In 1963, at the RCA store, in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, England, I bought my first Bob Dylan album. I was not yet thirteen. It was his first album too. Since that long-distant date, I have purchased every Dylan album, in vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, and DVD. I must have bought many two or three times in various formats. I have dozens of bootlegs too, as well as rare recordings – like Dylan singing Hard Rain with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra – and acetates of such things as the acoustic versions of Like A Rolling Stone, and Just Like A Woman, from one of the great recording sessions, Blonde on Blonde. So you could say I am a fan. And, as such, I am utterly delighted to hear that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It is a little less than delightful to hear some of the responses to this news, however. The author of Trainspotting, whoever he is, termed it a sop thrown to the festering prostates of “senile, gibbering hippies”. Well, as a senile, gibbering hippy (whose prostate is still, God willing, still in a pre-putrefaction condition), I can only say: What’s wrong with that? CBC News, on the radio at least, seemed uncertain whether or not listeners were acquainted with Dylan – too young or, improbably, too old? They played snatches of songs, the most current of which was from the late sixties – nothing wrong with that, they are great songs. But the point is this artist has been writing superb songs for well over fifty years. Also on the CBC, an alleged Dylan authority, one David Kinney, suggested the Nobel Prize people were misguided. Dylan is a musician, he said. His songs were not meant to be read as literature on a page. We’ll get to this in a moment, but Kinney was also questioned about Dylan’s supposed plagiarising from numerous sources. Having been accused of so-called plagiarism myself, I was fascinated to hear Mr. Kinney characterising Dylan’s allusions or borrowing as a “re-purposing” of the original text. I must remember “re-purposing”, I thought, since all writers are literary magpies, taking whatever they need from whatever place it’s found – even the faintest memory of a text. I could cite hundreds of examples of Dylan plunderings from all over literature. But his own album, Love and Theft, best exemplifies the reality of literary resonance. Dylan’s very roots are in the hoary tradition where an old song continually became a new one. The question-reply structure of Hard Rain, for example – “O, where have you been, my blue-eyed son…I’ve been out on the side of twelve misty mountains…etc.” – goes back into antiquity. Songs of lost love echo poems of lost love, by Blake, Poe, Yeats, and so on. Literature breeds literature – you cannot write it unless you read it, and, when you read it, notes of beauty, poignancy, sheer love remain as part of you forever. Love and Theft plays with the love of and theft from songs – most of them in public domain – that go back to when the Blues was tangled up in Gospel, Country, Jug, and when Rock ‘n Roll was the bastard child. A more recent album, Tempest, even begins with what sounds like an ancient recording from that early period – although it turns into a contemporary version of the same urgent sound, and a song about the Dukane Whistle, whatever that is. One would have to wade through the Smithsonian Museum’s extensive archives of early American music to gain even a hint to the provenance of many Dylan songs. Anyone who listened to his radio show on the Satellite Channel will be well aware of the depth and scope of his expertise in musical history. As the droll, and sometimes silly DJ, half the songs he played each week were by people I’d never heard of – some from wax-cylinder recordings made when the nation was still mostly legend, still young and hopeful. No artist will say, “I took this from here and that from there”, because it doesn’t work that way. First comes the love, and then comes the theft. But, if Dylan is indeed nostalgic – by no means certain – it is for a time when musicians were just entertainment, and no big deal.
