Writers Talk About Writing
Bob Dylan: Joker and Thinker. Cynic and Believer. Lover and Loner.
He not busy being born is busy dying.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it!! Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature!! Congratulations!! Mazel Tov! Bottoms up!! Yippie yippie yahoo, hoooray hooray hooray!!
Bob Dylan's Nobel, of course, is no longer headline news, but I'm still cheering. This curly-headed guy, just my own age, who, with his raspy voice, clanging guitar, and wailing harmonica, has led and still leads generations of us ordinary men and women through the day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out battle to keep our feet on the ground, our eyes on the stars, and our souls battered but unbowed. For the many gifts you've given me, Bob Dylan, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. May you stay, may I stay, may we all stay forever young!
A year ago my wife and I wandered open-mouthed in amazement through a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Pablo Picasso's sculpture. Fecund was the word that kept coming to our minds. All the work filled us with a sense of Picasso's volcanic energy, the sexual, sensual, raw, glad-to get-his-hand-dirty force of his ceaseless imagination, his unstoppable urge to create by transforming humble objects of daily life—tools and toys, spoons and forks—into imperishable and illuminating works art.
Bob Dylan's words and music have long aroused a similar excitement in my soul. I first heard him in the early 60s, me a history major at Yale, writing for the school paper, he making the rounds of the Greenwich Village folk music scene, writing his first songs on a battered Gibson guitar. I didn't care for him much on the first go-round; in those days I was wearing out my Duke Ellington and Count Basie albums; how, I asked, how could one growling guy with a guitar compete with a smooth-as-silk jazz orchestra? But in 1965 Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited came out with their driving beats, electric guitars, and nasty lyrics:
Now the rovin' gambler he was very bored
Trying to create a next world war,
He found a promotor who nearly fell on the foor,
He said, "I've never engaged in this kind of thing before,
But yes, I think it can be easily done,
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun,
And have it on Highway 61!
—their Joycean liner notes that, on third or fourth reading, made a twisted kind of sense:
my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion/divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes/ subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness—seen at times thru dark sunglasses an other forms of psychic explosion. a song is anything that can walk by itself /I am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person…some people say that I am a poet.
—and opened my ears with a life-changing jolt.
On Blonde on Blonde in 1966, I loved the comedy blues "Leopard-Skin-Pill-Box Hat," the haunting "Visions of Johanna," the sublimely sexy "I Want You":
The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it's not that way
I wasn't born to lose you
I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you.
—and the even sexier "Just Like a Woman":
…Baby's got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls
She takes just like a woman, yes she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.
In 1967 the Beatles made historic headlines with the psychedelic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; the Rolling Stones tried to match that with their extravagant Their Satanic Majesties Request. What would Dylan do to equal or surpass his comrades/rivals, we hippie rock lovers asked each other, and then found ourselves blown away by Dylan's crafty gambit: the stringent simplicity of John Wesley Harding.
The 60s became the 70s, then the 80s, 90s, and now, sixteen years into the new millennium, Dylan is still writing songs, having passed the four-hundred mark a few years ago and showing no signs of slowing down. He's changed his back-up bands and he's changed his looks; he's changed the rhythm, tone, and texture of his music, and he's changed the rhythm, tone and texture of his lyrics; but hear one stanza, one line, from one of those four-hundred songs and, just as a similar snippet of Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Elvis, or Jimi Hendrix would announce their presence in the building, so too you'll know it's our good friend Bob back again, singing to us of his hopes and his heartbreaks as he’s done so well, so courageously, for so long.
When Dylan's prize was announced, a horrified New York Times op-ed columnist wrote that, tsk-tsk, he shouldn't have been awarded a medal for literature: he is a musician, she declared, not a writer, and certainly not a writer of la-dee-da "literature." At best, she allowed, he is a pop singer-songwriter, but a fit companion on Olympus with immortals like Balzac, Dickens, or Melville? Never!
Well, pardon me, ma'am, but whether you like it or not, Dylan is an Olympian immortal, a magical master of the English language, a verbal contortionist and a devil-may-care tightrope walker, a joker and a thinker, a cynic and a believer, a lover and a loner. The words he writes and sings run riot through the rules of grammar, defy conventional forms, bewilder us even as they dazzle us, but they get to us, enter us, make themselves part of us, live with us year after year after year.
Here are a few of my favorite fragments: from "Positively Fourth Street":
I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you.
From "Mr Tamborine Man":
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
"All Along the Watchtower":
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view"Everything is Broken":
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
Broken cutters broken saws
Broken buckles broken laws
Broken bodies broken bones
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath feel like you're chokin'
Everything is broken.
Most of all for me, Bob Dylan has been and continues to be a challenge and an inspiration. Many days as I start to practice on my battered Gibson, I think of the Bob Dylan line at the top of this piece—"He not busy being born is busy dying"—and I think, "Okay, Michael, you don't want to spend your life busy dying, no, c'mon, you want to be one of the guys and gals like Bob, like Duke and Count, Aretha and Ray, Mick and Keith, who keep busy living, striving, no, not for perfection, but for a soul-to-soul honesty that anybody, anywhere, can recognize anytime. So here's a G chord one more time, and this time I'm gonna make it ring like it's never rung before!"