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Bob Dylan’s Nobel: How Does It Feel?

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Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 1976.

Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 1976

Thank you, Nobel Committee – we needed something else to divide our nation!  

Friends, neighbors, and co-workers have been shocked by the Committee’s decision to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature, sparking heated discussions across the land. I convened a symposium of four friends who are passionate about music and literature, and here’s what they have to say… 

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From George Cassidy, author, songwriter, consultant, philosopher king:

When asked recently how he felt about receiving the Nobel Prize in literature, Bob Dylan retorted, “How should I feel?”

Perhaps he was paraphrasing his best-known refrain; at any rate, it’s a classically gnomic and problematic Dylan response. Like any provocateur worth his salt, Dylan is the master of the render-unto-Caesar moment, the quick parry and thrust that blunts interrogation with an equally pointed question: “Whose face is on this coin?”

Well, in this case, the face on the coin is that of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, an old-school “master of war,” like those so lovingly eviscerated in Dylan’s 1963 song of that name. It’s not that surprising that Dylan would feel ambivalent about this bauble in particular.

But is Dylan really literature? Since when does literature include guitar and drums? I take the long view on this one. In prior ages, musical accompaniment was an expected part of poetic expression, along with the performance and sound of the words themselves. There’s a reason why ancient Greek vases tend to show poets holding the harp or the lyre. It is only relatively recently that we have come to think of poetry primarily as silent rows of dry, printed words.

The plays of Shakespeare are best appreciated through performance, where you often get what’s going on even if the exact sense of the words is beyond your immediate grasp. In a similar way, rock-and-roll performance gestures animate and define Dylan’s work as much as the words themselves. You can always dig deeper and find the script, or the lyric sheet, if you have questions.

Photo by Barry Feinstein courtesy of the Morrison Hotel Gallery. London 1966.

London, 1966

In Dylan’s devotion to touring and show biz, to the roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd, there is another marked resemblance to Shakespeare. They both achieved excellence of startling dimensions within essentially vulgar performance genres. In Shakespeare’s case, his longevity is proven. For Dylan, we will have to wait and see.

So, let’s assume Dylan meets the category’s requirements. Should he accept? A 70-something pitchman for IBM and Lincoln is bound to be somewhat sympathetic to Alfred Nobel’s own late but successful bid to reinvent and elevate himself, to be remembered for something other than the manufacture of explosives. It’s a perfect marriage for our trying times; a match made in purgatory.

How should it feel?

Tarkington_Ed_bodyFrom Ed Tarkington, author, teacher, wrestling coach, troubador, gourmand:

I am not really “pro” or “anti” Dylan on the Nobel; I am more pro-Don DeLillo, and felt like Dylan’s award has dramatically narrowed the chances of DeLillo winning the award (along with that of other US favorites like Oates, Roth, and McCarthy). Dylan’s win likely means an American will not win again for a very long time, so it looks like DeLillo’s out of luck.

I revere Bob Dylan. My first Dylan album, purchased when I was in the 5th grade, was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. You could not overestimate its influence on my nascent consciousness. I own almost all of Dylan’s many records, and love most of them, especially the underrated Planet Waves and Time Out of Mind. But I am a disciple of the novel, which my former teacher Richard Rorty (who is looking less like a philosopher than like a prophet these days) once called “the characteristic genre of democracy.” And no living American writer has offered a more profound account of the clear and present dangers to the survival of our grand national experiment than Don DeLillo, whose novels are not only extraordinary works of literary artistry, but also Orwellian visions of a future that is rapidly coming to pass. No one who has read White Noise (1985), for instance, should be surprised about the outcome of the recent election. In Mao II (1991), DeLillo writes, “I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.” He goes on to observe that “News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative. News is the last addiction.”

imgres-2But maybe “lay lady lay/there on my big brass bed” or “you’re an idiot, babe/it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” is a more profound cultural and artistic statement. Who am I to say?

