Shot of Love and Social Justice

Happy anniversary, Barbara Bunny, and happy birthday, Bob Dylan!

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On our trips to the Bay Area in the summer of 2019, Barbara, my angel, and I listened to Trouble No More, a compilation of Bob Dylan’s Christian music from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I had bought that set of discs for Barbara as her Christmas present in 2017, and we never stopped listening to it after that.

As we were driving in the summer of 2019 through the Grapevine, part of the mountain range that separates Los Angeles from the Central Valley, I played Dylan’s song, “Shot of Love.”

I can still picture Barbara, my baby, nodding to the beat of the music and smiling in the passenger seat of our car, when she said to me, “That’s your song.”

While it is true that an artist as gifted as Bob Dylan, who turns 80 today, cannot be limited, it is also true that, if I had to pick my favorite song by Dylan or anyone else, it would very likely be “Shot of Love.” 

By the time that he began his Christian period, in the late 1970s, Dylan was long famous for his explorations and mergings of folk, rock, country, western and other influences.

And he has continued to evolve and adapt as an artist since then, delving into reggae, mariachi, jazz and other modes in more recent years.

As for “Shot of Love,” it features a mix of Gospel, soul, and electric, hard-pounding rock.  Its lyrics, which blend motifs about God and taking drugs, among other subjects, may best epitomize what I have referred to as Dylan’s “vernacular sublime.”  

And the song’s message that God is love is a concept that Barbara always cherished, from her earliest years as a Sunday school student at a Lutheran church until the day she passed away on Sept. 3, 2019.

But nothing I write can approach something that Barbara said, as we drove through the Grapevine.

At the conclusion of the tune, after it had built to a stirring climax, and as we ascended a ridge north of L.A., Barbara, with her characteristic smile of enchantment and wonder, said to me that, on that song, Bob Dylan “makes God rock!”

I can think of no higher compliment to be paid to any artist or to any human being.

Barbara and I got married on May 26, 2001, two days after Bob Dylan turned 60 and almost 20 years ago.

When I think of my marriage to Barbara, I often think of that of David and Bathsheba, both of whom, as I have noted before, were writers and Muses, who inspired and elevated each other with their love and art.

And when I think of Barbara’s appraisal of “Shot of Love,” an appraisal that is both brilliant and apt, I am reminded of how King David danced with joy at the sight of the Ark of the Covenant when it was being carried back into Jerusalem by the Levites, a story that Barbara was fond of discussing with me.

Michal, David’s then-wife, did not approve of David’s dancing.

But she was wrong.

King David danced with such ecstasy because he loved God so much.  And God returned the favor.

For all of David’s flaws—his excessive shedding of blood, his committing adultery, his sending Uriah to the front lines, where he was killed—David may have been the most blessed human being that we have ever had on this planet.

And his wife, Bathsheba, not Michal, fulfilled their blessing.  Bathsheba was clearly David’s besheret, his soul mate.

Bathsheba revered and worshiped King David, who was not only the greatest warrior and lover of his time, or any time.  He was also arguably the first great lyric poet and singer, who, as a shepherd boy, played the harp and hummed lullabies that soothed not only King Saul but also God.

Perhaps, no one, not Bob Dylan or anyone else, has ever had or ever will have the voice of King David, who played the “secret chord,” as Leonard Cohen, one of Dylan’s friends and sparring partners, famously wrote in “Hallelujah.”

But we can all strive to sing a song of love, a song of praise to God, which, as Jewish mysticism teaches us, is what God loves most of all.

The Kabbalah also teaches us that God has a female essence, a bride, known as the Shekinah, who patrols the Earth and who protects us from evil.

To be sure, the Shekinah has helpers, like Elijah, perhaps the most luminous of prophets, who is said to have ascended to heaven without dying.

According to the Zohar, the most canonical text of the Kabbalah, Elijah flies through the heavens in his chariot, while he too tries to guide us in our fight against evil.

