Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dylan and Magick

Bob Dylan has had most every aspect of his life scrutinized, analyzed, categorized and symbolized but I don't know if anyone has looked at the startling number of connections between his music career and magick.  I find his songs an ongoing education in that regard.  Imagery he uses uncannily describes certain stages along the esoteric path.

 I seriously doubt that Bob Dylan has pursued magick in the same way that Jimmy Page has, for instance.  However, the nature of his songwriting process allows him to tap into the same kinds of energetic fields that theurgic magickians work with resulting in communications from the same data base.  Dylan's extremely intuitive and experimental approach to songwriting puts him in touch with the non-local field, the realm of magick.  Success is his proof.

I call this writing  process "invocational" which conventionally gets defined as ' to draw down from above,' however I find the whole down/above orientation archaic and therefore redefine as: 'to draw in from without."  Dylan speaks candidly in many places about his process.  The booklet that accompanies his first offical "bootleg" releases goes through it song by song.  Here's an excerpt from an interview with Karen Hughes, April 1, 1978:

"KH:   Do you find that as a composer, you're more like a medium, tuning into something greater happening?

Dylan: I think that every composer does that.  No one in his right mind would think that it's coming from him, that he has invented it.  It's just coming though him.

KH: What kind of force compels you to write?

Dylan:  Well, any departure, like from my traditional self, will kick it off.

KH: How do you go about composing these songs, working them out?

Dylan: I usually get a melody. A melody just happens to appear as I'm playing and after that the words come in and out.  Sometimes the words come first."

What's In A Name?

Names were very important in ancient Egypt, considered nearly identical with a person's soul. C.G. Jung observed that many people take after the meaning of their name.  To my knowledge, Bob Dylan has never clearly stated where he got his last name from, what inspired it.  I saw him directly asked once. He gave a vague answer, couldn't really remember, it just came to him. 

Three theories on where it came from:

1) The poet, Dylan Thomas - probably the  most popular belief.
2) Marshal Matt Dillon from the TV show Gunsmoke.
3) The White Goddess by Robert Graves wherein he offers up Dylan as the name of an ancient sun god.

Not long after he changed his name, posters or handbills used the Dillon spelling, so I'm inclined to go with Marshal Matt Dillon as the original motivation.  Also he told Robert Shelton, the New York Times reporter who wrote his first bio, to make sure and tell them that it wasn't Dylan Thomas.  Something made him change the spelling.   Later on Dylan doesn't dispute that explanation, and at times appears to agree.  At some point or maybe all points, he's misdirecting the audience like a magician does.  

I say it doesn't matter because his multifaceted personas include all three of those characters.  He's been considered a poet by many people for a long time.  He was introduced as a poet by Peter Yarrow at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival whereupon he proceeded to systematically derange the audience's senses with a new electric sound.

Dylan has shown a distinct affinity for the Old West.  He acted in and wrote the soundtrack for the film Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.   Matt Dillon embodies the hero archetype which turns up in Dylan's songs such as Chimes of Freedom, All Along the Watchtower, or Quinn the Eskimo.

The White Goddess theme turns up in a lot of Dylan's music.  He has written many songs about the sublime art of bringing the woman to life.  Coincidentally, Bob Dylan's mother's name is Beatrice, the same name as the female guide and archetype of true love who showed Dante the way into Paradiso in The Divine Comedy.

The sun god aspect appears quite evident in the line from Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat:
If you wanna see the sun rise, honey I know where.; Another interesting coincidence with that: something compelled him to record a cover of House of the Rising Sun on his first album.  He got in trouble for it too because he stole the arrangement from his friend Dave Von Ronk who had been planning to record it on his album. 

The Dylan Thomas connection puts Bob Dylan into a direct literary lineage with Aleister Crowley via Victor Neuberg.  Neuberg had been one of Crowley's most prominent students having assisted him in at least two major invocations - The Paris Working, and the skrying of the Enochian Aethyrs across the North African desert which got documented as The Vision and the Voice.  Neuberg, also a recognized poet of some stature, lead a weekly poetry circle for young writers some time after his break with Crowley.  Dylan Thomas was Neuberg's protege.  Upon hearing of Victor's death Thomas said:

 Vicky encouraged me as no one else has done ...He possessed many kinds of genius, and not the least was his genius for drawing to himself, by his wisdom, graveness, great humour and innocence, a feeling of trust and love, that won’t ever be forgotten.

