The Great Bob Dylan Conspiracy

A new book sheds light on the singer-songwriter's evangelical years.


The Political World of Bob Dylan is a new book by the political scientist Jeff Taylor and the historian Chad Israelson. (That isn't the Jeff Taylor who sometimes writes for Reason, but he is a fellow we've written about.) I blurbed it. This is what I wrote:

By taking the rare step of giving Bob Dylan's evangelical records and their cultural context the serious attention they deserve, Jeff Taylor and Chad Israelson have revealed yet another side of the singer: Dylan the Christian anarchist.

We live in a political world/Under the microscope/You can travel anywhere/And hang yourself there/You always got more than enough rope

I should probably add here that Taylor and Israelson use the word "anarchist" in a broader sense than Reason readers are probably used to—in their hands it refers more to a general contempt for politics and government than to an actual radical platform. At any rate, their discussion of Dylan's Christian years and the social forces it reflected is thoughtful and textured.

It also includes a bonus for any aficionado of strange conspiracy theories: In their interview with one of Dylan's former personal assistants, Dave Kelly, he relates a bizarre tale in which a mysterious man supposedly wormed his way into Dylan's entourage while the singer was playing a series of shows in San Francisco in 1979. According to Kelly, the stranger went out to dinner with Dylan and concert promoter Bill Graham for several nights, with Dylan assuming the man was a friend of Graham's and Graham assuming the man was a friend of Dylan's. The fellow then allegedly explained that he was a representative of "The Fifty-Five Families," an Illuminati-like group that had sent him to keep tabs on the musician. If nothing else, this tale deserves a place of honor in the Annals of Rock Rumors.

The discussion of Dylan's evangelical period takes up about half the book, so there's a great deal more here as well. (There's an interesting exploration, for example, of how Minnesota's political history shaped Dylan's worldview.) But if you're interested in the apocalyptic mindscape of the '70s, the Christian section should be especially enticing.

Bonus link: I'm one of the handful of non-Christians who like Dylan's religious albums. Or at least the first two of them. My reasons are here.

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  1. The Messicans are in on it, with their special-rights guns and ass secks and deep-dish, artisanal bean dip….those bastards and their statues of Mary!!

    *adjusts tin foil, carefully*

  2. The fellow then allegedly explained that he was a representative of “The Fifty-Five Families,” an Illuminati-like group that had sent him to keep tabs on the musician.

    Sounds like he deserved a raise.

  3. Nice cock and balls. OH, those are sunglasses.

    1. Yeah, I spent far too long wondering why there was a space penis on the cover.

      1. Man you guys are cockeyed.

        1. They got the shaft, didn’t they.

          1. They gave it too much of a glans.

  4. Autism Speaks

    *ducks and runs*

  5. I should probably add here that Taylor and Israelson use the word “anarchist” in a broader sense that Reason readers are probably used to?in their hands it refers more to a general contempt for politics and government than to an actual radical platform.

    Wait… what? That’s not the broader definition! That’s the definition of an anarchist: someone who has contempt for politics and government! What is this “radical platform” you speak about?

    1. What is this “radical platform” you speak about?

      The actual abolition of the state?

      1. Re: Jesse Walker,

        The actual abolition of the state?

        First, why would that be the exclusive goal of anarchism? Marxian Communism also seeks to abolish the state, and do so by violent means. Anarchism is not necessarily about abolishing the state using the same means.

        1. I always thought that abolishing the state as being a necessary, but not sufficient condition for being an anarchist. So mere contempt wouldn’t be enough to be one. You can despise something while admitting necessity for it (e.g. gravity).

          1. You can also be an anarchist who has contempt for the state while recognizing that it’s not going to go away regardless of your desires on the matter.

            1. I fail to see where advocacy for abolition of something necessarily implies contempt of it. There are plenty of things I favor abolishing but which I don’t waste emotional energy holding in contempt. I may simply think they’re unnecessary or counterproductive or unjustifiably expensive. I can even find something morally reprehensible without feeling contempt for it.

              1. Unfortunately, the State is really, really hard to ignore.

        2. I’m not sure it’s Jesse’s job to follow your brand of anarchism.

          1. Re: Free Market Socialist Sparky,

            I’m not sure it’s Jesse’s job to follow your brand of anarchism.

            I’m not asking Jesse to do anything of the sort. I asked for clarification. He provided it and I found it unconvincing.

            1. Jesse didn’t mention anything about the means of abolishing the state, I’m not sure what Marxism has to do with anything.

  6. Is this another case of Bob Dylan goes on a lark, as he is known to do, and academic writes 500-page scholarly tome about it.

    1. Exactly.

  7. The Fifty-Five Families isn’t something you have to even think about unless a) you’re trying to become the Fifty-Sixth Family or b) you’ve become significant enough to be of use to them. In the first case, you’re a rival, and you know what you’re getting into, and in the second case, you’re an asset, and you should just get on the gravy train.