I have sometimes heard people scoff at the notion that there is evil in the world.

No one should doubt its presence on our planet.

Before we met, and after, Barbara and I were on the receiving end of evil that was inflamed, as it often is, by jealousy and lies.

Near the end of this life, Barbara told me that she always knew that she was stronger than the people who had been or were being cruel to her.  And I knew exactly what she meant, because I have always known that I am stronger than the sadists who have tried to destroy me.

Barbara was, of course, referring to spiritual strength.  And so am I.

As Barbara often said, love is the most powerful thing of all.  And God is love.

But not everyone is as lucky as Barbara or I, who saved each other.

Not everyone survives the evil of the world.

Think of George Floyd, who was suffocated and murdered by disgraced ex-cop, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis on May 25 last year.

And if you somehow forgot about that tragedy, just take a look, if you can bear its hideousness, at the footage of Louisiana state troopers, who two years ago tortured and killed Ronald Greene, a Black man.

By now, we all know that Greene’s savage death was covered up and has only come to light due to investigative reporting.

As I took a glimpse at that clip last week, I thought of the recent CNN documentary, produced by Don Lemon, about Marvin Gaye’s album, What’s Going On, a documentary that I watched in San Francisco roughly two weeks ago.

On our last two trips to the Bay Area in June and August 2019, when we listened to “Shot of Love” in our car, Barbara and I watched several CNN specials, produced by Anderson Cooper, one on his late mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, as well as his long interviews with Stephen Colbert and Howard Stern.

Those “AC360” specials on CNN were very poignant for Barbara and me, especially since Barbara was quite ill at the time.  She had lost 20-to-25% of her body weight due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and breast cancer surgery.  

Barbara, who turned 80 in June 2019, ended up passing away about 10 days after our August trip to San Francisco that summer. 

In recent months, I have returned to San Francisco, to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, a favorite haunt of Barbara’s, where we stayed on our trips in 2019.

And it was there two weeks ago that I watched Don Lemon’s special that aired around the 50th anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye’s iconic album.

I have been a fan of Motown music for some years, going back to before I met Barbara, who introduced me to Bob Dylan’s music in the late 1990s when Barbara and I first started dating.

There is no question that Gaye’s lyrics about “picket lines and picket signs,” his allusions to the Vietnam War and police brutality in the United States, and his pleas for de-escalation and love, all resonate with us today.

As Smokey Robinson and others said on the CNN special, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 anthem now sounds like a “prophecy.”

It is also true, as Spike Lee mentioned in the documentary, that, before “What’s Going On,” Gaye sang some of the most uplifting, sexually charged and beautiful love songs, notably his duets with Tammi Terrell.

Lee cited “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as one of his favorites from the late 1960s.

For me, I would choose, “You’re All I Need To Get By.” 

Either way, those duets sung by Gaye and Terrell, like the best of Bob Dylan, like the secret chord played by King David, can bring us close to rapture, to ecstasy.

It is no surprise that many of the greatest singers of the civil rights era, when Barbara taught the first Head Start class and nurtured her public school kindergarten students with Shakespeare, came from a background in the church.

If I am not mistaken, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Betty Everett, Darlene Love and Marvin Gaye all sang in church choirs and/or had fathers who were pastors.

This is also true of Brian Wilson.

Which brings me back to Barbara, who sang in and directed church choirs, and to Bob Dylan, a Bar Mitzvah boy, who first became well known for his protest songs in the early 1960s.

While the Bobster will always be hailed for his own civil rights anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as well as other politically themed songs of social justice, like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Hurricane,” I will always particularly love Dylan for his love songs, just as I will always love Marvin Gaye, more than anything else, for his duets with Tammi Terrell.

Roughly 20 years ago, on the morning of May 26, 2001, as Barbara and I were about to get married, I drove from our Pasadena hotel to a UPS or FedEx building to pick up a gift.