The Paris Working revealed data consonant with much of Bob Dylan's artistic output.  In those series of experiments the similar identities of Christ and Mercury revealed itself - a sun god and a god of communication.  Crowley also identified strongly with solar deities.  Both Dylan and Crowley were major influences on the cultural phenomena of the 1960s.  They also both turned up on the famous  album cover for The Beatles Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.


"The highway is for gamblers better use your sense,
take what you have gathered from coincidence.

- one of my favorite lines from It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, a song title with a great pun. 

Instances of Dylan's timing provides evidence to suggest that he intuitively tunes into a non-local field of information.  He wrote The Times They Are A Changing a few weeks before the Kennedy assassination and said he knew he had to play it that night.  An alternate version of The Times They Are A Changing was released on Sept. 11, 2001 as part of a bonus package with the new album, Love and Theft which has the chilling lines, Skies full of fire, pain falling down.

 Love and Theft also has a song called High-Water (for Charley Patton) about flood waters rising and causing havoc.  Water, one of the four basic elements of the ancient Greeks, represents the emotions, among other things.  The emotions set off by 9/11 ( high waters rising)  took over and rose so high that American popular opinion was manipulated into supporting a new war with Iraq.

Not long after 9/11, Dylan had an interview published in Rolling Stone.  When asked to comment on the events of 9/11 he replied, ' for any real change to occur, people have to change their hearts.'   In another Rolling Stone interview published last year replying to a similar, how can we make the world a better place type of question, he gave the exact same answer, people have to start by changing their hearts.

Dylan's answer appear isomorphic with Aleister Crowley's prime directive to his students that all beginning magick should get directed toward attaining the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (HGA), an operation which takes place in the qabalistic sphere of Tiphareth, also the domain of the heart chakra.  Although an arcane sounding title, this Knowledge and Conversation, to begin with, merely consists of making contact and starting a dialog with that Higher Intelligence which represents your true nature.

The chorus to Dylan's signature song, Like A Rolling Stone plays into this conspiracy.  You might need to hear it to understand this interpretation I have that the first line of the chorus, 
How does it feel  makes a great corollary question to Shakespeare's famous existential line, To be or not to be, that is the question, from Hamlet.

The whole chorus:

 How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone

also reminds me of Gurdjieff's insistence that people have to realize what he called 'their own nothingness' before the real work of waking up can start.

Michael Bloomfield played guitar on Like A Rolling Stone and a few other tracks from Highway 61 Revisited.  Dylan stated not long ago that Bloomfield was his favorite of all the guitar players he has worked with.  The name Michael, as regular readers will remember, recalls the Archangel of Fire in the magickal hierarchy of the Golden Dawn.  This brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs; continuing our comparison with the HGA we can realistically compare the image of Michael Bloomfield playing guitar over that chorus with Aleister Crowley's primary instruction for contacting the HGA:

Invoke often.  Enflame thyself with prayer.

The Songs

It's beyond the scope of this blog post to examine the vast amount of hermetic data in Dylan's songs; that would require a book devoted to the subject.  I'll mention  a few song titles I've found relevant and leave you to your own devices.   

Hard Rain:  a visionary quest type of song:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son ?
And where have you been my darling young one ?

Lots of imagery that communicates well through the lens of qabalah in this song.  The first time Alan Ginsberg heard Hard Rain he said tears came to his eyes because he realized that the torch had been passed on.  The literary lineage of that torch includes William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Burroughs/Jack Kerouac/& Ginsberg.

Every song on Bringing It All Back Home has a piece of the puzzle particularly Subterranean Homesick Blues and Love Minus Zero/No Limit (this title should be read like a fraction, Love Minus Zero over No Limit.)

Also, every track on Highway 61 Revisited rewards examination.  Ballad of a Thin Man and Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues sound straight out of the Bardo.  Desolation Row does too, and also yields much useful info with qabalah.

The songs that stand out for me from Blonde On Blonde include: Visions of Johanna, Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again ( the beginning of this resonates with Crowley's Star Ruby ritual), Absolutely Sweet Marie, and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

Everything from John Wesley Harding and most of Planet Waves.

