Saturday 25 November 2017

'The Nobel Prize? Who would dream about that?' - Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan finally breaks silence on being awarded the highest honour in literature

Elusive: Bob Dylan Photo: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Elusive: Bob Dylan Photo: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Edna Gundersen

'Isn't that something?" Bob Dylan isn't exactly making a big deal out of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But at least the 1960s trailblazer is finally acknowledging his becoming the first musician to be granted admission to the world's most elite literary club.

When I ask him about his reaction to hearing the news a fortnight ago that he is to follow in the footsteps of George Bernard Shaw, TS Eliot, Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, Gunter Grass, Ernest Hemingway and Harold Pinter, I have no idea what to expect. Dylan, now 75, is on tour in Oklahoma, and we had been due to discuss his upcoming exhibition of artworks, depicting iconic images of American landscapes and urban scenes, which opens in London this week.

Bob Dylan in his 1960s heyday
Bob Dylan in his 1960s heyday

Since it was announced that he had been chosen by the Swedish Academy to receive the Nobel, Dylan has made no public reference at all to it, save for a fleeting mention on his own website.

More than that, he has reportedly refused to pick up the phone to speak to representatives of the Nobel Committee. They apparently remain in the dark about whether he will be attending the ceremony on December 10, when he is due to receive a cheque for £750,000 (€832,000) from King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Well, I can put them out of their misery. For when I ask about his Nobel, Dylan is all affability. Yes, he is planning to turn up to the ceremony in Stockholm. "Absolutely," he says. "If it's at all possible."

And as he talks, he starts to sound pretty pleased about becoming a Nobel laureate. "It's hard to believe," he muses. His name has been mentioned as being on the shortlist for a number of years, but the announcement was certainly not expected. When he was first told, it was, Dylan confides, "amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?".

A painting by Bob Dylan
A painting by Bob Dylan

In which case, I can't help but ask, why the long public silence? Jean-Paul Sartre famously declined the award in 1964, but Dylan has these past weeks seemed intent on simply refusing to acknowledge its existence, so much so that one of the normally tight-lipped Nobel Committee labelled him "impolite and arrogant".

For his part, Dylan sounds genuinely bemused by the ruckus. It is as if he can't quite fathom where all the headlines have come from. Couldn't he just have taken the calls from the committee?

"Well, I'm right here," he says playfully, as if it was simply a matter of them dialling his number, but he offers no further explanation.

It is over a quarter of a century since I first interviewed Dylan. That was in 1989, and he started off so reticent that he was monosyllabic.

Dylan's paintings depict iconic images of American landscapes
Dylan's paintings depict iconic images of American landscapes

When I asked him a string of questions about the 1960s, he snapped at me.

What I did then was to start all over and ask the same questions again. It worked. We ended up doing a two-and-a-half hour interview.

If there is one thing I have learnt about Dylan over the years, and the several interviews he has granted me, it is that he always does the unexpected. He has never made a secret of the fact that he doesn't like the media. It is two years since he last spoke to a journalist. He does it his way.

So, for all the speculation about the reasons behind his blanket silence on the Nobel award, I can only say that he is a radical personality and cannot be tied down, even by the Nobel Committee.

In interviews over the years, the famously unpredictable Dylan has been by turns combative, amiable, taciturn, philosophical, charismatic, caustic and cryptic. He has seemed intent, most of all, on being fiercely private and frustratingly unknowable. His apparent toying with the Nobel Committee cannot be said to have come entirely out of the blue.

His paintings also depict urban scenes
His paintings also depict urban scenes

Perhaps it is just that he has grown casual about garlands as he has received so many in the course of his long career since songs such as Blowin' in the Wind and The Times They Are a-Changin' became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Among many others, he has received a Special Citation Pulitzer (2008), the National Medal of Arts (2009), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), as well as France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1990) and the Legion d'Honneur (2013).

So, does he agree with the Nobel Committee, I ask. Do his lyrics belong alongside great works of literature? Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, for example, has compared Dylan's contribution to that of the writers of ancient Greece. "If you look back, far back, 2,500 years or so," she said, "you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be performed, often together with instruments, and it's the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho and we enjoy it, and same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read, and should be read."

Dylan treats her words with a certain hesitation. "I suppose so, in some way. Some songs - Blind Willie, Ballad of Hollis Brown, Joey, A Hard Rain, Hurricane and some others - definitely are Homeric in value."

He has never, of course, been one given to explain his lyrics. "I'll let other people decide what they are," he tells me. "The academics, they ought to know. I'm not really qualified. I don't have any opinion."

On the associated question of whether those same lyrics can be considered poetry, Dylan has long delighted in publicly changing his mind. He is capable in one interview of saying that they can, and then the next time he grants a journalist an audience saying that they can't.

At heart, he just likes to remain beyond reach. He is as elusive over his religion as he is over his songs. Born Jewish, in the late 1970s he released two Christian-themed albums that appeared to suggest he was born again, but followed them by holding his eldest son Jesse's bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (In total, Dylan has six children from two marriages.) This refusal to explain extends to other aspects of his work. Dylan has been working as a visual artist, in tandem with his music, since the 1960s. "I'm not obsessed with painting," he laughs. "It's not all I do."

But news of his Nobel award has coincided with the opening of an exhibition of his watercolours and acrylics - his fourth since 2008.

Is there a parallel between song-writing and painting?

"There's a certain intensity in writing a song," he replies, "and you have to keep in mind why you are writing it and for who and what for.

"Paintings, and to a greater extent movies, can be created for propaganda purposes, whereas songs can't be."

His artwork has been on walls in museums and in private collections since 2007, but devotees first noticed his painterly ways when he did album covers for The Band's Music from Big Pink in 1967, and his own Self Portrait in 1970.

For this show, the gallery directors suggested he look in his own backyard for inspiration. (When he's not on the road, Dylan lives in Malibu, California.) For his four exhibitions at the gallery, he has crossed America, often combining his painting with touring. "Well, it's the land I know best, really, and Halcyon Gallery was probably aware of that, too," he says. "At first, it was just a series of landscapes they suggested - landscapes without people - so I did that. To me, that meant mountains, lakes, rivers, fields and so forth. Sometime later they expanded the idea to include city facades, bridges, automobiles, streets and theatres. Anything outdoors.

"It's not an idea I would have thought of myself, although I could relate to it."

Having been touring practically non-stop since 1988, Dylan grabs opportunities on the road to sketch and paint. "I just do it," he says. "All kinds of places. Wherever I am, really. You can carry a sketchbook anywhere. As a rule, I avoid overcrowded streets. You just have to find some vantage point that feels right."

As a painter, writer, film-maker, actor and disc jockey, he plainly sees no limitations to artistic expression. But he does recognise his own limitations.

"There's a lot of things I'd like to do," he says. "I'd like to drive a race car on the Indianapolis track. I'd like to kick a field goal in an NFL football game. I'd like to be able to hit a 160kmh baseball. But you have to know your place. There might be some things that are beyond your talents.

"Everything worth doing takes time. You have to write 100 bad songs before you write one good one. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things that you might not be prepared for. Like it or not, you are in this alone and have to follow your own star."

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