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Troubadour of Modern Times

Major figure among 20th-century artists, and voice of an era marked by an urge for freedom, peace and justice, Bob Dylan is above all a poet. The Nobel Prize for Literature has consecrated him in those terms, in a bold decision that has sparked intense discussion. What seems undeniable is that without Dylan’s songs, the world would be a different place.

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Dylan's original name is Robert Allen Zimmerman. Photo: bobdylanarchive.com
Dylan's original name is Robert Allen Zimmerman. Photo: bobdylanarchive.com

Announced this year after a delay that only whetted the expectation that it always provokes, the Nobel Prize for Literature took the literary world by surprise, and stoked heated arguments, when it was awarded (apparently) to a person from outside the world of books. Bob Dylan, whose name had appeared on oddsmakers’ lists for at least a decade, was honored with international literature’s highest distinction “for having created new poetical expressions within the great American song tradition,” declared Sara Danius, the Nobel spokesperson, in the official announcement (which was denounced by detractors).

For the owner of a trophy case that holds three Grammys, one Oscar (which he sometimes perches on top of his amplifier on stage), the Prince of Asturias Prize in the Arts (2007), the Pulitzer Prize (in 2008, for his influence on US culture and for his poetry), the National Medal of Arts (2009) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), which are awarded in his country, plus the bicentennial distinction of the Legion of Honor in France in 2013, the Nobel “is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest,” in the word of the composer and writer Leonard Cohen.

Even more than the prize awarded to Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, Dylan’s Nobel has caused a rift among literature aficionados. What’s next? The 2017 prize for a soccer player? Or a Grammy nomination for the novelist Haruki Murakami? Other voices have come out in favor of the decision. “If Bob Dylan’s work isn’t literature, what is?” writer Richard Ford asked the press upon receiving the Princess of Asturias Prize. What is it about this singer that caught the Swedish Academy’s eye, and that of countless music-lovers, readers, biographers and researchers?

Bob Dylan Joan Baez and Bob Dylan taking part in a civil rights march in August 1963. Photo: EFE

“You c’n listen to m’story,

 listen to m’song

Dylan, in Hard Times in New York Town

Two things that happened in the mid-60’s left a mark on Dylan’s career: one voluntary, the other accidental. In 1965 the young folk musician crossed over to electric rock; in 1966 he suffered a motorcycle accident.

Dylan decided to “go electric” and embrace rock music when he had already consolidated a position on the folk scene, where only acoustical instruments were used (sometimes just voice and guitar) often to sing protest songs. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where Dylan first played his new sound in public, an audience member famously shouted “Judas!” The singer’s response deserves to be more famous: “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar”, he said to the audience, and “Play it fucking loud” to his musicians before launching into “Like a Rolling Stone,” destined to become his most famous song. His attitude reaffirmed a poetics rooted in idiosyncratic criteria, with no attempt to ingratiate critics. “Art is for escaping from what people think you are or what they expect from you,” as the Catalan writer Enrique Vila-Matas wrote in his novel Looks Like Dylan (Aire de Dylan), where the main character has an uncanny resemblance to the singer-songwriter.

The decision to cross over to rock was just the first of many mutations he would undergo, with no calculation of the success they might bring him. Today it’s not unusual to see artists “reinvent themselves,” but in 1965 it was. Pop music stars seemed one-directional: all they did was grow old, with no great changes in their career aside from the ravages of time.

Bob Dylan Protest marches against the Vietnam War in 1968. Photo: AP

No sooner did Dylan embark on this new phase than he withdrew from the public eye due to a motorcycle accident he suffered on the roads of Woodstock, New York, where he lived. Perhaps sick of fame and with the pretext of recovery, between the accident in 1966 and 1974 he made almost no public performances: a brief concert in 1968 in New York and three more in 1969 (one with Johnny Cash), aside from his participation in the Concert for Bangladesh, organized in 1971 by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the first large-scale event organized for altruistic ends.