When I Paint My Masterpiece from Greatest Hits Volume II

From Blood on the Tracks (great title!): Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

The album Desire has the song Isis which reminds me of perhaps the best interview comment I've seen, given by Jonathan Cott in the January 26, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone:

ROLLING STONE: Under a statue of Isis in the city of Sais is the following inscription:  I am everything that was, that is, that shall be ... Nor has any mortal ever been able to discover what lies under my veil."

DYLAN: That's a fantastic quotation.  That's true, exactly.  Once you see what's under the veil, what happens to you?   You die, don't you, or go blind?

The album cover for Desire has the tarot card The Empress on the back side.  Tarot imagery also appears in Changing of the Guards from Street Legal.

Romance in Durango (Desire) suggests a trial by fire.  It starts:

Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape.

Pressing On from Saved.

Of his more recent work: Highlands from Time Out of Mind, Misssissippi off of Love and Theft, and Thunder on the Mountain, the opening track of Modern Times.

Mastery of Breath

In the documentary, No Direction Home, produced by Martin Scorsese, Alan Ginsberg makes the point that Bob Dylan has complete control over his breath when he performs.  Scorsese then cuts to a perfect illustration of Dylan doing just that with his vocal delivery.

 According to Eastern mystics, air contains a substance called "prana" which means vital life.  Pranayama is the practice of taking in this substance through controlled breathing.  Performers who use their breath do a natural, instinctive kind of pranayama.  Gurdjieff considered this substance food for the emotional centrum. 

The sound of the harmonica playing also reveals Dylan's prana.  I saw him in concert in the early '90's, and when he picked up the harmonica for the first time that evening and started playing a long note, the crowd went crazy with appreciation.  No technique was involved beyond getting the sound of one note to sustain.  I suspect the feeling he put into it drew the response.  I know I felt it pretty strongly, the feeling seemed amplified by the group reaction like a number of tuning forks amplifying the fundamental frequency after the first one has sounded.

The harmonica has an interesting magickal background.  The virtue of beginning with the letter "h" places it in the realm of the Hebrew letter "heh."  This puts it in the mighty fine company of Tetragrammaton, the four-fold name of God spelt YHVH.  Tetragrammaton can get modeled after a family unit: Yod = Father, first Heh = Mother, Vau = Son, second Heh = daughter.  Crowley uses Tetragrammaton to articulate a formula of spiritual rejuvenation which goes: the Son places the Daughter on the throne of the Mother who then "awakens the eld of the All-Father."

This elevation of the female archetype to a royal platform appears cognate with the function symbolized by the tarot card The Chariot.  Crowley called The Chariot the formula of the new aeon.  The elevation of the female archetype appears throughout Dylan's music.  The breath and sound of the harmonica  passionately takes this theme further and magickally affirms it.

Heh corresponds with The Star from the tarot providing another potent image to add to the harmonica meditation.  In the Book of Thoth ( p.109) Crowley writes:

This picture represents Nuith, our Lady of the Stars.  For the full meaning of this sentence it is necessary to understand the first chapter of the Book of the Law.

It's worth reading the whole description of this card from the Book of Thoth as well as the first chapter of the Book of the Law  (only 66 verses) for a full taste of the richness of imagery and energetics that can get keyed into via Dylan's harmonica solos. 

BotL I:26 gives a good example:

Then saith the prophet and slave of the beauteous one: Who am I, and what shall be the sign? So she answered him, bending down, a lambent flame of blue, all-touching, all penetrant, her lovely hands upon the black earth, & her lithe body arched for love, and her soft feet not hurting the little flowers: Thou knowest! And the sign shall be my ecstasy, the consciousness of the continuity of existence, the omnipresence of my body.

Vau, the son in the Tetragrammaton formula, connects with The Hierophant of the tarot whose function communicates "secrets from the temple."  Seems quite easy to see Dylan's music playing this role.

The abstract dramatization of Dylan's life in the 2007 film I'm Not There
has an ensemble cast of actors playing various personas he adopted at different stages in his carrer. Appropriately for the film's title, Bob Dylan himself doesn't make an appearance until the very last scene when director Todd Haynes shows him playing an extended harmonica solo originally filmed by D.A. Pennebaker for a project called Eat the Document.