Still, I’ve heard some very persuasive arguments for why Dylan deserved the literature Nobel. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure Don DeLillo would approve, if only because a popular songwriter winning a literary award sort of proves the point DeLillo’s novels have been making for decades about the direction of art and culture and the blurring of lines between the real and the surreal or hyper-real in the information age. “The future belongs to crowds,” DeLillo wrote in Mao II. Literature is not a crowd medium; rock music is.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but suspect that the Nobel Committee was mostly using Dylan to throw shade. By awarding him instead of DeLillo or Roth or Oates or McCarthy, they are having a laugh at the expense of the American novel. And frankly, the “incorporation” of novelists DeLillo cites in Mao II, along with the fact that serious novels have so little relevance in the US, particularly when compared to their cultural currency in France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden, suggests that the committee’s implicit dismissal of our greatest living novelists is not especially unfair. Peru elected a novelist President; the Czech Republic a dissident playwright; the United States, a reality TV celebrity who proudly boasts that he does not read books. Pretty depressing comparisons for literary types.

But here’s the thing: Bob Dylan’s no fool. He can see what’s going down – hence, his decision to skip the medal ceremony because he’s “busy.” He’s busy, all right: busy refusing to play along with the Nobel Committee’s game. So now the joke’s on them. For this marvelously wicked gesture, we should all stand and applaud.

DSC_0230From Gary Shockley, litigator, musician, historian, playwright, runner, rememberer of all things:

A writer was born in the northern Minnesota iron ore range in 1941. Raised in a comfortable and conventional middle class home, he left as a teenager to seek adventure, ending up in Greenwich Village just as the nation slipped into the vortex known as the Sixties. Heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie’s plainspoken ballads, the Symbolist poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud, the wild howl of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the Beats, Dada art, the plays of Brecht and Weill, and obscure folk idioms, he authored more than fifty works, containing many thousands of verses. Many of these became widely known and loved around the world, while others were reviled or ignored. His styles have ranged from staunchly traditional to wildly experimental but have never settled for convention or mere nostalgia. He has remained remarkably creative and productive into his seventies and continues to make work that is surprising and often on a par with his best from fifty years earlier. That work, filled with allusions to T.S. Elliott, Ezra Pound, and the Bible and peopled by prisoners, outcasts, and drifters, is studied by scholars around the world, one of whom has said “the accretion of detail and breadth of subject and emotion in his work as a whole is as staggering as that of Homer or Shakespeare.” He has also published a memoir (of sorts), which rode the New York Times best seller list for nineteen weeks in 2004. His writing is found in the Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006) and Cambridge University has published a companion guide. He has won virtually every major award America bestows for achievement in the arts.

from https://mubi.com/cast/bob-dylan

Few would argue that the person described above is worthy of the Nobel prize in literature. Change one word – “writer” to “songwriter”- and it describes Bob Dylan, the 2016 Nobel laureate in literature. Yet for reasons that seem to have little to do with the quality, quantity, or merits of his writing, it has been a controversial choice. Anna North argued in the New York Times in October that Dylan was not a writer but “a lyricist” and that the award should have gone to a deserving poet or novelist, one whose work does not depend on an inextricable link to melody for its power. I don’t recall any similar outcry when Harold Pinter won the award in 2005, yet surely his plays also enjoyed an unfair advantage in being performed live on stage by talented actors. The 2004 award to Elfriede Jellenek offered praise “for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” Surely one could say the same for Dylan, whose voices and linguistic zeal have reached more ears and touched more hearts than that of even the most distinguished former laureates. When Winston Churchill won the prize in 1953, could the Academy’s admiration for his historical writing be separated from that for his skills as an orator or statesman? Of course not – but mastery in more than one form wasn’t seen as a disqualifying factor. Thematically, Dylan’s work fits very comfortably with that of Nobel laureates like Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, and Albert Camus. If Neruda had strapped on a Stratocaster at Newport in 1965 and sung Cien sonetos de amor, would he be any less deserving?

It is true that Dylan lacks an MFA and only rarely writes books. Ms. North makes a fair point when she says that, with reading and traditional publishing in decline, the Nobel can and should serve to defend and preserve the form. No one who loves books and reading wants to see literature’s greatest award corrupted or devalued. But nothing in an award to Bob Dylan threatens to cheapen the Nobel. No one drawn to his songs will be driven away from reading. More likely, they will be driven back into the sources he has mined so successfully in his work, to the poets, philosophers, playwrights, and novelists from whom he has drawn inspiration. And if not, if the 2016 prize is an anomaly and does little to advance the cause of literacy and literary arts, it hardly sounds a death knell for reading. I suspect that most readers of the Bacon blog are devoted bibliophiles. Quick: What year did Svetlana Alexievich win the Nobel? What was Herta Müller’s last book? Your favorite by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio? All deserving winners, no doubt, but all producing great art with words for a limited audience. Why should producing great art with words for a large audience make one less deserving?