The package was being held at a warehouse about 10 or 15 miles away, which gave me a chance to listen to some Bob Dylan music on my drive.

As I noted earlier, Barbara, my own Shekinah, had brought Dylan’s music into my life in the late 1990s, when she and I would drive up to the Bay Area, where Dylan spent some of his time in the 1960s with Joan Baez.

Barbara’s hair was reddish blonde, not dark, like that of Baez, but, like Baez, Barbara often sported long locks that sometimes cascaded down to her waist, almost like the hair of Rapunzel.

While Barbara was getting ready in our hotel room on our wedding day, I got into our car and made the drive to the mail warehouse.

On the way, I listened to “She Belongs to Me,” one of Dylan’s love songs from Bringing It All Back Home, a 1965 album and the one on which he went electric with “Maggie’s Farm.”

“Shot of Love” may be my favorite song by Bob Dylan or anyone else, but Bringing It All Back Home was Barbara’s favorite Dylan album.

And, so, as I crossed over the Arroyo Seco through Eagle Rock and glided into Glendale from Pasadena, I started to sing along with Dylan on “She Belongs to Me” and to absorb the lyrics.

I played the song another time and then another.

After I picked up the package in the Glassell Park area of Los Angeles, I played “She Belongs to Me” a couple of more times on my drive back to Pasadena.

Then, at the hotel, I told our wedding planner that I wanted to add this love song by Dylan to the play list at our wedding.

I gave her the tape for Bringing It All Back Home, and I told her and the music coordinator that I wanted to have “She Belongs to Me” played at some point, when the jazz orchestra that we hired for the wedding was taking a break at dinner.

Hours later, as we dined at the hotel, the jazz band took one such break.  The music coordinator stuck in the cassette.  

And I heard “She Belongs to Me,” a folk song, in which Dylan plays the acoustic guitar and in which he describes his love luminously, at one point singing that “she wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks.”

Besides comparing my Barbara to Bathsheba, I have often compared her to Cleopatra, to whom Dylan was possibly alluding in that lyric.

Barbara will always remind me of Cleopatra for many reasons, not least of which because “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” in the words of Shakespeare.

While we sat at our table on May 26, 2001, and “She Belongs to Me” played on the sound system, I began to serenade Barbara, my ageless goddess.

A friend of mine from high school, who knew the tune, joined in.   

It was kind of a duet that we sang to Barbara.  (The accompanying photo might be viewed as a barbershop quartet of my high school friends and me, holding hands with Barbara, my Muse.)

Of course, Barbara and I are really the same person, as I have often said.

She is just better looking, much better looking.

As I near my 20th wedding anniversary to my Barbara, it occurs to me that, like King David, Bob Dylan, whom Barbara and I got to know a little bit around the time of our wedding, has, in a sense, baptized all of us with his songs of love for God.  

One might say that it is a “false choice,” to use a phrase popular with lawyers, to choose among the songs of Dylan or any great artist.  

While the civil rights anthems by Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and others are songs that deftly illuminate racial injustice, they are also, above all, songs about love, about the need to heal, and about the capacity of human beings to overcome hatred with light and truth.

There is no doubt that the love and wisdom that Dylan, like King David, has given us cannot be limited.

It is also true that no artist, no Psalmster, no writer of sublime prose or poetry, can write a masterpiece without the love of his Muse.

So, to Bob Dylan, let me wish you a happy 80th birthday!  

You continue to bless us, Bob, with your gifts of love, gifts that, like the glory of God, will always be “manifold,” mystical and ein sof, or without end, as per the Zohar. 

As for Barbara Bunny, my besheret and my Shekinah, as well as my Muse, I wish you and me a very special 20th wedding anniversary two days in advance!

You will always be my Bathsheba, my J writer and my Cleopatra; and, in your “infinite variety,” sweet Barbara, you rise to and float in the heavens.

I will dance the hora with you again, my angel, as we sing our opus of love, ascend to the ether and make God rock!

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