  1. Yes! Happenstance is freighted with meaning. Too often, careful composition gets in the way! Perfectionists erect a barrier to the universe which is the antithesis of creation. As a studio musician told me once, ‘misery clings to tape’. You can hear the fatigue of the hundredth take, even if it is ‘note-perfect’.
    Hey Oz, you may recall we chatted a few months back about gnosis, thelema and music. I'm pleased to see we continue to bark up similar, fascinating trees. What you’re calling
    ‘invocational’, I trace to the Gysin-Burroughs automatism school. As you no doubt know, Burroughs' primary self-identification was, arguably, that of magician. The universe is a lot more 'clever' in its purportedly
    'random' state that many of us too-diligent craftsmen and shapers of words and music (i.e. shallow, hubristic manipulators) would have others believe. I'm also reminded of Picasso's quote (roughly) 'inspiration finds the artist at his workbench'.

    Yes indeed, we are found…provided we are open to the finding.

    I don’t want to go overboard here but Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s conception of ‘will’ is subtle and manifold. Crowley’s ‘do as thou wilt’ is similarly not an iron fist punching through the table. There is a keen receptivity to the will that often goes unreported.

    The real magi of creativity, the Dylan's and Bowie's, embrace fortuitous happenstance. Random acts deserve royalties! Dylan prized spontaneity. His advocacy of the first take is apparent in the flat and sharp notes that pop up all over his studio work. Digital perfection is a demiurge! It oughta be stamped out. I worked with Bob Johnson a few years ago in Nashville. He produced Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Cash’s Folsom Prison albums. Johnson said Dylan would just start playing and if you didn’t catch it on tape he could be done for the night. He also favored a crappy mike that he’d had for years. Yes, Dylan is a magician of sorts, no doubt.

    I'm going to pepper this missive with some links to be pursued as your interest dictates. This month, Skope magazine is running my multi-part essay on Bowie where I consider the similarities with Kurt Cobain, another disciple of automatism. I take a strong Jungian tact with Bowie. Of course one of the bedrocks of Jungianism is synchronicity or 'meaningful coincidence'.


    From Burroughs' essay 'On Coincidence':

    "You can observe this mechanism operating in your own experience. If you start the day by missing a train, this could be a day of missed trains and missed appointments. You need not just say 'Mektoub, it is written.' The first incident is a warning. Beware of similar incidents. Tighten your schedule. Synchronize your watch. And consider the symbolic meaning of missing train. Watch particularly for what might be a lost opportunity.

    Suppose you encounter a rude clerk, waiter, bartender elevator man. Shuffle through the morgue of your memory. It's all there. Why he's a dead ringer for a rude clerk in Tangier London, Hong Kong. Even used the same words. You asked for an item and he said...

    'I never heard of it.'"

    Good old Uncle Bill!

    Speaking of meaningful coincidence, I just wrote an essay this month for Bright Lights Film Journal on the Bowie/Oursler video-song 'Where Are We Now?' The quote that heads the essay is from Dylan's song 'I'm Not There': "I wish I was beside her but I'm not there, I'm gone". Weird! I take this lyrics to mean the 'vacated self', echoes of, as you say, Gurdjieff.


    Okay I’ve hogged you blog enough. But I'm in the middle of a hailstorm of synchronicities these last few days. Something is afoot and I’m glad I bumped inot your blog again. Great stuff as usual, Oz, and great food for thought!
    take care

    norm ball

  2. Thanks for your erudite and thoughtful comments, Norm. It lets me know that I failed to communicate about "invocational" inspiration as contrasted with automatic writing. I trace what I call invocational at least as far back as the ancient Greeks with their idea of contacting a muse to inspire creativity.

    The way I see it, one significant difference between invocational and automatic writing has to do with the amount of volition applied by the subject. Invocational writing seems more of a co-creation between the subject and the muse ( whatever that is) while strictly automatic writing has the writer giving up all volition and surrendering completely to the channeled source. I do agree that there exists some common ground between the two. For example, a lot of Crowley's writings are invocational in nature particularly the class A texts. None of his writings get considered automatic although there is some debate about The Book of the Law. Austin Spare experimented extensively with automatic techniques of composition.

    Burroughs/Gysin's cut-up techniques could be invocational or evocational depending upon what they come up with. I would call these chance operations as opposed to automatic writing. As far as I know, Dylan has not ever experimented with automatic writing or chance operations but I wouldn't be surprised if I was wrong.

    Interesting synchs! Also, thanks for the link to your new Bowie essay. I'll check it out when I get the chance.
    Best wishes for all your literary endeavors.


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