I have a confession to make. I’ve never been to a Bob Dylan concert, never seen him up close or not even from far away.
I suspect this might also be true — although I cannot know for sure — for the persons who chose the recipient for the Nobel Prize for Literature and came up with Dylan, who was scheduled to perform in a concert in Las Vegas Friday.
This was uncommonly good news to digest on a day when Donald Trump warned of a dark, world conspiracy against his campaign and the morning after the Washington Nationals had once again plunged its fans into grief.
Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.
That is something.
I never saw him in the lean flesh but spent, I’m betting, thousands of hours listening to his songs on vinyl, on tape, on compact disc or online — myself all alone with him. More than that, in listening to Dylan’s songs, I am also doing an electric, different form of reading.
That’s not to rationalize the Nobel committee’s decision. Dylan doesn’t need it. He deserved the Nobel. He deserves Methusalah years, accolades, a kiss from a pretty woman he doesn’t know, praise from his fellow bards, and anything else that might come his way that he hasn’t experienced already.
Choosing Dylan—nee Robert Alan Zimmerman, a nice Jewish boy from Duluth, Minnesota—may be controversial or at least disorienting in some quarters. After all, he is known for writing songs, which are sung, by him and other singers, and old and young people skipping home drunk from a night out — or, holding candles at a demonstration, fists out at a rally.
We can all recall Dylan’s raspy and getting raspier with golden, older age, voice. He’s gotten his Grammys, even a Pulitzer, he’s heavy with honors, including the Presidential Medal, an occasion for which he wore dark glasses. His image as a person, even as an artist, as a performer is enigmatic. Perhaps deliberately so, he moved through all the season of a man’s sunlight and twilight both.
Dylan’s songs on the other hand are not just words put into music, or words pureed by music, they are lines and words standing by themselves as phrases, as iambic, as meters as marchers across a page, best perhaps sung — but also different when read, when the interpreter is silent and left alone.
For me, although I listened a lot and still do, the words are it, not just the body of the works, but also the titles, the meaning—always changing to some degree. They are the work of Bob Dylan the poet, the bard, the Homer—and they will be with us long after he sings the last word with his last breath. The words evoke, provoke, ache and hurry us into dreams.
When something like this happens—a distinct and rowdy honor it is, this Nobel Prize—it has the appearance of finality and cumulative judgement. The temptation is to get into biography, to sum up a life, make judgment on the output entire. In short, one is tempted to write a kind of critical obituary.
Not everyone likes the idea or the choice of Dylan as a Nobel laureate The biggest critics appear to be living novelists who haven’t got one and have no hope of getting one, such literary masters as Jodi Picoult and the Welch writer Irvine Welsh. According to the Washington Post, Welsh called the Nobel for Dylan “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
Well, add this writer as one of those senile, gibbering hippies to the chorus of approval.
Because Dylan caught the Zeitgeist from the beginning and continues to catch it.
Because “I ain’t goin to work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Because of Woody Guthrie and Rambling Jack Elliott and Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
Because a bunch of people from Adams Morgan got together in the Adams Bank lot the day after 9/11 and held hands and candles and sang “Blowing in the Wind” as the handiest tool of heart and sense available.
Because I will always remember the actor Slim Pickens, as a gut-shot sheriff in “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” made his way to the river, bleeding, Dylan on the background, “knock-knocking on heaven’s door.”
Because of the sweet and total, almost endless sourness of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Because of the clean invitation in all of his love songs, longing, appreciation. Because of “Forever Young.” Because of getting the essence of country out of thin air in all of “Nashville Skyline.” Because of “lay across my big brass bed.”
Because of pretty much everything in the more recent “Modern Times,” but especially “Thunder on the Mountain” and all the rest, sounding like this year. Because he cut albums of Christmas songs and old standards.
Because of “Tempest,” long and lyric, a mini-epic poem.
Because even when you think you got all of “Tangled Up in Blue,” it starts all over again, tangling you up, which is what good poems—when they’re not epicurean and clear as a Narcissus pool—should do.
The Nobel Committee stated that Bob Dylan writes “poetry for the ear.” True enough.
But other parts of the body are called, too—where memory lives purring like a cat, where sleeping outrage sleeps waiting to be kicked awake, where loves lies breathing and dying and finally gets up in the morning.
We’ve all got our images: Bob and Joanie, prince and princess of folk, the electric guitar, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the Basement Tapes and that face getting more sage like, more furrowed, the words sounding like tablets from our own modern gods — all of that, capturing this time and that time and the now time.
All the words, the words.
Because of them. Check the title list sometime, all of it. You will swoon.
Dylan deserves the Nobel for the words that are incessantly with us. He made us listen to words, reading them, like leaves, purposefully falling, words like leaves . . . blowing in the wind.