As his memoir, Chronicles, reveals in rather harrowing detail, however, Dylan’s life has been an oppressively big deal. His book vies with Miles Davis’ autobiography for the accolade of best musical reminiscence. In particular, it shows what went on behind the scenes during that most mysterious, and hence most-speculated-on period in Dylan’s life. To this day, it fascinates pundits, critics, et al – who seem unwilling to take the man’s word for what happened. There were two albums – Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde – which single-handedly changed the course of so-called pop music. Then there was silence. Some said drugs. Some said a bad divorce. Others said a nervous breakdown, and/or a motorcycle accident. Whatever happened, the long silence was broken by Nashville Skyline, an album of country-inspired music, that even featured a duet with country legend Johnny Cash. Fans were somewhat perplexed, but in the end they loved this record, which included the now-classic Lay Lady Lay, with a syrupy-voiced Dylan sounding…well, unlike Dylan. The result was a huge interest in country music – until then regarded as a redneck backwater by hipsters – and the emergence of a new country-rock genre, with people like Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, and, eventually, the Eagles. What had happened to Dylan during that long period of silence? Well, the way he tells it in Chronicles, the pressure from drug-addled fans convinced he was the messiah, or some such, began to destroy his life. He had retreated to a farm in New York State, to spend time with his children and rebuild a crumbling marriage. But the fans and the media would not leave him alone. In print, the wildest allegations were entertained – heroin, space aliens – sometimes by a crackpot calling himself a “Dylanologist”, who rummaged through Dylan’s garbage in search of clues (a candy bar wrapper, a blackened teaspoon – must be junk!). Fans in various states of derangement trespassed on the farm property. None of the few statements Dylan made to the media helped disabuse obsessed monomaniacs of whatever bizarrely idolatrous views they held. He was like poor Brian, in The Life of Brian, who cried out “I’m not the messiah” – but everyone responds, “Only the true messiah would say that!” To which Brian says, “Okay, I am the messiah,” and everyone yells, “You see – he is the messiah!” Dylan says his response was more practical: he would record an album in the most despised current genre – Country. That would surely work? But no, it didn’t, and Dylan resigned himself just to making music, writing songs, and exploring every genre that took his fancy – Blue Grass, Rockabilly, Gospel, Reggae, Rap, you name it. But he made each style uniquely his own. Those who can’t abide his inimitable voice and his own versions, can enjoy his songs in renditions by every imaginable artiste, be it Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, even Frank Sinatra – right up to Lady Gaga, and no doubt beyond, probably forever.
For the fact is that Bob Dylan is now the most prolific songwriter in history – some say 1500, some far more, and no one knows, perhaps not even Bob. It is one of the most effusively pullulating displays of creativity in all of civilization, and it has continued, seemingly unabated, for over half a century.
David Kinney says Dylan’s songs were “not meant to be read on a page”. Perhaps not, but neither was most poetry and prose until 500 years ago, when a “page” was invented. As a lady on the Nobel committee pointed out, Homer and Sappho’s work was designed to be heard, not read. Most early lyric poetry was sung to music. More people probably heard Thomas Wyatt, and even William Blake sing their poems than ever read them in books. It is obvious from whence the term “lyric” springs. As echoes in his songs show, Dylan has always been well aware of lyric poetry’s European origins in the Troubadours, Arnaut Daniel, and Dante, as well as their continuation in Verlaine and Rimbaud. It is easy to deduce he is a great reader. And a highly eclectic one, effortlessly turning from a book about Japanese gangs to an account of the Titanic’s sinking. Many try to pinpoint what material induced his greatest songs – is it anger and broken love, or spiritual yearning? – but this is like trying to impose your favourite dish on someone else at a grand banquet. Perhaps every dish is good – how will you know if you don’t taste it?
