There will be some who doubt Dylan’s right to the Nobel prize in literature. There are others who believe he should get a special Nobel just for being Bob Dylan, writes Richard Williams
IN THE latest of many distinctions garlanding a career stretching back five-and-a-half decades, Bob Dylan has become the first member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to win the Nobel prize in literature. Some will argue against the award, as they argued against him in the long and infinitely tiresome Dylan v Keats controversy, and as others have contested the meaning and value of every phase and nuance of his output. Others will feel that he deserves the creation of a special Nobel prize simply for being Bob Dylan, however that condition is defined.
So, to confront the familiar argument, can what he does be called literature? And if he is being judged on literary grounds, should Tarantula, his ‘novel’ of the mid-60s (started and abandoned in 1965, widely bootlegged and finally published officially in 1971), be taken as evidence? His fans know the first line by heart — ‘Aretha / Crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him’ — but few reached the end. There was no music, as Dylan himself must have realised when he set it aside.
Essentially, in the work of Bob Dylan, the words and the music cannot be separated. Just take your favourite Dylan line. Yours might be the ever timely ‘Where preachers preach of evil fates / Teachers teach that knowledge waits / Can lead to hundred-dollar plates / Goodness hides behind its gates / But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked’, from It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) in 1965. Or the eternal ‘Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?’ (Visions of Johanna, 1966) or the mysterious ‘Two riders were approaching / The wind began to howl’ (All Along the Watchtower, 1968). Whichever it is, when you say them to yourself, as we all do in times of need, you’ll be hearing his voice, his sound, his music.
Mine — at this moment, anyway, because the choice is bound to change from time to time when the library is so vast and rich — happens to be a simple line from Brownsville Girl, an 11-minute epic he co-wrote with Sam Shepard in 1986: ‘Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.’ This is not ‘literary’, or poetic by his former standards. There is no ‘midnight’s broken toll’ or ‘geometry of innocence’. Dylan phrases it so perfectly in a single breath that the meaning is rendered starkly and with profound resonance. That’s what he does.
The admirable delicacy of the Nobel committee’s citation — ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ — will certainly have provoked a buzz among analysts of Dylan’s career. For one thing, the last two albums released by a man now in his 76th year consisted entirely of material drawn from what has become known as the Great American Songbook: compositions by the very Broadway tunesmiths, in fact, who Dylan the songwriter seemed in the eyes of his own generation to have been invented to destroy. Dylan, however, has always been fond of turning his own iconoclasm on the idea of iconoclasm itself, his protests against being called a protest singer just one example of that refusal to conform to even the freshest of stereotypes.
Similarly, he never wanted to tear down the walls of Tin Pan Alley. That was an inference drawn by others, useful in the early phase of his career, when he drew from what he had heard in the collection of antique songs on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music — the ballads and blues, the music of hard times — and somehow infused it all with the onrushing anti-authoritarian, anti-deferential spirit of his own era.
As the Nobel citation correctly suggests, Dylan knitted himself — without anyone realising it, perhaps even him — into the warp and weft of American popular music. Borrowing wholesale from the past, reshuffling melodies, images, characters and attitudes, he helped assemble the components of a rapidly changing present.
Fifty years ago he used a fairly minor motorcycle accident as an excuse to step away from the spotlight. But the end of the ‘perfect’ Dylan — the one who fused what he had learnt from Woody Guthrie and the symbolist poets with the energy of rock’n’roll, and who mocked the world from behind impenetrable shades — did not mean the end of his creativity. In songs such as Tangled Up in Blue (1975), Blind Willie McTell (1983) and Cross the Green Mountain (2002) he explored ways of playing games with time, voice and perspective, continuing to expand the possibilities of song in ways that disarm all possible criticism of this new and perhaps greatest honour.
Telegraph.co.uk, October 13.
Richard Williams is a former chief sports writer for the Guardian. His previous jobs include chief sports writer of the Independent, assistant editor of the Times, editor of Time Out and Melody Maker and head of artists and repertoire at Island Records.
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