Why Bob Dylan Is a Literary Genius
Mikal Gilmore is one of the rare journalists to talk to Bob Dylan extensively in recent years, including a 2001 interview in which Dylan opened up about everything from regaining his creative drive to how the country should move on from the attacks of September 11th, and another in 2012 in which Dylan offered puzzling new details about his 1966 motorcycle crash and lashed out at his critics. On Saturday, Dylan will become the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. We reached out to some of his most influential fans, including Al Gore and Stephen King, to discuss Dylan’s literary merits. Here, Gilmore traces how Dylan came to write not just songs or poetry – but history.
When Bob Dylan became world-renowned in 1965 – with the eventful summer hit “Like a Rolling Stone” – he seemed mystifying, uncanny, unrivaled. It wasn’t simply his appearance – his mazy hair, more far-out than the Beatles’; his gaunt visage, more dissolute than the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. It wasn’t his snarling inflection, which nettled some people’s nerves, nor that he’d written protest anthems that ratified youthful upheaval. What set Bob Dylan apart from everybody was something more outlandish: It was how he wielded language. “Like a Rolling Stone” was surreal – in the sense of infusing the known with the unknown, certainly in ways never heard before in a popular song. Phantasmagoric images flew by as retribution and entered our parlance. Some heard it as arbitrary wording, nonsense. Others called it neologism, a new direction.
Now, 50-some years later, Dylan is receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the old disputes come back. He’s garnered other prestigious awards in recent years, including a Pulitzer and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom (the latter draped on him by President Obama). A Nobel Prize in Literature, though, represents a lifetime pinnacle – the most distinguished accolade in arts and culture, conferred “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” – which is why the decision rubbed some the wrong way. Writing in The New York Times, author Anna North declared: “Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature. … Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.” It was stupefying to read – tailor-made for one of Dylan’s most famous lines of scorn: “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”
Dylan’s Nobel validated something momentous for many of the rest of us. Call it a worldview: a cultural and generational movement set off in the mid-1960s that affected people in new and serious ways. Dylan – who later claimed he never wanted to lead any charge – had been crucial to this disruption. His language alone – how he wielded it, opening up songs’ contents and meanings – cleared the territory. He met with derision all along: Mainstream news reporters found both his lyrics and attitude unfathomable. His audience, though, believed that the artist spoke for them, that he was confronting a stultifying world that they were trying to overcome. Fifty years later, Anna North is right when she says that “Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music.” That was in fact how he changed the times – its arguments and demarcations – and how he transformed modern literature in ways that standalone poetry or prose could not. As a result of his influence, some who might have been authors and poets wrote popular music instead. Among them was Bruce Springsteen, who once said: “When I was 15 and I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ for the first time, I heard a guy like I’ve never heard before or since. A guy that had the guts to take on the whole world and made me feel like I had ’em too. …”
What made Bob Dylan such an influential figure and inventive writer? Back in his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where he grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, Dylan was remembered as a kid who wanted to play rock & roll – the kind Buddy Holly and Little Richard did. However, when he showed up on New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene in January 1961, it was as an aspiring folk singer. “I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing,” he later said. “The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper.” He also had an eye to creating a new self – an imaginary hardscrabble troubadour past. He adopted a hero and model: Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose ballads and political songs were remarkable enough to justify any invention. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Dylan wrote about Guthrie in terms that could have described his own effect: “[Guthrie’s] voice was like a stiletto. … [He had a] style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.”
Dylan wanted that for himself. He had his eyes and ears open – not just to folk music but, in an autodidactic way, to a vast array of other influences. He scoured friends’ libraries. He read the Roman poet Ovid’s epic history mythology, Metamorphoses, and Athenian general and philosopher Thucydides, in whose History of the Peloponnesian War he saw a study of human nature as the source of wars and massacres. Dylan visited the New York Public Library, where he read newspaper accounts of the Civil War. “Back there,” he later wrote, “America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.” Along the way – and crucially – Dylan took in the sometimes hallucinatory and maddened poetry of Romantic-era writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake; and in particular the defiant work and life of French writer Arthur Rimbaud, who prefigured surrealism. Dylan also – just as crucially – absorbed the Beat Generation’s principal writers, Jack Kerouac (called “the voice of a generation,” like Dylan would be) and poet Allen Ginsberg (who became a good friend). Plus, Dylan took to the wrath and language he found in Old Testament poets and prophets. Wrath, in particular, worked well for him; it formed a frequent viewpoint in his songs, along with contempt and mistrust.