    The ones to be scared of are The Crazy 88. They wear suits and masks.

    That’s right, suits and masks.

    1. Incidentally, there was this dude, must have been ten years ago, that picked up my email address from the LA Times website. I used to go over there when Matt and Cavanaugh were there. Anyway, he picked up my email address and dozens of others from the LA Times, and he started sending us all these screeds about how the DeBeers diamond cartel was behind everything that was wrong with the world. He needed us and our email addresses to publicize the conspiracy–because the diamond cartel couldn’t take us all down. …especially if they didn’t know exactly which one of us he was!

      At that point, he started sending violent threats to the White House, the CIA, the diamond cartels, et. al.–as if they were coming from each of us in his email list!

      At some point, it became clear that you could buy your way off his email list if you wanted to. His screeds were so certifiably insane, though, it was hard to imagine he was just a scammer, but looking at a scam like that, back when random people’s email addresses were really easy to spoof, it also seemed like a pretty brilliant scam, too.

    2. I’d rather be a member of the Howard Families.

    3. BILDERBERGS!!111!!1!1!!!111


  8. I can’t understand a thing that man sings.

    1. Ever heard him in an interview? The way he speaks makes his singing sound eloquent.

      1. The American Ozzy Osbourne?

        1. More like a real-life Boomhauer.

          1. It’s kinda weird if a sterile accent has come to be the hallmark of authenticity.

            It used to be the other way around.

            Something else to blame millennials for, I guess–the death of authenticity as something desirable. Blues, Country, Jazz, Punk Rock, Death Metal, Gangster Rap, and Folk Music all arose on the strength of their authenticity.

            Dylan’s annunciation was part of his authentic legitimacy.

            1. Yes, the millennials killed your precious pre-hipster hipsterdom.

              1. I think being hip has replaced authenticity for millennials.

                Being phony wasn’t especially hip. Even to fashionista groups like the Mods, you wanted to be an authentic mod. They rejected the rock and roll era of the 50’s as being inauthentic to what their experience of the world was at the time.

                And I’m talking about authenticity being the essence of hip long before my day. Authenticity has been the key since the beginnings of folk, country, jazz, and the blues. The call and response that is so typical of American music is in fact a residual of authentic slave songs.

                Authenticity is going way back before I was born. We’re not talking about a new hipsterdom. We’re talking about the death of authenticity.

                1. What is it that makes a slave song more “authentic” than anyone else’s song?

  9. The Voice of a Generation is a Christian anarchist?

    1. So was Martin Luther King in a way. We have a duty to disobey immoral laws?

      Oh, and at one point, Dylan said he wrote Masters of War for the money.

    2. I’m not sure Dylan would describe himself as Christian, nowadays, as much as a Jew who admires Christianity.

      1. Christ himself was a Christian anarchist.

        1. Render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s

          Doesn’t sound too anarchist to me

          1. When the end of the quote is “render j.ot God what is God’s” it can be.

            Why does most everyone leave off the second part of that quotation?

            1. Because the first part is shut up and pay the man.

              1. No way, Jesus was drawing a stark line between the political realm and the spiritual realm. I’ve always seen that verse as an early statement in favor of separation of church and state.

                1. I’m no theologian, but they way I understood it is you have to obey man’s law and God’s law. Now I’m sure he also believed man should stay out of God’s laws.

                  1. A man can also not serve two masters. I always read these two lines together as essentially “if you play by Caeser’s rules, that’s your choice, but you don’t get to pick which of Caeser’s rules you want to follow. Same with God’s rules, and you can’t always follow both.”

  10. This should have been written in the same way Dylan sings.

    1. Rufus, ya know he was nearly a Canuk; missed by 60 miles or so.

      1. Nah – then he’d have just been Neil Young, and we don’t need TWO of him.

        1. There would have to have been EIGHT DEAD IN OHIO.

          1. A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

            1. Turns radio up to 11 to listen to Free Bird.

              1. *dances around like a lunatic b/c “Freebird” was HS Senior class song – srsly*

                1. Damn, y’all old as hell.

                  1. This is why there are no libertarian millenials.

        2. Or Gordon Lightfoot.

  11. Ya know, guys, if you’re really after the Millenial market, Baby Boomer nostalgia probably isn’t the way to go.

    1. The boomer writers write about boomer stuff… the millennial writers write about college and twitter.

      It’s whatever occupies the psyche.

