I said “You know they refused Jesus too.” The man said “You’re not him…”
-Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream
Full disclosure: I’m a big fan. Dylan is a part of my family’s language. Growing up, the most important piece of furniture in the house was always the stereo and the only album that was always left out was Tangled Up in Blues. I know all 10 verses of “Desolation Row,” all 16 of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” and my brother and I can usually make it through singing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” at full speed if we work together. I sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” as a lullaby for my kids (the real version – not the watered down Byrds version). I did not go so far as to use Dylan’s “Wedding Song” at my wedding, but I later regretted it (and “Never Say Goodbye” was on the short list).
Still my first reaction to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature was – Uh… Really??? As much as his music and words are entrenched in my life, he’s certainly not the best poet I’ve known. I’m not even sure he’s the best songwriter I know. (Don’t tell my husband I said that – grounds for divorce.) In a time when end rhymes are a literary sin, it’s hard to believe anyone could take him seriously as a poet. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard people citing the legacy of bards and historical Greek literature that was sung, and discussions about the literary allusions Dylan worked into his song lyrics. But really? Surely there’s a “real writer” worthy of the Swedes’ respect.
So feeling a little Judas-like, I spent last Friday morning listening to Blood on the Tracks. You know how your mouth waters when you smell your favorite food cooking? I have that same Pavlovian response to the opening chords of “Tangled Up in Blue.” And as I listened to the first verse I realized why Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize in literature.
It’s not his skill as a poet.
It’s certainly not his voice, although I’ve learned to love its nasally hum.
It’s not really the music either. That’s just a backdrop.
It’s his skill as a story teller.
I remember this crazy friend of my dad’s who was going through some hard times. He came over hoping my dad would talk him off the ledge. They spoke earnestly for a while, drank a few beers, and listened to Dylan. As “Idiot Wind” came on there was a lull in the conversation and it was just Dylan.
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy. She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me.
I can’t help it if I’m lucky.
My dad’s friend – fraught with losing his wife, his children, his job, his sanity – stopped everything and just burst out laughing. All the tension from the room was gone. “It’s like he was really there,” he cried out with tears streaming down his face.
My dad’s crazy friend was right. Bob Dylan binds you up into a story as masterfully as any writer I know, but in fewer words. Ignore the rhymes for a minute.
Up on the white veranda, she wears a necktie and a Panama hat. Her passport shows a face from another time and place. She looks nothing like that. And all the remnants of her recent past are scattered in the wild wind. She walks across the marbled floor where a voice from the gambling room is calling her to come on in. She smiles and walks the other way.
* * *
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief. Business men they drink my wine. Plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the while know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief kindly spoke. “There are many here among us who feel that life it just a joke. But you and I we’ve been through that and this is not our fate. But let us not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.”
* * *
I married Isis on the 5th day of May, but I could not hold onto her very long. So I cut off my hair and I moved straight away to the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.
These are not great first lines of poetry. They are, however, damn good opening lines for a story.
When Bob Dylan weaves a story he cuts out all the nonessential details and feeds you just enough information to make it feel like you’re there. It’s a genuine voice. And this stilted world needs genuine voices so very badly. It’s an American voice – the slang, the twang, the complex simplicity, the starkness of it. He doesn’t try to be anything he’s not.
In “Simple Twist of Fate,” he tells the tale of a one-night stand that haunts a man for the rest of his life. It’s the kind of sodden sorry tale that isn’t worth a smutty magazine except that he tells it so damn well. We feel the heat of the night hit him like a freight train.
And really that’s what good literature does to us. It pulls us into the story and away from our own lives. It makes our hearts beat with someone else’s emotions or it connects to our own emotions so deeply and directly that we catch our breath a little.
A song works in different ways to accomplish this than a novel or a poem. But I would argue that before Bob Dylan very few songs and songwriters worked to do this at all. It’s not that songs didn’t tell stories before Dylan, but they didn’t tell them in the same way. The little details, the lingering questions, the surreal characters. What he says, how he says it, what he doesn’t say.
Bob Dylan took the storytelling tradition from the folk music, ramped it up with good literary technique, repackaged it in rock and roll and offered it to a hungry mainstream audience. It was a new thing. As Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield put it “He won for inventing ways to make songs do what they hadn’t done before.”
All the blowback over Dylan’s award coming from literary scholars (mostly poets) smells very much like ivory tower stagnation to me — as if university professors are scared that a little lyric art will leak out to the real blue-collar world below. And indeed it has. Sorry about that.
I’m not saying every pop song is a work of art (far from it), but the possibility to go that direction is there because Bob Dylan went there first. Not just once or twice by accident, but many times. I’m for recognizing anyone who raises the bar for an entire discipline. He has indeed “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” as the Swedish Academy says.
One more thing to consider. A personal testimony if you will. The way Bob Dylan used words made me hunger for more. Bob Dylan led me to Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot, which led me to Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau and Langston Hughes, which led to and E.E. Cummings and then to Wendell Berry, Maya Angelou, William Carlos Williams, Anita Dove… As my reading choices became more sophisticated through college and beyond and continue to grow today, I confess that I still love listening to the words that first set me on fire. If you’re a poet and I bought your book recently, thank Bob Dylan.
[H]e opened up a book of poems and handed it to me, written by an Italian poet from the 15th century. And every one of those words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you.
Tangled up in blue.
For the un-indoctrinated…
“Up on the white veranda…” is from “Black Diamond Bay” which appeared on the album Desire (1976)
“There must be some way out of here,” is from “All Along the Watchtower,” famously covered by Jimi Hendrix and appearing on the album John Wesley Harding (1967)
“I married Isis on the 5th day of May…” is from “Isis” (Desire 1976)
“She opened up a book of poems…” is from “Tangled Up in Blue” Blood on the Tracks (1975)