As Denise Sullivan reported here last week, not everyone agreed that Bob Dylan deserved his Nobel Prize in literature. Of course, everyone I know agrees, but I don't get out much and I don't know, or at least talk to, a single person planning on voting for Trump.
This morning Nicholas Pell, writing for the L.A. Weekly, was as definitive as Denise: Dylan is the most deserving Nobel laureate since John Steinbeck. Steinbeck got his in 1962 (“for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”). “Music,” Pell wrote, “if done the right way, counts as literature. And Bob Dylan did music the right way. I’m not sure any musician from the 1960s deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Elvis, but if anyone does, it’s Bob Dylan.”
One of my favorite things about Dylan is that he appears to actively detest his fans. If you want to see someone who’s going to give the fans what they want, don’t go see Dylan. His live shows might well be a giant troll against his fans. If he plays “The Times They Are A-Changin'” you won’t recognize it until the second chorus. Then you walk out of the gig with your head hung low. This pleases me because, like Dylan, I too hate most of his fans and reflexively love musicians who hate their own audience.
And then there’s the man’s music. So much of what is good about rock & roll after the original wave of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy, Gene and Eddie imploded came from Dylan. His early folk stuff doesn’t do much for me. As a friend of mine pointed out, the whole “being on Pete Seeger’s dick” period of his career probably even embarrasses Dylan at this point. For my money, Dylan comes into his own with his Judas moment, going electric.
Where to begin with talking about the sprawling masterpiece that is The Basement Tapes? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a collaboration with The Band and he doesn’t sing on some of the tracks. So what? This is Dylan at his purest and most exuberantly creative, worth the slog every time.
Old fogeys are going to get mad about the inclusion of Street-Legal. Every time I say I like this album in front of someone who remembers the Johnson administration, I get a strange guffaw. But this is what Dylan should have sounded like in the '70s, remaining true to his roots while also incorporating new sounds on his own terms.
His masterwork might be dodging the awards ceremony. The Nobel Prize people have given up trying to get him to respond. Hell, he might even go so far as Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined the award entirely.
Leonard Cohen has said that giving Dylan an award is like giving Mt. Everest a medal for being the tallest mountain. I agree, but I’m glad they gave it to him just so I can listen to people cry about it.
The only downside? In 40 years they'll probably give this award to Kanye West.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis