By Alfred Soto
No matter how hard baby boomers have bear-hugged Robert Zimmerman since the Kennedy administration, the way he’s wriggled free — when he’s not stomping on toes — has brought much pleasure over the years. All in all, Bob Dylan is the most edifying example of what the ’60s have wrought, as well as the decade’s loudest rebuke. He is the Sun King and the destroyer of worlds.
Former hippies adore Dylan, but he sure as hell doesn’t like them. By identifying with but never quite disappearing into American song form, he has resisted topicality and modishness for decades. He came closest when someone lent him a Miami Vice jacket in 1985 and he appeared in “We Are the World,” proving that when Dylan sang as badly as his detractors imagined, he could still sound worse than their nightmares.
On hearing the news that the Nobel committee had awarded Dylan its prize for literature, I rolled my eyes. I was part of the generation whose teachers allowed students to bring rock and rap lyrics to class as if they could bear the scrutiny (the lyrics, too). So we walked into those rooms with a pencil in our hands. Bob Dylan, it’s your fault.
But after giving the matter further thought, I regretted my own pedantry. As a part of the lineage of American artists who shunned the European tradition, from Walt Whitman to perennial Nobel bridesmaid Philip Roth, Dylan changed the audience’s relationship to music.
Thanks to Dylan, audiences sought complexity in pop songs. That the audience ensnared him in this expectation game forms an essential component of trading ideas in the marketplace. When the popularity of psychedelia compelled Frank Sinatra to wear Nehru jackets, Dylan pared down, recording John Wesley Harding as a redress: a daguerreotype in an age of tie-dyes. The record sold anyway. He went further into country tropes on 1969’s Nashville Skyline, writing moon-June rhymes sung in a voice as ripe as a peach. Self Portrait made a strange kind of sense in 1970: An audience conditioned by Anne Sexton and The Beatles into confession got a cracked mirror in which Gordon Lightfoot and Rodgers and Hart weighed as much as, oh man, Paul Simon. The sacred had to be profane, and the sacred is no success at all.
Repeatedly in Dylan’s six-decade career, frightened listeners have forgotten the truest lines from acknowledged classic “Highway 61 Revisited”: “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’ / Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’” The Nobel Prize committee, of all people, get it. “Creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” as they put it today, means treating the great American song tradition like a sick man treats a Kleenex. He’s going soil it, sure, but he sure needs it, badly. From the ornate self-parody of 1978’s Street-Legal and the nursery rhymes collected in 1990’s Under the Red Sky to the knock-knock jokes on Love and Theft, the 2001 album that I consider his lasting achievement, Dylan has triumphed with put-ons. An awards organization that honored T.S. Eliot sees Dylan as the new Old Possum. But did the author of “The Waste Land” contemplate the incongruities of forcing Kenny Aronoff and Waddy Wachtel to play on a song called “Wiggle Wiggle?”
There’s no getting around the fact that, say, Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s Field Work works differently than Blonde on Blonde. An ear for assonance and meter as fine as the one that belonged to the 1995 Nobel winner serves a linguistic pleasure that requires the spatial limits of a blank, white, demanding page. So much of the pleasure I get from Dylan, on the other hand, derives from the voice singing those lyrics. He was never more moving than the decade when his larynx turned into a rusted carburetor; he sang like a carping vulture, and I loved it.
I suspect Heaney and Yeats fans know too: Verbal music requires an audience attuned to its nuances, prepared to be surprised by joy when those musical cues get terser. Whether eulogizing John Lennon 30 years too late or commemorating the Titanic a hundred years after it sank, Dylan songs have nevertheless achieved a simplicity to match his voice, while retaining an ironic awareness of history. I suspect only John Fogerty or Randy Newman could have come up with “I put my fingers against the glass / And bowed my head and cried,” from 1967’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” Neither could have come up with “Handy Dandy.” Lewis Carroll never won a Nobel Prize.
So, congratulations, Bob. The guilty organ-grinder grinds, the silver saxophones say you should refuse it. Don’t listen — it’s a lot of money! Wear your bolo tie to the ceremony. And anyway, you’ve once again worn down the resistance of a guy who’s read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. True lovers of literature know a couple of those books aren’t even as good as your best records.