I met him on a few occasions – shy, very funny, reticent, and ultimately enigmatic. We played chess and he was astoundingly good. I later learned he had paid Bobby Fischer to give him lessons. We talked purposelessly of current issues. We deplored the advent of the personal computer – he was something of a Luddite, and perhaps still is. But it was clear to me he had devised a persona that was not easy to know. As Yeats said of Eliot, “That man will not let me look into his soul”. Dylan would not even let me look into the left side of his face. He kept it averted, like someone with a hideously scarring disease, and looked sideways. I was not trying to be his friend – it was a creative venture he liked for a while – but I did get a sense of how difficult that would be, of how enclosed and private he had made himself. I imagine the Nobel Prize is a mixed blessing to someone who loathes any intrusive media attention. For a man who still performs some 200-odd concerts a year – and has done for decades – he has achieved a remarkable degree of anonymity. His own band-members only get to meet him on stage. His tour bus, the penthouse on wheels, pulls up near the stage door. Typically, Dylan walks out at 8 p.m., or whatever, and launches into the first song without a word to the audience. Fans may not even see him – these days he often plays an organ to the side. But I once saw Miles Davis play with his back to the auditorium. When the set is over, Mr. Dylan returns to his bus, no encores, nothing. It’s a job. His few close friends know better than to reveal a down-time Dylan. Jack Nicolson has referred to his sense of humour, which I found marked, and which is evident in Martin Scorcese’s masterful documentary – where Dylan seems to loosen up with a talent he has always envied, sometimes with disastrous results.
Besides his deliberate attempts to sabotage his own career, Dylan is extraordinary for the number of times he has failed calamitously at something in which he evidently wished to succeed, and yet survived with his reputation intact. There was the spree of typing known as the novel, Tarantula – about which the less said the better. There was the twelve-hour movie, Reynaldo and Clara, in which all one could discern was a very fat man playing Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan playing someone called Reynaldo, whose role in the film was obscure. Joan Baez played Clara. They rode in a carriage with white horses at one point. At another point, Allen Ginsberg had his beard shaved off and looked…well, like his own Yiddisher bubba. It was hard to say what the story was about, or even if there was a story. I saw the savagely-edited eight-hour version in LA, and found nothing helpful missing. The project was only saved by its plethora of concert footage, in which a Dylan wearing whiteface headlines a concert featuring such vaudeville curiosities as Tiny Tim – ukulele, shopping bag, Tiptoe through the Tulips… This was around the period when Dylan released the album Hurricane, whose songs were largely co-written with a New York theatre friend. The lyrics are unusually tight and very literary, with Dylan’s voice soaring like a cantor at times. The title song concerned the wrongful imprisonment of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, a black middle-weight boxing champion, arrested for a murder of which he was innocent:
But Ruben sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
But one time he coulda been
The champion of the world…
In point of fact, Ruben Carter probably couldn’t have been the champion of the world, and, while almost certainly innocent of the murder for which he’d been convicted, was definitely guilty of others, and of various horribly violent crimes. Dylan visited him in jail. Many people did. He was a cause celebre for the white guilt then surfacing for the first time in America. Some Canadians lobbied for Ruben’s release, and achieved it. A movie was in the works – eventually made a decade later by Norman Jewison. But what everyone who’d had any contact with the free Ruben Carter found – including Dylan – was that the man was an astonishing pain in the ass, pushy, boastful, greedy, and, according to the cops, very guilty of something. Jewison used Dylan’s song for his film’s credits, and it summed up in ten minutes the fable of Hurricane far more succinctly than two hours of rambling celluloid. Long before, though, Dylan had decided Ruben Carter was dubiously bad news, and thus, seemingly, so was the co-written album – which many have said was his best. Ignoring the truth about Ruben, Hurricane is still a tremendously good song, as are many other co-written songs on the album. Dylan never sings any of them live. He’s had other successful collaborations too. Brownsville Girl, written with playwright Sam Sheppard, is a remarkable kind of talking Blues, a very quirky story:
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter was that his name wasn’t Henry Porter…
Other ventures are with Willie Nelson, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison. With the last two, Dylan even formed a band, The Travelling Willburys, under the watchful eye of Tom Petty. Their albums are extremely good, and Dylan’s contribution is markedly brilliant. Yet no matter how successful these collaborations have been – include here Daniel Lanois as a superlative producer – Dylan moves on and moves off, seeking new ground. Many new albums are produced by “Jack Frost”, a Dylan pseudonym, whose basic principle for a session is do it in a day, one take a song. Yet this somehow suits the raw feeling of his later work, where he sounds like a superb band in a small club with a singer afflicted by laryngitis, or worse. But to dismiss Dylan now as “a nostalgia act” is not to hear the new songs – and not to observe his current audience.