Dylan’s seclusion did not curtail his creativity; on the contrary, it turned out to be one of the most productive periods of his life. He released no fewer than six studio productions. On one he went back to more acoustic arrangements (John Wesley Harding, 1967); in another he changed his voice drastically (Nashville Skyline, 1969). He made a movie soundtrack (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973), covered classics (Self Portrait, 1970)… in short, he reinvented himself (see New Morning, 1973). He wrapped up this reclusive period with an LP called Dylan (1973), which oddly does not contain a single composition of his own—his debut album Bob Dylan (1962) included only two songs of his; the rest were written by others. What sense does it make to stamp his name on the albums with the least amount of original material?

 

“What’s in a name?”

Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet

Robert Allen Zimmerman (Minnesota, May 1941) grew up in a Jewish family in a remote part of the country where the most compelling connection to the “world” was the radio. It was on the radio that young Zimmerman first heard a new kind of music called rock’n’roll. He began to play the guitar and formed bands in school. Bob Dylan was born in the late 50’s; he took his nom de guerre from one of the poets he was reading at the time, the Welshman Dylan Thomas (more for the sound of his name than his poetry itself). In search of a musical career, he dropped out of school and headed to New York City, where he shared his and other composers’ songs in the coffeehouses and bars of the mythical Greenwich Village district. His move to the Big Apple also gave him the chance to look up Woody Guthrie, one of his great idols: he managed to meet him in a hospital, seven years before the older singer-songwriter’s death. It wasn’t long before Dylan signed a contract to release his first record in 1962, the same year he legally changed his name to Robert Dylan.

Bob Dylan Bob Dylan in 1963. Photo: AP

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964) and Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) gave him a firm footing on the music scene, for the most part because they fit into the genre of the protest song. Proto-hippie US youth was caught up in the opposition to the Vietnam War and found music to be the ideal medium of expression to make its demands for peace. Hymns like “The Times they are a-Changin’” and “Blowing in the Wind” earned Dylan the sobriquet “the voice of a generation”; other, less famous songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or “Masters of War” gave vent to his anti-racist and anti-war sentiments.

A handful of love songs also date back to this early period (“Girl From the North Country”, “Don’t Think Twice, it’s All Right”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe”), and it’s a topic that Dylan has not let go. An argument could be made there’s a Bob Dylan song for every imaginable love scenario.

Dylan’s contentious shift to electric music was ushered in with Bringing it All Back Home (half electric, half acoustic) and Highway 61 Revisited, both released in the same year and followed in his discography by Blonde on Blonde in 1966. More than a “committed artist,” Dylan made it clear that he was an artist, period. “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Just Like a Woman”… his “greatest hits” from these albums are the most representative songs of his oeuvre.

His compositions were soon covered by other singers, who turned them into even bigger classics. The most compelling example is “All Along the Watchtower”: the first chords of Jimi Hendrix’s version have come to synthesize the sound of the 60’s. The list of artists who have interpreted Bob Dylan’s songs would not fit on this page: from Nina Simone to Cat Power, with stops at Kronos Quartet, José Feliciano and Miley Cyrus.

But when it comes to Bob Dylan, this is what he himself had to say: “My name has no importance at all: for a long time I’ve been trying to shake off the Bob Dylan myth.” The idea of name as a reflection of identity is recurrent in his work. “Gonna forget about myself for a while” and “I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can” are some of his verses. The composer seems to be in a constant struggle against himself, or as he puts it in other verses: “I fought with my twin, that enemy within” and “Oh, my name it is nothing.” That might explain why he insisted on reinventing himself: he made himself a character, an unfathomable one at that, with musical swerves that no one could see coming. The isolation after his motorcycle accident was not arbitrary: he had good reason to be fed up. Fame hounded him to the extent that “journalists” went through his trash… but we’ll get back to that in the book section.

Bob Dylan 1985. Photo: AP

Back on tour with Planet Waves (1974), a record that was well but not enthusiastically received, the “reanointing” would come with Blood on the Tracks the following year: one of the albums, together with Blonde on Blonde, that is recommended for those making their first incursion into the complete works of the 2016 Nobel laureate. Blood…  seemed to hearken back to his most creative period, the bold and successful years of Blonde…: powerful emotions, renewed originality in the composition, but above all, songs that instantly became classics of his repertory (“Tangled Up in Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Shelter from the Storm”).

