Bob Dylan is among the most lauded people ever to walk the earth. From the moment he entered the American popular imagination as a 21-year-old waif in 1962, he was called genius, prophet, seer, shapeshifter, myth, legend—though as he once cheekily remarked at a press conference, he considers himself more of a song-and-dance man. Song-and-dance men don’t get Nobel Prizes, do they?
Words are what Dylan is best known for, and literature is made of words, so the committee that awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature Thursday probably thought that it could get away with a little fudging. But anyone who appreciates Dylan knows that he is more than the words. He is the sound, the look, the attitude, and, above all, the enigma. Whether dressed as a boxcar hobo and singing songs for Woody Guthrie, or in his mid-sixties persona as the Midwestern Rimbaud, or in his current guise as a riverboat gambler, Dylan has always been more than just words. Fingerpicking his guitar alone on a stool, strumming a Stratocaster while fronting the Band, or crooning his crooked voice into an old-timey microphone, Dylan himself has always been the hook on the end of the fishing line. The words are just the worm.
So what explains this madness? The Nobel Committee may be looking forward to a Dylan acceptance speech. His last public-speaking engagement was an unqualified hoot. Accepting the MusicCares Person of the Year 2015 Award, Dylan described his songs as “mystery plays, the kind Shakespeare saw when he was growing up.” He also took time to settle scores with songwriters Leiber and Stoller, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, and country legend Merle Haggard. He reserved his most pointed words for the critics.
Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? Let me tell you something. I was at a boxing match a few years ago seeing Floyd Mayweather fight a Puerto Rican guy. And the Puerto Rican national anthem, somebody sang it and it was beautiful. It was heartfelt and moving. After that it was time for our national anthem. And a very popular soul-singing sister was chosen to sing. She sang every note that exists, and some that don’t exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one-syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was a trapeze act. But to me it was not funny.
Bob Dylan doesn’t need a Nobel Prize, though maybe the Nobel Prize needs Bob Dylan. The members of the Nobel Prize committee could simply have stars in their eyes. I’d vote to give him the award, too, if he promised to make another speech like that.
Usually, Nobel Prizes are meant to play a dual purpose. The stated agenda is artistic, but the hidden purpose is political. If so, the Nobel committee will be disappointed in Dylan. Since the early 1960s, he has studiously avoided tipping his ideological hand. In America, the Right loves him because many suspect that he’s a closet conservative. The Left claims him, too, because it’s always a safe bet to assume that writers, artists, poets, and dreamers are basically Communists. And since Dylan rose to fame by writing the best songs of the Civil Rights era, they assume that he remains a good sixties liberal. That was half a century ago, though. A man of many words, Dylan offers precious few on politics.
As a young man, he seemed old. As an old man, he seems invincible. He has done more than any of his bazillion-selling contemporaries to maintain an aura of unknowability, of panache, of cultivated disdain. With his wide-brimmed cordobés hat throwing shadows over his pencil mustache, bolo tie, and three-quarter-length white jacket, he looks these days like a card sharp, an oily snake in the long American grass. It’s a tidy style for an older artist. If it seems spooky or weird, it’s only because we’re used to orange-haired septuagenarians in skinny jeans and sneakers.
Dylan is the real deal, cut from genuine American cloth. His output has accelerated during the fifth act of his long-running mystery play. His most recent recordings—of American standards—were so good they raised eyebrows. The Dylan voice, once the butt of jokes, has aged like good whiskey. It goes down smooth, with notes of smoke and wood and pine.
Dylan has written books, it should be noted—the much-ridiculed Tarantula, a stream-of-consciousness affair compiled in the mid-sixties and published in 1971, and Chronicles: Volume One, his 2004 memoir. Chronicles was so well-received that everyone assumed that there would be a Volume Two. Twelve years on, though, no follow-up has appeared. If the Nobel Prize for Literature spurs Dylan to put pen to paper and finish that story, then perhaps it will have performed a service.