Bob Dylan is the songwriter who opened up the doors of possibility to all who followed. He was the mysterious bard with a guitar who sent out a clarion call — first as the acoustic voice of his generation, then as the plugged-in rocker who remained a master of the unexpected for five decades — that the words pop singers sang were worthy of being taken seriously.
“Dylan was a revolutionary,” Bruce Springsteen said in his 1988 speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “The way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.”
Early masterpieces such as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and Visions of Johanna and Like a Rolling Stone fueled a debate: Are rock lyrics poetry?
The answer must be yes, because on Thursday, Dylan was awarded the highest honor for a writer: the Nobel Prize in literature. The Swedish Academy, in making him the first American winner since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993, cited him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The Swedish Academy’s decision to honor Dylan set off an online debate, with Scottish Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh calling it “an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Salman Rushdie, a Nobel candidate himself, called Dylan “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.” President Barack Obama settled the argument by tweeting: “Congratulations to one of my favorite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well deserved Nobel.”
Dylan’s name has been whispered as a possible winner for many years, but he was a surprise choice. Ladbroke’s, the English betting house, had the favorite as Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at 4-to-1. American gray eminence Philip Roth, the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral, was 7-to-1. Dylan came in at 60-to-1, with a slightly better chance than Princeton-based Irish poet Paul Muldoon (66-to-1) and slightly worse than Czech novelist Milan Kundera (50-to-1).
Many of Dylan’s most fervently loved songs — some of which actually are love songs — date from the 1960s, and his being honored at age 75 can be seen as an ultimate affirmation for the baby boomer generation. There was a movie about the Beatles in theaters this fall, and now Dylan has won the Nobel Prize. They have lasted.
On one end of Dylan’s songwriting spectrum is the vengeful, resolute, and timeless Masters of War, which he sang last weekend in his slot opening for the Rolling Stones at the Desert Trip festival otherwise known as “Oldchella” in Indio, Calif. It’s high dudgeon at its finest: “Let me ask you one question: Is your money that good? / Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? / I think you will find when your death takes its toll / All the money you made will never buy back your soul.”
On the other end are Dylan’s love songs, some of them also vengeful, such as Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) or Idiot Wind (from 1975’s brilliant Blood on the Tracks), or morose, like Love Sick, from the 1997 late-career tour de force Time Out of Mind.
A personal favorite is the uncharacteristically tender and humble To Ramona, from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan. “Ramona come closer, shut softly your watery eyes / The pangs of your sadness will pass as your sense will rise / The flowers of the city, though breathlike, get deathlike at times / Though there’s no use in trying to deal with the dying / Though I cannot explain that in lines.”
Dylan is, of course, enormously influential. Springsteen, who referred to him as “The Father Of My Country” in his new Born To Run memoir, is one of many who were once known as “New Dylans.” Every singer-songwriter with a personal story to tell owes him a debt, and hearing the above lines read or sung aloud, with their knack for internal rhyme, call up inevitable parallels to the dense playful language of rap.
The Nobel is given for a body of work, and comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, which translates into approximately $900,000. (A drop in the bucket for Dylan, who’s reportedly earning $7 million a piece for his gigs at Desert Trip, which happen again this weekend.)
His big win comes with slightly ironic timing, because with the recent shows on his Never Ending Tour, he has been concentrating not on songs that he’s written himself, but those associated with Frank Sinatra found on his two most recent albums, Shadows in the Night (2015) and this year’s Fallen Angels.
Dylan clearly won the Nobel for his songs, but he has published non-musical writing, including a book of poetry, Tarantula, in 1971, and Chronicles: Volume One, a memoir that came out in 2004.
“Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature,” the Nobel committee wrote.
It added: “Dylan has recorded a large number of albums revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics, and love. The lyrics have continuously been published in new editions, under the title Lyrics.”
At which point the snarky comment to make is: And it’s a good thing they have been published, because if you’ve gone to see the famously sneering and syllable-garbling Dylan play live in recent years, you probably couldn’t understand a word he was singing.