Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.[i]
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row [ii]
Little red wagon, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like [iii]
Whenever the Nobel Prize for literature is announced, the American response is often “Who?” In our cultural insularity, few of us know their work or even their names. Not this year. Everybody’s heard of Dylan, and many can recite his lyrics.
The surprise in 2016 stems from the bursting of old academic wineskins. What constitutes literature, anyway? Some of the literary establishment are unhappy that a songwriter tainted with lower-brow genres of popular culture (and currently performing in Las Vegas!) should steal the laurels from more “serious” candidates such as Syrian poet Adonis or Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It’s “a joke,” fumed one French writer. A Scottish novelist dismissed the Nobel committee as “gibbering hippies.” [iv]
But if the linguistic arts trace their origins to the sung poetry of shared rituals, and Homer, the father of western literature, was a blind singer-songwriter who never put pen to paper, then Dylan can justly claim an ancient lineage, and stretching the definition of literature to include his work seems more restoration than innovation.
While Dylan’s jumping the queue ahead of American writers like Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Don DeLillo might seem inappropriate to some, it is at least defensible. Oates herself calls the award “an inspired and original choice. His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the best sense, ‘literary.’” [v]
Dylan has certainly had his down periods of uneven albums and terrible concerts. I myself have endured one too many evenings of mumbled words, mangled melodies, and an almost contemptuous stage presence. But to sustain such an influential and ever-evolving body of work over half a century, bridging the cultural divide between high and low, making the play of language a lever to move the world, is an astonishing achievement. His poetic and musical gifts have so often given voice to the collective longing of our “subterranean homesick blues.” They have also taken us inward, to the places of the heart where “we sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” [vi]
As Bruce Springsteen has written, “Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans . . .” [vii]
Dylan was the soundtrack for my own coming of age. During my first year of college in 1963, a classmate thrust Dylan’s first album into my hands. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. As soon as that growling, barbaric yawp started blasting out of the speakers, I was spellbound. Like so many others, I took up the guitar just so I could play his songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (from his second album), was my first attempt (key of D with its easy chords). By my senior year, dozens of Dylan songs were in my repertoire. I even learned the ten-minute “Desolation Row” by heart, once performing it on Rome’s Spanish Steps, by the house where Keats died, during a post-graduate summer of hitchhiking Europe with my guitar.
In Berkeley on March 28, 1965, I caught one of Dylan’s final all-acoustic concerts, just before the release of Bringing It All Back Home, the first album in his unmatched trilogy (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde would follow). Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were sitting up front. Hippies and Hell’s Angels mixed with students and professors. The hall was charged with anticipation. From “Gates of Eden” to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it was an amazing night.
It was the first time I ever heard “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Top 40 radio, or even Dylan’s previous work, had not really prepared me for the trippy ride “upon that magic swirling ship.” Behind its dazzling succession of vivid images, I recognized something primal and urgent, the call to leave everything and to follow, to look everywhere for the “windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”
As a poetic equivalent of the kingdom of God, the windy beach where the Spirit blows, the space of supreme aliveness, is too little found, and never possessed. And yet, now and then, I have danced beneath its diamond sky with one hand waving free, and hope to do so again as grace permits.
I was also in the crowd on September 3 of that same year, when Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl, backed by The Hawks (later The Band) along with Al Kooper on organ. There all the songs from Highway 61 Revisited were performed in public for only the second time (after a New York concert the previous week). Since the album had yet to hit the stores, it was my indelible first communion with the image world of Dylan’s surrealism. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”[viii] Indeed.
The encore was “Like a Rolling Stone,” the one song we already knew from the radio. Before beginning, Dylan searched among his harmonicas in vain, then spoke into the microphone, “Anyone got a C harmonica?” As I remember it, 17,000 harmonicas came flying onto the stage, and soon we were all shouting with one voice, “HOW DOES IT FEEEEEEEL?”
When, in 1966, I crossed the country to study at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my guitar and my Dylan records came with me. In a school play, I sang an adapted version of “With God On Our Side” to parody the horrific biblical conquest narratives. I wrote an article on the prophetic theology of Dylan’s lyrics in the seminary journal. And I incorporated fragments of his haunting religious poetry from John Wesley Harding into a multimedia senior sermon (you can hear the audio collage here).
In later years, Dylan’s preeminence in my life’s soundtrack receded, although his masterpiece of anguish and longing, Time Out of Mind, managed perfectly to coincide with my own midlife dark night of the soul. Lines like “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” may not have been balm in Gilead, but they kept me company until the dawn.
These days I occasionally sing old favorites like “Ramona,” “She Belongs To Me,” “Chimes of Freedom” and “Buckets of Rain.” And I never tire of leading friends and retreat groups in heartfelt renderings of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “I Shall Be Released.”
Everyone’s got their Dylan stories, but at their core is a mysterious absence. Dylan’s identity has always been veiled by a succession of fictions, evasions, conversions and withdrawals. He has given interviews full of absurd biographical narratives.[ix] Even before he was famous, he invented personae to protect himself from the prying projections of others. From fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem, that hype you and type you, making you feel you gotta be just like them. [x]
Does it matter whether we ever know the real Dylan, or find him a relatable personality? Or are the songs enough? Is their mysterious power to speak to us and for us enough?
“It’s like a ghost writing a song like that,” Dylan said about “Like a Rolling Stone” 40 years after recording his greatest hit. “It gives you the song and then it goes away. It goes away.”[xi] The ghost, the geist, the spirit blows where it will. The artist prepares to receive it, and learns how to give it away.
Another Nobel Laureate, poet Czeslaw Milosz, concurs, insisting that the artist’s vocation is to be “a secretary of the invisible.” Deliver the message entrusted to your keeping, then get the hell out of the way. It ain’t me, babe. This has been the essential kenosis of both art and spirit since the beginning.
Take Caedmon, for example. An illiterate herdsman in seventh-century Britain, he was suddenly commanded in a dream to sing the story of creation. Without learning or training, he began to sing words unknown to him, gifts from the same ghost who visited Dylan. Thus was English poetry born.
Denise Levertov imagines Caedmon’s in-spiriting in a poem of her own. He is huddling for warmth at night with the beasts of the barn, when suddenly the air is filled with “feathers of flame, sparks upflying.” The cows remain oblivious and calm, not seeing what the poet sees as “that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue / and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.” [xii]
[i] Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (Bringing It All Back Home)
[ii] Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
[iii] Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain” (Blood on the Tracks)
[iv] “Writers divided on whether Dylan deserves Nobel prize”: https://www.yahoo.com/news/writers-divided-whether-dylan-deserves-nobel-prize-180943929.html
[vi] Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
[vii] Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born To Run, q. on Springsteen’s website: http://brucespringsteen.net/news/2016/bruce-springsteen-on-bob-dylan
[viii] Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man” (Highway 61 Revisited)
[ix] To delve into the strange world of Dylan interviews: http://www.vulture.com/2007/10/the_ten_most_incomprehensible.html
[x] Bob Dylan, “Ramona” (Another Side of Bob Dylan)
[xi] Robert Hilburn, “Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004
[xii] Denise Levertov, “Caedmon”, q. in Edward Hirsch, Poet’s Choice (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), 15