The news seemed so odd – what relevance does Bob Dylan have now? Is his work literature? Which work, or works, merit this prize? If the prize is in recognition of a body of work, where is the corpus? The collection?
What does Dylan mean to those interested in what was, at least in the past, known as the fine arts? How is his work different from the horde of largely forgotten singers and songwriters, back to the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley?
The essential aspect of Bob Dylan is his elusiveness. He remains remote to us; really known even today only by his works. How odd. There is no memory of Dylan sitting cross-legged next to David Letterman, or Jimmy Fallon, or Johnnie Carson, cracking wise and going on about the great tour and the new album, and the super musicians in the band – great guys, every one of them. On those rare occasions where he did appear in public not performing, he retained his prickly persona, hooded eyes narrowed. He was never the clever boy from school come to entertain us.
To compensate for the missing personality, there has been a flood of words, of analysis, worship, and hatred for his words. His songs. His albums. The aphorisms and texts of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have not been as closely read, as tortuously spun out, disassembled and re-assembled, or praised and scorned.
Yet with all that, there still is no comfortable niche for Bob Dylan in our pantheon of heroes and con men. How is he like Henry James? Or Pharrell Williams? Robert Lowell? Bobby Darren? Knotty, intense poetry, or lazy, opaque doggerel? Pared down and personal melodies, or folk-songs and pop music, casually plundered? The answer, the proper and final aesthetic judgment, seems as distant and as unresolved now as it was in 1963.
So it seems the only sensible way to mark this odd moment – the celebration of the artist that we never fully grasped – is to turn to his work. Streamed, on CD, or dragged from the grooves of black vinyl, his songs remain open for our listening, our study, our enjoyment, or our irritation. No one authoritative voice tells us to admire, or to scorn. Your attention, your analysis, your reaction, is as unfettered by the judgment of others now as it was 50 years ago. Try it.
You’ve got nothing to lose.
Dalton, David. Who is that man? : in search of the real Bob Dylan. New York : Hyperion, 2012.
Epstein, Daniel Mark. The ballad of Bob Dylan: a portrait. New York : Harper, 2011.
Hughes, John. Invisible now : Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.
Kinney, David A. The Dylanologists : adventures in the land of Bob. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Taylor, Jeff. The political world of Bob Dylan: freedom and justice, power and sin. New York, NY : Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Wald, Elijah. Dylan goes electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the night that split the sixties. New York, NY : Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow Publishers, 2015.
Thank you to George de Verges for contributing to this post!
Image by Paul Townsend