By Gary Linehan
Dateline Stockholm, Oct. 19, 2016: Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shocking news to some, welcome news to others, strong opinions on both sides.
My kids, now in their early 20s, grew up hearing a lot of Bob Dylan, along with a lot of the Beatles and other great music. They both love the Beatles. My daughter also digs Dylan, but my son doesn’t much care for him.
My wife, not a huge Dylan fan, woke me up at 6 a.m. the day the award was announced to give me the news, knowing that I fall into the fanatic category. I think I managed to mumble something like “that’s nice,” but inwardly I was smiling. Not shocked, not reeling with disbelief, just extremely pleased that this highest of literary recognitions had been awarded to someone whose music has been a part of my life longer than most of the people in it.
I was hooked the first time I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio in 1965 at age 14. I went backward in the catalogue from there and forward every time a new single or album came out.
While Dylan’s musical structures can be complex, most would agree his lyrics constitute the soul of the songs. Both can also be quite basic, but even his less exalted songs frequently contain lines that strike to the heart. These especially stand out when compared to songs with lyrics such as, say, “Your lips taste like sangria.”
So what does all this have to do with the Strawberry Music Festival or the Strawberry Way?
Probably not much, other than to validate what many festival-goers and performers have always believed, that music can be life-changing and that Dylan ranks at the top of the game. It’s impossible to have a festival go by without hearing several references to Dylan, either in conversation, on stage or in campsite jams.
Over the years, I remember Greg Brown’s fine version of “Desolation Row” and a remarkably theatrical, energetic staging of “Gates of Eden” by Gandalf Murphy and the Grand Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Rodney Crowell and Tim O’Brien are always good for some top-notch Dylan and Marley’s Ghost rocked the meadow with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” at the 2016 fall festival.
In a songwriting workshop, Loudon Wainwright III was asked if he agreed with the notion that new songwriters “shouldn’t fish downstream from Bob Dylan.” He gave a great answer, quoted here as accurately as I can recall: “I guess that’s true, but Bob Dylan sure was fishing pretty close to Woody Guthrie when he started out.”
Not everyone cheered Dylan’s selection for the big prize. That was predictable enough, but some literary pundits showed particular vitriol.
“Trainspotting” novelist Irvine Welsh was quoted as calling the selection “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
To Mr. Welsh (Mr. Jones?), I would say, “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes.”
Biographer Blake Bailey chimed in, “Rather doubt Philip Roth and Don DeLillo wish they’d written ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ vs. ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘Underworld.’ ”
I’m pretty sure everybody wishes they’d written “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates and the Academy of American Poets all praised the selection.
Literature is defined as “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” Dylan is the first musician to win the Nobel literary award in its 115-year history. The committee cited him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Cranky, defiant, egotistical? Sure, but that could also describe me as well as any number of artists and plenty of the people I know.
Dylan has been writing and performing for most of his 75 years. He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, and began performing folk and country songs in college. He changed his name to Bob Dylan, moved to New York City and played his first major gig there on April 11, 1961, opening for John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s Folk City. He signed his first recording contract the same year.
His debut album, “Bob Dylan,” was released in 1962; his most recent, “Fallen Angels,” hit the racks this year. His influence on the course of popular music is undeniable.
Grammatically, Dylan’s lyrics can range from street vernacular to the deeply profound. Taken alone, many would never rise to the Nobel level — “Little red wagon, little red bike, I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like,” for instance. But the Nobel is awarded for a body of work, and Dylan’s output is incomparable.
From the very beginning, Dylan’s lyrics have widely been regarded as poetic, addressing subjects that span the human experience. His songs have been poignant, funny and biting. Artistically, his style changes from album to album and his songs continue to evolve from concert to concert.
Several of his earlier albums featured his original poems or chaotic prose on the sleeve, shattering previous notions of what liner notes should be.
Ironically, I would have to say that Dylan’s actual books are not really Nobel material. “Chronicles: Volume I,” published in 2004, is interesting, but not particularly structured or polished. (There has not yet been a Volume 2.) “Tarantula”? Written in 1965 and 1966, it was called “experimental prose poetry” and not officially published until 1971. It was thrashed by critics and even Dylan tried distance himself from it.
A 2003 article in Spin magazine — “Top Five Unintelligible Sentences from Books Written by Rock Stars” — gave Dylan first place for a line from “Tarantula”: “Now’s not the time to get silly, so wear your big boots and jump on the garbage clowns.”
What does it all mean, indeed?
“I’m sick of people asking ‘what does it mean?’ ” Dylan ranted in 1966 about people constantly questioning his work. “It means nothing.”
Dylan finally broke his silence on the award Friday (Oct. 28), saying he was left “speechless” and will “absolutely” try to be at the presentation ceremony on Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden.
“I appreciate this honor so much,” he told Sara Darius, the academy’s permanent secretary.
Asked by Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper why he waited two weeks to comment, Dylan replied, “Well, I’m right here.”