All I can do is be me, whoever that is. Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan celebrates his 80th birthday today, even as I go tip-tap in real time on my keyboard. 24th May to be precise. By the time you read this piece, a week would have passed since the seminal date of his birth, but the hoopla would have barely begun. The whole western world and much of the rest of the planet will, in some way, shape or form mark this milestone with much fanfare. Deservedly so. Dylan’s songs will be sung in concerts by celebrated musicians and also by lesser-known acts in far-flung areas around the globe. Social media will buzz incessantly with families from three or four generations crooning Blowin’ in the wind from their drawing rooms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (if these platforms have not been told to pack up and leave our shores). In India, for instance the great poet-troubadour, singer and songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota is worshipped in Assam and the surrounding north-east’s hilly terrain, apart from many of our more cosmopolitan metro cities and towns. They have been singing Dylan songs for decades. One much-loved veteran rocker from Shillong, Lou Majaw, refuses to cover anybody else’s songs but Dylan’s. If you were to be told that they offer prayers to Dylan’s graven image in their homes every evening, that would seem just about credulous.
In my personal opinion Bob Dylan, along with Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison have been the greatest singer-songwriters the world of western popular music has known. And Bob Dylan is arguably the first among equals. There are those who would be quick to cavil, citing the undoubtedly sterling claims of Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and others of their ilk. To those who would ask, ‘What about Elvis Presley?’ my riposte would be that he was not a songwriter, iconic performer though he was. Let me say, straight off the bat, that I love The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Springsteen as well as Simon and Garfunkel but I reserve the right, as the chronicler of this piece, to place them just a shade below the other four mentioned. There are many reasons for this subjective assessment, but this is neither the time nor place to get into that argument. Dear reader, you will doubtless proffer a dozen or more names to be placed among the pantheon of musical greats, but that debate will have to wait for another day. Today is Robert Allen Zimmerman’s aka Bob Dylan’s day.
Among the four greats that I had made mention, Dylan’s claim to be the numero uno is helped in no small measure by the fact that he is American. Cohen and Mitchell are Canadians while Morrison is Irish. In matters such as popular art, being an American gives you a head start. The traction you are able to generate because of the United States’ huge cultural footprint across the globe in itself assures this. (In 1970 American poster-hulk and sentimental favourite John Wayne, whom nobody could ever accuse of being a great actor, pipped to the post for Best Actor at the Oscars the likes of brilliant thespians Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and the Midnight Cowboys, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. That should tell you something about Yankee clout). Leonard Cohen’s passing in 2016 brought his music once more to the forefront, and fans like myself set out to rediscover the magic of his lyrics and renderings steeped in gravitas. The supremely talented Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday a couple of years ago went largely unnoticed barring a few celebratory shows in Canada. The Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison turned 75 a few months shy of a year ago, and his country did him proud with radio and TV stations rounding up musicians from all over Ireland to sing his songs over several weeks. Even the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins performed one of Van the Man’s memorable speak-song poems. However, outside of Ireland the landmark only received cursory attention.
Bob Dylan is a different kettle of fish altogether. Not that Dylan’s fame needed any further boost, but his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,’ added to the lustre. In a strange way, his declining the invitation to attend the Nobel Prize presentation banquet in Stockholm only enhanced his allure. If some cynics characterized his refusal to personally present himself as inverted snobbery, he quickly made amends by accepting the Nobel medal a few months later from the Nobel committee at a private ceremony. The 900,000 US greenbacks that went with the award, was not to be sneezed at either. In a recorded speech made public later, Dylan mused, ‘When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how exactly my songs related to Literature.’ He then went on to describe how the classics he read in school influenced his music. ‘When I started writing my own songs, folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it. But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world, and I’d had that for a while. I learned it all in grammar school: Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, all the rest.’
If one needed any further proof of Dylan’s literary talent or of his being a rightful claimant for the Nobel Literature Prize, just read his book Chronicles Vol.1, a brilliantly observed tome on his approach to music and his love of the language. Volume 1 would have naturally presaged a second volume, but it has yet to see the light of day, apparently stuck somewhere in the machinery. There has been much heated debate amongst the cognoscenti on the merits or otherwise of a musician being awarded the Nobel for Literature. If T.S. Eliot, Harold Pinter and V.S. Naipaul are worthy Nobel Laureates, Bob Dylan’s name nestles comfortably alongside. I think the Nobel committee should be lauded for getting round the issue of not having a category for music by honouring a person whose songs were more poetic than perhaps many contemporary poets and writers, and whose words flowed incessantly like a series of cascades. This may pave the way for more musicians being similarly honoured in the future or, better still, a separate category being created for musicians. The Times They Are A-Changin’. Time and the Nobel committee will tell, now that a precedent has been set.
Bob Dylan the musician, in my considered view, played second fiddle to Bob Dylan the poet. If Van Morrison used his amazing voice to squeeze out unique musical expressions (‘singing syllables, signs and phrases’ as he once memorably put it), where the words were merely a vehicle to transport the Irishman’s musical flights of fancy, for Dylan it was the other way round. He was the quintessential poet – Blake, Donne, Keats and Coleridge all rolled into one. With a dash of Eliot, Freud and Shakespeare tossed into the mix. Having started life out as a folk and protest singer and as his interest in music deepened, Dylan felt his innate penchant for lyrical beauty could be greatly enhanced by the astute melding of music. His voice had a limited range but his phrasing was just right to convey the idealism of his words. In his case music was the vehicle that carried his stirring lyrics to all parts of the world. As you would expect from a performer who has been going at it for over six decades the range of his songs and the canvas on which he paints them is vast. Like A Rolling Stone, Blowin’ In the Wind, Tangled Up In Blue, Mr. Tambourine Man, Just Like A Woman, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Positively 4th Street, Masters Of War, All Along The Watchtower, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Shelter From The Storm, Desolation Row, I Shall Be Released – I could go on forever. And these were mostly from Dylan’s earlier oeuvre, the songs that really made him a universal icon.
To the statistically minded, Dylan has composed in excess of 600 songs, and over 2000 artists have covered his tracks. He is also arguably the most mimicked artist, that patented nasal drawl is like catnip to a cat to so many famous singers who have covered his songs. In later years his voice, inevitably, became gravelly and lost the innocent timbre of youth. If you listen to his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, he seems to be speaking most of the time with just the barest hint of anything musical to support, barring the spare background instrumentals, culminating in a seventeen-minute rambling dirge on the murder of President John Kennedy, Murder Most Foul.
Which brings us to the obvious question. What is Bob Dylan’s legacy to the world of popular music, or indeed, to the world of literature, given that he has been awarded the Nobel encomium for that very subject? It can be safely posited that no single musician has spoken or sung more eloquently for an entire generation, and then some, reflecting the behavioral mores as well as the political and social quirks of diverse peoples around the world, but particularly of his home country. To be relevant as an influential artist for over six decades, riding the crest of the ebb and flow of rapidly changing times, is more than ample testimony to the achievements of Bob Dylan. Enough said, methinks. I’ll leave the last word to Bob Dylan’s muse, sometime lover and wondrous singer, the dazzling Joan Baez who memorably described him in song as ‘the unwashed phenomenon’ and ‘the original vagabond.’ Here’s the last verse from Baez’s Diamonds and Rust.
Now you’re telling me
You’re not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
‘Cause I need some of that vagueness now
It’s all come back too clearly
Yes I loved you dearly
And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust
I’ve already paid.
Happy birthday, Bob. May you stay Forever Young.