This blog post has been updated.
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Wowzer! Here’s The Washington Post’s article about it.
This was not entirely a shock: People have been talking about Dylan winning a Nobel for years. There was a good piece in the NYT in 2013 making the case for Dylan. The New Republic last week guaranteed Dylan wouldn’t win (oops) but other than that small misstep did a nice job of surveying the competition out there.
There’s been a mixed response to the selection, plus some sympathy for those overlooked, including Philip Roth. The Post reports that Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh said that Dylan’s selection was an “ill-conceived nostalgia award” made for “senile, gibbering hippies.” That’s me! I have listened to Dylan since he came out with “Blood on the Tracks” (his best album; “Tangled Up in Blue” is the perfect song to play when setting out on an early-morning road trip).
Dylan is famously enigmatic and hard to know, but in 2015 he gave an epic speech that anyone who is interested in him and his career should read. Key point: He continued a tradition. He listened, sampled, borrowed, stitched together material from other artists and created something original but not “out of thin air.” Here’s Bob:
These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock & roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music. … I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone. For three or four years, all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs.
In his speech he was combative about criticism of his singing:
Some of the music critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t these same critics say similar things about Tom Waits? They say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free? What have I done to deserve this special treatment? Why me, Lord?
I’ve written occasionally about Dylan over the years and just stumbled across my Rough Draft column from May 2001. Here it is:
Bob Dylan’s 60th Birthday is a remarkable event, for the simple reason that Dylan is alive at all. He came of age at a time when most popular musicians died young. It was simply how things were done back then. Rock stars died tragically, but predictably. No one ever wondered, for even a passing moment, what Janis Joplin would be doing when she hit 60. In some rare cases rock stars managed to die of drug overdoses DURING A PLANE CRASH.
I’m a Dylan fan, someone who can remember a time when I not only listened to Dylan religiously but also — apparently I had a lot of spare time then — studied his album covers for hidden messages. If you looked closely at “Bringing It All Back Home” you could see that the woman in the background might actually be Dylan in drag. It was mind-blowing!
Dylan is a genius. This is a neurological certainty — only a genius would have any brain cells left at this point after all the weed he smoked. This is noted with all due respect. It can be safely assumed that he has experimented with marijuana, and that, apparently, the protocol of the experiment required prolonged exposure to large quantities of the experimental product.
Actually, I have no data on this, but it’s known that Dylan introduced the Beatles to pot, that one of his famous choruses is “Everybody must get stoned,” and that, for decades, he’s done a credible impersonation of someone stoned out of his mind. Indeed, this may explain why Dylan is still touring, performing about 100 concerts a year: He’s under the impression that it’s still 1965.
More likely, though, he’s just doing his job. The secret of geniuses — kids, take note — is that they work harder than everyone else. [Update: This is the “Why" alluded to in this blog post’s headline.]
Dylan was among the first popular artists to realize that having a fan base was not much different from having a cult. He wrapped himself in mystique. Like all cult leaders he played with your head — he bombarded you with words that dared you to decipher their meaning. You can’t be a cult leader if you’re easily understood. Let’s surf to bobdylan.com for some lyrics from “The Ballad of a Thin Man”:
You hand in your ticket/ And you go watch the geek/ Who immediately walks up to you/ When he hears you speak/ And says, ‘How does it feel/ To be such a freak?’/ And you say, ‘Impossible’/ As he hands you a bone.
What’s this mean? Is this poetry or the ravings of a madman? It’s just Dylan. Don’t THINK so hard. Believe in Bob. (Don’t be such a freak!)
Dylan lyrics are usually dreamscapes. Like Jackson Pollock, he’s splashing words and phrases and scraps of narrative and funny lines and goofy thoughts onto a huge aural canvass.
The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who sits worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.
It’s a glimpse of a story. We have to invent the missing parts ourselves.
For me, Dylan’s songs have always been “driving music.” “Blood on the Tracks” got me down many a highway. A lot of Dylan songs are about journeys, maybe because Dylan himself was on the road so much — I don’t picture the guy ever joining his neighborhood gardening club.
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways,
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
That’s the Apocalyptic Bob, singing in his Woody Guthrie voice. There’s also the Irreverent Bob.
God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
Many people fail to see Dylan’s charm. They never had a Dylan phase, never got the bug. They point out that his voice sometimes sounds like its coming from a lamb that’s about to be turned into lamb chops. At his best, though, Dylan’s vocals are amazing, almost heroic — few other singers would go anywhere near the opening lines of “Hurricane”:
Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/ Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall. She sees the bartender in a pool of blood,/ Cries out, ‘My God, they killed them all!’/ Here comes the story of the Hurricane,/ The man the authorities came to blame/ For somethin’ that he never done./ Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been/ The champion of the world.
That’s Protest Bob, rarely seen after the Sixties. Apparently he could, if he wished, deliver information, and tell a straight narrative. But he knows that lasting art speaks not to the brain but to the soul.
I hope Dylan keeps touring for another 40 years, keeps working hard, writing songs, telling us his dreams. We may never figure the man out entirely. I sure hope we don’t.