The first reaction to the award of Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan should be to ask the Nobel committee: “What took you so long?”
Could anyone really have complained if he had been awarded it in 1966 after his first flowering had chronicled American journeys towards personal freedom via the hopes, marches and protests of the civil rights movement – and some of the worst atrocities it encountered? Could anyone really have complained if he had been awarded it in 1976 after his second great period of creativity charted the breakdown of love and marriage through harsh poetic imagery epitomised by his 1975 album title Blood on the Tracks?
Well maybe there would have been complainants as even the award today to the still touring, still recording, still writing 75-year-old provoked some outrage that a singer-songwriter should not be receiving the world’s greatest prize for literature.
Actually it’s a point that should not be summarily dismissed. Most song lyrics are not poetry, and can look trite on a page without the accompanying music. But in Dylan we have and have always had an exception. As Salman Rushdie tweeted today: “From Orpheus to Faiz, song and poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”
The Nobel Prize judges gave the award to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. This is correct but too limiting. Dylan did not just create new poetic expressions, he explored the very essence of America in his songwriting – the American dream, the American landscape, the American soul. American songwriters from Dylan and Paul Simon to Bruce Springsteen have a much greater sense of place than their British counterparts (Paul Simon has not one but two songs detailing Greyhound bus journeys) and Dylan has always been fascinated with how geographical location informs the character and ambitions of its people.
He learned it to some degree from the renowned American folk singer of the early to mid 20th century, Woody Guthrie, whose hospital bed the young Dylan travelled to when Guthrie was dying. Dylan later said: “Woody Guthrie was my first hero and my last hero.” After him, Dylan made his own way in song and poetry, made his own discoveries and interpretations about America and its inhabitants.
Perhaps, as an aside, it was that same interest in the importance of location that account for two of the strangest anecdotes from relatively recent times. In one, a young New Jersey policewoman arrested Dylan, recognising neither his face nor name, for walking in the area. No one did that, she reckoned, and he must be up to no good. In fact he was simply exploring the area before a gig.
In another, a startled National Trust guide showing visitors round John Lennon’s boyhood home in Liverpool looked up to see the famous, grizzled face. Dylan had bought his ticket and taken the tour to learn more about his late friend and rival by soaking up the sense of place that created a fellow master of the art.
Bob Dylan is a musician, and any award for literature, even the foremost one, must of necessity ignore the musical exploration and innovation of 50 years. Rap fans of today might like to listen to Dylan’s 1965 song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and discover what can claim to be the world’s first rap song – “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement thinking about the government”. In Dylan’s case the musical journey was an explosive one from acoustic folk music to a backing band blazing out electric sounds for songs of intense personal rather than political meaning, as he wore the mantle of “king of counterculture” with increasing reluctance.
But the Nobel judges also have it right. He brought a new poetic expression to American song at a time, remember, when American song was still obsessed with moons, Junes and surfing. Suddenly there was a poet of American angst, heartbreak and bitterness. From “Just Like A Woman” with its opening lines “Nobody feels any pain, Tonight as I stand inside the rain” to the topsy-turvy emotions of “Love Sick” more than 30 years later “I’m sick of love … I’m love sick”, he delved into searingly painful emotions that resonated with generation after generation. “Like A Rolling Stone” didn’t just introduce the new electric, snarling Bob Dylan in 1965, it was emotion recollected in bitter disdain, the intricate rhyming and beguiling imagery, turning fans then and for ever more into analysts – “You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you, never understood that it ain’t no good, you shouldn’t let other people get their kicks for you.”
And if you think that a decent literary critic could manage those lines ok, then try the next two lines: “You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.” Not for nothing has Dylan’s poetry spawned not just books but a lucrative line in college professorships.
His songs did very much tell the story of America in the 20th century, through the unforgettable imagery of songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to detail the threat and aftermath of a nuclear war, the prescience 10 years before Nixon’s impeachment of a line like “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” and so much more.
The songs gave lyrical being and a dreamlike quality to the drug culture – “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind, down the foggy ruins of time”; the turmoil of love: “Heart of mine be still, you can play with fire but you’ll get the bill”; the pure joy of adoration: “She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice like fire”; the seemingly effortless portrayal in words of everyone’s emotional pain: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be quiet?”
There are a hundred other examples. The songs, their messages, and most of all their language, are quite simply eternal. And that’s why the tweet from novelist Irvine Welsh today: “I'm a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies,” is amusing (faintly) but plain wrong. Firstly, the prize should be and is for a lifetime of work. Was Harold Pinter still producing his greatest work when he got the prize? Secondly, Dylan is the first to say, and has said, that he could not write any more songs like “Blowin In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Nevertheless, as recent albums like Tempest show, he does continue to explore the poetic heart and soul of America. To quote from the words of one of his most memorable songs, he has stayed “Forever Young”.Reuse content