 

From christianity to Christmas carols, and other fiascos

Gospel was not to be left out of Dylan’s exploration of traditional American music. This genre, a close relative of the religious songs of southern Christians, was adapted to his peculiar style: in 1979 he came out with Slow Train Coming, the first record of his born-again Christian period, in which he made use of typical rock instrumentation, even though gospel often works only with organ and choirs.

This record was followed by Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). As unexpected as this Christian lapse (Dylan was born Jewish) was the surprise appearance of Christmas in the Heart (October 2009), a collection of Christmas carols that took even the singer’s hard-core fans aback.

For many big names of rock, the 80’s were years of decadence or ups-and-downs, and Dylan was no exception. Known for relatively fast-paced production, he took two years to bring out Infidels (a playful title for a record that left religion behind), and two more for Empire Burlesque. Then came a series of four musically unremarkable albums, followed by two records of traditional songs in 1992 and 1993.

Bob Dylan 1987. Photo: EFE 

Born-again musician

Even more interesting than his “rebirth” as a Christian was his renewal as an artist. Before releasing Time out of Mind (1997), his successful return to the ranks of top-selling records, Dylan launched the concert tour that is still going strong: the Never Ending Tour. At the age of 75, Dylan has since 1988 played an average of one hundred concerts a year. On the first year of the tour he made 73 appearances, a “normal” number for a musical group. Since 1989 he has not offered fewer than 80 concerts a year (in 1998 it was 144). As of November 23 it’s been 77 appearances in 2016. In this odyssey around the world, Dylan has visited Jalisco three times: the first in 1991 when he gave two concerts in the Cabañas Cultural Institute, and two more appearances in the Telmex Auditorium (2008 and 2012). Those who attended the 1991 concert remember that he took the stage “dead drunk” (Diego Petersen dixit, in “Dylan entre nosotros,” published in the El Informador newspaper on October 17, 2016). Dylan quit drinking a few years later (1994).

On top of his many commitments around the world (from Argentina to China), the singer still takes time to compose on the road, and records frequently. After Time out of Mind he has released the thoroughly respectable Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), Together Through Life (2009) and Tempest (2012), works that track his musical and vocal evolution.

In 2015 he released what constituted a rejoinder to the many critics who dismissed his singing voice as “finished”: Shadows in the Night. Together with its sequel Fallen Angels in 2016, these albums pay homage to the American musical tradition as Dylan recreates old jazz standbys, from the time when jazz and what was known at the time as pop shared radio time amicably. To commemorate this decisive influence on his composition, Dylan sings with a clean, limpid voice that he hadn’t used for years; the same voice can be heard in his live performances.

Bob Dylan 2001. Photo: EFE

“Come writers and critics who

prophesize with your pen”

Dylan, “The Times they are a-Changin’”

It was at the Strand bookstore in New York that I came to fully appreciate the magnitude of the flood of ink that this artist has unleashed. The bookstore is enormous (its slogan is “18 miles of books”), and on an exhibition table I came across volume 2 of a book about Dylan. I wanted to see volume 1, and asked one of the salespeople, who took me down to the basement. “It must be here somewhere,” he said. What I found was overwhelming: from floor to ceiling, shelves groaning with books, and they were all about Dylan. A bookstore that trumpeted its unprecedented size had an entire section devoted to the man who could arguably be held up as the greatest icon of rock. The bibliography on Bob Dylan includes classic biographies, of course, but also university dissertations, political commentary on his lyrics, poetic interpretations of his songs, essays analyzing the Jewish influence on his oeuvre, dictionaries, even encyclopedias.

