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Dylan defies all categories—musically and politically

The Nobel committee was right to place him in the company of wonderful writers
November 14, 2016
Read more: Bob Almighty

“It will be a good joke on us all if, in 50 years or so, Dylan is regarded as a significant figure in English poetry,” the music critic Donal Henahan wrote in 1967. “Not Mr Thomas, the late Welsh bard, but Bob, the guitar-picking American balladeer.” Well, the punchline has come and no one is laughing, except possibly Bob Dylan. After 16 days of enigmatic silence, America’s most honoured living artist at last acknowledged his latest accolade, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and even agreed to attend the award ceremony in December, “if it’s at all possible.” Possible? Why wouldn’t it be? What does he mean?

As usual with Dylan, there is no good answer, because he cares much less than we do. Even as an apprentice, yet to write his first songs, “my mind was strong like a trap and I didn’t need any guarantee of validity,” he wrote (in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One). Not “validation”—the affirming squeeze of the shoulder—but validity: official sanction, the stamped passport. Like all hero-artists, Dylan travels alone, without documents. He is “vague about his antecedents and birthplace,” the New York Times reported nine months after Dylan arrived in Manhattan, more than 50 years ago, a 19-year-old college dropout beginning his rapid conquest of the Greenwich Village folk-music hatchery. From the start the press played along. The New Yorker music writer Nat Hentoff conspired to spread the story that Dylan, in reality a coddled son of the middle class from northern Minnesota, “ran away from home seven times—at 10, at 12, at 13, at 15, at 15 and a half, at 17, and at 18. His travels included South Dakota, New Mexico, Kansas, and California.”

Myths begin in plausibility. Dylan may look like a creased gnome today, but in his youth he was even more exotic, washed ashore from a distant corner of the national consciousness, a slyly cherubic “choirboy and beatnik” with his “Huck Finn black corduroy cap,” first lulling audiences with hillbilly onstage patter and then shocking them with the violent attack of the first strummed chords and harmonica bleats. When he opened his mouth, the bruising onrush approximated what the New York Times’s first reviewer marvelled was “the rude beauty of a Southern field hand.” This description will surprise those who know only the tuneless croak of the later Dylan. But his supreme confidence began with his vocals. He had no early ambitions to write songs—it happened “by degrees,” he later said—only to perform them, which he did better than anyone else. “Oh, my God, how that boy can sing!” said Joan Baez, the folk goddess who brought grown men to tears. Baez coated the folk melodies in queenly sorrow. Dylan yanked them up by their roots, out of the darkest loam of American myth—highway outlaws, children rising up against their fathers, workers against their bosses, inmates against their jailers. His early compositions had the perfection of antiquities, handed down through the generations, but with an otherworldly, winking wit. “We just played it, just wore it out,” George Harrison said of Dylan’s second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “the content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful.” John Lennon recalled: “For three weeks we didn’t stop playing it. We went potty about Dylan.” It is still among his greatest records, and includes “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War.”
"Dylan wrote of highway outlaws, children rising up against their parents, workers against their bosses, inmates against their jailers"
The Beatles felt the difference with a pang. They were playing to stadiums full of frenzied teenagers, who shrieked and sobbed (you can see them in the recent documentary Eight Days a Week), but then happily went home to their posters and fanzines. Dylan’s audiences sat in rapt brooding silence, nursing a hidden wound which he alone could salve. He reached them with the power of the period’s best novelists and the poets, and in this sense the Swedish Academy are right to place him in their company, though they have done him no favours by pinning a ribbon on him, confirming what detractors have been saying since the 1960s—that Dylan is a words-first and possibly even words-only guy. Such a judgement excludes Dylan from his own chosen pantheon (the country singer Hank Williams, the Depression-era folk bard Woody Guthrie, the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson). Of course he knows full well he is a word-genius—“the greatest living user of the English language,” as the literary scholar Christopher Ricks has said—and he has been deftly raiding the corpus of another Midwestern Nobelist, TS Eliot, for many years now. (Ricks, probably Dylan’s best-known academic champion, has edited both Eliot’s works and Dylan’s. A new edition of The Lyrics: 1961-2012 is being rushed out in the wake of the Nobel announcement.) But language forms only one strata of a many-layered epic art. “For sure my lyrics had struck nerves that had never been struck before,” Dylan acknowledged in Chronicles, “but if my songs were just about the words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock-and-roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs?” What indeed, you will ask should you subject yourself on YouTube to the dreadful Duane Eddy Does Dylan (1965), with its twanging bass-string literalism. (“What I’m suggesting,” my wife gently urged,” is that you turn it off.”) We come to another Dylan paradox. The greatest songwriter in modern history—in all of history, some have argued—has been ill-served by interpreters, from the progressive-summer camp warblings of Peter, Paul and Mary up through the pass-the-Quaalude embalmments of the Grateful Dead. Only Jimi Hendrix ever did him justice, on “All Along the Watchtower,” and he bungled most of the lyrics. Dylan didn’t mind in the least; he tinkers constantly with his verses. “It’s not a wonder to me that he recorded my songs,” he later said of Hendrix, “but rather that he recorded so few of them because they were all his.” He owned them with his Fender Stratocaster, the one rock-era instrument that could match the devil’s fire of Dylan’s vocals.