As I write, my daughter, age 23, is about to attend a concert in LA with Dylan and the Rolling Stones. She has been to previous concerts as well, and views Bob as the marvel he is. The songs are ageless, the music now flawless – it didn’t used to be.
Whatever remains of western culture in 200 years, if anything or anyone remains, Dylan will be a giant. All by himself, he took popular music from “I wanna hold your hand” to:
In the dime-stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall…
In 1963 no song had lyrics like:
Twilight on the frozen lake
A cold wind about to break
Old footsteps in the snow
The silence down below –
You’re beautiful beyond words
Beautiful to me…
You had to live through those times to appreciate the enormity of Dylan’s contribution to the course of musical history. He may have now found the plateau as “song and dance man” he always claimed he was, but no Dylan album has ever disappointed me. His recording of Christmas songs, five years ago, would have been preposterous in the late sixties – and the first track was somewhat risible – yet it is ultimately notable for the sincerity with which he sings these simple, perennially-popular ditties. Similarly, his take on the Great American Songbook recently – a lounge act in essence – presents some finely-crafted material sung by someone who clearly loves it, and loves the whole idea of being an entertainer. This was evident when Bob played at Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday party too. Half the audience looked shocked when his name was announced, expecting disrespect perhaps, but Dylan sang a simple traditional ballad about a lovable outlaw, said, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Frank,” and was gone. It was a tribute from one great entertainer to another. During the 1991 Gulf War, when Dylan received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, everyone wondered what he would do. There had been no celebrity protests as there had been during Vietnam. Many were yearning for someone to condemn George the First and his bombing. What would Dylan do or say? Surely he couldn’t ignore this travesty? With an awful band, Dylan played what only aficionados could have discerned was Masters of War – a very powerful protest songs from 25 years earlier. You couldn’t hear a word of it, and I wondered why. The answer, I concluded, was that anyone who didn’t know the song by now wouldn’t be moved by it anyway. Dylan was saying, “I’ve done that, been here before, and now it’s all noise…” His speech was similarly calculated. Shifting a hat back and forth on his head, like Chaplin, he said, “My Daddy used to say to me, he said, son…well, he said a lotta things….” He paused for so long the audience was laughing, and then nhe added, “Sometimes you can do things so heinous they burn your soul, but just remember there’s a power always ready to forgive you if you are sorry…Thank you very much…” It seemed ad libbed, but it wasn’t, not any of it. He’s not someone who leaves things to chance. The only time I have ever seen him off-guard in public was when he won an Oscar. He was in Australia via videolink. He clearly did not expect to win. The prize was for Things Have Changed, a cynical twist on The Time’s They Are A-Changin’ — and an incongruous soundtrack for The Dead Poet’s Society. Wearing his bizarre lounge-lizard’s pencil moustache, he hardly knew what to say when told he’d won, yet was charmingly grateful all the same. So many moments of Bob, so many years…
In some ways I have measured out my life with Dylan albums. I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard a new record. In Kathmandu for Blood on the Tracks. In LA for Slow Train. Oxford for Hurricane. Hundreds of songs now float around my brain, emerging at times, appropriately or otherwise. My first love was to a Dylan album – Bringing it all Back Home – and my last love has now been serenaded by a number of recent albums. Like any great work, I can return to Dylan at any of his many periods and always find something new – and always think, “My God, this is a great song.” It makes me feel grateful. Only Leonard Cohen continues to do that as well. It was thus heartwarming to find that my gratitude was expressed by the Nobel Committee, on behalf of all who have had cause to find solace, love, comfort, inspiration, and sheer joy in the work of Bob Dylan. Thank you, Mr. Bob, and congratulations. It is eminently well-deserved.
Paul William Roberts