So, Bob Dylan. I hear he’s one of the greats. The Nobel Prize Committee codified this notion in 2016 by awarding the folk singer and American icon the prize for literature.
I’m not a fan of Dylan’s music, per se, but I’m not a hater. I like the American folk music tradition, and I’ll listen to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on repeat a couple times a year if the mood strikes. Beyond that, I’m sort of befuddled by the Dylan phenomenon. He’s the Boomer Beyoncé— moments of true genius and showmanship, sure, but imbued by a generation with cultural significance that demands fealty and is aghast at the slightest criticism.
If you’re not hyperventilating over Dylan’s towering genius— comparing him to Homer and Sappho, as the Nobel Committee did—you’ve missed the boat.
What I do like about Dylan is that he doesn’t seem to be hyperventilating over his own greatness. He’s an insouciant cult leader, almost accidental. Millions have declared their desire to follow this marble-mouthed bard to the ends of the Earth, and he looks at them and mumbles, “You sure?”
But as Andrew Ferguson, chief chronicler of the cult of Dylan and its many abuses at the hands of its leader, puts it, “Dylan worship is impervious to evidence. It begins and ends in experience and memory, personal and generational.” Luckily, the Nobel folks are among the supplicants because, boy, did he have some indifference to dish out to them!
Despite being the first musician to ever be awarded the prize, Dylan did not accept it in person. In fact, he dodged for weeks the Swedish Academy’s phone call informing him of his win, leaving the world-renowned prize committee burning with unrequited love, enough for one member to declare him “impolite and arrogant.” He didn’t attend the ceremony because he had “preexisting committments.” He is the ballerest Boomer!
I openly admit I would probably loathe this behavior in any other performer. I would think it, well, impolite and arrogant. Most boomers would have to admit if a millennial pulled this, they’d be bemoaning “these kids today” as did their parents before them while they were spinning Dylan 45s in their rooms. But there’s something endearing about Dylan’s stubborn refusal to be the thing people want him to be, to behave as an obedient recipient of his paeans.
Dylan goes electric and lets people boo. Dylan declares himself “tired of the scene” at the height of his fame in the very scene he helped create. Dylan forgets to call back the Nobel Committee.
He instead sent a statement to the ceremony, which the U.S. ambassador to Sweden read. In it, Dylan comes through as clever and funny, with a workmanlike dedication to everyday writing and performing. But he seemed distinctly, if politely, unconvinced he deserved the honor and its attendant adulation.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’ So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.
To collect the big cash prize that accompanies this award, our unlikely recipient was required to give a lecture by June 10, 2017. A 27-minute recording of Dylan discussing his own musical and literary inspirations and three greats of the canon over a soft, jazzy piano back track appeared online Monday, June 5. Like Dylan’s whole persona, I find it compelling even though I’m not sure why.
If you close your eyes, it sounds like a bizarro Mitch Hedberg set with no punchline, but his summations of “Moby Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and “The Odyssey” are lovely in their gritty simplicity. It’s worth the price of admission (which, sure, is free) just to hear him pronounce “Don Quixote” in that distinctive, garbly drawl.
But to those who were looking to Dylan’s lecture to illuminate his more inscrutable moments and lyrics, this is another expectation he steadfastly refuses to meet. Again I defer to Ferguson, who has been studying the studying of Dylan for years:
Dylan hasn’t shown many signs that he’s ever fallen for his own press… Like most successful entertainers, Dylan had excellent timing. He came of age just as intelligibility vanished as a criterion for successful poetry. This gave him the freedom to write any old thing that came into his head, and gave his fans license to pretend they knew what he was singing about.
Dylan seems to confirm this theory at the end of his lecture.
If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And, I’m not gonna worry about it. What it all means.
When Melville put all his Old Testament, Biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea, the sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either— what it all means.
John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words— ‘the Sestos and Abydos of her breasts.’ I don’t know what it means either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.
In short, meaning is meaningless, man. Stop worrying about it so much. Get some of the chill I have in abundance.
Boomers never will when it comes to Dylan, even though he’s telling them to. It reminds me of a quote from another literary great, Charles Dickens, who has Pip deliver a succinct description of love unreturned: “I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”
There is something tragic, ennobling, meaningful about caring for something far more than it cares about you. On this, Dylan will always deliver for his fans.