One way to understand Dylan is through his detractors, for instance the novelist Norman Mailer. He too was a prodigy—only 25 when his war novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) made him famous a dozen years ahead of Dylan’s arrival on the downtown New York scene. Mailer, too, was a Jew with ambitions to be the laureate of a radical-universal Americanism. In one of his best essays, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” reported from the Democratic convention in 1960, Mailer hopefully projected the presidential nominee, John F Kennedy, as an existential saviour who might shake the nation free of the consumerist torpor of the 1950s. But Mailer, the Cold War Prometheus, was captive to Hollywood’s dream factories, which “threw up their searchlights as the frontier was finally sealed,” offering “a new kind of heroic life, each choosing his own archetype of a neo-renaissance man, be it Barrymore, Cagney, Flynn, Bogart, Brando, or Sinatra.” Mass-produced Spartacuses, they nevertheless seemed free and so granted to “each private mind the liberty to consider its fantasy and find a way to grow.” Kennedy, though bred in the “supermarket” of politics, might also break free, and liberate us too, with his cool, ironic style.
"This new birth of freedom lasted only a few years, ravaged by the growing market-demand for authenticity"
Mailer’s essay was published in November 1960. Kennedy was sworn in on 20th January, 1961. Four days later Dylan arrived in New York exhaling the window-shaking gusts of a young generation. Its ideals weren’t the calculations of Beltway power-politics but student-led civil rights protests in the Deep South; not the big-band swing of Frank Sinatra, but the 12-bar blues and the slide guitar; not the Hollywood backlot, but the hallucinations of Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), the film which would give Dylan the imagery for “Mr Tambourine Man” and send him spinning out “past the vernacular” even as he sought to duplicate “the chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs.”

This new birth of freedom lasted only a few years, ravaged by the growing market-demand for authenticity, with its fiction of the artist who means everything he says. Dylan had never intended that—or wanted it. He was impersonator and pretender, as his early admirers saw (hence the made-up life story, the sharecropper’s vocals). Of Nashville Skyline (1969) he wrote, “I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and housebroken.” He added: “I used a different voice, too.” Part of making things up was sounding hokily “real.” He was creating a wilderness of mirrors, where no others could go.

But Dylan’s offspring, like the guilt-ridden children of billionaires, can give us only themselves, packaged in earnestness. Thus, Bruce Springsteen. He too is much on American minds, thanks to the publication of his memoir Born to Run (Simon & Schuster, £20). The title alone points up the differences. Dylan would never name a book, its own stand-alone creation, after a hit single, though one can well imagine the marketing heads nodding sagely. Dylan invents alternative worlds. Springsteen works up anthems. “To make these images matter, I would have to shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity,” he writes of the teen-car-escape clichés he cleverly manipulated in “Born to Run,” which he describes as a “hot-rod rumble of sound and a low-budget movie setting that brought the trash and undercut the song’s pretentions perfectly.”

It’s a very good song, though not as good as its model, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” the Beach Boys classic from 1964. Springsteen’s operatics—the garage-band “wall of sound,” the pumped-up vocals, the cast-iron lyrics (“dreams and visions,” “madness” and “sadness”)—overwhelm, but the result has none of the haunting, terror-stricken beauty of Brian Wilson’s original. Springsteen’s one gear is overdrive. This is why he delights a Republican like his fellow New Jersey guy, Governor Chris Christie (the Trumpist bully now under investigation for abusing the powers of his office), though Springsteen is himself a leftish populist who lectures us in his book on the evils of “political murder, economic injustice, and institutional racism.” He is always sure to tell us exactly where he stands, both feet firmly planted. Dylan, in contrast, defies all categorisation. He performed at the great civil rights march on Washington in 1963, but then fled the crushing embrace of the movement, just as he fled the crushing, virtuous embrace of the folk revival—and has since boasted of “changing ideologies like tyres, like shoes, like guitar strings. What’s the difference?” He offended many when he gave Chinese officials an advance look at his playlist when he performed there in 2011, though “if there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play,” he said at the time. He added, “I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book.”

It is impossible to imagine Dylan confiding, as Springsteen does, that his beloved sidemen thrust him into the unwanted roles of “banker and daddy,” encouraging us to see him as too nice a guy for the grubby side of music, even if it has made him stupendously wealthy: his earnings have exceeded $60m in 2016 alone. Dylan too is a cento-millionaire. We can expect him to grab the Nobel money, close to $1m, since like most rock gods he’s a notorious penny-pincher, having been taken advantage of when he was coming up. No matter. He is welcome to his fortune, just as Springsteen is. The difference is the attitude. “I didn’t really think I was that different from my fans except for some hard work, luck and natural ability at my gig,” Springsteen insists. I’m sure he means it. But how thin it sounds next to Dylan’s reply when a fan gushed, “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are.” Dylan: “Let’s keep it that way.”