Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An Ode to Mr. Zimmerman: In Defense of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

Crane: [Jokingly referring to Bob Dylan in the third person] He's quite the put on artist, isn't he?
 Dylan: Nah, God.
 Crane: [Teasing] You're terrible.
 Dylan: Nah. I don't want to be categorized.”
The Les Crane Show. February 17, 1965.

“It’s either fortune or fame
You must pick one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim”
Bob Dylan. Just Like To Thumb’s Blues. Highway 61 Revisited.

“Crimson flames tied through my ears
 Rollin’ high and mighty traps
 Pounced with fire on flaming roads
 Using ideas as my maps
 “We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
 Proud ’neath heated brow
 Ah, but I was so much older then
 I’m younger than that now”
Bob Dylan. My Back Pages. Another Side of Bob Dylan.

As friends and family will vouch, I am a maniacal Bob Dylan fan, my obsession with him only intensifying over the years. It's not enough for me to have every one of his albums (over two hundred at last count, every concert and bootleg included), but I also obsess when it comes to listening to him. I end up listening to his albums in alphabetical order, chronological order, and based on every other criteria imaginable - but always from beginning to end, never piecemeal. I start with the very first album (say, chronologically) and don't stop until I get to the end: all two hundred albums - one after another.

I will listen to and enjoy other artists on a regular basis but I always come back to Bob sooner or later. “Let’s see now… we haven’t listened to him in reverse chronological order yet, have we?” And we're off to another journey with Bob. I've done this half a dozen different ways and I encounter new songs, new words, and new ideas every time. I hear new pearls of wisdom masquerading as poetry masquerading as music every time.

As you can imagine, this process can take several months since you can’t really absorb more than one or two Dylan albums on any given day. When I'm finished, I go off and live in the normal auditory universe that the rest of humanity inhabits but sooner or later, I come back to Dylan.

The trick to Bob Dylan is to start with the oldest recordings and the bootlegs. Everything he recorded from 1961 (when he was only nineteen) until his motorcycle accident in 1966 - every track, every album, every concert - was world class, flawlessly executed, and sublime. Many of his newer albums have become classics as well and I don't mean to take away from any of those accomplishments but what Dylan accomplished in the first half of the 1960's is nothing short of heroic - in scope and in execution. Rolling Stone magazine has listed an amazing eleven studio albums by Dylan, more than any other artist, in its list of Top 500 Albums of All Time, including two in the top ten. But it's only when you listen to his official bootleg series (dozens of albums released recently with the artist’s supervision and help) that you begin to realize his genius. Every song, every performance is amazing. You will find yourself stopping cold every once in awhile and gasping: “These are his discarded works?!? These are the ones he thought weren't good enough for his studio albums?!?” Suffice it to say that his castaways would be the envy of any recording artist today.

My personal struggles with OCD notwithstanding, I do wonder if anyone will ever understand Bob Dylan without obsessing over him. The problem with Dylan, you see, is his encyclopedic breadth and prolific output. He defies categorization as an artist, having innovated in fields ranging from prose to painting and more. But his biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the mesmerizing and profound lyrics in his songs. Most people listen to his scratchy voice and give up in frustration after a few tries. They can't figure out what the often surreal lyrics mean or how to interpret them. This is unfortunate because if you just manage to break through and hear the message, there is much to love and learn. He has written over seven hundred original songs at last count and almost none of them are your typical pop song. They cover every topic from civil rights to religion and so much more. Many of these songs are, in fact, world class poems; the music is often there only as an accompaniment. If you would only stop and recognize that you are listening to poetry, as opposed to popular music, you would appreciate Dylan a lot more.

I've seen articles and blogs denouncing the award because Mr. Dylan is principally known as a musician and not an author. Here’s how I think about it. What if the committee gives the award to a graphic novelist next year? Would you have similar complaints about a “painter” getting the award simply because that is the medium chosen by the artist? How are pictures any different than music in this regard? Perhaps the quibble is over written vs. verbal delivery of the content. Well, feel free to go buy Mr. Dylan’s lyrics/poems in print and enjoy them without the accompanying music.

At a time when American culture and politics are being misunderstood, ridiculed, and vilified around the world, I, for one, welcome the Nobel Committee’s willingness to “think outside the box” and recognize positive American culture and, more specifically, Mr. Dylan as its representative around the world, with an award that he well deserves.

Finally, until there is a separate Nobel Prize for Poetry, I can think of no other artist, dead or alive, who has touched the lives of more people around the world over the past half century nor can I think of another artist who deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature more than Mr. Zimmerman.

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