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DOES THE WORLD need another essay about Dylan winning the Nobel Prize? Certainly not. In fact, most people have already forgotten about it. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Dylan fans will read this piece -– if they find it –- because they’ll read anything about Dylan. I know because I’m one of them.
I’ve devoured several of these essays –- most recently an eccentric one by Charles Nicholl in the London Review of Books (1 December 2016) which veered off into the history of bootlegging (beginning with alcohol, in the 19th century).
Each of these literary exercises answers two main questions: 1) Should Dylan have received the Nobel?, and 2) Which are the best Dylan albums? Let me address those two questions immediately: 1) Yes. 2) Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Infidels, Saved, Love and Theft, Bringing It All Back Home. (In that order!) Let me hasten to remark that these are my favorite Dylan albums at the moment. His first seven albums –- or rather, his second through seventh albums –- are magnificent, of course, but I’ve heard them too many times; they no longer reach me. They are, if you must be reminded: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; The Times They Are A-Changin’; Another Side of Bob Dylan ;Bringing It All Back Home; Blonde on Blonde; John Wesley Harding. His first album, Bob Dylan, is a bunch of folksongs, plus two negligible original compositions: “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York Blues” --
Rambling out of the Wild West,/ Leaving the towns I love best,/ Thought I’d seen some ups and downs; ‘Till I come into New York town…
Another Side, which was famously recorded in one night (June 9, 1964), yielded the most hit singles of a Dylan record: “Chimes of Freedom,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “My Back Pages,” “All I Really Want to Do.” They were covered by, in order, Bruce Springsteen, the Turtles, the Byrds, and Cher. “Chimes of Freedom” reached #16 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks (in 1988). “It Ain’t Me Babe” hit #8. (Johnny Cash also released a single of it, as the b/side of “Ring of Fire.”) “My Back Pages” reached #30. “All I Really Want to Do” was #15. (The Byrds also did a version of it –- simultaneously -– which peaked at #40.) Of course many other artists have covered these songs, but these are the only ones, I believe, which may be described as “hits.”
LET US CONSIDER a third question: “What is literature?” Derived from the Latin word for “letter,” the word basically means anything written -– though Merriam-Webster’s fourth definition is, surprisingly, “the aggregate of a usually specified form of musical composition.” The savants at the Nobel Prize Committee have apparently noticed that our relationship to the written word is changing dramatically. Today a novel is a work of art you can carry in your phone. (That sentence would have been meaningless in 1987.) The cipher-like phrasing of text messages –- often further modified by AutoCorrect –- plus podcasts, TED talks, and the babbling of blogs all occur outside traditional “literature.” Not to mention the Homeric recitation of rappers. Must the Nobel Committee remain trapped forever in the 19th century, when only novels and fat collections of poems were considered “literary?”
Besides, who’s the masterful contemporary writer who desperately deserves a Nobel? W. S. Merwin? Jonathan Franzen? None of the candidates strike me as our Rabindranath Tagore. But Dylan does. In a lonely, chain-smoking, Mississippi-gambler way, Dylan is a mythic presence. Dylan himself, especially in his interviews, is a literary figure, a creator of unforgettable pronouncements. In one of these conversations –- I forget which -– Dylan said: “There’s always been a Bob Dylan; I’m just the Bob Dylan now.”
ON MY FIRST visit to Europe, in 1987, Dylan was shadowing me -– playing the major European capitols just after I reached each one. While hitchhiking from Paris to Bretagne, I rode with a guy in his thirties who’d just seen Dylan. We spoke in French.
“How was Dylan?” I asked.
“Marvelous!” he replied.
“Did you understand a word he was saying?”
What does Dylan mean to Europeans? I suspect they understand his liberatory mission much more clearly than we do. They can feel the Americanness –- and perhaps the Jewishness –- of his work: the loose, half-improvised surprises built into his recordings, and especially his performances. (My point, of course, is that Swedes decide the Nobel Prize.)
