Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Nobel’s Door
Elliot Landy/Redferns — Getty Images
By BILL WYMAN
Published: September 28, 2013
THIS year’s Nobel Prize in Literature should be announced in early October, and over on the tony British betting site Ladbrokes, Haruki Murakami of Japan, riding the waves of acclaim for his fantastical novel “1Q84,” is the favorite. Other well-known names — Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates — are bandied about, but Mr. Murakami is unique: among perennial Nobel front-runners, it would be difficult to find a writer more influenced by the popular music and culture born of the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s.
Using excerpts from Bob Dylan’s lyrics, Bill Wyman explains why the musician deserves literary praise.
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That fact prompts a pressing question: why isn’t the most vital of the artistic catalysts of those upheavals himself a front-runner for the prize? I’m referring of course to Bob Dylan, a fierce and uncompromising poet whose writing, 50 years on, still crackles with relevance. Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience. His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.
I’m not the first to suggest it, but it’s time to take the idea seriously. The Nobel Prize in Literature is not awarded posthumously, and Mr. Dylan, now in his 70s, has battled heart disease. Alfred Nobel’s will decreed that the prize should go to a writer with “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Why hasn’t Bob Dylan received one?
Given his medium (songwriting) and profession (rock star), Mr. Dylan may have some strikes against him:
Bob Dylan is not in the mold of the sober creator of “great literature.” He most certainly is not — but consider: in 1997, the literature prize went to Dario Fo, the incorrigible and profane Italian playwright, at whose selection the Roman Catholic Church in particular was amusingly aghast. The vast majority of literature prize recipients are world titans (Mario Vargas Llosa, Günter Grass) or less-well-known but established candidates (Orhan Pamuk of Turkey, the late Seamus Heaney of Ireland), with a relatively obscure recipient every so often (like Elfriede Jelinek of Austria nine years ago), just to keep us all on our toes. It has been too long since the Swedish Academy has honored a mind like Mr. Fo’s.
Mr. Dylan just writes pop lyrics. Actually, Mr. Dylan writes, full stop. Why discount what has been written because of where it ends up? Those who would use the word “pop” as a cudgel or tool of exclusion do so at their peril. Dickens and Twain, Hugo and Shakespeare and Euripides — all soaked up the acclaim of their day. Alfred Hitchcock, whose work at its height met critical condescension, would have some useful thoughts on the subject as well.
Still — his doggerel verses are not literature. In the 1950s in America, rock was a mongrel music, created out of the cultures of the downtrodden — people who built their lives around the blues, folk, gospel or country. Electric guitars got involved, and then some leers and hip thrusts. A new postwar generation of youth took notice, and a cultural revolution was born.
Mr. Dylan added literature. He was first, of course, a singer of folky loquacity, and a serious student of the music’s antediluvian influences: what the critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America.” To this he wedded the yawp of the Beats and the austere intellectualism of the Symbolists. Drugs didn’t hurt, and passing but pungent imagery shows that Mr. Dylan had absorbed the Bible as well.
That disruptive mélange gave us the imagery and power of songs like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Desolation Row,” of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Visions of Johanna,” among scores of others. He has displayed a mastery of everything from the political jeremiad (“It’s Alright, Ma [I’m Only Bleeding])” to the romantic epic (“Tangled Up in Blue”), and lines like “Money doesn’t talk, it swears” show his way with the lancing aperçu. Mr. Dylan is neither a saint nor a moralist. Epic anger and personal petulance erupt out of his lyrics. But so do tender mercies, extravagant and deep love, self-castigation and what turns out to have been no little wisdom.
Pop lyrics are corrupted by the writer’s desire for popular acclaim. In fact, the record is clear that — whatever ambition lay in his breast — his is a personality, and his art is of a nature, that makes it difficult to chase popular approval or sanction. Mr. Dylan is no Solzhenitsyn, but he is a figure who genuinely challenges the established order.
He was surely the first pop artist to tell his audience things it didn’t want to hear. In 1963, from the dais at a civil rights dinner, he looked with some contempt at the well-dressed crowd and said, “My friends don’t wear suits.” The drama surrounding his lurch into electric music is perhaps overstated; “Like a Rolling Stone” was a huge hit. What’s really radical about the song is its derisive look at his privileged listeners. Mr. Dylan reveled in the comeuppance he saw on the horizon: “You said you’d never compromise” and now “... you stare into the vacuum of his eyes / And ask him do you want to make a deal?”
MR. DYLAN spent the rest of his career rejecting his audience’s expectations. He dropped out of sight at the height of his fame; the cover story was a motorcycle accident, but as his autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One,” makes clear, he really just wanted to raise his kids in peace, away from the hippies who harried his family. After going electric, he went country. In the late 1970s, as the New Wave era crested, the singer, raised a Jew, declared himself a Christian — and not the warm and fuzzy sort, either. What sort of pop artist works so diligently to systematically undermine his own popularity?
By his own account, Mr. Dylan spent the 1980s in a bit of a fog, but revivified himself in the last years of that decade and went back on the road. Now 25 years into his so-called “Never Ending Tour,” Mr. Dylan continues to perform in relatively modest venues with an unprepossessing backing combo, growling out chestnuts from his vast catalog and new songs as well. His recent albums “Time Out of Mind” (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001) and “Modern Times” (2006) all won best album in the annual poll at “The Village Voice” of the nation’s rock critics — a remarkable achievement for a 1960s holdover in an era of hip-hop and ever-more-effete rock.
If the academy doesn’t recognize Bob Dylan — a bard who embodied the most significant cultural upheaval of the second half of the last century — it will squander its best chance to honor a pop poet. What other songwriter would remotely qualify? Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen? Perhaps. Randy Newman? Chuck D? (In truth, the only other pop artist with work as timeless as Mr. Dylan’s is Chuck Berry — but that’s an argument for another day.) With his superstar peers either silent or content to collect the big bucks playing ingratiating stadium shows, this artist, iconoclastic and still vital, demands that we take the product of his muse on his own terms, and refuses to go so gently.