Bob Dylan wins the Nobel. No, I can hardly believe it either.
So I wake up in New York at 7 AM and check the web and at first I think this is a weird dream. “Bob Dylan awarded Nobel Prize.” It feels like something someone came up with after dissecting “American Pie” over too many beers.
While the jester sang to the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean…
As huge a Dylan fas as I am, I’m really conflicted about this, but here we are so what the hell do we do now? The Swedish Academy’s motivation (“for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, marginally meatier than Munro’s “master of the short story”) doesn’t give us much to work with. And so people, as they do, get upset.
Dylan has made a career of reinventing himself, if slightly less so in recent years; burned down what people expected of him and moved on. Is the Academy trying to borrow some of that? Are we supposed to take this as a “PLAY FUCKING LOUD!” to everyone who’s complained of the lack of USAmerican winners or Someone Ordinary People Have Heard Of, so that the Academy are now free to spend the next 20–30 years giving the prize to anyone they damn well please and responding “Two words: Bob Dylan” anytime someone asks for more popular choices? That’d be fun, but also kind of pathetic half a century after Dylan shrugged off the rebel cape. Do your job instead of showing off for the cameras, SA.
I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Arch-bishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese. What the hell are we talking about?
For years, I’ve said that Dylan doesn’t need and never will get the Nobel. Ooops. My bad, but I’m not sure I was wrong. Dylan is one of few people alive who can, with some degree of integrity, claim to have invented a whole art form, he’s deservedly won every award available to a musician, but as an author? I can’t help feel that giving the Nobel to Dylan not only robs others who might have been more deserving, but also denigrates popular music rather than elevate it; it’s too easy to read this as an argument that the very BEST song lyrics can be elevated to literature, as if the latter is much more important than the former. My life was saved by rock and roll, fuck that snobism, especially if the Academy’s acknowledgement of song lyrics begin and end with Dylan.
I know I don’t deserve it, but I sure did make it through.
What can I do for you?
All that said: We can dismiss this as a joke, or a misguided attempt to appease some clichéd image of middle-aged male Dylan fans in leather vests, or we can do something with it. If I really want to, I can easily find a motivation for why Dylan deserves a hypothetical Nobel prize of storytelling. Cohen or Simon may stand up better on paper, but then Dylan has never wanted to work on paper, he works within a specific tradition — one which may make him less challenging than, say, Mitchell or Waits, but also opens up for a more interesting intepretation of the prize than just “Welp I guess song lyrics are literature now!” Dylan calls himself a song and dance man, but somewhere in all those songs he’s written or covered he’s also a mythologist. From the very beginning he’s been plowing in a narrative field which is primarily oral. And every time he’s burned down what came before (“Why won’t he play the songs like they sound on record?”), the soot and ashes have still been there in his next thing.
Listening to Dylan (no, of course reading him isn’t the same thing, Danius) is to trace at least part of American (self-)mythology. In a way the Swedish journalist Per Svensson had a point when he, disgusted, called this the (jeeez) “Trump-ification of the Nobel prize”: How do you understand how people like Trump (or Bush or Obama) can become folk heroes without also understanding Jesse James, John Wesley Harding or Joey Gallo? Of course Rabbit Angstrom, Tyrone Slothrop and Nathan Zuckerman have their qualities, but no one ever named a terrorist movement after any of them.
This land is your land and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by those that never listen to music anyway.
From his first masterpiece (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”) to his last (“Scarlet Town”), Dylan’s genius has always been lateral — those wild synaptic skips from the personal to the legendary, where Shakespeare characters witness lynchings, failed marriages morph into showdowns at high noon, ragged drifters get bailed out of jail by the Lord Himself, racially profiled boxers knock on heaven’s door… He picks names, images, clichés from the collective unconscious, smelts them into his own voice (yes, voice, that snarl that says as much with how it’s said as with the words it uses), surfs from one to the next and lets them crash ino each other. It may not be high poetry, at least not if you take the songs one by one rather than as a continuous dialogue, but it’s a hell of a memetic work, the power of choosing just the right words to echo ideas.
Looked at that way, Dylan’s Nobel prize becomes a prize that acknowledges Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Pops Staples and Sinatra as valid sources right alongside the Bible, literature, movies, and thousands of anonymous voices; that gives half-mythical characters like Stagger Lee, Little Sadie, Hollis Brown, Johnny In The Basement, The Joker & The Thief, and by all means Jesus (the all-American outlaw version) and Elvis the same status as vessels for ideas as The Old Man And The Sea; and that, if somewhat half-heartedly, acknowledges their successors, from Patti Smith to the Wu-Tang Clan and beyond. An oral tradition going from slaves in the fields and Robin Hoods in cowboy hats to lost Warhol super stars and modern media campaigns, where personas may have little in common with the actual person behind the myth, always dismissed as folk tales or rumours to be picked apart by historians, but still echoing somewhere whenever someone gets on the barricades to call for something new — hell, ask Svetlana Alexievich about the power of the unwritten. You can call it cultural appropriation, and Dylan is neither the beginning or the end of the tradition, but he may be its (historically) most important living curator.
I’m gazing out the window of the St James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell
So he’s written a few songs that are hardly very literary, but pop and folk music have always reserved the right to get right to the point and be a bit simple, and rhyming “moon” with “June” is part of that story — just like the perennial bluesman’s quote “I woke up this morning and all I had was gone” sounds simplistic unless you match it to centuries of unchronicled oppression. The context of singing something, passing the song along at a certain time and place and with certain references, changes the lyrics; and Dylan, right from the beginning, always knew that, and he’s kept doing it for over 50 years with an unmatched productivity and quality.
That’s all very well, but so what? If we want to praise oral traditions, it’s not like Dylan’s alone there, and others have challenged them more. If we give a recording artist the literature prize rather than any of literally hundreds of actual authors, what’s to stop them from giving it to, say, Scorsese who works in similar mythologies, or the Black Lives Matter movement (or Trump for that matter, at least what he does is fiction)? Whats a literature prize worth if anything that uses words can be literature? (On the other hand, what’s it worth if many stories are automatically disqualified?) Where does the Nobel go from here?
I asked Fat Nancy for something to eat, she said ”Take it off the shelf!
As great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself!”
I told her I didn’t really care.
High water everywhere.
Well, all this comes from someone who’s spent more time listening to Dylan than may be healthy, and I’m still not sure if any of this makes Dylan deserving of the Nobel or vice versa. Deserved or not, I think the Academy shat the bed here, and it’s hard not to see it as a disservice to everyone involved. Dylan’s prize feels too self-conscious, as if the Academy are trying to please an audience, a zeitgeist and a media landscape they don’t quite get. There’s an irony here: Both Dylan and the Nobel have an iconic status that both makes them what they are and makes it impossible for them to live up to it, the myth of the ideal will always outshine the person. The Academy and Dylan’s fans will both have to live with this for years, every time an author dies unawarded someone will point out that that nasal folk singer got it, but… They’ll have to live with that.
And yet I can’t pretend I’m not happy on some level, as conflicted as that happiness is. Because I do love the old coot, and whether or not he deserves this prize, at least he managed to get everyone in a tizzy again at 75 years old.
People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book.
Good advice, Bob. Roll on.