Bob Dylan wins Nobel prize in literature: Watching an unpredictable master at work

It’s pretty rare to see a Nobel Prize winning writer at work, but I’ve had that experience twice.  I’m talking about this year’s laureate for literature, Bob Dylan.

The first time was in Detroit, in October 1965, on stage at the Masonic Auditorium. Just a few months earlier, Dylan had brought the wrath of the folk music establishment down on his head by playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival.  They expected acoustic ballads and archaic sounding love songs. Instead he went upside their heads with rock n roll. Shouts of “traitor” were heard but Dylan just kept on playing.

There was controversy when Dylan came to Detroit. People wondered if he would dare do it again.

He did.  After an opening set of homemade folk ballads, Dylan left the stage and returned with an electric guitar and a hard charging rock band.  The folkies booed and walked out.  We high school kids jumped up and danced.

I saw Dylan more than twenty years later, in Jerusalem.  The show was held in the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater, directly under the ancient walls of the Old City.  By then Dylan, born a Jew, had become an Evangelical Christian and cut several underrated gospel albums. It was rumored that he had now returned to the fold and become Orthodox.

Either way, people came expecting an emotionally inspired performance. Instead, obviously bored, Dylan, obviously bored, ignored the audience and sang his hits them like he didn’t know how they were supposed to sound. Some people walked out of that show, too.

I stayed.  Unpredictability comes with a Dylan ticket. You never know what to expect, any more than you were never know what a lot of his lyrics are about.  Some people think this makes him a poet.

Over the years, Dylan has made light of this.  I think that’s right to do so.  Certainly he has written some cool lyrics, not all of them enigmatic.  He has coined phrases that live in the culture.  Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  The times, they are a changin.’  Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift.    

Most of Dylan’s great lines go back to the Sixties and we who were alive back then have our favorites.  Mine is from Love Minus Zero/No Limits:

In the dime stores and bus stations

People talk of situations

Read books, recite quotations

Draw conclusions on the wall.

There are literary critics who hear echoes of the Book of Daniel in these words or detect structural elements of William Blake (I know this from Wikipedia). Personally, I think it is a smart slap at the ephemeral nature of conventional wisdom; it should be the anthem of opinion columnists everywhere.

I doubt that the Nobel Committee gave Bob Dylan literature’s highest award for such common sense phrase-making, or even for his more enigmatic, self-consciously artsy lyrics. My guess is that they simply wanted, for once, to be what Swedish intellectuals consider hip (or maybe they just hate Phillip Roth).

If I were a member of the Swedish Academy (like that would ever happen) and I wanted to give the Nobel Prize to a songwriter of the Sixties, I would have chosen Smokey Robinson or Chuck Berry, both of whom influenced Dylan a damn sight more than William Blake.

Still, I’m not sorry that Dylan is being honored.  He represents my generation, after all.  Besides, you never know what he is going to say at what is, let’s face it, one of the world’s stuffier award ceremonies.  Maybe he will recite one of his poems.  There’s no success like failure/and failure’s no success at all seems like it would fit the occasion nicely.