What Kind of Love Is This?: Bob Dylan, Max Weber, and the Song of Songs


The Song of Songs is a covenantal love song. It's a song for grown-ups, not to be confused with pop. It contains commitment, conflation, threat, desperation, poetry, and it's completely out of line: a covenantal love song of the biblical kind, and Dylanesque.

"Walking," in the words of "Ain't Talkin'," "through streets that are dead," Bob Dylan has been probing themes of covenant and love for five decades. His work embodies a prophetic voice anticipated more than a century ago by German sociologist Max Weber.

Weber taught that the covenantal systems like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam function within the tension of two competing energies. On one side of his scale of religion rests charismatic or prophetic sensibilities. We'll call that love. At the opposite end lies rationality, an urge for systematizing and regulating religious charisma. We'll call that covenant. As I survey the presence of biblical themes in some of Dylan's love songs, I will be looking for this particular combination of covenant and love.

According to Weber, the most enduring societies manage to balance the tension inherent between spirit and structure, love and covenant. But when the flow between charisma and rationality slows or ceases, religious structures entropy, and oppression ranging from everyday meaninglessness to authoritarianism and systemic religious violence emerge.

Yet Weber also suggested the possibility of religious figures and movements that might emerge to salvage the "soul" trapped in fossilized covenants. "No one knows who will live in this cage in the future," he says in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), "or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals."

Bob Dylan navigates and reanimates static inherited covenants while interpreting both collective and personal religious, political, and romantic history to construct new ones. In a world of "Ain't Talkin'"—where there "ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road," a world of loveless, pointless covenant—Dylan models Weber's "great rebirth of old ideas and ideals" with prophetic art that refreshes and re-imagines ancient covenants in a modern creative idiom.

During one of Bob Dylan's most fecund periods, his 1960's collaboration with The Band (celebrated on December 5 in Bob Dylan and the Band: What Kind of Love Is This?, a gallery exhibition, symposium, and all-star concert at the 14th Street Y in association with Le Poisson Rouge) Richard Manuel and Dylan composed one of the oddest songs of love and covenant in Dylan's oeuvre, "Tears of Rage." It was the song that opened the Band's first album Music from Big Pink (1968), sung by the incomparable Manuel:

We carried you in our arms on Independence Day
And now you'd throw us all aside and put us all away
Oh, what dear daughter 'neath the sun could treat a father so?
To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him "No"

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we're so low
And life is brief

It was all very painless
When you went out to receive
All that false instruction
Which we never could believe
And now the heart is filled with gold
As if it was a purse
But, oh, what kind of love is this
Which goes from bad to worse?

Tears of rage…
We pointed you the way to go
And scratched your name in sand
Though you just thought it was nothing more
Than a place for you to stand
I want you to know that while we watched
You discovered no one would be true
And I myself was among
The ones who thought
It was just a childish thing to do

"What kind of love it this, that goes from bad to worse?," the narrator asks. Song of Songs shares the seal of love upon arm and heart like tefillin in a playful, ironic, or rebellious reference to covenant; the father asks how his daughter could disband herself from him and mock their covenant once sealed on Independence Day, but now unraveled.

At the 14th Street Y, we will be asking a stellar group of artists, critics, writers, and musicians “What kind of love is this?” about Bob Dylan and The Band, one of rock's most bewitching collaborations. Enjoy a preview of this conversation about this love  with three of our presenters, writers John Niven and Dana Spiotta and critic Greil Marcus.

Portions of this essay reprinted with permission from Eros: A Journal by LABA.