The troubadour in his labyrinth

Shayan S. Khan
Wednesday, April 19th, 2017


Over the first weekend of April, almost six months after it was announced, Bob Dylan finally decided to drop in on the Swedish Academy and accept his Nobel Prize in Literature. He happened to be touring in the area, actually he was playing his first dates in Stockholm, and duly realised it would have been more than a bit rude to not allow for this courtesy, having failed to turn up for the official ceremony in December “due to prior commitments”.  On that occasion, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden did convey a thank you note from Dylan that read in part, “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ’Are my songs literature?’”


It is a question that has haunted and riveted literary circles ever since the Swedish Academy’s announcement last October, that Dylan would be inducted into the ranks of Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Toni Morrison, Samuel Beckett, Alice Munro and Thomas Mann, just some of the giants of 20th century literature who now find amongst them the rather peculiar presence of a “song-and-dance man”, in his own self-deprecating words. Even prior to the Nobel, there had always been some debate emanating from the extraordinary richness of the lyrical input in Dylan’s work around for over five decades. Eric Clapton probably remains one of the earliest of Dylan’s fellow artists who made it clear that he regarded the Minnesotan who famously ran away to New York’s Greenwich Village to pursue a life in music, firstly as a poet, and only secondly a musician.


That debate, it has to be said, was a much simpler affair, for no-one who grew up on the conscientious protest songs that formed the soundtrack to the Sixties and sealed Dylan’s place as a cultural icon, would argue against the force of the poetry that flowed from his pen, and that he sang, with his unique, inimitable delivery (prompting a separate debate on whether he actually sang) night after night as part of a seemingly never-ending touring schedule that still goes on today. Long before the Nobel committee mustered the courage to give the Literature prize to a musician for the first time in its 115-year history, in 2008, he became the first rock musician to win Pulitzer Prize,  for his contributions to music and American culture, marked by “lyrical compositions of their extraordinary poetic power”.


Although Dylan failed to turn up to receive that one as well, it would seem to have settled the debate over his lyrics as poetry. Yet the Pulitzer is quintessentially American in its pool, focus and outlook, whereas the Nobel is a much more global affair. The awards in the technical sciences and literature are particularly coveted by a litany of purveyors every year from all over the world, and the Swedish Academy, in keeping with the wishes of Alfred Nobel, hardly imposes any restrictions as to who gets a shot. Predictably therefore, the waves of condemnation and adulation it ignited could be seen approaching from all corners.


“An ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies,” wrote “Trainspotting” novelist Irvine Welsh, a Scotsman. “I totally get the Nobel committee,” tweeted author Gary Shteyngart. “Reading books is hard.” The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said some “real writers” probably aren’t pleased, all reported in the Chicago Tribune.


For his fans, and I’d imagine all of them like myself, it was a strange old feeling. The Pulitzer had some build-up to it, and when it came, I recall a general view that justice merely, had been served. But even then, the realization dawned that music truly is a medium where awards and accolades are difficult things to relate to. No one but no one, after all, can write a song with an award in mind. The best one can hope for is a charity single (say, “We are the world”). Or a chart-topper, which can carry about as much weight as a t-shirt.


That isn’t to say artists of Dylan’s calibre don’t get their time at the top. In rock music, the genre that arguably defined the latter half of the 20th century, certainly in the West (and went on to colonise parts of the wider world as well, with Bangladesh itself being home to a very fertile scene that stretches to an ‘underground’ circuit) every successful artist’s career can be defined by a certain ‘peak’. This is usually a period, a stretch of perhaps three to five years if they’re lucky, usually spanning three records, that marks out the height of their professional accomplishments. It is not enough to have had your biggest hits in that time. There will usually be some thread running through it all that is identifiable, that holds it all together through an unusually rich period of resourcefulness.


Some will not be bound by that of course. Pink Floyd are a definite exception, whose output throughout the 1970s seemed to defy gravity. Even discounting 1971’s moody masterpiece, Meddle, there was Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977), and culminating in The Wall (1979). Both for the new directions in which they were steering their art, as well as the consistency with which they were doing it, this is the period that sealed the Floyd’s place in history.


Dylan too had a run of four or five great albums, spread out probably over a smaller period of time (say, from ‘ 62 – ‘68), but it is the almost electric run through three of them, spread out over just sixteen months starting early 1965 and stretching till the Summer of Love in 1966, that has always drawn me more than any phase or individual record even. The three records were Bringing it All Back Home (featuring the single Subterranean Homesick Values, accompanied by the famous video of Dylan tossing away cue cards with the lyrics), Highway 61 Revisited (again, the opening track, in this case Like a Rolling Stone, arrives like a call to arms), both of which came out in 1965, and the next year it was Blonde on Blonde, a 72-minute surge of electric imagery (indeed, the ‘ghost of electricity’), unbound ambition (closing track ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ took up one whole side of an LP), and despite being a lurch into the unknown, absolute assurance. One could reliably contend that none of his subsequent work managed to recapture the spark, or was it the edge, of this period. Those who agree point to a mysterious motorbike accident that took place in 1967 and put him out of commission for quite a while, as a possible reason.


Yet everyone’s art must attain its peak, in order for its fullest realisation, and the boy who ran away from home in sleepy Minnesota and jumped on a train to New York City as Robert Zimmerman, and became in turn, the keeper of America’s finest folk tradition, in the line of his hero Woody Guthrie, to the ‘spokesman of his generation’, to ‘Judas’ as he was christened by the folk community after turning up at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with an electric guitar, marking a definitive shift that drew more condemnation than acclaim, only to then become the biggest rock and roll star in the world, before suspiciously seeming to give it all away. To that we can now all add, Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate. He has always existed on a plane unto himself.

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