You will have to trust that I was going to write about Bob Dylan anyway. It’s time to mark him down in my files just as I have with Neil Young and Mike Nock and Paul Simon (and you can click those links to read the entries about each of them) in my series “Heroes live”. It’s been a tough year for music – we’ve lost a lot of heroes. It grows by the week, if not day. So every now and then I take time out to remember a musical hero that is still with us, still making, still creating, still touring. These are heroes I’ve seen perform live and whose music stays with me forever.
But this year – writing about Dylan – comes with the news that he is this year’s Nobel Prize Winner for Literature.
You can read arguments for and against the decision to honour Dylan in this way. The literati have torn off their reading glasses in disgust – “he’s just a songwriter they say”. Philip Roth – snubbed again.
It feels pretty obvious that part of the reason that Dylan, 75, has been awarded the Nobel is because 2016 has been a crushing year and that it must feel good to celebrate a hero still living.
But let’s not ignore the fact that it’s impossible to argue with the statement around Dylan being honoured. He was chosen as poet and songwriter “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
Dylan is, as Robbie Robertson of The Band once said, the one standing highest on the mountain with the brightest torch. He is the most influential songwriter in popular music. He has inspired other legends – Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon – and the guy busking down at the weekend vege market. He made it acceptable for the words to mean more than the singing. He gave hope to a whole lot of bedsit prospects and has played an incredible game – nothing but a straight-bat – in terms of dealing with fame, ignoring stardom in favour of playing the music. His concerts are for him as much as they are for any audience – simply something he must do. And yet the devotees bow down to Dylan. Even as they struggle now to recognise songs presented in different keys, with new musical motifs, with a 3am-growl of a voice. None of that matters. What matters is the acknowledgment of genius.
The reason for all of this love, for the worship, is the lyrics. Songs that have been interpreted by men and women of all ages and at all stages of their careers across the last 50 years. Songs that continue to resonate.
You are – of course – allowed to not like Bob Dylan, to not want to hear him because of his voice or the musical style. But you have to acknowledge his genius – and in a world where Grammys and MTV Awards and the Silver Scroll mean nothing maybe it takes the Nobel Prize for Literature to hint at the importance of Dylan’s writing. He has also, since the Nobel considers a lifetime of work, written a novel (it’s hard work, bizarre but it counts – Tarantula, give it a go if you dare) and one of the very best memoirs from a musician (tantalizingly we’re to believe that this is just a volume one and that two further books are in the wings even though it’s been over a decade since Chronicles was released). His book of collected lyrics is one of the best poetry books you could own, a gateway drug.
My own journey with Dylan’s music started when I was a teenager – Masterpieces and The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 were what started me off. Whole worlds I still return to. Nothing else matters when you listen to the music on these compilations. Not only did he take from blues and folk music – and give so much in return to popular music – you can hear his influence, in spitting out lyrics, in the poetry of his writing, on seemingly disparate genres like hip-hop. When I was just starting to get to grips with the enormity of Dylan’s music it was a whole other head-trip to hear him sampled by The Beastie Boys and name-dropped by Chuck D.
I’ve listened to Dylan longer, more often, more intensely than any other songwriter, than any other musician. In recent years I’ve pulled back a bit – last year I had my Dylan collection of over 100 albums (several bootlegs and rarities) flogged in a home invasion. It was the most crushing blow when assessing the music that was lost.
I’m slowly getting it back together.
And just recently I’ve found a window back into his vast musical worlds. His most recent album is a second set of covers of songs made popular by Frank Sinatra. It’s stunning. His voice a great instrument, the lovely arrangements and subtle playing by his band, the wise song selection. If he never writes another song he’s done more than anyone else for the art of songwriting. For legitimising it as an art. Maybe the Nobel Prize is in acknowledgment of that. If that’s the case that’s more than fair enough.