Around the time he was working on The Shining, Stephen King saw Bob Dylan in concert for the first time when the Rolling Thunder Revue landed in Maine. “The only clear memory I have of that night is Dylan wearing the white face makeup,” King says of the 1975 show. “And that lady [Scarlet Rivera] with him that used to play violin.” King has remained a huge Dylan fan; when the news hit that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the author says he was “over the moon.” “I read it over my breakfast,” he says. “It’s like remembering where you were when Kennedy was shot.” Ahead of the Nobel ceremony on Saturday, we spoke with King about the impact Dylan has made on him.
I must have been 14 the first time I heard Bob Dylan. I was sitting in the back of a car going home from a movie. This is in rural Maine back when AM radio was big. There was a guy on WBZ radio out of Boston and he had a show called The Night Express and played a lot of off-the-wall stuff. He played “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Hearing it was like being electrified. It was like this pressurized dump of lyrics and images.
The line that knocked me out was “The pump don’t work since the vandals took the handle.” I mean, he just nailed it. The stuff that moved me wasn’t the folk stuff that had stories, like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Masters of War.” But “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was like poetry in the sense that it didn’t have a narrative line. What it did was peel that away and leave you with pure emotion. It lifted you up.
There’s so many great songs. The one I kept going back to was “Shelter From the Storm.” That line “ravaged in the corn” – can you imagine that on a record? It’s just a gorgeous line. And that refrain always struck me as sort of mystic: “Come in, she said/I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” That incremental repetition – I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Also on Blood on the Tracks is “Tangled Up in Blue.” I just quoted it in an essay I wrote about going to college in the Sixties. The song came out long after I was through college, but when I heard it, I always thought he was talking about how far a distance we go from where we started: “Some are mathematicians/Some are carpenters wives/Don’t know how it all got started/I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives.”
There’s an extended version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” with the line “After changes upon changes we are more or less the same.” It’s what pop music does. And I would argue that without Dylan, Paul Simon maybe ends up in the Brill Building, writing songs like “Hey Schoolgirl” like he did in the beginning. Dylan opened the door for a lot of people.
“People complaining about his Nobel either don’t understand or it’s just a plain old case of sour grapes.”
I’ll tell you another song I’ve always loved: “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” The line that always stuck with me was, “Your debutante just knows what you need/But I know what you want.” I’ve played “Desolation Row” over and over and over again. I’ve heard people say, “Well, it’s third-rate T.S. Eliot.” Sorry, it’s its own thing. I can think of a lot of artists, like the Kinks and Van Morrison, where I like their early stuff, but then it peters off into something that feels repetitive or self-imitative. Dylan never made me feel that way. The stuff he’s doing now, like the Christmas album and the Frank Sinatra stuff, I’m like, “OK, you’ve earned it. You can be a little indulgent if you want.” But some of his later stuff has terrific power, like “Not Dark Yet.”
I’ve never met Bob, but I had many conversations with my friend John Mellencamp about him. He said that Bob was at his house once and he was complaining about a toothache. I guess he doesn’t go to the doctor or anything. He said, “Man, John, I got this terrible toothache. It’s killing me.” John said, “Well, I’ve got some Advil.” And Bob gave him this long look and said, “You trying to get me hooked?”
People complaining about his Nobel either don’t understand or it’s just a plain old case of sour grapes. I’ve seen several literary writers who have turned their noses up at the Dylan thing, like Gary Shteyngart. Well, I’ve got news for you, Gary: There are a lot of deserving writers who have never gotten the Nobel Prize. And Gary Shteyngart will probably be one of them. That’s no reflection on his work. You have to rise to the level of a Faulkner if you’re an American.
My kids listen to Dylan, and so do my grandkids. That’s three generations. That’s real longevity and quality. Most people in pop music are like moths around a bug light; they circle for a while and then there’s a bright flash and they’re gone. Not Dylan.
As told to Andy Greene
Bob Dylan to provide Nobel Prize speech. Watch here.