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Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait
Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait

Ira Wells

Jokerman: The perverse genius of Bob Dylan Add to ...

Ira Wells teaches Bob Dylan in his American literature courses at the University of Toronto.

If you’re not a fan of Bob Dylan, the news that he just won a Nobel Prize for literature may do little to change your mind. First, there’s the voice, which John Updike once called a “voice you could scour a skillet with.” David Bowie described it as “a voice of sand and glue.”

Then there are the live performances. In an age when Dylan’s peers (the Stones, McCartney, U2) have conditioned us to expect musical “events,” complete with hair-singeing pyrotechnics, seizure-inducing laser shows, and towering screens that let you admire the intricacies of Mick Jagger’s bridgework – Dylan’s stage set-up consists of a single black sheet with a weird eyeball painted on it.

Where Neil Young commiserates with the crowd, and Leonard Cohen doles out sweet little anecdotes between numbers, Dylan flat-out ignores the audience.

Oh, and he doesn’t play his hit songs. The casual Dylan listener might recognize a song – maybe two – on a typical Dylan set list.

What you eventually had to admit is that a Bob Dylan show is not a “show.” His performances are not entertaining because Dylan is not an entertainer. What he is, as the Nobel committee just recognized, is the greatest popular poet of the past 50 years.

Dylan has always been polarizing. In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan describes some of his first experiences playing the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. Dylan played “hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming. I’d either drive people away or they’d come in closer to see what it was all about. There was no in-between.”

But Dylan’s art isn’t merely polarizing, it’s also perverse: It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base. Everyone remembers that Dylan “plugged in” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, to the immense consternation of the event’s organizers (Pete Seeger among them) and folk traditionalists everywhere.

But then, just as rock ‘n’ roll was attaining cultural dominance in the late 1960s, Dylan un-plugged and reinvented himself as a country singer. When the American mainstream discovered punk in the late 1970s, Dylan found Jesus. (Dylan’s version of Christianity was more truly countercultural than punk music.)

More recently, in the words of Grantland scribe Steven Hyden, Dylan has come to resemble nothing so much as “a Clint Eastwood character, the ancient gunslinger striking a mythic pose way off on the horizon.” And that would almost make sense, if ancient gunslingers appeared in Victoria’s Secret commercials and recorded polka songs about Santa Claus.

So what explains the deification of Bob Dylan? Dylan himself doesn’t seem to know. “Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy?” he once asked in an interview with Rolling Stone. “ … May the Lord have mercy on them. They are lost souls.”

Dylan’s greatness, and his Nobel Prize, rest on two facts. The first is that Dylan is the finest lyricist in the history of rock ‘n’roll. Sir Christopher Ricks, one of the foremost literary critics of our time, speaks of Dylan in the same breath as Keats, Shakespeare and Milton: Dylan’s words, Ricks says, are “alive with all the qualities that characterize the artist: provocative, mysterious, touching, baffling, not-to-be-pinned-down, intriguing, and a reminder that genius is free to do as it chooses.”

The second defence of Dylan centres on his overall cultural significance, emphasizing how his art manages to assimilate, rejuvenate, and cross-pollinate a vast number of musical traditions. As the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz observes, Dylan has, for more than half a century, taken “traditional folk music, the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, black gospel, Tin Pan Alley, Tex-Mex borderlands music, Irish outlaw ballads, and more and bent them to his own poetic muse.”

If there was one form of music that Dylan opposed, it was the swing-era pop standard as epitomized by Frank Sinatra. Dylan’s early protest songs may have been civil rights anthems, but his aesthetic protest was against the Frank Sinatra model: the crooner in a business suit who “beautifully” sang words written by others.

Bob Dylan’s two most recent albums have consisted entirely of Sinatra-era cover songs. The man who was just awarded the Nobel Prize in literature – the man with the “sand and glue” voice – has recently taken to giving us only the voice, none of the literature.

If that sounds perverse, well: Let me introduce you to Bob Dylan. A brilliant, and brilliantly perverse, choice for the Nobel Prize.

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