I have been told that my Leonard Cohen-Dylan anecdote was recently in the New Yorker magazine. I do not get the New Yorker anymore, although I wish I did and could still read it, because, as I recall, it was the best magazine on earth. Their version of the great Cohen-Dylan meeting was unattributed, set in Paris rather than Montreal, but contained a few of the key elements from my own version. I should stress that I was only told about the piece and did not actually read it myself – or listen to my robot reading it. The fact that a 30-year-old celebrity yarn has taken on a life of its own intrigued me. Of course, I have related the tale to dozens of people over the years, one of them a stand-up comic who used it in his act with himself as the narrator. Naturally, Leonard told the story too, and I once heard him spin a highly embellished version of it – but it was not set in Paris. I don’t know if Cohen and Dylan ever played concerts in Paris at the same time, but they would have had to for the anecdote to work there. However, it is the longevity and adaptability of these snippets about our idols that interests me. Certain incidents, like the Great Summit of Two Troubadours, take on a numinous significance and embed themselves in the larger myth, where they become an intrinsic part of the whole. We see it in every hagiography, from the Buddha to Bowie. Who knows if the young Siddhartha Gautama was really shielded by his father from the harsh realities of life? From what we know of the Buddha’s discourses, he was not given to autobiography, and there are also Nepalese folk-tales concerning a prince who became a holy man after facing life’s grimmer issues – but, attached to the Buddha’s narrative, the story, whatever its provenance, becomes an indispensable metaphor, and is thus intrinsic to the greater corpus. The Christian myth is similarly fleshed out with anecdotes that permit Jesus to say something wise – and some of them are even clearly spurious. When Jesus is asked, in Matthew (I think), about a woman’s right to divorce, he confidently cites Roman law on the subject – when he presumably would have only subscribed to Halachic law, under which a woman has no right to divorce. Gospel exegetes generally concur that the text began simply as a collection of wise sayings, which was then turned into a narrative, mostly by Mark, who created incidents where certain expostulations of wisdom were appropriate. But it seems that many of these anecdotal episodes were from the lives of other people – especially from James, the so-called “brother of Jesus”, who has all but vanished from history, although, unlike his famous sibling, he is in fact an historical figure. When an anecdote enters and is embedded in the myth, its actual truth ceases to matter, and it will continue to exist in whatever form best suits the myth, rather than the truth. In a John Lennon biography, I once read an anecdote of mine that was attributed to Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. In fact, though, coming from her mouth, it gained a significance in the overall legend that it would not have gained had it come from my lips. In a documentary I watched, a Beatles anecdote I had been told by the horse’s mouth was attributed to Yoko Ono, which increased its aura of sanctity but detracted from its credibility, since Yoko had yet to appear on the scene when the incident recounted occurred. The sculptor David Wynne told me this story, and it revolved around him. He had been commissioned by Kellogg’s Cornflakes to sculpt the Beatles for tiny plastic figurines that would be included in each box of the cereal. Naturally, his maquettes were life-sized and not an inch tall. The work was concluded in Paris, and a dinner celebration had been planned. David wanted to give each Beatle a present to commemorate their relationship, and he found, on the Left Bank, four Egyptian scarab beetles. Not a modest man, he recounted his speech to the four mop-tops something like this: “I told them the history of these scarabs and ancient Egypt, and of course they were amazed – they’d never heard anything like it before, because they were wretchedly uneducated, almost illiterate…” So inspired were the lads, evidently, that, when Ringo discovered his scarab had been cleared away with the dinner things, “he had the whole metropolitan rubbish tip of Paris combed through until it was found…’ Now, you’d think that this anecdote would only work if the sculptor told it himself, no? Well, no. Ascribed to Yoko, it became an entirely different story, one about how she brought culture to the culturally-deprived Lennon, whose scarab beetle was lost and then found through her amazing grace. Ortho-anecdotes might be the term. It is, ultimately, the requirements of the myth that determine the version of an anecdote that survives and thrives, but this does give them a kind of spuriously eternal existence in which they become chameleons, taking on the characteristics of their new surroundings and shrugging off their humble origins.
