Tuesday, October 18, 2016

As Human Gods Aim For Their Mark

Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

The most prestigious prizes in the world are entirely subjective - based on no criteria except the opinions of handful of people.  Take the Oscars.  Back in 1998, the voters decided  "Shakespeare in Love" was a better film than "Saving Private Ryan", a decision that seemed ridiculous then, and hasn't aged well.  

The Nobel Peace Prize is particularly mockable.  Not just because Yasser Arafat won, or because Barack Obama won before he had done anything but win an election (to the President's credit, he was embarrassed about the award, and quietly inquired about declining). No, the Peace Prize is ridiculous because it's an award that is determined by a quintet of Norwegian politicians nobody has ever heard of.   As I wrote back in 2009:

"A prize that is decided by less than half a dozen Norwegian legislators should not get everyone so excited. Norway has roughly the population of Alabama, and its legislators aren’t exactly major players in world affairs. We shouldn’t care who wins, or who gets passed over, or what it all means. It doesn’t - well, it shouldn’t – mean anything."

Then there's the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I've been poking fun at this overrated award for a while now.  Again, we have a group of Swedish, um, book-readers? - deciding the most prestigious award in literature.  Why should their opinions matter more than the editors at the London Review of Books, or the subscribers for that matter.  And those Swedish arbiters of taste have had more than a few missteps since they started handing these trinkets out in 1901.  Among the snubbed are James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, and Henry James.  In recent years they've gone out of their way to ignore American writers, and one Nobel prize judge said this was intentional. 

Look, we know that Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world.  But we don't know that Svetlana Alexievich and Tomas Tranströmer (to name 2 recent winners) are better writers than Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth (to name two Americans who haven't gotten the call).  Down with the Nobels I've been saying for years.

And then, they went and honored my man Bob Dylan.

Me & Bob

By the time I joined the world's population in 1966, Bob Dylan had released 7 studio albums.

He had already told us the answer was blowin' in the wind, that a hard rain was a gonna fall, the times were a changin', that it wasn't him babe, and that it's all over now (baby blue).

He had introduced us to Tom Thumb, Queen Jane, Napoleon in rags, Hattie Carroll, Maggie, Mr. Tambourine Man, Johanna, and several Rainy Day Women.

He had revived folk, gone electric, crashed his motorcycle, and introduced the Beatles to marijuana.

So I was a little late on the Dylan thing.  As a young teen discovering rock and roll in the mid to late 70's, he didn't speak to me at all.  His protest music was a 60's artifact, his contemporary music mediocre, and his voice - well, I am ashamed to say I said the same thing many others had said before and since - a great songwriter, but please, let the Byrds or anyone else cover your stuff.

Then I heard Blood on the Tracks.  As a music listener, I still haven't fully recovered from that moment.  This was a personal album, about love lost, and about accepting that loss with grace (though the rage of 'Idiot Wind' punctures that grace*).  Every song was a masterpiece, with complex rhyming schedule, bursts of wisdom, subtle vocals, and yes, poetry.

*  "I can't even touch the books you read" is arguably the greatest insult in music history; though this bit from Positively 4th Street is in contention too:  "Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes.  You'd know what a drag it is to see you."

I went back to Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and his old folk stuff.  I dug into the Basement Tapes.  I was surprised at how funny he was - and how deeply, truly American.  Along with Van Morrison, he became one of my Twin Gods of Songwriting.  And I never looked back.


Can song lyrics be literature?  Of course they can.  Most of the time they are not - in fact, most of the time Bob Dylan's lyrics are not.  But put the lyrics of Shelter from the Storm next to Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", and it stands proudly.

Is the Nobel Literature Prize still ridiculous?  There are many here among us who think it's a joke -     a bunch of anonymous Swedish people passing judgment.

But in the end, we, collectively, as readers and listeners, get to decide what matters.  For indefensible reasons we've decided that a Prize, endowed over a century ago by the inventor of dynamite, matters.

And if it's going to matter, I'm glad they gave it to Robert Alan Zimmerman.  

Bonus Material:  I once made the case for Dylan to Dylan-haters in, of all things, a post about golf.  Here it is if you're interested...



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