When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, he promptly de-awarded himself. “It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel laureate,” he said, explaining his decision to reject what many consider the highest honour that a writer can receive.
A year earlier, Bob Dylan had joined James Baldwin and others at the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s Bill of Rights dinner and accepted the Tom Paine Award, in recognition for his services in the fight against Jim Crow America. But he may as well have turned it down. In his speech that night, he mocked the older guests’ baldness and told them that they should “be at the beach… relaxing in the time you have to relax”. People laughed. Then he expressed sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald. Just months had passed since John F Kennedy’s assassination. No one laughed.
But Dylan went home with the award anyway, and has accepted many more since in the half-century that he has been America’s greatest singer-songwriter: Grammies, the Polar Music Prize, an Oscar, the MusiCares Person of the Year Award, among others. Dylan likes awards. Unlike Sartre, he doesn’t worry about becoming an institution, or how it might inhibit his creativity. After his endlessly beguiling minor-key stomper “Things Have Changed” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2001, he started displaying the gold statuette onstage at gigs, seemingly glued on top of an amp.
So, at last, after years of speculation, Dylan has won the Nobel Prize. Some will moan and list other American authors who they think should have got it (Philip Roth among them). Others, such as Irvine Welsh, will condemn the Nobel Committee’s decision as one that was “wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”. Dylan, plagued over the years by facile, ill-informed accusations of plagiarism and lampooned by drunk university students on karaoke nights since the invention of karaoke, has now entered the literary canon. But what does this mean for Dylan and, moreover, the literary canon itself? Are lines such as “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, like a bowl of soup” now to be considered as poetry?
Dylan’s “high art” defenders will counter these pretty bogus questions with examples of his best work: “Visions of Johanna” (“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…”), “Shelter from the Storm” (“I offered up my innocence, I got repaid with scorn…”), “Not Dark Yet” (“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain…”), his astonishing memoir Chronicles. They will claim, as Andrew Motion has done, that his lyrics “work as poems”.
Yet I think this would be to undermine Dylan and his craft as a musician. As he once said himself, he is above all else a “song and dance man”. He dabbled in poetry and bashed out a sort of novel in the late Sixties called Tarantula, which was fun but only gestured towards what he could do onstage or in a recording studio. That wasn’t enough for him and, even as a fan, those experiments aren’t enough for me. I suspect that many of those who fixate on his words scour his songs as texts, looking for poetry in conventional terms at the expense of the performance. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are.) I wonder whether they hear the music at all, and the voice at the centre of it. The irony is that what poetry exists on Dylan’s records is largely to be found in the sound of the words, not their meaning. Music – no, Dylan’s version of music – alchemises those lyrics into great art. He’s a great singer. His genius is in that sand and glue.
Not long ago, while receiving another award, Dylan spoke of how the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, would swat away praise for the beauty of his singing by reminding listeners that voices “ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Cooke had a point. When I hear him sing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, I believe for those three minutes that everybody loves to cha cha cha, and that I love to cha cha cha, too.
It’s a confidence trick, like so much art, and our bodies are fooled before our minds. Just as a skilled magician’s sleight of hand conditions his audience to accept the apparition of a rabbit out of an empty hat, a great vocalist can pull profound meaning out of thin air – or, at least, out of a bunch of rhyming words. Inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen said that where “Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind”. But Bob freed both, and Springsteen knew this. His speech at the ceremony was a testimony as much to the power of Dylan’s singing as it was to his contributions to the song lyric. Listening to “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time in 1965, he thought Dylan’s was “the toughest voice I had ever heard… It reached down and touched what little worldliness a 15-year-old kid in New Jersey had in him.”
Half a century on, that toughness remains undiminished (go listen to the blistering 2012 murder ballad “Tin Angel” if you don’t believe me). Yet Dylan has always had the power to move as well as frighten you. The actor and playwright Sam Shepard wrote in 1977 of watching him perform a cover version of Johnny Ace’s blues ballad “Never Let Me Go” in a duet with Joan Baez, marvelling at the song’s “bone-shattering simplicity”. He printed a sample of its lyrics:
Just let me love you tonight.
Forget about tomorrow.
No tears, no sorrow.
Never let me go.
“No word is wasted,” Shepard pointed out, but just look at those words. Each line is a cliché, and no less effective for it. What makes the experience of listening to Bob and Joan sing that song so moving is largely their delivery of it. You believe them. “When a man can rhyme ‘kelp’ with ‘help’ and cause your heart to lurch – that’s poetry,” wrote Shepard. It would have been as true to say, “When a man can sing ‘kelp’ and ‘help’…”
All of this is not to downplay Dylan’s brilliance as a lyricist. No one else can collage together fragments of our shared culture into such unapologetically rambunctious rockers as “Obviously 5 Believers” or heartbreakers like “Red River Shore”, which for my money is the best thing he has ever done. Though the latter is a perfect song, however, it doesn’t quite work on the printed page. It is not a poem, no matter how poetic its imagery, no matter how skilful the rhymes. Andrew Motion told the BBC that Dylan’s lyrics are “often the best words in the best order”, but starting 11 of a poem’s 16 verses with “well” just to fill up gaps in the scansion would not do, whereas it doesn’t really matter in a song.
So I prefer to see the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its prize in literature to Bob Dylan as less a confirmation that his lyrics somehow “count” as poetry, than that song itself is a part of what we understand by “literature”. And this should be an obvious thing to confirm – after all, Homer didn’t recite the Odyssey. He sang it. In effect, literature has come home.