The Nobel Laureate
Has anything so eagerly anticipated been as deeply disappointing as Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize? One was hoping for a Dylan in white tie and tails dining with the Swedish monarch, and even possibly singing a new song instead of delivering a dignified speech. One was also assuming that Bob would actually bother to travel there and accept the world’s most prestigious literary honour in person. He’s nothing if not unpredictable, however. Perhaps he had good reasons for not attending, but he never shared them with us or the Nobel Committee. Instead, the hapless US Ambassador to Sweden read a speech especially written by Bob for the occasion. Actually, it sounded more as if it had been especially dictated in ten minutes on a tour bus. Whether or not it was deliberately moronic is impossible to say, but it displayed the ignorance of a Grade 10 student with Internet access. First, Bob informed us of the prestigious exclusivity of the literature prize, rattling off a short list of previous laureates – but only previous laureates from the US – which did serve to point out how erratic the criteria for awarding this honour can be. Then our humble bard informed us how far from his thoughts winning a Nobel Prize had been for most if not all of his life. He confided that he had played concerts for 50,000 people, and also ones for fifty people, and that it was harder to play for fifty, since they were more demanding and critical – which reminded him that the Nobel Committee was also small in number and therefore more critical, making his award all the more marvellous because… Well, it was hard to say whether it was because, being so small and critical, the panel of judges must have thought very highly indeed of the Dylan oeuvre, or whether such a tiny committee was bound to make grievous mistakes. The new laureate then mused on the nature of literature, opining that literary giants like Shakespeare never thought they were writing literature, just as he, Bob, only thought about scribbling the next song, getting the right musicians for it and the right studio to record in. Warming to his theme, he returned to Shakespeare, who, he usefully reminded us, was “a famous dramatist”. Will the dramatist, said Bob the bard, was writing plays to be seen and heard, not read. He wasn’t writing literature — he was an entertainer. Bob assured us that, when Hamlet thinks about “different thing”, his creator, Will, was thinking about box-office receipts, the right scenery, where he could get a human skull, and whether the play should really be set in Denmark. I laughed my arse off, but it was still hard to say if the Minnesota Maestro was serious about this or not. In his mind, the Nobel had now placed him in some very rarified company, and, by all accounts, he felt quite comfortable there, privy now to the Bard of Avon’s most inner concerns. Dylan wrote long ago of Shakespeare being “in the alley with his pointed shoes and his bells…”, or something, which, at the time, made me think his views of the Elizabethan dramatist were derived more from folk tales than history. Is he still so ignorant of the greatest star in the English literary firmament? Is Elizabethan English beyond his repertoire? Anyone with even a mild passion for Shakespeare can see that the curious thing about his plays is they are written to be read on a page rather than seen in a theatre. The poetry and themes are far too dense and complex to be comprehensible to a first time audience – especially one at the old Globe, where you were lucky even to hear more than half a play coherently. As for the Avon Bard not writing literature, on a number of occasions in the Sonnets, he makes it eerily clear that he knows his poetry will outlast time – just as Dante does in the Divine Comedy. Bob also seemed confident that, with the Nobel’s stellar endorsement, his own work was now guaranteed a cozy eternity, and had certainly already resonated with people around the world. He was very grateful for the honour Sweden had accorded him, etc. Not so grateful that he’d bother to collect it in person, however. One felt deeply sorry for America’s Ambassador having to read this rambling twaddle to the King of Sweden, when he could have penned a far more fitting eulogy for Bob himself. But, as always, Dylan vanishes into his own mythic enigma, leaving us wondering if we’ve just been treated to a form of ironic satire, or if it was only another taste of Bob Dylan’s patent scorn for his audiences and fans. Plus ca change…
Paul William Roberts