A week or so ago, a friend, Nilanjan Hajra, wrote from Kolkata and asked me if I would write a little piece on Bob Dylan on being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He figured it was of my time, and I might have a little worth saying. I accepted and set about writing. This was finished before the ever enigmatic Mr Dylan went into quasi hiding, declined to acknowledge the matter, and was accused by a Nobel committee person of being arrogant and rude. Mr Dylan, throughout his career, has made it clear that he isn’t inclined to be what others want him to be, so thus far stiffing the Nobel folks is par for the course. Here’s my two-bits.
Bob Dylan burst, along with the Beatles, onto the American scene, and shortly thereafter, the world’s, in the early 60’s. Starting mythically out of small-town America (Hibbing, Minnesota), he hitched himself at a young age to New York City, at that time surely the throbbing heart of American “culture.” He was no small town rube, even at the age of 19, though he was smart enough to use his humble origins as leverage. He jumped head first into the early 60’s thriving “folk” scene, with the cachet that he was actually from the hinterlands – unlike more than a handful of New York folkies. With an eye to the future and the talent to aim himself at it, he managed in quick order to make himself the center of a little galaxy of folk singers – Rambling Jack Elliot, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Joan Collins, and a host of others who worshiped at the shrine of Woody Guthrie. Dylan though managed to seize the moment and the spotlight, and found himself the lead act for Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington, singing lyrics of Only A Pawn In the Game, and then Eyes on the Prize just before King gave his famed I Have a Dream speech. Dylan vaulted, at the age of 22, to being an icon of the civil rights movement, and shortly afterward, as the American war in Vietnam expanded, to a central symbolic figure of the anti-war movement, with songs such as Masters of War.
In 1965, as reigning King of the folk world, Dylan left blood on the tracks at the Newport Folk Festival, wielding an electric guitar and band, announcing I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More, leaving the insular folky world to a chorus of boo’s and he promptly leaped into the far wider world of rock. Thereafter for some decades he wore the mantel of (one of the) King’s of Rock, able to fill stadiums with fervid fans around the world.
Among my friends of the time, a new release by the Beatles or Dylan was received by many as an oracular event, tablets being handed down from the Mount. They’d huddle together for a first listen and try to decipher the meanings, looking for mystical messages in the lyrics. I found this idolatry a bit ridiculous, but I imagine the Beatles and Dylan found it still more absurd. They responded by developing the “put on,” with John Lennon and Dylan as the masters of this art. Along the way they littered their trails with enigmatic quotables, which served both to heighten the sense of mystique around them, and at the same time to outrage and embitter others. “We’re more popular than Jesus,” said Lennon. While Dylan asserted he’d just used the protest movement of the time as a tool for fame. His subsequent life seems to have affirmed this, though via a very tortured path through finding his Jewish roots in journeys to Israel, and then becoming for a while some kind of fundamentalist Christian, and finally arriving in his old age making advertisements for Victoria’s Secret and Ford SUV’s and making albums of Christmas songs.
[From an interview in Rolling Stone, 1967:
Question by Nat Hentoff: If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?
Answer: Ladies garments.]
And receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.
With the announcement of this award, the usual chorus arrived – those who declared it was far too late, that Dylan’s genius had long been evident, that the Nobel Committee was in process of expanding its concept of literature. Or conversely that the prize was a travesty, Dylan’s work was not literature, that he needed no further recognition but hidden writers, or famous ones, (Delillo or….) did, and that as multi-millionaire, he did not need the $900,000 prize.
For myself it opened up something I have long pondered – that “song” as on-the-page “poetry” seldom works, whether it is pop music or Italian opera, or German Lieder. It is only the conjunction of often clutzy lyrics with the music that elevates an Italian (soap) opera from trash to the sublime, and the same with most popular song lyrics. Dylan’s songs, though often littered with arcane “intellectual” references and catchy hook lines, are similar: on the page they read as lousy poetry, and sung, even with his ragged voice, they can tear your heart out. Such is the mystery of song. Whether in turn we can say such is “literature” or not I am not at all sure. It is though, “art.”
And that in turn raises the matter of artists and “character.” Dylan’s story is full of embittered relationships, accusations of “love and theft,” betrayal, and “selling out.” He owns a sprawling house in Malibu, another in Minnesota. He’s a rich man. And he still tours, playing small places and large, sharing the stage with the likes of Merle Haggard (of the anti-hippie anthem, Okie from Muskogie). What to make of these contradictions?
Hailing from Hibbing, Minnesota, a learned student in the long swathe of American song – from slave chants to blues, from Elvis to Sinatra – as well as poetry, Dylan is, by nature, pure Americana. And in turn, enveloped in this most American world, it is clear from his life, that he set out at a very early age to be successful, to be another Elvis, Sinatra, or even more. One can see his arrogance and certainty in the early D.A. Pennebaker documentary, Don’t Look Back, especially in a withering scene with the British folker, Donovan. And one can read it in the litany of complaints of ex-girlfriends, fellow musicians, and others who have underlined what a nasty and mean piece of work he can be. And what else is new? A lot of famed writers, artists, musicians, businessmen and politicians carry the same story: getting ahead is, not always, but often, for those driven souls who know inside what they are and can do, and if it takes walking over others to do so, so be it. The arts world, and every other world, is littered with the stories of the famous, extraordinarily talented, successful, asshole.
Most American cultural icons manage in one manner or another to spin out into suicide: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Sylvia Plath, Curt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendricks, Jim Morrison, Mark Rothko, and a very long list of others. Dylan has eluded this fate. Instead perhaps he has sadly embodied the other American form of suicide. Presumably not needing it at all, he’s let himself become a shill for American corporatism, doing advertisements on television and during that orgy of our national religion “the Business of America is Business,” the SUPERBOWL, a patriotic plug for Detroit gas guzzlers. He’s been awarded the President’s Medal of Freedom award at the White House, a Pulitzer, Grammies, and the other accolades one can get as a musician in the United States. Though, he didn’t “sell out” as he’s been accused of doing: he was always from the start a dyed in the wool American, and he sought, at whatever cost, “success” as measured in American terms.
“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
Alexis de Tocqueville
I wonder what Mr Zimmerman will say at the Nobel Ceremony, and what he will do with the $900,000 award.
He is, though, a great songwriter.