Roll on, Bob


bob-dylanBob Dylan is among the most lauded people ever to walk the earth. From the moment he entered the American popular imagination as a 21-year-old waif in 1962, he was called genius, prophet, seer, shapeshifter, myth, legend—though as he once cheekily remarked at a press conference, he considers himself more of a song-and-dance man. Song-and-dance men don’t get Nobel Prizes, do they?

Words are what Dylan is best known for, and literature is made of words, so the committee that awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature Thursday probably thought that it could get away with a little fudging. But anyone who appreciates Dylan knows that he is more than the words. He is the sound, the look, the attitude, and, above all, the enigma. Whether dressed as a boxcar hobo and singing songs for Woody Guthrie, or in his mid-sixties persona as the Midwestern Rimbaud, or in his current guise as a riverboat gambler, Dylan has always been more than just words. Fingerpicking his guitar alone on a stool, strumming a Stratocaster while fronting the Band, or crooning his crooked voice into an old-timey microphone, Dylan himself has always been the hook on the end of the fishing line. The words are just the worm.

So what explains this madness? The Nobel Committee may be looking forward to a Dylan acceptance speech. His last public-speaking engagement was an unqualified hoot. Accepting the MusicCares Person of the Year 2015 Award, Dylan described his songs as “mystery plays, the kind Shakespeare saw when he was growing up.” He also took time to settle scores with songwriters Leiber and Stoller, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, and country legend Merle Haggard. He reserved his most pointed words for the critics.

Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? Let me tell you something. I was at a boxing match a few years ago seeing Floyd Mayweather fight a Puerto Rican guy. And the Puerto Rican national anthem, somebody sang it and it was beautiful. It was heartfelt and moving. After that it was time for our national anthem. And a very popular soul-singing sister was chosen to sing. She sang every note that exists, and some that don’t exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one-syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was a trapeze act. But to me it was not funny.

Bob Dylan doesn’t need a Nobel Prize, though maybe the Nobel Prize needs Bob Dylan. The members of the Nobel Prize committee could simply have stars in their eyes. I’d vote to give him the award, too, if he promised to make another speech like that.

Usually, Nobel Prizes are meant to play a dual purpose. The stated agenda is artistic, but the hidden purpose is political. If so, the Nobel committee will be disappointed in Dylan. Since the early 1960s, he has studiously avoided tipping his ideological hand. In America, the Right loves him because many suspect that he’s a closet conservative. The Left claims him, too, because it’s always a safe bet to assume that writers, artists, poets, and dreamers are basically Communists. And since Dylan rose to fame by writing the best songs of the Civil Rights era, they assume that he remains a good sixties liberal. That was half a century ago, though. A man of many words, Dylan offers precious few on politics.

As a young man, he seemed old. As an old man, he seems invincible. He has done more than any of his bazillion-selling contemporaries to maintain an aura of unknowability, of panache, of cultivated disdain. With his wide-brimmed cordobés hat throwing shadows over his pencil mustache, bolo tie, and three-quarter-length white jacket, he looks these days like a card sharp, an oily snake in the long American grass. It’s a tidy style for an older artist. If it seems spooky or weird, it’s only because we’re used to orange-haired septuagenarians in skinny jeans and sneakers.

Dylan is the real deal, cut from genuine American cloth. His output has accelerated during the fifth act of his long-running mystery play. His most recent recordings—of American standards—were so good they raised eyebrows. The Dylan voice, once the butt of jokes, has aged like good whiskey. It goes down smooth, with notes of smoke and wood and pine.

Dylan has written books, it should be noted—the much-ridiculed Tarantula, a stream-of-consciousness affair compiled in the mid-sixties and published in 1971, and Chronicles: Volume One, his 2004 memoir. Chronicles was so well-received that everyone assumed that there would be a Volume Two. Twelve years on, though, no follow-up has appeared. If the Nobel Prize for Literature spurs Dylan to put pen to paper and finish that story, then perhaps it will have performed a service.

Originally published at City Journal

Published in Entertainment, Literature
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  1. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya

    I’ve never seen him live, but I know a lot of Dylan fans who have come away from his shows scratching their heads.  It is certainly his right as a performer to refrain from engaging with the audience and to sing unintelligibly, but it antagonizes and disappoints many concert attendees.  Artists shouldn’t pander to audiences; they can challenge them, but they shouldn’t disdain them.

    • #1
  2. Brian Clendinen Inactive
    Brian Clendinen

    Johnny Dubya:I’ve never seen him live, but I know a lot of Dylan fans who have come away from his shows scratching their heads. It is certainly his right as a performer to refrain from engaging with the audience and to sing unintelligibly, but it antagonizes and disappoints many concert attendees. Artists shouldn’t pander to audiences; they can challenge them, but they shouldn’t disdain them.

