I somehow can’t fully digest or even understand the news that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sigmund Freud, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, and Toni Morrison are members of this most exclusive of clubs. The entrance fee has proven to be exorbitant, the requisite résumé really difficult to create or amass. And there are the perennial also-rans like Salman Rushdie Philip Roth, and Don Delillo or Saul Bellow.
Dylan (née Robert Zimmerman) has put together and created an artistic corpus that is varied, sometimes hysterical, sometimes profoundly angry. Like the man he named himself after, his verbal, poetic flights are bumpy but melodious, obtuse and puzzling or, often, meaningless.
His is a restless if not frenetic mind. We ask the perennial question about Shakespeare: Where and how did he learn all that about all that? Who taught him to read? Dylan came out of hardscrabble, rawboned Minnesota, pissed off, sick of the provincial snow, the carpetbaggers, and the dead mines. Like one of his lovers, he’s an artist, and artists “don’t look back.” He went to New York just as Shakespeare went to London, and as so many before him went to magic themselves from glove merchants into poets who would rock the world.
He really needed a new name, and he read Dylan Thomas — the eternal adolescent, the nascent thinker riding a unbroken bronco of words. Thomas would decant through the British Isles and add to the Poet as Stranger and Visionary Mystique until drinking himself to death one night in the White House Tavern in Greenwich Village. They both seemed to surf on a sea of words, caring little for meaning but everything for melody and mood. Thomas was an exquisite word drunkard, Bob Dylan a reluctant prophet of the inchoate, the disenfranchised, and, to my fitful, suspicious generation, the musketeer at the front of the phalanx, able and ready to lead us from an increasingly plastic civilization to one of tolerance, racial equality, honest conversation, and all the other promises of poetry. We got “clean for Gene” or Bobby Kennedy and then, abruptly, sold out. Woodstock became Altamont so quickly we missed it altogether while we garnered degrees and Miatas and a second house on the beach.
He has always lived on the periphery while being a vital part of prevailing culture. He was born a Jew, became a Christian, then went back to being a Jew again. He was, and is, stridently apolitical in rare interviews, but his songs warn of revolution or revel in the promises of upheaval. No “oracle” he. But you can’t write stuff like that and expect no one to perform post mortems of each song which many of us called no less than anthems. But, of course, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” We should have listened and refrained from idolization. Instead we breathlessly accepted the seductions of the promise of wholesale change in failed systems, ideologies. and hidebound hierarchies.
But he’s in the Inner Circle now. He will, I must believe, continue to “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” in “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” As members of the generation that was tutored and fostered by Dylan and then went on to sell out spectacularly to the lure of lucre and the deification of celebrity, we allowed the Age of Aquarius to turn into the Age of Acquisition with its Kardashians and its Trumps, insipid rock and roll, and a terrifying obsession with devices that block out the world in the guise of openness, global erudition, or even some sense of belonging to a pasta of wires and an umbrella of satellites. A cloud. We enjoyed Dylan too much. We should have listened more closely instead.