Less than a decade after his debut, a new word had appeared in the English language— Dylanologist— coined by AJ Weberman, a conspiracy-obsessed journalist and writer who identified himself as one. While a fascination with Dylan’s work is shared by many writers who have approached the subject, Weberman crossed the line into mental imbalance, becoming literally a stalker of his object of study. Aside from betraying him by recording his telephone conversations, he was the one who rifled through the singer’s trash. This could very well have driven Dylan to keep his distance from the media and give interviews sparingly.

At the beginning of this year arrangements were made to sell Dylan’s personal archives to the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, which is also the home of the historical archives of Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s early inspiration. For an amount estimated at 20 million dollars (according to The New York Times), the archives include over six thousand articles, ranging from notebooks, song manuscripts, poems, original recordings, paintings (the musician is also a painter), photographs and letters. It will be available for consultation only by researchers who can show they have studied Dylan’s work previously, although there are also plans to organize exhibits with part of the material (bobdylanarchive.com).

Bob Dylan 2011. Photo: EFE

“'Cause i’m a poet, don’t know it?”

Syd Barrett, “Bob Dylan Blues”

 The Swedish Academy’s official announcement makes no reference to Dylan’s two books written in prose: the beat experiment called Tarantula, a “novel” written in the 60’s in a style that tends toward prose poetry; and the captivating volume of Chronicles, a memoir containing candid anecdotes considered one of the best books of 2004, the year of its publication. When they awarded Dylan the Nobel Prize, the committee mentioned only his lyric poetry, his songs.

The literary exaltation of his work is nothing new: Andrew Motion, the United Kingdom’s poet laureate, published the poetry anthology Here to Eternity in 2001. The surprise for purists was the inclusion of “I and I,” a text by Bob Dylan from his album Infidels. In Motion’s curating, Dylan’s name stands alongside those of Shakespeare, Mandelstam, Brecht and others. Before that, Ball Gorgon had nominated Dylan for the Nobel for the first time in 1996.

Shorn of their music, his texts blend popular influences from the typical American songbook and its subgenres with avant garde poetry and beat influences; highbrow poetry (Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud) with the Bible. From the Beat Generation, Dylan’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg deserves special mention; the poet even had a cameo appearance in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video produced in 1965 (a twofold pioneer: on the one hand it was the first musical video that didn’t show the musicians playing; on the other, the song itself is a dense verbal thicket, a kind of proto-rap). “Desolation Row,” one of the longest of Dylan’s classics, undertakes a direct dialogue with T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of the great poems of the 20th century; both texts are suffused with the day-to-day seen with a poet’s eyes. The biggest challenge for Nobel deniers would be to approach the texts with an eye to their literary value, and shut out the music momentarily. Disparaging the poetic weight of Dylan’s work on the basis of his way of singing is like discrediting the Decameron because we don’t like the two columns on the cover of Porrúa’s edition. The Lyrics: 1961-2012, a compendium of his song lyrics, could be a useful aid.

Bob Dylan

Dylan has also written short stories in verse, encapsulated in songs and with a condensed plot. “Hurricane,” another of his long songs, tells the story of the boxer Rubin Carter and his run-in with the law; “Neighborhood Bully,” an allegory about the State of Israel; the ill-fated love story in “Tangled up in Blue”; “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” a fable with a moral at the end; and other ballads (like “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”) are evidence that Dylan is not only a master of rhyme and rhetorical figures; he can also tell a compelling story.

The Nobel award has opened a somewhat misguided debate about new forms of literature. It should be remembered that epic poetry was originally sung, and the novels of the King Arthur cycle were “written” in verse, and recited throughout the Middle Ages. More insight would come from an examination of the boundaries that have been drawn between genres and art forms. The real debt, as the critic Christopher Domínguez Michael pointed out in “El equívoco sueco” (“The Swedish mistake”) in the newspaper El Universal on October 19, 2016, is owed to critics, who have yet to garner a Nobel prize: George Steiner and Harold Bloom are worthy candidates. But before them, it would come as no surprise to see a Nobel Prize awarded to a screenwriter, or to an author of graphic novels (some point to Alan Moore, author of V for Vendetta, Jerusalem and Watchmen, as a possible nominee in the near future). m.

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