John Harris

Journalist & Author

Bob Dylan: his Hells Angel conversion

Dylan says his brush with a dead Hells Angel has helped him ‘fly above the chaos’. Well, his new album, Tempest, is very, very good

The Oxford English Dictionary defines transfiguration as “a complete transformation into a more beautiful or spiritual state“. It also says that if you put the definite article before the word in question and start it with a capital ‘T’, you’re referring to “Christ’s appearance in radiant glory to three of his disciples”, as described in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2-3, and commemorated by churches on 6 August.

Alternatively, the word can also denote what happens when the soul of a dead Hells Angel killed in a bike smash somehow glues itself into the being of an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who just happens to have the same name, and thus sets him on the path to his own motorcycle accident and rootsy and somewhat biblical musical rebirth two years later.

I’m not sure I get it, either. But in an interview in the current Rolling Stone, that’s pretty much what Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman, of course, which will become relevant in a minute) says happened in 1964. He appears to have come to this conclusion after reading Hell’s Angel, the inventively titled memoir written by Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the infamous founder of the Oakland, California, branch of the cuddly motorcycle club of the same name. Barger makes reference to the death of one Bobby Zimmerman, “one of the early Presidents of the Berdoo Hells Angels”, who was killed in a crash with another Angel. And there we are: Bob’s your uncle. Or rather, he’s two uncles at once, one of whom happens to be dead (or something). And get this: Barger’s book was co-written by Kent Zimmerman and Keith Zimmerman. Weird.

“When you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead,” Dylan goes on to tell his inquisitor, Mikal Gilmore. “But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot … Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.”

Just to make things even stranger, Rolling Stone has established that Zimmerman – the Hells Angel, that is – died in 1961, and passed “within weeks … of the September 1961 New York Times live review that gave Dylan his first big break”. The magazine has also tracked down his brother, who recalls his sibling being “pretty violent – I heard he once took out a guy’s eyeball with a chain”. Little did anyone know that, thanks to a little bit of hocus-pocus in the hereafter, he would soon be helping out with Rimbaud-esque poetry of the highest stripe, as well as inventing folk-rock and hopping on with Joan Baez: more fun, certainly, than taking the Pythagorean option of being reincarnated as a bean.

Seen from a Richard Dawkins-type perspective, Dylan’s sudden belief in this very singular notion of transfiguration is arguably no more or less strange than the apocalyptic model of Christianity he enthusiastically adopted circa 1978. Or his one-time belief in astrology. Or, come to think of it, the idea – apparently advanced in his memoir, Chronicles – that his music underwent a revolution in 1987 when he saw an unnamed club singer in New Orleans and felt “like parts of my psyche were being communicated to by angels”. There again, one also pictures that smirk of mischief breaking out across Dylan’s face once Gilmore had left, and the whole thing amounting to slightly less than it appears.

In the final analysis, little of this actually matters. Dylan’s sporadic interviews are always profoundly strange exercises in dodging any kind of definition and throwing a few new canards to the world, and the main point is this: his new album, Tempest, is very, very good – more intimations of mortality and mystery, voiced via music that evokes America at its most magical and murky. Moreover, though people who know about such things say he probably has no realistic chance, his odds of winning this year’s Nobel prize for literature are put at 10-1, which is not something that is going to happen to, say, him out of the Vaccines.

Still, if only for a laugh, let us take him at his word, accept the “transfiguration” hypothesis, and marvel at Bobby Zimmerman’s posthumous social mobility and self-improvement. From taking out someone’s eyeball with a chain to being tipped for a gong previously given to George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway and Günter Grass: as the Dylan song goes, Lo and behold!

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