Monday, 17 October 2016


His Bobness: Nobel Laureate

‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ isn’t a letter from St. Bob to the infidels so much as Dr. Seuss scribbling careerist rhymes on speed in the midst an acid flashback. And I don’t think Dylan was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature on the merit of ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man’ either, even though parody and satire constitute literature which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “written works, especially those valued for form and style.”

When I conjure an image of Bob Dylan in my mind, there are two to choose from. The first speaks to my own age and so he’s wearing black eye shadow under a feathered pimp hat and playing an electric guitar. The second stems from an earlier photographic record, a curly haired young man seated before a manual typewriter and smoking. There is always paper scrolled in the machine in those black and whites.

The poet Homer and the playwright Shakespeare wrote to be recited, not read. The novel as readers conceive it has been in existence for about 400 years. There is a compelling argument that specialized, long form television series have replaced the novel as the world’s most popular storytelling form. Graham Greene, probably 20th century Britain’s most renowned author, originally conceived and wrote ‘The Third Man’ as a film treatment; does its printed form as a novella in anyway diminish its stature within his canon? Everything is written; last week’s Nobel debate was about how a modern author like Dylan chose to deliver his writing to an audience.

Dylan has been writing, recording and releasing music for more than 50 years. His catalogue, almost every album, veers from pop genius to, “What the hell was he thinking?” Each time I hear ‘Every Grain of Sand’ I want to believe in God again, that is, until the song ends. ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is a fully realized short story. ‘Hurricane’ is the sonic equivalent of some of the best sports writing I’ve ever read and perhaps even the new journalism of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. And what to make of ‘Tempest’ a lengthy ode to the S.S. Titanic which entwines history with the Hollywood epic?

And yet… If someone were to ask me for a primer on American culture, I would say: read these books and poems; watch these movies and plays; look at these paintings and photographs; listen to these musicians. I would never say, “Oh, you must read Bob Dylan.” That advice would as meaningless as saying, “Oh, you must look at a portrait of Toni Morrison.”

Alfred Nobel was an arms manufacturer and the inventor of a really efficient explosive. Late in life he attempted to spin his life’s story and profits into philanthropy. The Nobel Prize committee is directed from the grave to reward achievements in various fields which benefited humanity in the preceding year. Dylan’s recent output has included Fallen Angels, a companion album to Shadows in the Night, a disc of American standards made popular by Frank Sinatra, and The Cutting Edge, an extensive hodgepodge of outtakes from his electric and career defining run of wax from 1965 and ’66: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

Election Day November 8th will soon be upon the United States. Intelligent people all over the globe are desperately hoping that America will get itself back on track. Perhaps the Nobel committee did look back. Maybe Dylan was chosen as a symbol or an icon for what was good about a country now divided: the civil rights and anti-way movements; and his associations with a dusty idealist like Woody Guthrie, and the groundbreaking poetry and prose of the Beat writers.

For me the Dylan Nobel award is something of an affirmation. I sensed this devil’s music made more interesting and complex because of Dylan’s influence meant something even if I could never articulate exactly what, but I knew it would change the manner in which I viewed the world and conducted myself while walking on it. So what exactly constitutes literature? And does Dylan even rate? French writer, designer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once said, “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.” And in the case of His Bobness, maybe out of tune.

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