The Nobel Committee announced last week that this year’s laureate in literature is, well, a musician: Bob Dylan. Other than the fragmentary novel Tarantula (1971), Dylan;s bibliography is lean at best. So why would the Swedish academy give the most reputable prize in the world of letters to a man who has penned just one book? The press release of the announcement by the Nobel Committee provided a simple, yet desperately inadequate, answer: “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But what, exactly, does that mean?
As soon as Dylan arrived in New York in 1961, fresh-faced and with his new name (the real one, of course, being Robert Zimmerman), he was able to identify and vocalize the ambitions and expectations of America’s youth at a time when politics and the Vietnam war were alienating precisely the age group to which he belonged. Over the course of the next five years Dylan would dissect his own generation, and create its soundtrack, providing the most recognizable anthems of the antiwar movement: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,’ ‘Masters of War,’ ‘The Times They Are A-Changing.’
While Dylan profited hugely from being adopted as the mouthpiece of his generation, he didn’t particularly appreciate or even embrace the role. He often performed with Joan Baez (an while we’re on the topic of great songs, her ‘Diamonds and Rust’ heartrendingly sums up her feelings for him) and he did take part in the 1963 March on Washington, but Dylan made a concerted effort not to make a direct connection between his stance against inequality, abuse of power and injustice, and specific protester groups: Dylan was happy to be inspirational, but he was not prepared to be constrained by any one cause.
Artistically this became evident in 1964 when, right on the heels of The Times They Are A-Changing, he launched Another Side of Bob Dylan. More personal, more lyrical, this album has gone down in history for including ‘Chimes of Freedom,’ yet another of Dylan’s protest anthems. Unlike, ‘The Times They Are A-Changing,’ however, ‘Chimes of Freedom’ does not revolve around a single, catchy, ready-made line clearly designed to be brandished by the many. ‘Chimes of Freedom’ is far more evocative in its imagery, far more complex in its construction, but also far less specific in its message. At the same time, the tone of Another Side of Bob Dylan changes drastically with songs that show a more human, less invincible side to Dylan: the sensitive love song ‘To Ramona,’ the permissive ‘I Don’t Believe You,’ later wonderfully versioned by Al Stewart, and the frank ‘It Ain’t Me.’
Perhaps the first truly signature Dylan album, though, is Bringing It All Back Home (1965). Ironic, playful, humorous, bewildering, at times incomprehensible yet still completely infectious, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ sets the tone of the record with an exhilarating pace that pushes the boundaries of the blues; then there’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ an intoxicated and intoxicating melody that put Dylan (via The Byrds) right in the thick of the flower-power hippie movement; ‘Gates of Eden,’ the psychedelic and somewhat ominous heir to ‘Chimes of Freedom,’ and ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ both of which prove that Dylan hadn’t really mellowed, he had simply become more honest, more genuine in his disaffection with the entire system; but perhaps the most revealing and certainly the most astonishing song of the album is ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,’ a surrealistic adventure which takes the rambling of his earlier ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’ to a different, clearly drug-infused but also more ambitious—dare we say literary?—level.
No stranger to controversy, Dylan continued his musical progression with a step that these days, with the benefit of hindsight, seems rather natural but which at the time was regarded as blasphemous by his most diehard fans: he connected an amplifier to his guitar, almost symbolically completing his transition from folk hero to rock star. His first electric album is also one of his most influential: Highway 61 Revisited, also from 1965. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the outstanding single of the album, a song that in some ways heralds a new beginning for pop as a genre—might this be what the Nobel Committee have in mind?—as it impregnates its simple, repetitive structure with the story-telling qualities of the blues, resulting in an absolutely addictive yet meaningful tune. But the whole album is a coherent continuation of Dylan’s earlier explorations: the surrealistic images and rather obscure associations of ‘Tombstone Blues’ and ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ which famously has no chorus, link up seamlessly with the likes of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.’ Nevertheless, the most remarkable piece in Highway 61 Revisited is the mysterious and cryptic ‘Ballad of the Thin Man,’ a fierce character assassination of a certain Mr. Jones which combines absurd situations with a sinister melody and a very serious tone to result in one of Dylan’s most original—and fascinating—creations.