Through all this gathering, though, it was music – folk, blues, old-time songs, even theater – that formed the lifeblood of Dylan’s sources. In Chronicles, he wrote about seeing a musical production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s songs during his Village years. “The singers were thieves, scavengers or scallywags and they all roared and snarled,” he wrote. In particular, “Pirate Jenny,” from The Threepenny Opera, transfixed him: “This heavy song was a new stimulant for my senses. … I took the song apart and unzipped it – it was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, give it its cutting edge. It also had the ideal chorus for the lyrics. I wanted to figure out how to manipulate and control this particular structure and form.” Delta bluesman Robert Johnson also fascinated Dylan. “I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper,” he said, “so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them.”
These influences came to bear fast, as Dylan began writing his own songs. He had a keen awareness of the nation’s moment – the battles, fears and injustices that swept the land and that concerned folk music and its young audience. With “Blowin’ in the Wind” he wrote an indelible lamentation about racial suffering; in “The Times They are a-Changin’,” he recognized generational changes that would prevail and persevere, whether established powers were ready or not. His greatest – and scariest – early song was “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” about the threat of nuclear apocalypse. It was as timeless as a 1600s Scotch border ballad and as visionary as Isaiah, yet its specter of doom was immediate, in precisely the way we feared at that moment: the wasteland of a post-nuclear world. It was also the song that delivered a promise Dylan would always be held to: “Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?” a mother asks. Her son replies: “I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’/I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest/Where the people are a-many and their hands are all empty…, where souls are forgotten…/And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and speak it and breathe it/And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it/Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’/But I’ll know my song well before I start singing.”
By 1965, Dylan had already written all the anthems he was going to write. He didn’t want to stay contained by the folk movement. He was restless, ready to move on to a greater purpose. Also, other influences were moving in. The Beatles had ignited a new youthful consensus that began to feel its possibilities; the Rolling Stones were making a tougher sound that didn’t fool around, that spoke to the general dissatisfaction of young listeners, to their unrest, their new identity and mounting resistance. Dylan realized it was possible to restyle and enliven his music.
Then, in mid-June 1965, Dylan recorded “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the dam burst. “I’d never written anything like it before,” he said, “and it suddenly came to me that that was what I should do. … After writing that, I wasn’t interested in writing a novel, or a play … I wanted to write songs. … I mean, nobody’s ever really written songs before.” Certainly not like this one. It was majestic and, at six minutes, epic: the longest single that had ever been released. Every early disparate influence seemed part of it, but with a mastery and assembly of language all Dylan’s own. It was full of odd allusions and mysterious symbolism: “You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat/Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/Ain’t it hard when you discovered that/He really wasn’t where it’s at/After he took from you everything he could steal?” What was going on in this song? There was clearly a tale – a rushing soliloquy – at work here, but not a pretty or straightforward one. “Like a Rolling Stone” was, as Dylan himself once described it, about “revenge.” He was targeting a young woman who had been oblivious to the hard realities around her and condescending to others’ pain, though the song also seemed like an attack on established and unexamined social mores. Something else, though, was going on as well – maybe something even the singer wasn’t aware of at the time. The song was a condemnation, and yet in another way it spoke for both its target and the listener: It was scathing but sympathetic. You could identify with the rolling stone.
“Like a Rolling Stone” (Dylan’s biggest hit) framed perfectly the spirit of an emerging generation that was trying to live by its own rules and integrity, and that was feeling increasingly cut off from the conventions and privileges of the dominant mainstream culture. Just as Dylan had once given voice to a new rising political consciousness, he seemed to be speaking to his listeners’ deepest-felt fears and hopes – to be speaking for them. “How does it fee-eel,” he roared, “To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown /Like a ROO-olling stone?” How did it feel? It felt scary; it felt exhilarating; and suddenly it felt like everything had forever changed. In the decades since, the question has never stopped: incrimination or manifesto?
The three albums Bob Dylan made during 1965 and 1966 – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – are chief among the Nobel’s citations of his literary achievement, underscoring their centrality to his work and reputation. Without them there would have been no foundation for the Nobel. (That period of music has occupied 54 CDs of previously unreleased recordings and performance in the past two years, The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol.12: Collector’s Edition, and The 1966 Live Recordings.) Interestingly, though Dylan’s ideas and phrasing (both as a singer and writer) felt spur-of-the-moment to our ears at that time, prompting a generation’s impetuosity, he in fact worked on most of it meticulously. He tested each measure of wording, rhythm and inflection for hours, days, until he got it right. He worked like a poet – in ways he never would again – but he had so much more to do than getting the meter or parallelism right: He had to fuse it with music that changed throughout various takes, until everything came together in a finished work.
