Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate?
Yes, some naysayers object to his winning. Why they're wrong.
I was down in the basement mixing up the medicine when I heard Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I knew then there would be no song this week, how do you choose? Instead, let’s appreciate the man on this splendid sunny day.
The Nobel Prize for Literature seems just about right to me. Others who heard him rearrange the universe of song with his first few albums and then continue to fascinate through more fallow periods and surprising comebacks probably agree. In reality, there was nothing to come back from but people’s expectations — but they were enormous.
Bob Dylan probably created the not so wonderful world of rock criticism singlehandedly. I was working on that thorny topic when the word came from Stockholm. Thanks for saving me again, Bob, it was turning into a rant! For now, let’s break out the noisemakers, preferably the Fender kind, and celebrate how how the man bent traditional musical perspective. Like Picasso, but with a harmonica rack around his neck, Dylan looked at things from every angle at once and created a terrible beauty.
I love Dylan for the usual reasons — the early protest songs, written in his early twenties were already mature works, and he sang them with one of the most identifiable American voices since Louis Armstrong. (That voice, by the way, was an acquired taste; set against a background of the smooth preppy Folk Music of the time, it was jarring.) When the pressure of saving the world and having to be some sort of guitar toting messiah became too much, he decided to duck out the back door. Then things got really interesting. The next few records laid waste to any expectations of things ever being the same. Lying at his feet was the wreckage of everything that came before him. Traditional Tin Pan Alley would survive, but just barely; and after years of rehab and finally, with Dylan in his seventies, he tipped his hat to the Great American Songbook his style once supplanted. He put an end to the era of lame teen idols and made the wonderful girl groups of the time sound frivolous.
After albums like Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde were released, a permanent mountain was placed in the path of any young, aspiring songwriter. Mount Dylan stood there, daring you to climb it or go around it. It had to be dealt with and whatever route you chose was an acknowledgement that things had changed. Those who responded by imitating could be forgiven, considering the scope of his achievement — but the world didn’t need another Dylan. Trying to out-Dylan Dylan was futile. Some, like John Prine, came pretty damn close and then went on to find their own unique voices.
During his classic period, when Newport fans booed him, and The Beatles embraced him, Dylan started to put some serious distance between himself and the pack. With the the best band around, (The Band) and the fountain of poetry that flowed daily from his wild imagination, he was prodigious and completely unpredictable. Poignant and tender one moment, vicious and filled with stinging black humor the next. Yep, this is the stuff I’ve caught myself cribbing from time to time. I doubt that I’m alone; avoiding his influence would be like stepping outside and not breathing the air. Impossible.
So, the Nobel Prize? Some may say that’s a stretch, but it makes beautiful sense to me. Dylan has a legitimate claim on being the modern Shakespeare. He has something you can quote on just about any topic. He may not have coined as many phrases, but he speaks in a modern tongue, one that needs no translation for those not fortunate enough to have studied the Bard. Had he stopped after the first few albums, he would still been in the running. But he kept going and going. He’s still at it, touring like the ultimate road dog.
Dylan has enriched our lives with his unique gift and given permission to a whole generation of artists to aspire to something higher. Some succeed and some don’t — we won’t go into that. But when you can look back and say you changed the course of music history you’ve accomplished something rare, so a Nobel Prize is simply the cherry on top.
It might be prudent for the committee in Stockholm to prepare for a surprise. Old Bob gave a short speech at another ceremony I will always remember. It was at the Grammys in 1991, the year of the first Gulf War. He was being given a Lifetime Achievement Award and had already scorched the crowd with an absolutely nasty version of “Masters Of War.” But looking across a sea of music industry types, there was more on his mind. Remembering his father, who he called a simple man, he quoted him. These words stuck out: “Son, you may become so defiled in this world your own mother and father will abandon you…”
The speech then softened a little with a word about God always being there and picking you up, but it was the darkest, most biblical thank you speech I ever heard. Maybe the funniest, too. I’m sure there were a few members of the Academy who would have taken their votes back by then.
That was and probably still is Dylan. He’s scrawny, wiry and peckish. He has a nasally voice that repels some. But he carries a big club — the English language in all it’s mystifying power and glory. He wields it like a warlock. Congratulations Bob, may you stay forever young!