    I agree brilliant song writer and lyricist and now almost amateurish live performer. He was great live for about the first 20 years from performance I have found on Youtube,  then just went down hill. My favorite trait about Dylan is  he’s a brutally honest celebrity that is very self actualized and really does not care. Not in the arrogant way I am a star but I don’t care because it does not matter and everyone makes a bigger deal out of me and what I say and do  than they should.

    • #2
  3. JLocked Inactive

    I’ve seen Dylan in each of my three decades of life. Hoping to get at least two more shows in. Great post.

    • #3
  4. EJHill Podcaster

    And he still can’t sing.

    • #4
  5. Lidens Cheng Member
    Lidens Cheng

    I saw him once. The band was great and I couldn’t understand a single word coming out of his mouth. I loved it!

    • #5
  6. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty

    The release of his first two albums coincided with my freshman year in college.  You don’t easily recover from something like that, although every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.

    • #6
  7. She Member

    Lidens Cheng:I saw him once. The band was great and I couldn’t understand a single word coming out of his mouth.

    I’m fond of Emmylou Harris, who I’ve seen live a few times, and she has the same effect, on me at least.

    • #7
  8. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley

    Sorry guys, to my mind, this is what Bob Dylan sounds like in clear English:

    • #8
  9. EJHill Podcaster

    George and Ira Gershwin won a Pulitzer.

    And in that vein Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and other great song writers couldn’t carry their own tunes. Sometimes you’re better off letting others do that.

    • #9
  10. Vance Richards Inactive
    Vance Richards

    Now kids looking to fulfill their Literature requirement for school can stop wasting time on War and Peace and just listen to Tweeter and the Monkeyman instead.

    • #10
  11. Pugshot Inactive

    No offense to Dylan, but the Nobel Committee(s) jumped the shark a long time ago! Talk about award choices that should embarass both the giver and the receiver (other than in physics, chemistry, and medicine)!

    • #11
  12. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson

    Great post!

    I saw Dylan in concert with John Prine about 15 years ago.  Dylan was terrible on stage.  He suffers from bad stage fright,  and on some days it is worse than others, so you never know what you are going to get.

    As for his ability to sing – I would much rather listen to a singer with some pitch problems but who sings with emotion and heart than some over-coached 18 year old who can make spectacular, pitch-perfect runs employed for no apparent reason other than to impress the audience.

    Johnny Cash wasn’t the greatest technical singer around either,  and he recorded ‘Hurt’ at the end of his life when he could barely form a note,  but it’s still one of the most moving vocal performances I have ever heard.

    Shows like American Idol have done a lot of damage by making us believe that great vocal performances are all about perfect pitch and being able to hit big sustained high notes.  Give me Dylan over Celine Dion any day.

    • #12
  13. notmarx Member

    sui generis. And his imitators are legion. It took me a while to realize what a great singer he is. No one would mistake his voice for Pavarotti’s, but at the end of any bar he’s sung, he’s delivered a musical and emotional overload. Reminds me of the older Billie Holiday, when her voice had gotten ugly, but she knew more than you’d ever want to. At first hearing you don’t want to hear any more.

    He writes incomparable songs and other people can sing them and will want to, but he owns the patent on a few (‟Like a Rolling Stone” for example), and it’s rare that another singer’s version doesn’t sound simplistic after his. The songs seem to examine the singer in a way those of only a few other songwriters do.

    It’s hard to think of a writer in my lifetime half as influential as he is. His emotional range seems to have no limit — just think of the love songs, from ‟Forever Young” to ‟Idiot Wind”.

    I love his Gospel period. ‟Every Grain of Sand”, the story of a conversion that closes Shot of Love, I consider his greatest song. Great Explainer Bishop Robert Barron is a big Dylan fan. His YouTube commentary on ‟All Along The Watchtower” is worth a look.

    The award’s going to Les Murray might have pleased me as much. But maybe not.

    • #13
  14. Roberto Inactive

    The Nobel committee has truly outdone itself and with such aplomb too. Bravo sirs! Celebrations are in order.

    • #14
  15. BD Member

    Appeared on “Pawn Stars” with Chumlee?

    • #15
  16. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya

    As I posted comment #1 which was rather negative, I thought I should mention that I like Dylan.  Certainly, if I were given a free ticket to one of his shows, I would make at least moderate effort to go.  If I were given a free ticket to see Celine Dion across the street, I wouldn’t bother stepping into the crosswalk.

    From what I’ve heard, though, Dylan seems unwilling or incapable of doing his songs justice in a live setting.

    Next month, I’m going to see Gregg Allman, another Sixties survivor, but one can sing intelligibly, engage with the audience, and give his songs the respect they deserve.  I’m also seeing Elvis Costello and the Imposters, who are as vibrant and electrifying as ever.

    While the selection of Dylan for the Nobel Prize has spurred a great deal of debate about its appropriateness, one thing is certain:  Dylan is approximately one thousand times more worthy of receiving the prize for literature than Barack Obama was of receiving the prize for peace – a selection that still has me gobsmacked, years later.

    • #16
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