News and Commentary – Dylan Picks Up His Nobel (I)

Earlier this week Nobel Laureate in Literature Bob Dylan fulfilled his obligation to the Norwegian Institute with a remarkable speech that looked back over a few of the formative influences of his work (and they might surprise you). This inspired us to take a moment to consider some things Dylan, in part to provide a user’s guide – or at least, perhaps, to offer a glimpse of the rituals of the converted – for those who have not closely attended to things Bob.

Most important, as with Fight Club, there are rules about following his Bob-ness. Ironically, “question all rules” is one of the rules. (This credo is sometimes misunderstood as “break all the rules”—which is a very different thing. Rules are ok – especially if you adhere to the Murray Qualification – the crucial point is that they should be interrogated and assessed, not blindly followed.) In any event, within the tribe, two rules are essential: (1) We don’t know Bob. We don’t know him, he doesn’t know us. He performs, we listen (or not). He doesn’t owe us anything, and he can do whatever he likes (like selling a song for and appearing in a cosmically ridiculous Victoria’s Secret commercial). (2) He is not to be worshipped. He may or may not even be a nice guy (after all, we don’t know him). And, especially, he is not our hero. This question was settled definitively in the liner notes of The Times They Are a-Changin’

Woody Guthrie was my last idol
he was the last idol
because he was the first idol
I’d ever met

that taught me
face t’ face
that men are men
shatterin’ even himself
as an idol

So then, no idols. He’s just some guy. But a guy who is also one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. And on this festive occasion, here we will untangle three common misconceptions about Bob. (A follow-up post will walk through the oeuvre).

Dylan is not a “protest singer.”  Yes, Bob was an active supporter of the civil rights movement, wrote many topical songs in support of that cause, and performed at the March on Washington. But Dylan’s commitment to Civil Rights – certainly laudable – transcended “politics.”  White American folk and rock musicians in the fifties and sixties tended to be ahead of the curve on Civil Rights because they revered and spent time in the company of older black musicians. Dylan’s first album featured covers of songs by Jesse Fuller, Bukka White, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and he cut his teeth as a professional opening for John Lee Hooker in April 1961 (and after hours they would kept the music going, as Bob was keen to absorb the wisdom of the masters). But politics? Dylan renounced them. In mid-1964. When he was twenty-three.  And in case his intentions were not clear enough, he called the album Another Side of Bob Dylan.  A year later, of course, he would go electric, infuriating the folk purists. But Dylan’s rejection of Politics was not a rejection of politics. As Nick Bromell wrote, “If Dylan’s decision to go electric looked at the time like a renunciation of politics and a shameless embrace of modernity, what’s clear today is that Dylan was  . . . [moving] in the direction of a different style of politics: not the liberal politics of the older generation but a radical politics that was as much an attack on the self as a critique of society.”

Dylan is a writer, not a singer. Sorry, but that’s just wrong. You don’t have to like his voice (though we suspect that if you don't your sample is small and inadqeuately representative). But that’s beside the point. You can’t separate the two.  As Paul Williams argued, in one of the finest books on Bob, Dylan is best understood as a performing artist, and his albums (and concerts) are each unique acts of performance which can only be understood in their totality, and not broken down into constituent parts. If you doubt this, consider why covers of Dylan’s work rarely compare well with the originals. There are exceptions, of course; Jerry Garcia, for example, in live performance, was one of the few great interpreters of Dylan compositions. We are blown away by his “Going, Going, Gone,” and also quite fond of “Señor,” as well as “It Takes A lot to Laugh.”  But in general, no one does Dylan like Dylan. 

His early stuff was better. It is certainly the case that if Dylan did not survive his motorcycle accident in 1966, he would have been deified. Along with his seven official albums, Columbia would have eventually released at least three full albums of recordings sitting in the can, and a minimum of five very distinct live albums. A five year career, fifteen spectacular albums, and Bob would never get old, never swing and miss.  As Orson Welles exclaimed, “God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!” But Dylan lived on, and as a result we have fifty more years of output from him.  From each decade, consider the best, let the misfires fade (as they will), and what’s left is spectacular. So go ahead and love the early stuff. But if his career started in 1966, the day after he flipped over the handlebars of his motorcycle, he would still be considered one of the singular artistic voices of our time.