Phil Ochs, couldn’t accept that their talent was lesser than Dylan’s. They tried to escape and, in Ochs’ case, could not. Ochs surely must have understood that without Dylan on the scene, Ochs could easily have been accepted as the boy genius, the heir to Woody Guthrie, the greatest writer of political folk music.
Of course, I was punning in calling Dylan an “escape artist.” He was unusual in his adeptness at escaping from some kind of confinement. Houdini didn’t do this, say, as a prisoner who could keep escaping jails, but as a performer. Dylan also did it as a performer but he was an artist at more than escaping. He was a musical genius who could write captivating songs about escaping.
There are many love songs that Dylan wrote about escaping. But perhaps “Drifter’s Escape” is his most interesting song about the subject. The song opens from God’s point of view as a drifter calls out for God’s help. “’Oh, help me in my weakness,’ I heard the drifter say.” A mob is carrying the poor man from the courtroom even though “I still do not know/ what it was that I’ve done wrong.” The judge works up a tear, but he is part of the system and tells the drifter not to try to understand his fate. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning, delivered by God, strikes the courthouse. The mob, misunderstanding God, kneels to pray presumably for their own safety, and in the confusion, the drifter escapes.
Dylan is making a clear allusion to Kafka, and had a good reason. The song was written in 1967, as Dylan was put on musical trial by some of his fans for abandoning folk music for rock music. Those fans found him guilty, but Dylan found the strength to escape them through God’s help, as could be seen on Blonde on Blonde and much more explicitly in later albums.
We often think of ourselves as being powerful enough to be the agent of our own escape. That is what Herzl thought. He didn’t rely on God’s intervention or the kindness of nations for the Jewish people to re-establish their ancient nation. Herzl thought agency was self-fueled. Dylan held a similar view on earlier albums, and his switch to a God-centered world was not only a major change in his life but also a major change in how he saw the human ability to escape.
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