Leave it to Sweden to give us confirmation that Bob Dylan has arrived.
Fifty four years after releasing his eponymous debut album in 1962 and half a century after writing and recording some of the world’s most memorable, bold and meaningful pop music and poetry, the Nobel Committee for Literature in Stockholm on Thursday rustled up a medal and $930,000 to say thanks for the memories.
That’s not to say that Dylan is on the shelf. He released his latest album, Fallen Angels, in May as he continues his streak of covering torch-song ballads and other jewels from the Frank Sinatra collection. He has 29 concerts left to play on his tour this year after the 47 he performed since early April. On Thursday, he was scheduled to play Las Vegas. Earlier dates this year took him across the United States as well as a few major Japanese metro centers. He’s “still on the road,” as he’s been telling us since he wrote that line in 1974 for the song Tangled Up in Blue.
The committee recognised Dylan for a lifetime of accomplishment. Specifically, they cited him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
The world carried on his song
That is the funny part of the announcement on Thursday that Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It took the Swedes to recognise a contribution to American music on the level of Dylan’s – though that does not surprise me. Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941, might be the product of the quintessential white, Jewish post-war American upbringing, but it is the international audiences who stuck with him long after American mainstream audiences cooled to his music and his erratic ways. And except for a few cases every couple of years, he remains in eclipse.
That’s because Dylan was known primarily for one thing in the United States: he was the protest folksinger who was dubbed the spokesman of a generation in the early to mid-1960s. Then he turned into some kind of beat mystic rock 'n’ roller, alienated as many of his fans as he could, and sought the quiet life.
Before Dylan withdrew, he composed (that is what we call songwriting when you have made it with the Swedish Academy) the songs for which America remembers him now: Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Mr Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower, to name only a few. More hits came later: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Gotta Serve Somebody, Make You Feel My Love and others. But they were just hits – they weren’t milestones on the path of American cultural progress.
Dylan in the drawing room
Dylan spent the late 1960s trying his best to scrape off the barnacles of fame, and not just regular rock 'n’ roller fame, but fame that must have sounded fulsome to him then as much as now. He released albums that seemed guaranteed to perplex or turn big audiences into small ones. He left amazing material on the cutting-room floor, substituting songs that in the long run have left casual fans cold, or in some cases nearly violent with anger at how sloppy and poor they thought his work had become. His three-album excursion into born-again Christianity, followed by a string of critically panned albums, nearly put him out to pasture.
But like Noah Cross says in the movie Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” And Dylan has done just this. His career as ascended once again as he has become one of the grand old men of rock, and even when he baffles audiences by releasing an entire album of Christmas carols sung in his road-paver voice (which David Bowie once described as “sand and glue”), we all know now that he’s part of the furniture in this nation’s living room. He’s familiar and comfortable to us like water or a rocking chair and a blanket knitted by grandma.
And that’s Dylan to Americans, at least, so he is the way I see it. But traveling to different countries, I meet people for whom Dylan has not been a museum piece for longer than I have been alive.
Sticking with their heroes
The Swedish Academy’s decision to award him the prize reflects, to some small extent I’m sure, the charming ability of fans in places like Europe to preserve a loyal fan base for artists long after major US radio stations don’t play their work anymore. That is why bands like Procol Harum can still go on tour. Europe and Japan stick with their pop heroes.
And those fans get the long view of an artist’s progress. Dylan’s followers, the ones who have stuck around for the long run, know what his social significance looks like on a graph. There’s a huge spike in the first few years, followed by a bumpy, sharp fall into a long ditch (Knocked Out Loaded, collaborations with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Grateful Dead and so on), and then it rises again as he turned into an old legend.
He started off with a guitar and a harmonica, added piano, then a band, then backup singers, all the while writing his own material and incorporating the work of so much older material – Elizabethan songs, old British and Irish ballads, blues music, Bible verses, Humphrey Bogart movies, Ovid, you name it.
Whether he stole or incorporated or quoted is not up to me to say. But the academy was right: even as his music moved from current affairs into states of the surreal and on into the shadows in his mind, he knitted himself into the fabric of American music and changed its pattern, even as that pattern changed him. And he always stayed one step ahead as he wove his work. We have been able to hear the results, and I am grateful for that.
Driving with Dylan
I grew up in the 1970s, and my parents moved us across the country more than once. We traveled by car. When people ask what Dylan’s music means to me, I do not think about protest songs. (Nor did the Academy, I might add, which did not mention that word once in its short write-up on Dylan.) I think about those days, some of which I was barely old enough to remember. I saw fields and rivers and mountains and the endless expanse of America. We had eight-track tape decks in our family cars back then, a Porsche and a Volkswagen Beetle, I think we had. CB radios too.
And among the other music that came on the radio, we had Dylan. That nasal voice, the anger and wonder he could project from one moment to the next, Al Kooper’s crazy gorgeous organ, the dense drums, the beautiful low bass. Whether it was the sweep of Like a Rolling Stone or the country charms on albums like New Morning, Dylan’s music is a drive down a country road, across the plains, rain and sunshine on the endless highway, a soundtrack for a road to freedom and no obligations. Of course he said it better: “but for the sky there are no fences facing”.
Robert MacMillan is an editor and reporter at the Reuters news service. He is based in New York, and frequently travels to India. His book, Haiku 61: The Songs of Bob Dylan, interpreted as haiku, debuts this week.