Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How Does It Note Bob Dylan Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature? The Answer My Friend....

Last Thursday, October 13, amid the endless churn of Facebook News Feed items about Donald Trump, and within a year where breaking news about famous musicians has all too frequently revealed their passings, came an unexpected but welcome tidbit:

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Although Dylan, now 75 and born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, wrote a well-received memoir--Chronicles, Volume 1--he is, of course, principally a singer and songwriter.

And in announcing the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy proclaimed his selection was "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Without thinking about it too deeply, at first blush this news sounded like reason to celebrate (without actually celebrating).

Although Dylan undoubtedly has millions of more fervent fans, who know his catalog much more deeply and who possibly followed him first-hand as he became a cultural icon in the 1960s, I hold him in extremely high esteem and consider myself a considerable fan.

You can easily find much more in-depth and astute appreciations of Bob Dylan--in awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, President Obama aptly said, ""There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music."--than I will attempt here, but of all the ways to explain his genius and his impact on music, culture, society and more, my favorite is a paraphrasing of something I once heard said about his 1965 song, "Like A Rolling Stone."

Although Dylan had already created indelible masterpieces in a folk musical vein--including "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "The Times They Are a-Changing," etc., etc.--with rather strident social commentary, "Like a Rolling Stone" was a 6+ minute single (among the longest ever at that time) with sophisticated lyrics, electric guitars and an organ solo.

Its release came just days before the infamous "Dylan Goes Electric" set at the Newport Folk Festival, and represented Dylan's first foray into rock 'n roll.

I don't know where credit is due for pointing this out to me, but before "Like a Rolling Stone" rock music--even by the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks and other legendary visionaries--was almost exclusively the dominion of short songs, mostly about love, cars, surfing and nothing too serious.

It was only after "Like a Rolling Stone"--with the caveat that the Byrds had released their hit, rock-tinged cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" earlier in 1965--that rock songs became longer, more commentative and/or political, with John Lennon's "Nowhere Man" first taking the Beatles in this direction and others soon to follow.

So although the latter-day state of his singing voice--think Cookie Monster, and it was never dulcet to begin with--has left me a bit disappointed in his concerts this century (the most recent I saw, in Nov. 2014, actually wasn't too bad), my regard for his talent, genius, impact and influence couldn't be much greater.

And while I would take it as a given that every year the Nobel Prize in Literature--which seems only to be awarded to living writers and usually honoring a lifetime of work (rather than a specific one)--is chosen by the Swedish Academy numerous deserving choices are passed over, my knee jerk reaction to the news about Dylan was along the lines of "That's damn cool." (It came the same day I was already celebrating the 75th birthday of another legendary American rock songwriter, Paul Simon, prompting me to draft this list of the greatest living practitioners.)

Obviously, with the internet constantly flooded with zillions of freely-offered opinions, and often complaints, on any topic, it wasn't hard to imagine dissension over Dylan's Nobel selection, but I hadn't noticed any until I saw a Tweet by Hamilton-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda--himself a brilliant (song)writer--jabbing at novelists who were presumably condemning the choice.

I subsequently saw articles such as this one, which noted positive reactions by musicians and authors, but also some derision, notably by the latter. The most vicious slam I noted came from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting).

Then over the weekend, my friend Ken--a literature buff but also a believer in the cultural importance of groundbreaking rock 'n roll such as Dylan's--asked if I was going to write a Seth Saith post about the Nobel Prize, seeming to suggest that he found the selection askew. Despite stipulating to Dylan's inarguable genius and import, he didn't feel Bob merited a "literature" award.

I disagreed, but not particularly vociferously, and with various other matters at hand--the wedding of Ken's son, my birthday, the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs, the last week of my current work assignment--I wasn't planning to pontificate about the matter in writing.

But with time to do so, and no theater or concert reviews to pen, it would appear that I have decided to.

Even though I really don't care that much about it. Nor seemingly does Dylan, who at last report hadn't returned any calls or emails from the Nobel committee in the wake of his win.

Although through this blog I've published a couple million words over the past several years and consider myself a writer, I don't consider myself an author. I've never written a book nor can identify with writers on that level, so don't really have a dog in this fight. I certainly can't argue this from the standpoint of those who have seen their--or their brethren's--chances to win a Nobel Prize diminished or corrupted.

But giving it a bit more thought, here's what I'm thinking:

• Given that Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, which in 1901 began being awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel, produced "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction" [Wikipedia], I imagine the word "Literature" may be much of the issue in Ken's mind and others'. Typically when I think of literature, I think of Dickens and Hugo, Steinbeck and Hemingway.

In other words, novelists.

But defines literature as: writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.

And indeed, a look at past recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature shows that along with novels, laureates have included a good smattering of poets, essayists, historians, essayists, playwrights and short story writers.

I don't believe it particularly brazen, controversial or even original to describe Dylan's song lyrics as brilliantly poetic--heck, the Swedish Academy's proclamation that he "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" seems rather inarguable--and if poets such as William Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda and Seamus Heaney have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, why not Bob Dylan?

• And if Bob Dylan, why not Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Lin-Manuel Miranda and myriad other songwriters?

Yet while I feel all of these--though LMM sometime down the road--would be worthy choices, I also understand the perspective of traditionalists loathe to see the Nobel Prize in Literature venture away from primarily honoring those who write words sans music. (Though it does seem strange that journalists and non-fiction authors have been excluded.)

Theoretically it would seem there should be a Nobel Prize in Arts that could more widely--but also narrowly--honor songwriters, musicians, screenwriters, directors, actors, etc., but the fact is that there isn't. So this is a prize that honors writers, of many ilks, and anyone who doesn't consider Bob Dylan a great and important one is both a Luddite and a lummox.

• Not only do I feel Bob Dylan warrants the current honor, but speaking only for myself while imagining others may have done likewise, his winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature prompted me to look up past winners. I'm sure it bespeaks my ignorance, but of the past 10 recipients--Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro, Mo Yan, Tomas Tranströmer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Herta Müller, J. M. G. Le Clézio, Doris Lessing, Orhan Pamuk--only Munro and Lessing are names I knew, and I haven't read any of their works.

I realize it can be a thin line between wanting to remain culturally relevant in the social media age and seeming to pander in the name of publicity, but I can't condemn the Nobel organization for bestowing a rock star--albeit an aging one likely not on the lips of today's teenagers--with its Literature prize.

In going in a non-traditional direction, which I think it fine to do occasionally if not regularly, Nobel probably shined a greater spotlight on its traditional honorees than another deserving-but-perhaps-esoteric choice would have engendered.

And if Bob Dylan doesn't show up at the Nobel Prize ceremony to accept his honor--or even if he does--good for him.

Either way, the author of lines such as:

She was married when we first met Soon to be divorced 
I helped her out of a jam I guess 
But I used a little too much force
(from "Tangled Up in Blue")

...and myriad other brilliant observations, insights, rhymes, etc., seems, to me, perfectly deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

And if you disagree, so be it.

But while I could keep prattling on, as usual Bob says it best, albeit from a song he wrote 52 years ago:

Come writers and critics 
Who prophesize with your pen 
And keep your eyes wide 
The chance won't come again 
And don't speak too soon 
For the wheel's still in spin 
And there's no telling who that it's naming 
For the loser now will be later to win 
'Cause the times they are a-changing

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