The whirlwind that began with Bob Dylan’s eponymous first album in 1962 would come full circle with the 1966 double-LP Blonde on Blonde, often celebrated as his best single piece of work: the somewhat bitter ‘Just Like a Woman,’ the simple yet bafflingly rousing ‘Stuck Inside Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,’ the epically romantic ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’ Dylan’s wedding song for Sara Lownds, whom he’d wed in late 1965, are all superb; but the culmination of those heady days is ‘Visions of Johanna,’ a song which maintains the enigmatic quality of so many of Dylan’s best lyrics, informed with elements of symbolism and private references, and which yet enables listeners to evince a vague idea of what is going on, mirroring in them the confused state of the characters in the song.
By the end of 1966 Dylan, on a rare break between tours, suffered a bad accident on his Triumph motorcycle. He’d been married for less than a year, was struggling with the manuscript of his novel Tarantula and had developed a drug habit during his extensive tour. The time had come to take a break. Dylan continued recording in studios, but he would not hit the road again until 1974. It was then that Dylan rediscovered his creative form, perhaps partly inspired by increased acrimony in his marriage. Dylan finally divorced in 1977 but the painful process spawned the remarkable Blood on the Tracks, as level-headed a portrayal of a heartbreaking situation as could be conceived. The album’s opening track, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is a wonder of simplicity and narrative prowess which flows with the same speed and natural ease as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ but with much more emotion; ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ almost succeeds at being candid where the pain blurs the line between memory and imagination; and ‘Idiot Wind’ blends so many emotions that at times it feels no song could ever encompass them, each line running into the next, encroaching where there is no space.
Dylan’s fertile creative moment spilled over to his following studio record, Desire (1976), an understated and often overlooked album that features some highly accomplished songs, including the fast-moving and utterly indignant ‘Hurricane,’ the roving ‘Black Diamond Bay,’ an imaginative but by now coherent account of a cataclysm in some remote island, and ‘Sara,’ probably Dylan’s parting gift to his wife, and his most beautiful love song. Towards the end on the seventies Dylan found faith, becoming a born-again Christian and turning to gospel. Facing inwards in his quest for inspiration, Dylan no longer spoke to or from the masses. And yet, though his prodigious capacity to encapsulate the spirit of the times in a single tune has been exhausted, Dylan keeps touring, keeps probing, keeps trying.
Bob Dylan broke into the scene mixing the folk tones of Woodie Guthrie with the rhythm of Chuck Berry, the country western phrasing of Hank Williams and the exultation of Lil’ Richard to bring about an astonishing new form of expression. The question, however, is whether that form of expression should be recognized by the highest stance there is in the world of literature: Bob Dylan is indisputably among the best singer songwriters around, but songwriting has always been tacitly accepted as a separate discipline to writing. Until now, that is.
Perhaps that is the barrier that the Nobel Committee has set out to destroy with its choice this year. After all, Bob Dylan has been hailed as a literary genius ever since that five-year storm rocked the world, not only of music, back in the early sixties. And perhaps that is where the Committee’s choice has proven most flawed, because for decades already it has been completely accepted—to the point where it has almost become a cliché—that Bob Dylan’s songs are poetic. Indeed, so are Bruce Springsteen’s, Leonard Cohen’s and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s, so why not give the Nobel to any of them—or does this mean they are suddenly in contention for next year’s prize?
With all certainty part of what the Nobel Committee sought to achieve this year was to shed its image as a stayed and conservative institution, out of touch with the changing times. The unfortunate reality of it choosing Bob Dylan as the face of its own break with convention, though, is that Dylan has long been assimilated by the mainstream. The Nobel Committee’s moment of random unpredictability has therefore proven perfectly predictable. But the role, if there is one, of the Nobel Committee is concerned with the workings of literature, and therefore its decision carries more than just symbolic meaning: by celebrating Dylan’s work the Swedish academy is recognizing that in his songs literary considerations play a central, not just a peripheral, role, as important as melody or tempo.
Dylan’s songs don’t just include a clever line or an evocative image: they fully blend “serious” literature with mundane episodes, they use literary devices as one of several means to convey a message. For this very reason, these songs can be flawed in literary terms and still be perfect as songs. At his best Dylan produces a wild sort of dreamy poetry accompanied by dark sounds that reveal a rather apocalyptical vision of civilization, and the sounds are as integral to the composition as the references to the Bible or Ezra Pound.
In this sense, Dylan’s contribution to literature has been that of any explorer—he has placed it at the core of a different discipline and thereby expanded its scope of influence. Upon reflection, that is more deserving of a shiny medal and a certificate than writing the best of novels, poems or plays—so let’s all join in the celebration and toast to Bob Dylan, the new Nobel laureate.
Written together with Adrian Kobbe and published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday October 22, 2016.