Dylan is much more influenced by avant-garde jazz than even his fans realize. The folkrevival took place simultaneous to the free Jazz explosion begun by Ornette Coleman in 1961 –- the same year Dylan arrived in New York City. Also, Dylan is famous in the rock firmament for playing his songs differently each time -– but every jazz musician does that! Bob’s extraordinary harmonica solos, especially circa 1965, clearly show the imprint of jazz extremism. In Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan’s memoir from 2004, he documents his early years in Greenwich Village. Dylan writes:
I’d listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records, too. Records by George Russell or Johnny Cole, Red Garland, Don Byas, Roland Kirk, Gil Evans –- Evans had recorded a rendition of ‘Ella Speed,’ the Leadbelly song. I tried to discern melodies and structures… If I needed to wake up real quick, I’d put on ‘Swing Low Sweet Cadillac’ or ‘Umbrella Man’ by Dizzy Gillespie. ‘Hot House’ by Charlie Parker was a good record to wake up to. There were a few souls around who had heard and seen Parker play and it seemed like he had transmitted some secret essence of life to them. ‘Ruby, My Dear’ by Monk was another one. Monk played at the Blue Note on 3rd Street with Johnny Ore on bass and the drummer Frankie Dunlop.
Sometimes he’d be in there in the afternoon sitting at the piano all alone playing stuff that sounded like Ivory Joe Hunter -– a big half-eaten sandwich left on top of his piano. I dropped in there once in the afternoon, just to listen -– told him that I played folk music up the street. “We all play folk music,” he said. Monk was in his own dynamic universe even when he dawdled around. Even then, he summoned magic shadows into being.
Though often ridiculed as an awful musician, Bob’s anarchic explorations of the mouth harp remain unrivaled. I guess that’s a digression; even I can’t insist that the Nobel Prize for Literature should go to the most radical harmonica player. But Dylan’s musical avant-gardism is connected to his literary experimentation. In the course of two years, he expanded the possibilities of “folk music” the way Duchamp redefined visual art. “Gates of Eden” (1964) stretches the song form to an almost hallucinatory level:
Relationships of ownership/ They whisper in the wings/ To those condemned to act accordingly/And wait for succeeding kings,/ And I try to harmonize with songs/ The lonesome sparrow sings;/ There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.
Personally, I find “Gates of Eden” turgid and pretentious, but that doesn’t matter. Perhaps the first reinvention of “folk” must be sophomoric. As Dylan furiously sang in “I and I” (1983):
I’ve made shoes for everyone -– even you -–/ while I still go barefoot.
In other words, we all walk the path Dylan cleared for us.
There is a famous story that Dylan asked Leonard Cohen, “How long did it take you to write ’Hallelujah’?”
“The better part of two years,” Leonard replied. “And how long did it take you to write ‘I and I’?”
“About fifteen minutes.”
(I hear you asking: “He writes a song in 15 minutes, and for that he deserves the Nobel Prize?” My answer: “Fuck, yeah!”) Here’s some more lyrics to “I and I”:
Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race:/ It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth;/ Took a stranger to teach me to look into justice’s beautiful face/ And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
I and I:/ In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives./ I and I:/ One says to the other, “No man sees my face and lives!”
Leave it to Dylan to endorse the most indefensible line in the Bible: “… thou shalt give life for life,/Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,/ Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23 – 25).
INCIDENTALLY, those lines bring me to a point I should’ve made at the beginning of this essay: Dylan’s lyrics, written on the page, are basically doggerel. They are barely poetry, let alone great poetry. But that doesn’t matter. Dylan is singing songs. Exalted poetry, when sung to music, generally sounds crappy -– or at best, “arty.” Dylan deserves the Nobel as a songwriter, not a “poet.” I’d like to see Faulkner write a song as great as “Please Crawl out Your Window”!
By the way, did you notice how lovely that passage from Chronicles is? The whole book is written that well. Opening its pages at random, I come to a section about Dylan’s ill-fated collaboration with the poet Archibald MacLeish:
MacLeish tells me that he considers me a serious poet and that my work would be a touchstone for generations after me, that I was a postwar Iron Age poet but that I had seemingly inherited something metaphysical from a bygone era. He appreciated my songs because they involve themselves with society, that we had many traits and associations in common and that I didn’t care for things the way he didn’t care for them. At one point he had to excuse himself momentarily, left the room. I glanced out the window. The afternoon sun was breaking, throwing a vague radiance to the earth. A jackrabbit scampered past the scattered chips by the woodpile. When he returned things fell back into place. MacLeish picked up where he left off. MacLeish tells me that Homer, who wrote the Iliad, was a blind balladeer and that his name means ‘hostage.’
Hey, Archibald MacLeish is writing my essay for me!
Sparrow plays ocarina in the non-Euclidean pop band Foamola. He wrote for recently on Bazooka Joe Comics and their fortunes. Follow him on Twitter (@Sparrow14). How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization (And Other Helpful Hints) is available from our Pushcart.