Thoughts on Dylan’s Nobel Prize
Asking me how I feel about the music of Bob Dylan is like asking me how I feel about air—it’s just there, it permeates everything, it’s an essential of life. Now I realize that many of you out there don’t share my enthusiasm. That’s okay: either you get Bob Dylan or you don’t. But what a lot of people who don’t like him really don’t like is not the real Bob Dylan but the common caricature of him: the overlauded, nasally, incomprehensible Voice of the Baby Boomer Generation.
Through Dylan I came to accept real life. No more exalted romanticism, no more fantasy.
Bob Dylan obviously won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his lyrics (but honorable mention also goes to his memoirs and truly unique liner notes). Most rock and pop lyrics are completely disposable—either sickeningly clichéd or absurdly abstract. But Dylan’s lyrics are just the right blend of mystery and exactitude, humor and seriousness, emotion and intellect.
There’s the early folk protest Dylan, the writer of what he called “finger-pointin’ songs”:
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
Then there’s the sly absurdist of the mid-Sixties:
Grandpa died last week
And now he’s buried in the rocks
But everybody still talks about
How badly they were shocked
But me, I expected it to happen
I knew he’d lost control
When he built a fire on Main Street
And shot it full of holes
Then there’s the realist of the Seventies dealing with life’s disappointments:
People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring
She was born in spring, but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate
And now there’s the world-weary wise man:
Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
Somehow I grew up never really hearing Bob Dylan. I only saw him perform once on a David Letterman 10th Anniversary special in the early Nineties, and it was not a performance to inspire awe. It was Dylan at his worst—incoherent and indifferent, probably drunk and definitely sweating profusely.
But then I got hold of a Greatest Hits CD the spring of my sophomore year of college. Gave it a listen. It was like someone hit me upside the head with a Louisville Slugger. For the next two years he’s basically all I listened to.
Through Dylan I came to accept real life. No more exalted romanticism, no more fantasy. Through Dylan I really started to appreciate America—its music and culture and history. Through Dylan I learned about the folk tradition. I’m not talking about the Peter, Paul and Mary sort of campfire singalong type folk music here—I’m talking about the deep, dark, strange world of Stack-A-Lee, Pretty Peggy-O, and Diamond Joe.
And through him I’m learning about aging, about mortality, about stoically looking life in the face:
We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I’m haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down
Bards in ancient times had the whole of Homer committed to memory and could recite him whenever called upon. Later on there were folks who could reel off hundreds of lines of poets like Shakespeare and Dante and preachers who had whole books of the Bible memorized. Me, I’ve got the songs of Bob Dylan running constantly through my head: a cherished treasure and a noble prize.