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May 14, 2011

Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan

I’ve thought about this. Only one living American deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature: Bob Dylan. If you think of the protest singer cliché proposed by superficial media (the 20-year-old Times are a-Changin’ guy) you miss the point: Bob Dylan is an exceptional writer. His production is mammoth in quantity and consistent quality. Don’t get sucked into dividing his work in periods (Folk, Electric, Gospel, etc.), and don’t, of course, react either way to his other skills: guitar, harmonica and keyboard playing, singing, music writer, producer, his rock star personality and general mystique—forget all that. Lastly, don’t be influenced by the songs that are famous hits because they got more radio play. Read the lyrics.

Read the songs as songs. Songs are songs with their own rules. Dylan has respected and violated them all. Songs are cousins to poems but are not poems. Bob Dylan is not a poet. Sharon Olds is a poet. Dylan is a writer, a song writer. [Actually the texts can't be divorced from the music and performance, but I'm making a point here.] He creates literature more enduring and significant than most. He’s affected the lives of millions. I dare say no American writer ever has had the raw impact of Bob Dylan. Who? Twain, Whitman, Dickinson, James, Hemingway, Who? Dr. Suess? Matt Groening? Who? Hundreds of thousands of boys, for example, are named Dylan in honor of this literary/musical giant. Lives changed. The whole world changed. And his imitative effect on other song-writers …

In high school, Dylan dreamed of being Elvis. They both made musical history (and beautiful music, if you like it), but Dylan also made literary history. From Freewheelin’ to Together Through Life, Bob Dylan has consistently written fine literary lyrics. “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Love Sick,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Shelter from the Storm,” “Not Dark Yet,” “Forever Young,” “Hurricane,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Working Man Blues,” etcetera. Hundreds of ‘em.

Get all the forty-some records of original material and listen to them all (you masochists). Instead of the highs and lows that everyone talks about, I hear a master at work throughout (which doesn't make every work a masterpiece). I hear writing so hard it seems easy. I hear a child making nonsense rhymes in the playpen combined with Grandpa giving precious advice on living. Contemporary rock 'n roll (teenage fans filling stadiums for a 70-year-old?) combined with ageless tradition, rich oral-musical-literary tradition. Bob Dylan knows his stuff (music and lit.): listen to his fantastic radio show (Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Satellite Radio), you’ll see.

So to celebrate Dylan’s seventieth birthday, May 24, 2011, I officially propose he be given the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. Sweden, are you listening?

Plus, a student of mine told me today that her favorite song is “Bowling in the Wind.”

My three favorite Dylan records (you tell me yours):
1. Oh Mercy
2. Modern Times
3. Time Out of Mind

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: How nice to see you again, my friend.
Jeff: How nice to be seen at all.
Mutt: Got a story.
Jeff: Can I stop you?
Mutt: A frog enters a bank looking for a loan. He approaches the loan officer, Patty Black, and makes his request known. Taken somewhat aback, she tells him the bank doesn't normally make loans to frogs.
"But please," says the frog, "I really need this loan."
"Do you have any collateral?" asks Ms. Black.
"Only this," he says. And with that, the frog pulls from his pocket an object and hands it to Ms. Black. Not knowing what it is, but being too embarrassed to say so, she takes the object to the bank manager and explains about the frog and his request for a loan.
"Sir, I don't even know what this is, but it's all he has for collateral," she tells him.
The manager takes the objects, looks at it for a moment, hands it back and tells her, "Why, it's a nick-knack, Patty Black, give the frog a loan!"
Jeff: A musical funny?
Mutt: Yeah, in honor of His Bob-ness. This old man is rolling home.
Jeff: Whatever.