So, when Patti Smith (a National Book Award winner) reads or sings “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the award ceremony in Stockholm this Saturday, listen closely. You are hearing literature, direct from the pen of a great writer.

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From Matt Osborne, attorney, reader, intellectual, anti-intellectual, cool cat:

I am an attorney by occupation, but I have no interest in argument. When someone asks me my thoughts, and I provide them, and then he or she wants to argue with me, I am inclined to say, “Fine, do what you want,” then return to what I was doing.

So, I have little interest in debating whether The Swedish Academy should have awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature. There are larger concerns – namely, Will the Saints ever have another winning season in my lifetime or my children’s lifetimes?

While I won’t argue, I am more than willing to rhapsodize about Bob Dylan.

The musical body of work is unassailable. He has mastered every musical form, except perhaps metal, and even there, “Love Sick” is pretty heavy. The last time I saw him in concert, it was like watching the history of American music over the course of two hours. All the traditions were represented, yet at the same time he floated above the traditions, an alchemist having birthed his own noble compound.

The literary body of work also is beyond criticism. The only negative about his memoir, Chronicles Volume One, is that there has yet to appear a Volume Two. It contains both the harshly personal… 

I hadn’t actually disappeared from the scene, but the road had narrowed, almost was shut down and was supposed to be wide open. I hadn’t gone away yet. I was lingering out on the pavement. There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him. Now and again, I did try a few times, tried hard to force it. In nature there’s a remedy for everything and that’s where I’d usually go hunting for it. I’d find myself on a houseboat, a floating mobile home, hoping to hear a voice – crawling at slow speed – nosed up on a protective beach at night in the wilderness – moose, bear, deer around – the elusive timber wolf not so far off, calm summer evenings listening to the call of the loon. Think things out. But it was no use. I felt done for, an empty burned out wreck.

… and the beautifully descriptive…

There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment…. The city is one very long poem…. Everything in New Orleans is a good idea. Bijou Temple-type cottages and lyric cathedrals side by side. Houses and mansions, structures of wild grace. Italianate, Gothic, Romanesque, Greek Revival standing in a long line in the rain. Roman Catholic art. Sweeping front porches, turrets, cast iron balconies, colonnades – thirty-foot columns, gloriously beautiful – double-pitched roofs, all the architecture of the whole wide world and it doesn’t move. All that and a town square where public executions took place. In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There’s only one day at a time here, then it’s tonight, and then tomorrow will be today again.

And then there are the lyrics. The Nobel Prize was, after all, awarded for Dylan’s “poetic expressions”.

I certainly am not qualified to comment at length on his genius as a writer of verse (there are plenty of books and articles that do that), but I will say that I read a ton, and after all these years, there are only three written works that I keep printed out and readily at hand in my desk – Robert Penn Warren’s “American Portrait: Old Style,” Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder,” and Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm”:

’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

I saw a tweet from author Steve Rushin around the time of the Nobel announcement. It read, “Maybe Philip Roth will win a Grammy.” My thought was, “Maybe so, if he writes ‘Shelter from the Storm.’”

But in the end, you don’t have to take my word for it. Consider instead, the following blessing from the great Bill Murray:

 

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So – how does it feel?

My two cents:  Words intertwined with music are fundamentally different from words alone.  Music reaches the spirit and also the most primal parts of us in ways that words do not.  Words pin things down; music sets things free.  Dylan’s words are unfairly advantaged.
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Photo Credits:

  • Photo at top of post by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 1976.
  • Image of Dylan with guitar:  https://from mubi.com/cast/bob-dylan
  • Image of Dylan with cigarette:  by Barry Feinstein courtesy of the Morrison Hotel Gallery.  London, 1966.

5 Comments

  1. Wonderful insight into this controversial question

  2. This is one of my very favorite posts! Great job done by all! And I love Bob Dylan whether or not he’s worthy of the Nobel!

  3. Excellent post, thoroughly enjoyed!

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