Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate in Literature

I don't write too many posts that respond to the news of the day, but this deserves one. The Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 has just been awarded to Bob Dylan and I can't think of a more deserving recipient. Here is the story at Yahoo:
US music legend Bob Dylan won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, the first songwriter to win the prestigious award in a decision that stunned prize watchers.
Dylan, 75, was honoured "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," the Swedish Academy said.
Bob Dylan is a truly remarkable figure with a unique poetic vision and one that he found the exactly appropriate musical means to convey. Musically he is inspired by the whole sound and texture of American music which he shapes and tailors to fit his lyrical genius. There are so many astonishing lyrics that stick in the mind such as this line from "Visions of Johanna" from the album Blonde on Blonde:
The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
This captures the 60s for me as adroitly as the famous lines from Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge captured the Romantic vision:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted 
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted 
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
But for many of Dylan's greatest songs the impact of the lyrics is a cumulative one and you might as well quote a whole stanza:
They're selling postcards of the hanging, they're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner, they've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row
I've been more than a fan of Dylan's since the late 1960s and by that I just mean that I went through a real Dylan phase in between my rock bassist phase and my classical guitarist phase when I performed songs by Dylan (and myself). One song I recall performing with pleasure was "John Wesley Harding" from the eponymous album:
John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He traveled with a gun in every hand
All along this countryside
He opened a many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man
The Dylanesque line is "He traveled with a gun in every hand."  Not both hands or each hand, but every hand. The last two lines of the stanza also have the Dylan flavour which consists in saying something that is poetically true, but in a different way and one that catches your attention. Let's listen to this song:

We were lucky to find that on YouTube (though cut short) as usually they keep it scrubbed pretty clear of copyright recordings of Bob Dylan. This album was the first he recorded after a serious motorcycle accident and it was both a return to a very simple texture and a lean towards a country music style. The most famous song on that album was "All Along the Watchtower" with its formidably enigmatic lyrics:
"There must be some way out of here" said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion", I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
"No reason to get excited", the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
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.
That's it, that's the whole lyric. We discovered that Bob Dylan is actually a Cylon in the season finale of season three of Battlestar Galactica. It was a remarkably successful way of evoking the birth of a submerged memory by using lyrical fragments from the song as lines of dialogue for the four actors playing mole Cylons. At least it worked really well for me because, just like the characters, I felt more and more a dimly recalled familiarity. The last episode ends with an arrangement of the song by Bear McCreary. Wikipedia has an article on it.

Another song I liked to perform because of the music as much as the lyrics was "Lay Lady, Lay" from Nashville Skyline, Dylan's country album. It is actually the only song from way back then that I still remember all the chords for!

Another extraordinary song from Blonde on Blonde is possibly the longest song Dylan ever wrote: "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" which I actually performed in its entirety several times:

Sadly, there is no good version by Dylan on YouTube, so I have put up a good one by Joan Baez.

I have to admit that I have not kept track of all the albums Dylan has released in recent decades, but I think I will start to explore some of them now. Let's end with a couple of his greatest songs, both from Highway 61 Revisited. This is the opening, "Like a Rolling Stone" in a live performance from 1966:

And this is the closing song, "Desolation Row", also in a live performance from 1966:


Anonymous said...

Agreed. Great choice! Though I wish they'd made the award conditional on Dylan's releasing his output on YouTube. It's depriving millenials of access to a legend they've essentially never heard of.

Bryan Townsend said...

i suspect he would have just said thanks, but no thanks to that! Putting your material up on YouTube, while a huge boon to listeners and to people like myself who post a lot of YouTube clips as musical examples, is essentially giving away your work for free.

Anonymous said...

yes it is giving it away for free but the counter-argument is twofold: 1. That's how you build a following among young people (that's why software companies give away the no-frill versions of their products for free: to entice you to buy the real thing); 2. Someone like Dylan no longer needs the money and neither do his record companies.

As a result, there's tons of Dylan material on youtube, most of it covers or live concerts of execrable quality. I don't see why Dylan should be happy about that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Those are two excellent counter-arguments! Yes, it is very unfortunate that nearly all the Dylan clips on YouTube are bad versions of the songs. So bad you need to buy the CDs! Wait... what?

Anonymous said...

The only reason you'd be enticed to buy the CD is if you liked it in the first place. What's on Youtube is sure to turn you off.

CDs? Come Bryan, under what stone have you been hiding? CDs are gone. It's Spotify time my friend!

Craig said...

I've been grinning like an idiot all day over this.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh! Yes, I'm still living in the Paleolithic CD age. I've never gotten into any of the streaming services for a number of reasons. The sheer quantity doesn't tempt me and I have the idea (possibly mistaken?) that the quality is not as good as CD. I also like to have the actual package with the notes and everything. I also have the impression that subscribing to a service means that you don't actually own anything, it is all hostage to the policies of the provider.

@Craig: I've been smiling a lot too. Isn't it interesting how rare it is that some sort of public award or honor is given that we can actually agree with? One that is not infected with some virtue-signalling agenda, but is just what it appears to be?

Anonymous said...

Books and CDs are among my happiest possessions. I am not looking forward to the dsy it's all on my iPhone.

Bryan Townsend said...

Exactly! The only problem with books and CDs is moving them. That and sorting them out once you have moved.