Thursday 23 November 2017

Dylan Nobel prize row is just hot air blowin' in the wind

As rock 'n' roll's greatest enigma, Bob Dylan is most likely revelling in the divisiveness caused by his award

Legend: Like most geniuses, Bob Dylan has long lived in his own world - he inhabits his own bubble from which he rarely exits Photo: AP Photo/File
Legend: Like most geniuses, Bob Dylan has long lived in his own world - he inhabits his own bubble from which he rarely exits Photo: AP Photo/File
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

'An ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies," was novelist Irvine Welsh's reaction to Bob Dylan being awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature - for, as they put it, "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition".

The 75-year-old Minnesota shopkeeper's son, who wrote such timeless classics as Don't Think Twice, It's Alright, Every Grain Of Sand, Brownsville Girl, Blind Willie McTell, Desolation Row and Like A Rolling Stone (which Rolling Stone magazine judged to be the greatest song of the 20th century), possibly doesn't care at this stage of his life, at this stage of his seemingly never-ending career, about Nobel Prizes, nor what the author of Trainspotting thinks of him.

Though I'm sure that the bard of his generation was touched to hear his old mucker President Obama say: "Congratulations to one of my favourite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well-deserved Nobel", as he was when Jimmy Carter gave his address accepting the US presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York in July, 1976.

Carter referred to It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) in his speech: "I have never had more faith in America than I do today. We have an America that, in Bob Dylan's phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying."

Still, even a cursory knowledge of Dylan and his work would tell you that he cares less about presidents - who he once referred to as "the chief commander. On this earth and in a world we can't see".

Like most geniuses and recovering narcissists, Robert Allen Zimmerman has long lived in his own world.

And for a man who has been so unimaginably famous all his adult life, he inhabits his own bubble. A bubble from which the Holden Caulfield of Hibbing rarely exits, least of all in his own head.

As Mark Howard (engineer on Dylan's 1989 album Oh Mercy) recalled: "We were doing the record in this Victorian mansion in the garden district of New Orleans. I had a bunch of Harleys in the courtyard and Dylan asked, 'Think ya could get me one of those?' I got him this 1966 first-year Shovelhead Harley Davidson. Dylan would go out for a ride every day. But one day, I heard him stall just around the corner. So I ran around the corner to see, and he's sitting there, on the bike, staring straight ahead.

"And there are already three people gathered around the front of the motorcycle, saying, 'Bob, can we have your autograph?' And he just sat there like they weren't even there. I ran up and said, 'Hey, c'mon guys, leave the guy alone.' And he just continued to sit there and stare straight ahead. So we got the bike fired up and - bang - he took off.

"He was living in California in those days and there was no helmet law in California, but there we were in New Orleans. He'd come back from rides and he'd say, 'The police are really friendly around here, they're all waving at me.' I'm like: 'They're waving at you because you don't have a helmet on, and they're telling you to stop!'" Bob Dylan probably enjoys his divisive effect within culture, his ability to be so profoundly polarizing at his age, with folks calling the decision to award him a Nobel Prize for Literature the most contentious and even vexed in its 115-year history. I'd say Dylan revels in it.

Read his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, in which he describes some of his experiences playing the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, and you will get proof of him revelling in that polarity. [The ] "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."

You don't have to be a Dylanologist who believes his songs hold sacred clues to the Holy Grail to realise that Dylan enjoys being in the shadowy in-between. In an 1985 interview with the Daily Telegraph's Mick Brown, Dylan gave a list of the people he would have liked to sit down and break bread with. "Hank Williams," he said, "Apollinaire, Joseph of Arimathea, Marilyn Monroe, John F Kennedy, Mohammed and the apostle Paul. I'd like to interview people who died leaving an unresolved mess behind. And who left people for ages, to do nothing but speculate."

I suspect Dylan is looking forward to leaving an unresolved mess behind.

Remember this is the man who ended his speech at the MusiCares Person of the Year awards gala not so long ago thus: "I'm going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it."

"Let's hope we meet again, sometime," added Dylan (whom John Updike said had a "voice you could scour a skillet with")

"And we will, if, like Hank Williams said, 'the good lord willing and the creek don't rise'."

Whatever about the creek rising, unwrapping rock 'n' roll's greatest enigma, as he has been called, is unlikely to happen in his lifetime.

He has never been one for over-analysis of his work. Don Was, the producer of Dylan's 1990 album Under The Red Sky, told an interviewer the following intriguing story about the blessed Bob.

"While we were recording the song Under The Red Sky itself, I thought some of the lyrics were addressed to me personally!

"It sounds ridiculous now, but I thought it related to some big cosmic stuff I was going through. I never did discuss my interpretation with him. I decided to broach the subject matter by asking about the last verse, about the river running dry. 'Is this song about ecology?' He answered without missing a beat: 'No, but it won't pollute the environment.'"

You could waste your breath banging on that Dylan stole lines (or inspiration) from here, there and everywhere throughout his career, however illustrious the sources - It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) from Johnny Cash's Five Feet High And Rising; When the Deal Goes Down from civil war-era Confederate poet Henry Timrod's Retirement; When The Deal Goes Down from Bing Crosby's Where The Blue of the Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day); Ain't Talkin' from the Stanley Brothers' River of Regret. You could go on for hours about Dylan's thefts in the night. I'd prefer to listen to Visions Of Johanna, my favourite Dylan composition. You could also waste your breath debating whether Dylan is as good as Keats. It seems a perfectly futile exercise. "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" from Blowin' In The Wind is certainly as remarkable a line as "What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?" from Ode To A Grecian Urn by Keats.

Be that as it may, I do believe that: "In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft/But there's nothing really nothing to turn off/Just Louise and her lover so entwined/And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind" from Visions of Johanna (1966) is as good as Ode to a Nightingale (1819): "Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream/Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep/In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream/Fled is that music -Do I wake or sleep?"

In the final analysis, self-regarding critics putting the world to sleep by whipping up a controversy over The Bob being awarded a Nobel Prize for literature is just a lot of hot air blowing in the wind.

Sunday Independent

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