      1. And as usual everyone ignores Gen X

        1. The post’s author is from the Gen X cohort.

          1. Yes but Paul said the Boomers write about the Boomer stuff and the Millenials writer about Twitter and College.

            He kind of has a point. We get the occasional pop culture article about Boomer Heroes (Lou Reed, Dylan, etc.) and the whole hyperfocus on the millenial cohort has been a running meme among the commentariat for a long time but I can’t recall ever seeing any articles directed at a Gen X audience or talking about Gen X issues

            1. Yeah, where are the articles praising Depeche Mode or analyzing the political construct of Family Ties?

              1. Tina Yothers, Rock Goddess!!!

              2. I’m too lazy to Google it, but I think it might have been Jesse Walker who wrote what might be the sentence of the year:

                “If you weren’t writing critical theory in the 90s, you weren’t really there.”

                I lied, I wasn’t too lazy:…..ommie-plot

                Hey, it was 1996. They say if you weren’t engaging radical critical theory in the ’90s, you weren’t really there.

                I don’t care what any of you guys say about Jesse Walker, he’s totes ok with me.

          2. The post’s author is from the Gen X cohort.

            But you seem much more mature than us Gen Xers. So I figured boomer. My bad, Jesse.

    2. What about us No Generation folks? You know, born at the very tail end of the boomers, too young to relate to the hippies but too old to be Gen X. The ones who kinda sorta took the whole punk rock thing and really ran with it, including mashing it with Heavy Metal and made it into something before the X’ers came along and ruined it for everybody.

      1. who?

    3. Ya know, guys, if you’re really after the Millenial market, Baby Boomer nostalgia probably isn’t the way to go.

      You’re going to confuse the hell out of Nick.

  12. Any word on the controversy of going electric?

    1. Alice Cooper’s fine with it

      OH! Wait, I may have been off a couple letters…

    2. Any word on the controversy of going electric?

      A bit, but they don’t have much new to say about it, and they realize they don’t have much new to say about it, so they pass over it pretty quickly.

  13. I actually like “Slow Train Coming.” And I never thought I’d be a Dylan fan.

  14. What’s the difference between a regular Christian and an evangelical?

    1. Evangelicals believe it is their duty to spread the Word of God to everyone, all the time, whether they want to hear it or not, while regular Christians tend to be more polite company.

      1. SO close…

    2. Evangelicals are more irritating. I say this as a member of an Evangelical Protestant gang.

      1. They’re irritating because they can’t fucking stop talking about fucking Jebus all the time. If you say you’re a member then you’re doing it wrong.

    3. One who was ‘saved’ or ‘born again’ vs one who was just a practicing Christian.

      I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but that’s essentially it.

      1. All Christians must be “born again” – else they ain’t Christian.

        Would you like a copy of The Word?


        1. The Pope would like to have a word with you…

          1. He and his silly hat can piss off

            /Martin Luther

        2. There’s a few hundred ,million Catholics, Greek and Russian Orthodox who would like to have a word with you


  15. TRUMP










    You can run, but you can’t hide

  16. Sorry, but all of Dylan’s music is terrible; religious or otherwise.

    1. ^^^This.

    2. “Like a Rolling Stone” is pretty cool. Or at least it seemed pretty cool to a socially isolated teenager huddled under his sheets listening to the radio with the volume on the bare minimum to keep his parents from hearing.

      Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

    3. I like his music. When someone else plays and sings it.

  17. Is the conspiracy that he was really Lou Reed the whole time?

    1. That would help explain why Lou Reed has been so quiet lately

      1. Lou Reed has been quiet because he’s buried himself in the studio, workng on new material. He’ll be back soon woth another brilliant album, i’m sure.

  18. Isn’t “political scientist” a contradiction in terms?

    1. What, scientists aren’t allowed to be political? Throw them a bone, at least — it’s the only thing some of them are any good at!

  19. Oh look, the times they are a’changin

  20. It was fucking awesome, the way he made all the far left psychos lose their shit by doing that pro-American car commercial during the Super Bowl.

    No one can troll people quite like Dylan can. No one.

  21. My friend was working at a Pizza Hut in Bloomington Indiana circa summer 1991. There was a homeless dude that eanted to use the phone, and my friend let him make a call. The dude goes out and sits on the curb in the parking lot. My friend makes a small pizza and goes to take it out for the bum to eat. At the same time, an SUV pulls up as my friend is giving the bum the pizza. Driving the SUV is John Mellencamp, and the homeless guy is Bob Dylan. Dylan takes the pizza, climbs in the SUV and he and Mellencamp drive away.

    1. So now we have two bums in an SUV.

      cool story

      1. Bloomington is funny because it attracts musicians. When I was there, I would bump into someone, and think “hey this guy looks like Michael Stipe.” And then it turns out to be Michael Stipe. Cheetah Chrome, Doug Carrion, Evan Dando, Michael Stipe, Frank Daly, and others just kind of wind up in Bloomington.

    2. And right after that Mellencamp wrote Pink Houses?

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