But the toll of that bedrock period came fast and hard. The stuff that was building up in his head, spilling into paper and then into voice and then into the air around us, was powerful and unrivaled, but it required a blink-fast pace and an imperishable constitution to plow through it, and though that trajectory was designed for riches and fame, it was not designed for equanimity. In 1965 and 1966 Dylan got booed across America and around the world for playing his howling new electric music. In England, in particular, audiences proved hostile. Some yelled derisively at him and called him names (“JUDAS!”). His language had inflamed arguments as it reshaped the culture around him, and for a short yet historically matchless season, Bob Dylan proved the clearest shot at an individual cultural hero that rock & roll ever produced. Then, on July 29th, 1966, he suffered a motorcycle accident on a road near Woodstock, New York. He retreated to his home in the town, with his wife and children.
That could’ve been it. Some thought it was. The music Bob Dylan made in 1967 – a mysterious body of songs, made with the Band, known as the Basement Tapes, and John Wesley Harding, works of dignity entirely different in tone and language than what had come before – emerged from the most prolific period of Dylan’s life, though it was also reclusive. Some of it intimated tempests outside: the nation and generations divided, not just by war and rage but also by the spirit of independence and conflict that Dylan had once seemed to write about. Which is to say that Dylan had once written what America became, as if its turmoil and anger had been his prophecy. But now he wanted no part of that. In the years that followed he’d wander into country and pop music; he’d sing domestic bromides and proclamations about staying out of things, watching rivers flow, living in a cabin. Writing in Chronicles about the making of 1970’s New Morning in those years, Dylan said: “Message songs? There weren’t any. … Not today. I felt like these songs could blow away in cigar smoke, which suited me fine.” It was true: He no longer wrote in the language that had pushed back all limits – yet, paradoxically, he was yet a bigger legend than before. People kept looking to him.
It went that way for a long time, as Dylan made work that fans found confusing. That was nothing new. What was new was that some of this music felt paltry. Then he roared back briefly in the mid-1970s, with the bitter and rueful Blood on the Tracks. The matchless poetry was back – he said he’d had an amnesia but could now write consciously what had once come unconsciously – and the songs again reflected the disillusion in the nation around him and in his own life, as both his marriage and a presidency fell apart: “Idiot Wind,” he sang, “Blowing like a circle around my skull/From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol/Idiot wind/Blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot, babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” But he moved on yet again, to what he saw as a greater purpose. For a time he made Christian music – preachy and condemnatory – then he set aside overt piety and wandered again in a wilderness. There were occasional peerless songs –”Every Grain of Sand,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Death Is Not the End,” “Dark Eyes,” “Brownsville Girl”– but nothing hung together for a coherent or defining view. As it turned out, though, Dylan was surveying everything during his peregrinations, narrowing his view on a burned horizon – a desolation road. In 1997 he released Time Out of Mind, a work that resonated in the times as much as Highway 61 Revisited once had. “I’m walking,” he sang at the album’s outset, “through streets that are dead.” It immediately chilled you – it was a weather-worn, haunted, spiteful voice. This man really was walking through dead streets. Maybe they were the streets of our land, all blazed, burned down, under weeping skies. Maybe, a listener suddenly understood, we lived on those streets as well.
Time Out of Mind, from 19 years ago, inaugurated Bob Dylan’s longest and most sustained period of greatness – one that persists today. On the next album, Love and Theft, in the song “Mississippi,” he came even closer to his new mark: “Every step of the way we walk the line/Your days are numbered, so are mine/Time is pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape/We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape.” What seeps through the bones of “Mississippi” is a sense of foreclosed history, both American and personal, yet it builds to a majesty of courage. Many of Dylan’s songs in these magnificent latter years insinuate something even braver than his earlier music: There is no center that can hold in our time anymore.
If Bob Dylan’s songs in the 1960s stormed the way to a new and vital literature, his modern albums have illuminated his trans-historical theme: Dylan has always worried over the moral lacuna. In his 2003 film, Masked and Anonymous, his character said: “Seen from a fair garden, everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you’ll see plunder and murder. Truth is in the eye of the beholder. I tried to stop figuring everything out a long time ago.” Yet his humanity transcends his own hard truths. In Love and Theft‘s “Sugar Baby” he sang: “I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense/I can see what everybody in the world is up against/You can’t turn back – you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far/One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are.”
Where had our blue-eyed son been? Like the young seer of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” he’d been walking through terrible lands, and seeing what we might not want to see. This is what great writers do, no matter the era. They tell us where we’ve been, where we are, where we might be headed, as we make our way down timeless and sometimes unfriendly roads. They scare, enlighten and liberate us, they give us unending meanings in new language that help make sense of our world. This is what Bob Dylan does now, as masterfully as he did in 1965 and 1966. This is why he has become America’s greatest writer, in any genre. This is why he won the Nobel Prize, and this is why we celebrate this moment.
Watch the announcement of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in literature.